"Ecofacts" and growing out of acquisitiveness

The current threads about pet parrots and shell collections really speak to something I have been thinking about lately. On my recent visit to Polynesia, I noticed that coral reef material is often used as road fill, and this road fill therefore often contains interesting shells. I didn’t think anything of it when I extracted a weathered Tridacna shell from the road fill for a souvenir.

Upon my return to the States, the shell was detained for Fish and Wildlife – possible CITES was the reason given. How I had acquired it didn’t matter. My observation of a very similar shell was identified as Tridacna maxima, which, iNat tells me, is IUCN listed as “Near Threatened,” and the location is auto-obscured.

I am sad to lose my pretty shell. But on the other hand, it did make me reconsider the habit of picking up shells. Even if it came from road fill, isn’t it the same kind of acquisitiveness that creates a demand for wildlife trafficking? As has been mentioned in other threads, most “purchased” shells were taken alive and killed. Picking up already-dead shells may seem completely different; but it still comes from the desire to possess something, to hold onto its beauty and keep it for ourselves.

In Gorillas in the Mist, Diane Fossey wrote of a time when one of the gorillas had recently died. Shortly afterward, one of her interns was returning to his own country. Fossey discovered that he had kept the skin of the dead gorilla, intending to take it home with him; she had to confiscate it and burn it. Now, the gorilla’s death had not been at the intern’s behest; it had died or been killed for unrelated reasons. But Fossey knew what he hadn’t thought about: his desire to keep the gorilla’s skin came from the idea that a gorilla skin was a cool thing to have – and had he done so, it would have sent the message that a gorilla skin was an okay thing to have. Those two ideas would have been doom for the remaining gorillas.

One of the more interesting books I read some years ago was by a British policeman assigned to deal with wildlife-related violations. It was a collection of narratives about him catching egg collectors. Many of those egg collectors fancied themselves amateur scientists, imaging that their collections were somehow contributing to science.

In the parrot thread, I mentioned my childhood parakeet – that although I was never deliberately cruel, and I cared for her physical needs, I was completely unaware of her social and emotional needs. As if her life existed to decorate my life – just like the pretty shells that I collected back then, too. I had a menagerie of little pets come and go, and it was the same for all of them. I am ashamed to think of it now. What I thought was a love of animals was just acquisitiveness, the desire to decorate my life.

Not so very long ago, collecting assorted ecofacts was sort of taken for granted as something naturalists did. I still have my 1967 edition of the Golden Guide to Pond Life. Pages 27-29 are a chapter about collecting, with descriptions of various collecting equipment. But as I get older, I find that this no longer aligns with my values. Connecting with nature doesn’t have to mean possessing it; and I actually have begun to feel that picking up that shell was a lapse on my part, a regression to behavior that I have learned better than to do.

Who here has found your relationship with nature changing once you decided to stop trying to own it?


This is an interesting post. I don’t disagree with any of it, and personally I collect very little now (just notable first records of insect and plant specimens for the local museums) while taking lots of photos. However, I am a little wary of the consequences of this type of thinking if it is pushed too far in the opposite direction. I think the opposite extreme, of people avoiding wild nature because they don’t want to damage or disturb it, can be at least as problematic.

We want people to be intimately connected with and knowledgeable of the nature around them. That makes them care about it. I see society’s collective apathy about wild nature as one of the reasons why we allow our actions to cause so much damage. Picking up some dead coral on a Polynesian road is better than not taking the time to notice it at all. I love how iNaturalist lets us do that with just a photo or an audio recording. Collecting photos is a marvelous way to explore and connect with nature.

I wouldn’t want this to get warped into a place where we discourage children from collecting rocks and leaves and putting caterpillars in jars and all the other childhood curiousity and exploration that makes us human. I see great value in children being encouraged to do this, as long as we do it respectfully and with an awareness of our impacts.

I think there’s a middle ground here that’s the sweet spot. “Collect with respect” and “cause no harm” seem like the way forward. Many of the best identifiers on iNat have built up their skills by focusing intently on the details of collected specimens. A lot of our taxonomic knowledge of life, that forms the foundation for iNaturalist, comes from collections, and many amateurs have made important contributions to those collections.

Those types of collections are quite different from your examples of collecting pretty things to decorate our lives. I’m hopeful that iNaturalist can play a role in replacing these with photos.


I’ll echo above and say that this question is a big reason I got into iNat, to be able to hold on to things I see and find in a way that doesn’t involve me removing too much from the environment I found it in.

