Collection of voucher specimens
Animal Research Review Panel Guideline 5
Revised: January 2020
These guidelines have been prepared to assist Animal Ethics Committees (AECs) if considering the issue of wildlife voucher specimens. They form a special inclusion in the Guidelines for Wildlife Surveys.
Collection of animal voucher specimens is a legitimate and important part of scientific research as they are highly valuable resources. The benefits of the collections are not static as they provide a large diversity of opportunities to understand the natural world by allowing research on: a) taxonomy including the description of new species, b) archival reference specimens for species verification, c) species distributions, d) anatomy and biology, e) ecology, f) historic and current biodiversity, g) conservation biology, h) a source of genetic material in the future, and i) public health and safety.
However, some sections of the community have concerns over the collection of voucher specimens due to possible animal welfare implications and/or the belief that modern techniques (such as molecular analyses) and technologies (such as digital cameras and tracking devices) negate the need to collect specimens. Therefore, despite their value, careful consideration is required to ascertain whether voucher specimens should be collected and, if so, how this should be done.
The aims of these guidelines are to:
- assist Animal Ethics Committees and researchers to:
- assess whether the practice can be justified as part of a particular project;
- assess the impact on the local population of target and non-target species;
- assess the feasibility of alternatives to refine or replace voucher specimen collection.
- detail the responsibilities of the senior investigator in projects involving collection of voucher specimens.
- assist the AEC in assessment of the impact of collection on the conservation of the species as a whole.
Voucher specimen - a preserved specimen that serves as a verifiable and permanent record of wildlife as it preserves as much of the physical remains of an organism as possible. A voucher specimen should be in an accessible collection; however, even if it is not, it remains a voucher. Voucher specimens typically refer to taxidermied study skins, cleaned skeletal material including skulls, or spirit specimens, but may also include frozen samples such as tissue or blood. Spirit specimens include whole or partial animals fixed in a preservative (e.g. formalin or ethanol). Voucher specimens are extremely important as they preserve the characters by which species can be distinguished and serve as a basis of future study.
Specimen - a whole animal or a part thereof.
Type specimen - a voucher specimen that serves as a basis for taxonomic description of a new taxon (e.g. a new species). This specimen serves as the reference point for the described specimen in future taxonomic studies.
2. General Principles
2.1 It is the responsibility of the senior investigator to ensure that the specimen becomes part of a publicly accessible scientific reference collection within a museum or university.
To be optimally useful:
- Voucher specimens should be lodged with a museum or university that can properly house and curate them, and make them available for further study. This is dependent upon specimens being properly stored or prepared after collecting, or maintained in live condition, before delivery to such institution.
- Proper documentation of the specimens is essential and data should be maintained with the specimens. The minimum data collected should include the location (with GPS coordinates), date of collection, collectors name and contact details. The more data supplied the more useful the specimen will be.
- Consultation with the museum or university before collecting specimens will ensure there is an understanding of the proper specimen collection techniques, data collection associated with the specimen and the necessary equipment for the preservation and storage of the specimens.
- Where possible, arrangements should also be made to ensure voucher specimens can be accepted by the institution prior to their collection.
2.2 The senior investigator is responsible for ensuring that he or she is competent to collect voucher specimens and minimises any animal welfare issues.
3.1 Uses of voucher specimens
- Description of new species.
- Higher level taxonomic comparisons between different groups (e.g. genera, families or orders) of animals.
- Correct identification of animals that are being studied. Species cannot be properly studied or conserved unless there is the ability to accurately recognise and differentiate each species. Incorrect or unresolved identifications can lead to misleading or incomplete conclusions. This is true despite the emphasis of the research that is being conducted (physiological, anatomical, biochemical, behavioural or some other aspect of the animal's biology) and whether it occurs in the field or the laboratory.
- The availability of voucher specimens also allows retrospective corrections of species identification to occur when taxonomy changes. Taxonomy of many groups is still in flux and many currently identified species names and distributions will change in the future as the accuracy of taxonomy improves.
