Non-invasive naturalism: thank you!

In the last centuries naturalists killed everything they wanted to ID without second thought.
Said without reproach, since this is typical human behaviour. But we can do better.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, iNaturalist people, for proving it.

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I agree it’s best not to alter or remove things where unjustified or unnecessary, and it makes sense that many prefer a photo/audio recording-only approach. Although there are a few caveats. Many naturalists were also still conservation biologists, right? Today, some specimen collection is still warranted and can contribute to conservation. For example, studies have found that the bees collected by bee researchers in a typical season doesn’t change the overall diversity, structure, or abundance of wild bee communities appreciably. I’d distinguish specimens (e.g. insects) as justified to collect in some circumstances where the goal is research, and the knowledge gained can contribute to conservation. Still even there it’s good to think about it, and researchers have developed some additional ways for catch and release too. Yet for the smallest bees, they can’t be identified to species that way. Lastly as some pointed out, even entering wildlife habitats to photograph could potentially disrupt some things, although often doesn’t.

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It all depends on what the goal of one’s research is. Photos are great for a narrow range of purposes but really don’t answer a lot of questions such as genetic relationships, reproductive biology, dietary habits, toxins in environment, diseases, parasites, etc. You might point out that we already have a lot of that information for many species, and we do, thanks to past collecting efforts, but much remains unknown for many taxa. There’s still an important role for taking specimens.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the informational foundation of iNat that we use everyday is derived mainly from specimens taken for research.

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Agreed. This is why I was referring to “naturalists”, not “academic research biologists”.
Nowadays naturalists tend to collect fotos of rare orchids or colorful bugs, not the specimen themselves.
Collecting encounters, not lives … :slightly_smiling_face:

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I do not think that naturalist and academic are mutually exclusive. Most of the historic naturalists you refer to were also academics.

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Universal discouragement of sample collection (i.e. “killing” for the purpose of observation) is as harmful as universal approval of it.

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In academic research there will always be some need for preserved (i.e. dead) specimens, but I’m always happy when I read a scientific paper and it says, for example, that the DNA material was collected by clipping a piece lizard’s toe. Still, in many cases researchers kill the animals even when it’s avoidable. As amateur naturalists, we should avoid interfering with wildlife even more. I’m not going to lie, I have handled turtles, lizards and frogs for a few times which weren’t necessary and although nothing bad happened to the animals, I’m sure it was stressful for them. So, it should be avoided.

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The taxonomy? Which is why one of our plants has a binomial claiming it is ‘golden’. Sadly based on a dead herbarium specimen.

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That’s a problem with the human who named it, not with herbarium specimens as a whole. They’re still useful for a lot of other information, and it’s not like collecting them kills the plant (in most cases).

In my opinion, there’s a difference between necessary and unnecessary collection. Specimens are necessary for a lot of research. But one of my biology lecturers showed us a horrible photo of drawers full of dead parrots - they all looked the same. Completely needless. Specimens are important, but having drawers full of the same (probably endangered too) species is not. That horrible photo is forever burned into my brain :-(

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I should hope that they are not mutually exclusive since I consider myself a naturalist academic. ;)

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Per definition there is no such thing as “non-invasive naturalism” unless you don’t do any naturalism. As soon as you set a foot out of your house you are killing things. As soon as you buy stuff in the supermarket you support systems which kill things. When you buy a smart-phone/camera to take photos for iNat, you can be sure that the production of this gear killed many things. For every photo that you take out in the “wild” (and if it’s just a meadow that was created by humans) you kill dozens of soil animals by stepping on them directly or by compressing the soil with your body weight.

Collecting a few single specimens for a scientific collection which can be used for centuries if it’s treated well provides so much more than just a photo and doesn’t do much more additional harm. Especially if you are interested in more than just guessing about what the specimen on the photo could be. Because for many taxa it is necessary to collect specimens in order to ID them properly.

I’m writing from an entomologists point of view. In this field you usually have much higher population densities than for vertebrates and collecting a few individuals doesn’t have much of an impact on the entire population. The biggest threats are habitat loss and pollution. For most vertebrates it’s certainly different, though.

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I took plant taxonomy in college more than 50 years ago, and we were taught quite the opposite.

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While I agree with the sentiment of no harm, I think we need to remember that in the past Life was more plentiful. I think of the offshore Newfoundland cod fishery as a metaphor. Sustainable as a fishery for centuries until modern practices ruined it. For most purposes, photos serve to adequately document biodiversity, but some physical collection is also beneficial. There is little need for an amateur scientist now to have a physical collection.

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This issue keeps cropping up in different threads. What have you got against amateurs?

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The parrots may have been very abundant at the time, and scientific collection almost certainly did not result in their decline (if they have declined). And their collection may not have been needless. Their existence and availability to scientists may be very valuable because scientists still use specimens collected many years ago. One example is extracting DNA from museum specimens to better inform conservation genetics. The value of natural history collections should never be underestimated.

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Nothing. I think it is an honourable term, and use it in preference to ‘citizen scientist’. I am an amateur and don’t mind being called one. I do what I do because I love doing it.

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I can sense this conversation getting a little heated, so I’m going to slow it down a little :)

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So, in perhaps a year or two my daughter is going to be given a project. I am not entirely sure about the parameters of the project yet since she is not quite there, but I know in the school district they are in they must collect so many insects over the summer for their fall biology class. Walking into the displays for this project I see more butterflies killed than larvae I have been able to rear in my native plant garden that year… the whole point of my gardening philosophy has been to help increase the insect biomass that has been steadily decreasing due to human activity, and here we have a few hundreds kids within my community undoing that effort…
I understand insects procreate in such numbers that they should be able to sustain losses, and I understand that many other of our lifestyle choices are more detrimental to their decline than a middle-school project, but to think that most of the students participating in this project are going to - instead of having a lifetime love of insects - learn that they are expendible - I think this sort of project backfires on itself. and, like most other Amateur projects, these specimens will be lucky if they last more than a year, and not contribute to any significant work in science. And compounded with this - the students are taught not to collect Monarchs, as they know about the threatened status of that species, but they are not taught (and indeed it may be impossible to teach) about any of the other struggling insect species in the area to avoid…

It seems like in avoiding the monarch we are acknowledging that these projects, especially multiplied over many school districts across many states and nations, DO have an impact on our insect populations, so why can’t we take that a step further and work to increase, instead of decrease, our insect populations?

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I second these sentiments very much. There are similarities with school herbaria. The worst thing is that these collections teach the collectors very little usually - name of a plant/insect at the best. They do not teach neither proper collection nor observing the habitat or making any notes about it. And in the end, these collections end in a garbage bin.Therefore I see any projects that involve photography. If the kids learn something of the nature by making images and observing, then maybe some of them will hook more seriously and start learning things about what they observe. When I give talks to school children I generally discourage them from collecting unnecessarily and start observing instead.

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You might consider pointing your daughter’s teacher(s) toward some resources to learn about iNaturalist-based class projects, like
https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/teacher’s+guide
https://forum.inaturalist.org/c/educators/30

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