I’ve seen this a lot in ‘Vulture Culture’ circles, and it’s something I see a lot in younger naturalists- that desire to take and keep things you find in some permanent way, through taxidermy or bone collecting or whatever other method one can use to preserve some piece of nature in a home. I can’t completely say I’m exempt from it either, I have some skulls, shells, pressed flowers, and so on that I’ve acquired through the years, though not too many these days. But I’ve seen some people with massive collections of bones, or dozens of pelts, and I have to wonder where the line is between collection for the appreciation of nature, like souvenirs, and collections for the sake of collection/possession. Not to mention collection for sale which is something else entirely.

I think it’s human to want to keep a little physical representation of experiences you’ve had. Photos are nice but sometimes they’re not quite enough to satisfy that desire. Responsibility in whatever collection method you have is important, of course, but there are tons of ethically-sourced collections that I think aren’t in the right spirit of the whole thing. I can’t say I’ll ever stop picking up something every so often, but I don’t think being completely ascetic about the way you connect with things is quite right either. Even outside of scientific inquiry for others, a catalogue of things for yourself, assuming they’re collected sparingly and within legal and ethical bounds, isn’t so bad.


Most countries with just don’t allow you to have any shells on you on plane. I don’t see anything bad from wanting to have something, and even though I understand why this gorilla skin was burnt it sounds like a crime to do something like that, it’s fairly easy to not show anyone you have that skin, or use it in other ways, like museum.
I try not to get any feathers for the last 2 years, but only because I need to be better at organising and storing those, not because there’s anything bad in doing it (can be different for different countries).


I’ve had similar thoughts about kids catching lizards or snakes for fun. It’s obviously stressful for the animal to be caught, and sometimes they may get injured (lost tail for lizards is a common one). But so many naturalists and scientists have gotten their start this way - seeking out something that they have a natural affinity for and learning about it by interacting with it. I think that there’s a definite cost to proscribing collecting or catching organisms in all cases in discouraging interest in and affinity for biodiversity as @jon_sullivan wrote so well about. I’ve come to two less-than-definite approaches.

First is that I try to take an educational and as opposed to authoritarian approach. I will often walk up to people and ask “Oh, what is that?” or “Wow, what are you holding?” or “Who have you got there?”. I can then move into talking to them about it, sharing ways to hold/catch lizards safely, air some important facts, etc. I find that this usually elicits a much more positive and respectful interaction than trying to say “No! Bad!” or the like. I really only speak up with some urgency if someone is in imminent danger of causing serious harm or looks like they are intentionally antagonizing or causing pain/injury to an animal, but thankfully I’ve only seen that a handful of times.

Second is that I try to take a population level view. If the species isn’t threatened or of conservation concern, then having a stressed/mildly injured individual is of much less consequence, and it really isn’t something where I need to try to impose my values on someone else.


A few years ago, I started learning moths (in large part because iNat could often tell me what species I was seeing). I started out collecting the moths when I was using a light trap from work and trapping for work purposes, but I quickly decided I have no use for an insect collection and it was, in fact, a pain to pin and label all those moths. So, I stopped using the killing agent in the light trap. The only time I actually need a pinned specimen is if I catch a state-listed moth - and then it only takes one specimen every 25 years from a particular site to afford that site protection under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. (Yes, I have the necessary permit to collect state-listed moths.)

On the other hand, I have lots of house plants (almost certainly grown in nurseries) and garden plants (ditto), and while I could go on and on about how I’m providing pollinator habitat (and apparently deer, vole, caterpillar, and rabbit food, too), even the garden plants that are native to my state are usually the only ones of their species for a long distance around. Hmm…

I think collecting is a necessary part of scientific research, but just as ornithologists very rarely collect birds any more (and certainly birdwatchers don’t collect adult birds), I think butterfly, moth, and dragonfly watchers have mostly moved to taking photographs rather than specimens. And I think that’s a good thing.


Interesting questions, and much to unpack. So much depends on context and category. What is being collected? Pets, like the parakeet, are a specific case. I don’t consider my cat “collected” but rather a housemate and family member. Your anecdote concordantly raises the issue of human development and stage of life; I think children begin with an ignorant relationship to the natural world but learn so much from living with–and being responsible for–nature.

What is being collected? How does one balance environmental harm to pedagogical and intellectual benefit? Absolutely one of the great values of iNat is the ability to collect by taking pictures and recordings. But I worry about a generation that does not prioritize living with things and whose relationship with the natural world is therefore somewhat virtualized.

