Collections of vertebrate animals undertaken by Australian scientists follow well-established guidelines. In South Australia, these policies and guidelines are set out by the Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources (DEWNR) and its Wildlife Ethics Committee (WEC). These guidelines ensure that any animals that are to be preserved in any of the South Australian Museum’s collections are killed humanely and that collection is limited to small numbers that will not impact on the natural population.
All collecting projects involving vertebrates need to be approved by the WEC. Like other state animal ethics committees the WEC is composed of vets, scientists, animal care workers, animal welfare representatives and members of the general public. In an application to the WEC, the researcher has to clearly state the purposes, time and place where the collection will occur, the reasons in terms of new information that will be gained, the reasons why alternative approaches will not yield the same information, and the methods for handling and euthanasia that will be used. The credentials of the researcher and any collaborators also have to demonstrate that they have the experience necessary to safely and humanely handle any of the animals that they will encounter.
On the basis of an approved application to the WEC, DEWNR will issue a scientific collecting permit, which insists that any collecting will pose no threat to the continuing existence in the wild of the species or to a significant population of the species. Typically, fewer than five specimens of any one population are required per collecting sample.
The specimens collected are appropriately preserved and can supply information indefinitely. Specimens collected in the 19th Century, for example, still yield valuable information for researchers. Most of what we know about animal diversity, anatomy and evolution derives from the study of Museum specimens.
All parts of the specimens can provide information on some aspect of an animal’s biology. Tissue samples that contain DNA for genetic studies are stored in long-term frozen collections (thereby avoiding the need to take fresh specimens regularly), the gut and its contents are there to be analysed, reproductive organs can be studied and preserved and even the parasites which may inhabit the animal are themselves collected and studied.
Appropriately controlled scientific collecting has a negligible impact on sampled populations. This is strikingly so when compared with natural mortality rates due to environmental and habitat factors. Natural mortality, which includes effects of competition, disease and predation, accounts for almost all native animal deaths. Road kills, habitat clearing, pollution and other such factors account for the remainder.
The collecting which museums undertake today is strategic, with resources concentrated on filling gaps in our knowledge. At all times the collecting of animals by scientists is responsible and humane.
For more information on the policies and procedures of the Wildlife Ethics Committee, visit its page on the DEWNR website.