“A useful rule is that any impacts on species and their habitats should persist for as short a time as possible ― Innes Cuthill
12 Essential Field Recommendations
To minimize our biological & ecological fieldwork impact
When guidelines and requirements do exist, they are implemented differently depending on the country and institutions. Too often, guidelines are focused on vertebrates and other popular species, and fail to address ethics regarding how to manage the investigation in-situ and the impact on other species and the hosting ecosystem. Some regulations exist about species manipulation in research labs, but the handling of the same species in fieldwork is not equally addressed.
Yes, it is understood that conservation biology and ecology fieldwork damages are minor compared to other human activities (fishing, hunting, wildlife watching, human development, etc.). However, conservation research does not always consider the best ethical course, and on occasions even operates above ethics. We should instead take a by-default stance that has ethics deliberately at its core and throughout every single step of our study process. This is what these ‘Essentials’ are about: helping our work go through a systematic ethical lens…
The EwA Conservation Fieldwork Essentials † shares ethical considerations from the Field that benefit the species, the habitats, the local communities and the science that we do. It is designed to help us fulfill our responsibilities to the scientific community, our duties to the public and wildlife welfare, and our obligations to species and ecosystems. By bringing upfront important ethical considerations, it supports us in conducting research studies responsibly at every stage of the process rather than risk overlooking or forgetting ethics along the way. This is a good process that challenges the relevance of our research and ultimately promotes good/better science. This is a process that makes us all accountable conservation leaders.
About 83% of Earth’s ice-free land area is likely to be directly influenced by human beings [SE02]. Even if our research is for the greater good, we encourage accounting for the impact of our research explicitly. For instance, we should always favor solutions that avoid species collection, minimize our presence and collateral disturbances. Here are considerations to have in mind when developing a study and its field protocol (◊)…
We have a fundamental obligation to the species and habitats that we study, and to the people whose lives and cultures we affect. These obligations can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge and can lead to the decision of not undertaking a research project or even to abort it [MK10].
The areas that can be impacted by a research investigation and which should be thoroughly analyzed and documented when assessing research impact include:
▸ Impact on target species. This includes the impact on the studied species, counting the handled or collected individuals as well as the non-collected individuals, their family group, and the species community at large.
▸ Impact on non-target species. Often, the focus on impact assessment is on vertebrates and overlooks other groups. Study impact should also account for the impact on all kind of species from plant and fungi communities, to all species of animals, including insects in the vicinity.
Sentience and pain are usually not explicit criteria in evaluating research impacts. These concepts are now recognized to apply potentially to a whole new realm of species including invertebrates and fish. It is important to include them in our assessment. As for the other species that have not yet been included in the ‘select’ sentience list, we want to remind our colleagues that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is likely a question of resource and time before we realize once more that humans are not unique as far as sentience is concerned [DI06].
▸ The novelty factor. ‘Novelty’ (of the research) has to be evaluated as part of the assessment. If there is limited novelty then we must question the need for the sampling (and study). Have we done due diligence in investigating alternates that are potentially less ‘disruptive’? Have we checked what data is already available that could fulfill our objectives and avoid fieldwork sampling?
▸ Impact on the ecosystems where the target species are studied. Collateral ecosystem damages are often overlooked. It is important to remember that trampling and removing vegetation, compacting soils, and the effect of noise and light disturbances are non-minimal. Habitats are increasingly over-visited, encroached, as a result of the human population growth and the spread of our activities. Any such harm should be minimized in all areas, and especially in protected areas, including non-stable and recovering habitats such as ecological restoration sites.
▸ Impact assessment should also include time and space scales.
▸ Apply precautionary principles when assessing research impact
When ‘impact’ is hard to assess, be on alert and apply precautionary principles when possible.
Don’t minimize the stress impact on the species and the ecosystem at large. Always keep both species and individual welfare in mind [PK10].
▸ Impact on local human communities and host cultures. Local communities need to be directly involved from the beginning of the study. By working with the community, we can take into account traditional or local ecological knowledge that we might not be aware of.
It should be required that any fieldwork research impact is reviewed by an independent ethics expert committee before issuing research permits. There is ‘steering’ in this direction, and we can be sure that this will become the norm very soon. Being a conservation leader entails that we start following a thorough ethical process now.
▸ Assess impact and necessity for a destructive type of sampling at the time of the design of the study.
▸ Minimize disruption – Favor non-lethal sampling methods.
In contrast, what are destructive methods? Destructive sampling methods include any procedure that causes a permanent change to a specimen.
Destructive methods are not always clearly challenged. They are often quickly justified by cost without having made a thorough case against the use of non-destructive alternatives. There are now debates about collecting rare species, as some collection leads directly to their decline and sometimes their extinction [MB14].