More broadly, natural history museums grew out of the acquisitiveness, arrogance, and ignorance of cabinets of curiosity, so one might consider cultural stages of development, as it were.

Fundamentally I think that collecting and living with nature is one of the greatest sources of knowledge, humility, and spirituality that I can imagine. Perhaps it is ironic that one of the benefits of this activity is that it provokes important ethical questions.

Not fully awake yet, not sure if any of this makes sense…


and seen on a recent obs as I was IDing. Did the iNatter cause the lizard to shed its tail? Not how I choose to use iNat, or to see it used.

But for me, collecting, killing, removing from nature - would neutralise any gains. Unless for a thoughtful and relevant biologist or museum.


Likely, not.

There are dozens of western fence lizards in my yard ( maybe hundreds ). They’re always skittering a head of my feet when I’m out and about the garden. I would say a good quarter of them don’t have a tail. I don’t know if they lost tails to moles or squirrels, which are also plentiful, or to battles among themselves. (Not that I’ve ever seen them fight, usually they just pump and pose for each other). Of course, a lizard could easily drop it’s tail due to human interference , but it seems very common in any case.


Even if it was shed because of iNatter, I don’t see why it’s a bad use of iNat to post that tail, animal was there, and it will regrow the tail.

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I would never kill anything to collect it, nor interfere with an endangered species or a protected area, and I also have enormous problems with keeping sentient beings in captivity. Like I said, context and the specific case matter here.


I was just talking about the lizards behavior, not taking pictures*. But, I can note that they lose their tails when in fear. Even if not handled roughly, they can drop a tail if sufficiently alarmed.

Personally, I would feel bad if I caused a lizard to lose a tail, as it is significant bodily harm even if they trigger it to themselves. They lose the energy (fat) stored in the tail and have to expend more energy to grow a new (inferior) tail structure.

The tails are regrown as long tubes of cartilage and muscle, but the tail bones are not able regrow.


Even if it was shed because of iNatter, I don’t see why it’s a bad use of iNat to post that tail, animal was there, and it will regrow the tail.


I don’t think it’s what you meant, but I think it is easy to misinterpret your statement. Some immature people might take it to mean it is okay to cause a tail amputation as long as you document it for science.


Thoughtful (trying) and relevant (somehow) biologists grow out from children chasing lizards. I did. It is a general rule: you are born as an arsonist, you die as a fireman.


I too have stopped collecting, although I will pick up the occasional skull or feather if I happen to find one. I have an old moth collection from the 1980’s, but have not collected a moth for decades.
Like most things, I consider it a matter of scale. The life of any single insect is far less important to the survival of that species than, say, a gorilla. I will chill insects to get a picture of them, but release them after. However, there are extremes. As I have said previously, if every observation on iNat was the result of a collected specimen, it would have a huge impact on many populations, endangered or not. Photos are great that way - an observation without collecting.
At the other extreme, I read a post on a different platform today by a person in Britain, who found the larva of an invasive species. Not wanting to release it, he plans on rearing it, and then building a netting cage to allow the adult to fly until it dies. This is nonsense, taking the no kill approach way too far.
So there is a middle ground that we all must come to. Avoiding killing things is best, but going to extreme lengths is no solution. Some collection needs to happen - a physical specimen can reveal far more than a photo. I don’t know how frequently physical specimens should be taken, but I think @lynnharper 's approach is very reasonable.


I think it would be better if humans didn’t feel the compulsion to own things.


Aside: is “acquisitiveness” the newspeak for “greed”?

Not to mention “ecofact”. Ah, my old specimens.


I’ve mostly heard the term ecofact in reference to archaeological material that is of unaltered ‘natural’ origin, in opposition to an artifact, which would be worked material, though that does not seem to be the way it is used here.

For example, animal bones or plant seeds from food would be ecofacts, while animal bones carved into pendants and or tools or plant material used in making textiles would be/be part of artifacts.


Welcome to the Forum! Always lots to talk about.
@gabrif I don’t think the two terms are equivalent (at least in English). I acquire books because I like them. I don’t plan on selling them to gain any monetary reward, which would be implied by ‘greed’. I rarely buy books now, but if I did it would be for the content, not for any money. Any natural things I pick up are for my own interest, not wealth. Greedy people are looking to acquire monetary rewards from what they do. Or to show off their wealth.


When I worked in a nature center all the specimens of animals and preserved animal parts were called biofacts.


I was programmed wrong. I missed step 1 - chase lizards. And step 2 - arson.