- Identification of species to be checked subsequent to the initial study, thus permitting verification or, if required, correction;
- Changes in species distributions over time can be determined;
- Reassessment of studies based on those historic specimens which would otherwise not be able to be repeated;
- Extension and elaboration of studies based on those specimens when new questions arise and/or new analytical techniques become available.
c) Species distribution and occurrence
- Confirmation of the distribution and occurrence of a species at a certain place and time.
- Determine range limits of species and how it changes over time.
- Development of an inventory and future documentation of local fauna and how this may change over time.
d) Anatomy and biology
- Dissections and measurements that help understand the anatomy and biology of animals. This can include life histories, sexual dimorphism, growth and development, ontological stages, geographic variability, physiological measurements, and biochemical comparisons.
- Provide the opportunity to study the diet by looking at the gut contents as well as the gross anatomy of the digestive system.
- Provide details of the animal’s movement with the use of its anatomy.
f) Historical and current biodiversity research
- Specimen collection from the same location or region can provide accurate details of historic and current biodiversity including potential trends diversity.
- Allows changes over time in morphology, physiology, anatomy to be detected.
g) Conservation biology
- Specimens collected provide genetic material that allows an assessment of trends in the genetic diversity of populations over time.
h) Public health and safety
- Specimens collected potentially allow the collection and identification of their parasites and diseases that may assist in the management of public health issues and changes through time.
- The Animal Ethics Committee must consider the conservation impact as part of the justification for collection of voucher specimens.
A National Parks & Wildlife Service Authority is an essential prerequisite as an indication that the conservation aspect has been considered by experts. Additional advice may also need to be sought directly from the National Parks & Wildlife Service if the committee is still concerned about the conservation aspect.
Special consideration should be given to any species or population of animal that is listed on the NSW Threatened Species list. Specialist advice on impacts can be sought from the “Save our Species” program in the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.
4. Minimising the impact on wild populations
4.1 Main issues regarding the collection of voucher specimens:
a) Are there knowledge gaps for the target species?
b) Do sufficient voucher specimens exist to address knowledge gaps?
c) Will collection have detrimental impacts on the local abundance of the targeted population?, and
d) Can the target species be collected ethically?
These considerations should include both species and population-specific aspects, rather than individual-based criteria.
In some situations, e.g. distinctive species, a non-essential part of the animal such as a hair sample, or a photograph, sound recording or some other non-destructive record may be adequate for identification. These samples however have limited value, especially in the longer term, as they do not offer the range of information as whole body specimens.
There are many species for which these are not valid alternatives. Accurate identifications can only be made if one or more specimens are already available for comparison and examination.
If an animal is thought to represent a new species, a specimen should be taken. Types (the basis for taxonomic descriptions of new taxa) should always be specimens; other kinds of samples are not suitable alternatives.
4.2 Consideration of which population to sample and how many voucher specimens to collect:
a) Ecological and population parameters as these will likely vary between species. e.g. this can include geographic gaps in sampling, populations at the species’ range limit, or isolated populations may be particularly informative. Repeated sampling at known localities can also inform change or stasis of a species over time.
b) Local abundance. e.g. is the species widely distributed and generally uncommon or locally abundant?
c) The reproductive biology of the species to help guide numbers collected and the timing of collection. e.g. different consideration should be made for species that are long-lived with slow reproductive rates, versus those that are short-lived with high reproductive rates.
d) If there are any existing local impacts on the focal population and how collecting will compare to those impacts.
4.3 Consideration of the number of animals to be collected
a) The minimum number of specimens required to establish identification or undertake the study. This is affected by:
- sexual dimorphism. It may or may not be necessary to collect both male and female specimens;
- how distinct the species in question is from other species;
- whether differences between growth stages exist which could make identification difficult.
b) The minimum number of sites required to describe a population. This is affected by:
- The diversity of habitats within any site;
- Geographical variability across the species range;
- The type and scale of study.
Collection of animals from more than one site must always be justified.
