Killing for science

There exists an urban myth about the extinction of Stephens Island wren that claims that this nocturnal, flightless, insectivorous passerine from New Zealand was driven to extinction by a single lighthouse keepers cat, named Tibbles.

Of course the truth is much more complicated and the main culprits were not cats, but the humans who introduced them.

Prehistorically the wren had been widespread throughout New Zealand until the Maori settled the land. The Polynesian rat, kiore, they introduced pushed the species back to Stephens Island as a last refuge.

Photo by cliff1066™ -

In 1879, the European invaders that had occupied the island nation, decided on a lighthouse on Stephens Island. Land clearing started in earnest in 1891 and in early 1894, a pregnant cat brought to the island escaped.

By June one of the newborn cats started to bring carcasses of a species of small bird to the lighthouse keepers' housings. The assistant lighthouse keeper, David Lyall, who had an interest in natural history, had one of these dead birds taken to Walter Butler, a New Zealand lawyer, naturalist and ornithologist. Butler at once recognized it as distinct species and prepared a scientific description. Lyall started selling all the individuals he could gather to Henry H. Travers, a professional collector. A collection and publication battle between self-proclaimed scientists ensued.

Travers, who recognized the commercial value of the birds, sidelined Butler and offered the birds to the wealthier Walter Rothschild.

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Rothschild quickly prepared a description of the bird, as Traversia lyall, before Butler could publish his description of the wren as Xenicus insularis in April 1895.

By that winter Travis was no longer able to find specimen and reported that Stephens Island was now swarming with cats.

Cats introduced by humans and habitat destruction by humans, but also scientific competition had driven the Stephen Island wren to extinction within a few years of its discovery.

In California the northern elephant seals had been well known. They were relentlessly hunted for the oil extracted from their thick layer of blubber. A big male could yield as much as a 1000 liter of oil. By the end of the 19th century the elephant seals were thought extinct, but in 1892 a scientific expedition found eight individuals on the Mexican island Guadeloupe. The scientists immediately killed seven of the eight animals as specimen for musea.

Insane, most of us would say now, who would kill a beautiful, rare, living being to turn it into a museum exhibit and research subject? .

We would ascribe that unethical breed of science to the irrational, Victorian age, with only a brief revival under the Nazi-doctors.

But is that kind of science a thing of the past?

In September an American research team tracked down a male moustached kingfisher (Actenoides excelsus) found only on Guadalcanal, one of the Solomon Islands. They took the first ever photograph of it and then killed it.

Chris Filardi, director of Pacific Programs at The Museum of Natural History, defended his choice to slaughter the bird as a standard practice for field biologists.

On the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species this spectacular species is judged to be Endangered on the basis of a very small estimated population which is suspected to be declining, at least in part of its range.

Filardi however claims that the bird is not rare or in imminent danger of extinction" and hails the scientific opportunities this killing represents.

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In his own field journal on He describes the first encounter as: Oh my god, the kingfisher. One of the most poorly known birds in the world was there, in front of me, like a creature of myth come to life.

A creature of myth slaughtered in the name of science; a form of science that should no longer exist in this day and age.

It will be interesting to hear from the Natural History Museum if their morals are as stuffy as their collection or have evolved. Science in itself justifies nothing. It should not be a killing-in-the-name-of religion to mindlessly follow. Science should serve the preservation of the natural world and be a frontrunner in ethics.

If Filardi is right that this is the standard practice for field biologists, we need a new compassionate generation of biologists and scientists.