COLLECTING declining, not just collections

Alan at Alan at
Fri Apr 18 10:13:49 CDT 2003

One related issue that hasn't been directly mentioned (unless I missed it)
is that while many collections are threatened, collecting itself is in
decline. It's important that we think of collections not as static
assemblages of specimens, but as dynamic programs that grow. I can speak to
declining levels of plant collecting. In a recent survey of 71 herbaria
across the US, my colleagues and I (Orlando Alvarez-Fuentes, Mark Mayfield,
and Carolyn Ferguson) found that local collecting is in dramatic decline
(two manuscripts are tentatively accepted in Systematic Botany). For birds
see: WINKER, K. 1996. The crumbling infrastructure of biodiversity: the
avian example. Conservation Biology 10: 703-707-if anyone knows of other
studies on rates of collecting, please let me know off list (alan at

We were unfortunately able to include only US herbaria in our study, but
the decline in collecting is likely happening elsewhere, where it may have
greater negative impacts. The U.S. has one of the best known floras in the
world, and vascular plants are among the best known organisms. But even in
the US our knowledge is far from complete and the flora is continuously
changing, and perhaps dramatically so. We're doing an inadequate job of
documenting changes to some of the best known organisms in our own backyard.

To tie this in to the other threads, I think it's important that we educate
people about these issues. The perception outside the systematics community
is that in some places the flora and fauna are well-documented. If each of
us advertises examples from local areas where new invasive species are
documented, new species are discovered, or rare species are extirpated
locally or driven to extinction then our local communities and
administrators will be more likely to understand why collections (and
collecting) are important.

I'd also like to echo what Noonan has said about changing the perception
that taxonomy is merely a service industry. As a community we have to
become better advocates of our programs or the current threats won't
diminish when the economy improves. As many have said, we need to think
beyond the crisis and make sure that collections demonstrate their
relevance and importance.
Alan Prather
Director, Michigan State University Herbarium

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