▸ It is our responsibility as conservation leaders to ensure that we follow national wildlife watching and study regulations and code of ethics if such are in place. This means being diligent in searching for such regulations.
▸ Besides our own research institution, local institutions may also have ethics/policies in place, and it is important to rigorously follow them.
If none are known to be in place, at a minimum follow proper wildlife ethics additional to the recommendations listed here.
▸ Know etiquettes and regulations beforehand. Don’t learn on the fly. Always come prepared.
▸ No matter where we conduct our study, engaging with and involving directly local residents is important: it shows both respect and care for the people who live there, it helps to advance the conservation of what we study, and it builds a shared ecological mind that can then last far beyond the time of the research.
▸ Provide skills to local residents to help them become research assistants, tourists guides, park rangers, or motivated citizens.
▸ While we may gain from the work of the people with whom we work and from the species we study, we must not exploit people, groups, animals or habitats. We must remain humble, recognize our debt to all, and reciprocate in appropriate ways.
▸ Knowledge goes both ways: Learn from local communities too! Science has often used local and traditional knowledge without formal recognition. This has led on numerous occasions to intellectual property rights violations. We also have been very quick to dismiss local and traditional knowledge with the excuse that this knowledge was non-scientific [NG17]. This is changing! We are finally realizing that local communities hold important knowledge that should be respected and recognized.
▸ When research necessitates impacts on biodiversity, such impact must be justified and kept to a minimum. Whenever possible, we should use well-established methods that have a negligible or low impact on species and ecosystems. These methods include observation, mark-release-recapture, collecting feces and hair, and noting animal tracks and signs.
▸ With the advances in technologies, we now have access to many less intrusive methods and tools such as camera-traps, tags and sensors, satellites, drones, and environmental DNA (eDNA). Many are now easy to use and are far more cost-effective [CM16b].
Such methods can often be more effective at characterizing biodiversity and many aspects of ecology than destructive and disruptive sampling techniques. There are also organizations that will fund researchers, particularly in the developing world, who want to use these newer low-impact techniques; e.g. the Conservation Leaders Programme [CM16]. That’s the direction we need to see being followed in fieldwork.
Reduce wildlife stress by adopting good wildlife etiquette.
▸ Species handling regulations in place are often focused on vertebrates or charismatic species (those that raise attention) and omit other species, although these others species should be given equal consideration.
There is an increasing demand worldwide for the respectful treatment of species or organisms. Practicing empathy and compassion will raise welfare standards for science that happen in the field too. With the move of societies towards empathy, we need ecological and wildlife science to ‘ethically’ be ahead of the trend. There is a need currently to be more transparent and to work with the public towards compassionate science.
▸ Habitat disturbances include trampling, removal, dredging, trawling. No matter how well-intentioned and cautious we are, we affect the habitats where we get our data. As the human population is increasing in absolute number and reaching all corners of the world, if we can avoid trampling that vegetation, we simply should.
▸ Noise & light disturbance. There is an unknown effect of our sampling tools that use light or sound. For instance, lights and underwater acoustics may disturb animals at a distance, and impact non-target species in ways yet unknown.
There is the overall effect of our presence. The human species is leaving very little quiet space for wildlife. The same goes for light disturbances. Our cities are environments that never go dark and quiet, and have deleterious effects on numerous species [CR09].
Understanding ‘noise’ isn’t an easy task. First of all, sound levels cannot accurately be measured and defined using a single absolute scale, such as those used for temperature, rainfall and wind speed [GS15]. Yet we start to understand the impact of even lower disturbances such as the noise issued from vehicles and alike on wildlife physiology and behavior [NPS].
It is understood that our limited light and noise impact, while in the middle of nowhere in the wilderness collecting some data, is nothing in comparison to our city noise. However, the millions of tourists and nature enthusiasts who recently joined our wildlife parties are changing the global picture. As conservation leaders, we should try to respect the natural cycles of day and night and the natural sounds of the areas we study.
▸ About the transmission of diseases and parasites, and the unintended transport of invasive species. The transmission of pathogens and parasites at the sites that we visit is often overlooked (e.g., chytridiomycosis, avian influenza, spreading of human afflictions to wildlife populations closer to us genetically). A recent study at Kahului Airport alone on the Maui island found an average of one new insect species arriving every day [DA02].
As researchers, we need to commit to taking necessary precautions to prevent and limit our own involvement in potentially spreading diseases and invasive species. Respecting accepted approach distances (even allowing a buffer when possible), favoring non-handling methods, and making sure to come to a study site with clean gears and clothes, will help reduce the spread of transmission.