5. Species requiring voucher specimens
If synoptic collections are being made, a representation of most, or all, species is needed to document their occurrence.
Problems of field identification should not commonly arise with certain species. Other species generally require voucher specimens because field identification is difficult.
Examples of vertebrates presenting particular identification problems in the field (by no means complete) are presented in Table 1, below. An Animal Ethics Committee could expect to see applications for voucher specimen collection for species in this column.
Generalised exceptions to this rule are also acknowledged in Table 1.
Table 1. Examples of vertebrate groups presenting particular identification problems in the field.
Few Identification Problems
Freshwater species, most marine
Many brightly colour species
Most frogs, particularly tadpoles
Small skinks and other small lizards, tortoises, young snakes
Goannas and large skinks
Sub-adults, small passerines (e.g. grasswrens or thornbills)
Large birds, brightly coloured species
Small marsupials, bats and rodents
Large macropods and koalas
6. Collection methods
Methods used to trap and euthanase voucher specimens must minimise animal welfare impacts specific to the species. The methods used should be no different from those used as part of projects not involving voucher collection.
7. Related Documents
Barlow, J.C. & Flood, J.J. (1983) Research collections in ornithology - a reaffirmation. In Brush, A.H. and Clark, G.A., Jr. (eds). Perspectives in Ornithology, pp. 37-54. Cambridge University Press, London.
Clemann, N., Rowe, K.M.C., Rowe, K.C., Raadik, T., Gomon, M., Menkhorst, P., Sumner, J., Bray, D., Norman, M. & Melville, J. (2014) Value and impacts of collecting vertebrate voucher specimens, with guidelines for ethical collection. Memoirs of Museum Victoria 72: 141-153.
Green, D.G. (1992) Ecology and conservation: the role of biological collections. In Tyndale-Biscoe, H. (ed). Symposium Proceedings: Australia's Biota and the National Interest: The role of Biological Collections. Australian Biologist 5: 48-56.
Kemper, C.M., Cooper, S.J.B., Medlin, G.C., Adams, M., Stemmer, D., Saint, K.M., McDowell, M.C. & Austin, J.J. (2011) Cryptic grey-bellied dunnart (Sminthopsis griseoventer) discovered in South Australia: genetic, morphological and subfossil analyses show the value of collecting voucher material. Australian Journal of Zoology 59: 127-144.
Keto, A.I. (1992) Collections and conservation: a case study. In Tyndale-Biscoe, H. (ed). Symposium Proceedings: Australia's Biota and the National Interest: The Role of Biological Collections. Australian Biologist 5: 57-67.
Laubitz, D. R., Shih, C.T. & Sutherland, I. (1983) Why should a museum maintain a large collection? In Faber, D.J. (ed). Proceedings of 1981 Workshop on Care and Maintenance of Natural History Collections. Syllogeus 44: 169-171.
Lee, W.L., Bell, B.M. & Sutton, J.F. (eds) (1982) Guidelines for Acquisition and Management of Biological Specimens. A report of the participants of a Conference on Voucher Specimen Management sponsored under the auspices of the Council on Curatorial Methods of the Association of Systematics Collections. ASC, Lawrence.
Meester, J. (1990) The importance of retaining voucher specimens. In Herholdt, E.M. (ed). Natural History Collections: Their Management and Value. Transvaal Museum Special Publication 1: 123-127.
Pettitt, C. (1991) Putting 'bloody mice' to good use. Museums Journal (August): 25-28.
Yates, T.L. (1985) The role of voucher specimens in mammal collections: characterisation and funding responsibilities. Acta Zoologica Fennica 170: 81-82.
Stephen Jackson (NSW DPI) for the development of the current edition and Mark Eldridge (Australian Museum), Liz Arnott (NSW DPI), Claire Harrison (NSW DPI) and Mike Fleming (DPIE) for providing comments on the draft document. The previous edition of these guidelines was developed with the assistance of Walter Boles, Dan Lunney, Jack Giles, Burt Sheridan, Alan York, Andrew Braid, Leslie Reddacliff and Margaret Rose.