Laboratory research will never be a substitute for fieldwork

A recent opinion piece published in Science (Minteer et al., 2014) titled “Avoiding (Re)extinction” has re-sparked an argument on the collection of specimens to confirm a species’ existence (see press release here). The authors argued that in lieu of killing and collecting the animal, photography, audio recording, and nonlethal sampling methods could be applied without increasing the extinction risk of endangered animals or newly discovered species. Social media discussions on Twitter and Ecolog-L listserve alerted me to two rebuttals which argue that this piece will only fuel anti-collecting sentiments espoused by a subset of people who don’t understand how research, scientific collecting and taxonomy work.

For an extensive view of the many problems with the authors’ argument you can read here and here. For the purpose of brevity suffice it to say that museum collections have a unique value and that the suggested nonlethal sampling methods are rarely possible and/or effective to document and understand species with reasonable confidence and therefore implement successful conservation plans.

If established scientists can make such asinine statements in such a popular journal I wondered if such ignorance and scientific-illiteracy could lends itself to the fieldwork I’m doing. Certainly one of the major impediments to research today is technophilia and a reduction in funding (Bury et al., 2006). I liked Bill Nye’s decision to engage in public debate with the creationist Ken Ham (not because I’m disillusioned that he will change his mind – he won’t) because I also believe it’s more important than ever to have an environmentally literate society.

So, is it really necessary to study animals in their natural environment? Could you not breed animals and study them in the laboratory rather than collecting threatened or endangered individuals from the wild? Certainly the advances in technology have enabled more work to be done in the laboratory than ever before. Sitting at a laboratory bench oblivious to nature outside you could devote an entire career to coral polyps alone and still make great contributions to science. However, this only scratches the surface. The genus sclearactinia is the product of many episodes of microevolution and interactions with other organism in the natural environment and very little at the molecular and cellular level makes sense until it has been placed inside this broader framework.

Certain scientists, like Jeremy Fox, vehemently champion artificial natural systems, like microcosms, because they can reduce the complexity enough to make it easier to solve ecological riddles in a controllable, replicable and cost-effective manner. However, these systems deal with protists which are very, very tiny and can be done in a glass mason jar. To scale this type of experiment up for corals would be very expensive; indeed, field studies are often the cheapest option for PhD students because there is no infrastructure or maintenance costs involved. The corals I study are broadcast spawners and only spawn once a year. That’s not much data, and certainly not enough for a thesis. So I do use a surrogate system in the laboratory (the sea anemone Aiptasia pallida), a somewhat well know species because it can be induced to spawn monthly giving me more data to analyze. However, these organisms are more distantly related systematically and ecologically. So to answer questions about coral definitively the work needs to be on corals and it needs to be geographically representative (McCallum and McCallum, 2006).

It’s important that we study these intriguing animals now because environmental stressors frequently influence life history characteristics early in the stress response (Newman and Unger 2002). It’s important we undertake these studies now in a “healthy” environment to potentially save them before they disappear from the biosphere.

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” – David Attenborough


Bury, R.B. (2006) Natural history, field ecology, conservation biology and wildlife management: time to connect the dots. Herptological Conservation and Biology 1(1):56-61.

McCallum, M.L. and McCallum, J.L. (2006) Publication trends of Natural History and Field Studies in Herpetology. Herptological Conservation and Biology 1(1):62-67.

Minteer, B.A., Collins, J.P., Love, K.E., Puschendorf, R. (2014) Avoiding (Re)extinction. Science 344:260-261.

Newman, M.C. and Unger, M.A. (2002) Fundamental of Ecotoxicology, 2nd edition. CRC/Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, Florida, USA.


2 thoughts on “Laboratory research will never be a substitute for fieldwork

  1. Very late with this. But with respect, it sounds like you may have misread that old post of mine. Nowhere in the post did I say or imply that microcosms were a substitute for field studies, or better than field studies, or that everybody ought to do microcosm work, or etc. Nothing in that post implies anything about how one should or shouldn’t study corals. I’m not a coral reef ecologist, but FWIW I think it’s perfectly sensible of you to combine field studies of the coral species of interest with lab studies of a tractable model species. That sounds to me like a much better idea than just restricting yourself to field studies. And I would never say you should only do the lab studies, that would be exceedingly silly of me.

  2. I appreciate your response and apologize for misconstruing certain points you made in your post. I certainly did not mean to suggest that you do not see the value of field studies; clearly restricting studies to lab or field will not answer all the questions.

    The basis of my argument was that those that provide funding may favor laboratory experiments because experimental conditions can be controlled with more precision and are easier to replicate. However, coral spawning is regulated by complex global and local signals and would be difficult to mimic in the lab (not to mention expensive). Therefore, field experiments in coral may have higher external validity than laboratory experiments and are also the cheapest option.

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