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Collection of voucher specimens

what is a voucher specimen


These guidelines have been prepared by the members of the Animal Research Review Panel's Wildlife Advisory Group to assist Animal Ethics Committees (AEC's) if considering the issue of wildlife voucher specimens. They form a special inclusion in the Guidelines for Wildlife Surveys.

This Field Studies Guide will, for each species or sub group of wildlife, describe the most acceptable methods of handling and restraint. It will identify issues that the AEC should be aware of and will incorporate guidelines released by the Panel (such as opportunistic research and voucher specimens).

1.0 Definition

A 'voucher specimen' is any specimen, usually but not always a cadaver, that serves as a basis of study and is retained as a reference.

'Specimen' means the whole animal or a part thereof. (A voucher should be in an accessible collection; however, even if it is not, it remains a voucher.)

'Type' specimen is a particular voucher specimen which serves as a basis for taxonomic description of that subspecies.

2.0 Purpose

Collection of voucher specimens is a legitimate and important part of scientific research. However, it is a practice of concern to some sections of the community.

The aims of these guidelines are:

2.1 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

2.2 to detail the responsibilities of the senior investigator in projects involving collection of voucher specimens

2.3 to assist the AEC in assessment of the impact of collection on the conservation of the species as a whole.

3.0 General Principles

3.1 It is the responsibility of the senior investigator to ensure that the specimen becomes part of a publicly accessible scientific reference collection.

To be optimally useful, voucher specimens should be lodged with a museum 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. Data should be maintained with the specimens.

Consultation with the institution before collecting will ensure that there is an understanding of the proper preservation and holding techniques, necessary equipment and essential data required.

Arrangements should also be made to ensure voucher specimens can be accepted by the institution.

3.2 The senior investigator is responsible for ensuring that he or she is competent to collect voucher specimens. (to include reference to the Field Research Guidelines when published).

4.0 Justification

4.1 Functions of voucher specimens

4.1.1 Role of taxonomy

Correct identification of the animals that are being studied are crucial to the outcome of the work. 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.

Conservation needs are impossible to assess without the ability to recognise and differentiate species. Thus, identification, although often taken for granted, is fundamental to any animal-based study and particularly important when studying native animals.

4.1.2 Voucher specimens fulfil an archival role by permitting:

  1. identification to be checked subsequent to the initial study, thus permitting verification or, if required, correction;
  2. reassessment of studies based on those specimens and which otherwise cannot be repeated;
  3. extension and elaboration of studies based on those specimens when new questions arise and/or new analytical techniques become available.

Such studies may involve, but are not limited to, geographic variation, higher level systematics, ontological stages,

life histories, sexual dimorphism, morphological variability, physiological measurements, biochemical comparisons and behaviour.

4.1.3 Voucher specimens allow problems to be addressed that cannot be resolved in the field, including:

  1. when there is no other means to verify identification;
  2. group for which taxonomy is undergoing or expected to undergo change;
  3. questions raised cannot be answered at the time the animal is in hand.

4.1.4 Voucher specimens permit confirmation of the distribution and occurrence of a species at a certain place at a certain time. This is important:

  1. if an animal is near or outside the limit of its known distribution;
  2. as part of a routine inventory and future documentation of local fauna.

4.1.5 Voucher specimens serve a special role when they serve as types of species-level taxa.

4.2 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.

4.3 Minimising impact

4.3.1 Kinds of vouchers - justification

The fundamental bases for identifications are whole animal specimens, usually maintained in a museum or similar institution. If necessary, identifications can be confirmed by reference to such collections. 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, however, have limited value. They do not offer the range of information as do whole body specimens, initially or through re-examination, nor are they suitable for detailed study by alternative means, including new technology (e.g. biochemical).

There are many species for which these are not valid alternatives. Accurate identifications can only be made if there is one or more specimens 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.

4.3.2 Numbers

The number of specimens which can be justified depends on: The minimum number of specimens required to establish identification. 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. 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.

4.3.3 Methods

Capture and euthanasia methods require consideration but this should be no different from consideration of these methods as part of projects not involving voucher collection.

5.0 Other considerations

5.1 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 the left hand column.

An Animal Ethics Committee could expect to see applications for voucher specimen collection for species in this column.

A contrasting column is presented on the right, acknowledging that these are general and there are, of course, exceptions.

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