Published on January 13, 1999 by William Nunnelley  
Posted by William Nunnelley on 1999-05-13

Larry Davenport and his colleagues in the Samford University Biology Department are going against the time-honored way of teaching biology field courses.

They're keeping the specimens alive, or at least the majority of them.

"What we are attempting to do is to teach these courses with minimal death toll," says Dr. Davenport. Samford is working with Dr. Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society of the United States to promote this idea.

The time-honored way of teaching field courses is to catch and kill specimens--fishes are killed with formalin and preserved in alcohol, insects are killed and pinned in boxes, plants are uprooted and pressed and dried.

When the semester ends, the dead specimens are thrown out.

"The irony is that these biology courses are the ones that most celebrate the diversity and beauty of nature, and should stress the need to conserve and preserve that diversity and beauty," said Davenport. "Yet, these courses are among our most destructive."

By Davenport's math, the lives of more than two million specimens a year for vertebrates alone could be saved, if all the universities and colleges that teach biology in the U.S. adopted these methods.

How does Samford do it?

Dr. Mike Howell of the Samford Biology Department invented a teaching-photographic tank which immobilizes fish and other aquatic organisms in chlorine-free water. They are observed and photographed, then returned to their natural environment. The tank also works for small, nonpoisonous snakes.

Dr. Howell says students prompted his development of the photographic tank.

"They didn't want to kill the minnows they caught for study, so we found a way to use fish for teaching purposes without killing them," he said.

Other small vertebrates such as salamanders and frogs are photographed in the wild, while birds and mammals are observed with binoculars.

Insects are now caught in nets, immobilized for photos, then released.

In studying both vertebrates and invertebrates, students keep notes and receive copies of photos. They research and write life histories of all species.

Davenport still requires a collection of dried specimens in his plant taxonomy class, but the number has been halved (from 100 to 50) and the collecting methods are less destructive.

A down side to using these methods in vertebrate biology, says Davenport, is that students aren't able to use traditional ichthyological techniques such as scale counts, fin ray counts or stomach content analysis.

"But these specialized techniques may be more appropriate for smaller, graduate-level courses," he added.

How did Davenport arrive at his figure of saving two million specimens a year?

"A typical Samford field zoology class with 12 students requires 70 specimens per student, totaling 840 specimens. If 2,400 universities and colleges in the United States do about the same, the number jumps to 2,016,000."

Similar numbers could be generated for invertebrate zoology and plant study.

Davenport, Howell and Dr. Ron Jenkins, biology department chairman, shared their program at this spring's meeting of the Alabama Academy of Science. Later, the Humane Society's Balcombe used their materials for a similar presentation at Pace University in New York.

"We hope that, through a combination of changes in our courses, we can engender a greater conservation ethic in our field biology students," said Davenport. "We're trying, anyhow."

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.