▸ The cost of our selfies with wildlife. Selfies with wildlife can promote hands-on experience as “a cool thing to do” [WC16]. Researchers’ selfies with the species they study are facilitating the perception that it is okay to touch and be in direct contact with many species (to the detriment of these species physiologically, epidemiologically and emotionally). We often hear the counter-argument that researchers usually post a pic with a caption discouraging the practice. We have to counter argue that a picture is worth 1000 words and that captions are not read by the vast majority.
▸ Regardless of the sampling method being used, we should avoid killing any non-target species. A non-target species is any species present on the project site that is not the target of the operation. That includes plants, fungi, animals, and insects. Example: fogging tree canopies, or mist nets often kills many species that have nothing to do with our study.
Such sampling methods should be justified extensively.
This also means that we can’t overlook other types of indirect killing such as in the case of collecting data from already hunted animals. For instance, when a fee is asked to access the specimen, it often unintentionally promotes additional hunting.
▸ We should avoid the inadvertent transport of species. We should also understand that we have no idea about whether some of the species that we transport could become invasive in the future.
For instance, it is not excluded that chiropterologists and/or cave explorers might have unintentionally transported from Europe to the United States (on contaminated clothes or equipment), the deadly fungus that causes the white-nose syndrome in bats [FM12]
▸ Cleaning our field gear and equipment diligently helps reduce the risk of germ transport. This includes cleaning our boots and hiking poles, our backpack, and washing our clothes. More parks require wiping gears with an alcohol diluted bleach solution at their entry. For instance, New Zealand is very strict about this protocol, as the country has lost many species to invasive species such as rats, possums, and stoats.
The future of science lies in global access to scientifically relevant and ethical data, transparency, and education.
▸ Ethical data. Each phase of a research process needs to account for ethical considerations. The investigation results themselves should also be reviewed from an ethical standpoint. This is to ensure that there was no unethical loophole, as well as to learn from our mistakes. It’s also a good way to foster directly the importance of a good ethical experiment design and management.
A research ethics protocol has to become a part of the publication itself and be listed in the paper as data protocol now is.
▸ Data quality and relevance. Some data aren’t worth being collected! Poorly designed studies often have no value other than recording ephemeral or ill-defined data points that are destined to be forgotten or dismissed as soon as they are recorded. The goal should be to maximize the relevance and the quality of data. We need to find ways to work globally in a collaborative manner, following peer-reviewed standards and protocols so as to optimize the usefulness of the data and maximize its reusability.
▸ Open access, yet protected data. Our data should be shared globally for optimal usage and educational purposes. However, records also need protection so as to not provide information to the illegal wildlife trade [AJ17].
Governments and scientific institutions are working at protecting sensitive information. Even social platforms–such as iNaturalist–that are built around the wide public sharing of nature sightings are scrubbing the GPS location of the records of endangered species to protect them from poaching.
▸ It is our duty as conservation leaders to report immediately, or as soon as it is safe to do so, criminal activities (poaching incidents, illegal ownership of endangered species, etc.)
▸ Critical conditions of species populations or habitats also need timely reporting to expert authorities.
A research study does not end with a publication, or because we leave the field site. The impact of a study might be there for a long while. It’s also possible that an unforeseen impact reveals itself after a project ended. This is especially problematic when some form of habituation happened during the study.
▸ Monitoring the site after completion of the study is important. Prepare for regular monitoring and post-mortem site surveys; lookout for unusual events; remain involved with the local residents who have helped the research, and keep the collaboration going.
[CM16] Field Work Ethics in Biological Research by Costello, M.J. & al. (2016) in Biological Conservation 203:268-271 DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.10.008 — “We urge scientists to conduct research in ways that are respectful to nature and minimize harm to species and ecosystems. We discuss some of the ways that government regulations, journal policies, education practices, and individual researcher behavior can contribute to more environmentally ethical practice. “Ethics” is widely defined as a theory of morality that guides individual and collective behavior but is subject to different interpretations and debate. We recognize that the damage to biodiversity caused by research is almost always minor in comparison to the widespread and extensive damage caused by other activities, such as logging, farming, fishing, mining, water pollution, ranching, and urbanization. However, scientific methods should minimize disturbance and stress to biodiversity, and any impacts should be explicitly justified.”
[HR12] Land Transformation By Humans: A Review by Hooke, R. LeB. & al. (2012) in GSA Today, v. 22, no. 12, doi: 10.1130/GSAT151A.1.
[SE02] The Human Footprint And The Last Of The Wild by Sanderson, E.W., & al. (2002), in BioScience, v. 52, no. 10, p. 891–904.
[NG17] It’s Taken Thousands of Years, but Western Science is Finally Catching Up to Traditional Knowledge by Nicholas, G. (2017) in The Conversation.
[CR09] Missing the Dark Health Effects of Light Pollution by Chepesiuk, R. (2009) in volume 117 | number 1 • Environmental Health Perspectives
[NPS] Annotated Bibliography | Impacts of Noise on Wildlife (2011) by the National Park Service’s Natural Sounds Program (Turina, F. & Barber, J.)
[DA02] Kahului Airport Pest Risk Assessment by the Department of Agriculture (2002)
[WC16] Even Scientists Take Selfies with Wild Animals. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t by Ward-Paige, C.A., in The Conversation (2016)
[FM12] Bats and White-nose Syndrome by
[AJ17] Tracking Wildlife for Science Could Actually Help Poachers by Actman, J. (2017) in National Geographic —Incidents of abuse raise concerns about the unintended consequences of pinpointing an animal’s location.
[DI06] The Changing Concept Of Animal Sentience by Duncan, I.J.H. (2006) in Science Direct — Little consideration was given to sentience by scientists through much of the 20th century due to the inhibiting influence of Behaviourism. In the last quarter of the 20th century, there was a surge of interest in animal sentience, and animal welfare scientists quickly realized that welfare problems can be better tackled with an understanding of how animals feel. Methods to investigate indirectly how animals feel are described and areas requiring further elucidation are listed.
[PK10] Assessing Ethical Trade-offs in Ecological Field Studies by Parris, K.M. & al., 2010. in J. Appl. Ecol. 47 (1), 227–234.
[MB14] Avoiding (Re)extinction by Minter, B (2014) in Science Vol. 344, Issue 6181, pp. 260-261 DOI: 10.1126/science.1250953 — Field biologists have traditionally collected voucher specimens to confirm a species’ existence. This practice continues to this day but can magnify the extinction risk for small and often isolated populations. The availability of adequate alternative methods of documentation, including high-resolution photography, audio recording, and nonlethal sampling, provide an opportunity to revisit and reconsider field collection practices and policies.
[MK10] Contemporary Ethical Issues in Field Primatology by MacKinnon, K.C. & Riley, E.P. (2010)
[CM16b] Methods For The Study Of Marine Biodiversity by Costello, M.J. & al. (2016) in Chapter 7 of The GEO Handbook on Biodiversity Observation Networks (Springer)
[CG15] Towards Improving the Ethics of Ecological Research by Crozier, G.K.D, & Schulte-Hostedde, A.I. (2015) — We argue that the ecological research community should develop a plan for improving the ethical consistency and moral robustness of the field. We propose a particular ethics strategy—specifically, an ongoing process of collective ethical reflection that the community of ecological researchers, with the cooperation of applied ethicists and philosophers of biology, can use to address the needs we identify…
[CH13] Moral Problems and Perspectives for Ecological Field Research by Wallace, M.C. & Curzer, H.J. (2013) in ILAR Journal, Volume 54, Issue 1, Pages 3–4
[MB07] From Environmental to Ecological Ethics: Toward a Practical Ethics for Ecologists and Conservationists by Minter, B.A., & Collins. J.P. (2007)
[MB05] Ecological Ethics: Building A New Tool Kit For Ecologists And Biodiversity Managers by Minteer, B. A., & Collins, J. P. (2005) in Conservation Biology, 19, 1803–1812
[CI91] Field Experiments in Animal Behaviour: Methods and Ethics by Cuthill, I (1991) DOI: 10.1016/S0003-3472(05)80153-8
[WC16] Even Scientists Take Selfies with Wild Animals. Here’s Why They Shouldn’t by Ward-Paige, C.A., in The Conversation (2016) — Founder/Scientist at eOceans.org, Research Associate at Dalhousie University, Dalhousie University
[ESA] Ecological Society of America Code of Ethics — Note that this code of ethics (as last amended in 2013 and in use in 2018) is a list of general statements covering topics and issues mostly within the boundaries of conventional professional and research ethics. This means that it covers primarily human matters such as conflicts of interest, intellectual property, avoiding human misconducts. These are important for sure but lack addressing fieldwork and ecological ethics with respect to wildlife and ecosystems. The only one mention concerns about minimizing adverse environmental effects of their presence and activities, and in compliance with legal requirements for protection of researchers, human subjects, or research organisms and systems.
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◊ At the moment, this guide is essentially built upon the checklist of ten considerations for respectful conduct during biological field sampling from the Costello & all’s paper (referenced as CM16 in this Guide). We find that it provides an excellent initial checklist that we can adjust to our EwA guides’ format and further develop. Over time we will refine this list, adding references and considerations, and follow the advances of the conservation fieldwork ethics. If there is anything else you would like to see added, please let us know and we’ll do our best to include it. Let’s be Earthwise Aware and study & protect wildlife responsibly! Thanks for your support!