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The type specimen of a daisy, genus Lagenophora, collected in Java. The image is all that remains after the specimen was destroyed by Australian customs. 

©MNHN - Herbier National, Paris

Botanists fear research slowdown after priceless specimens destroyed at Australian border

This week’s news that Australian customs officers incinerated irreplaceable plant specimens has shocked botanists around the world, and left many concerned about possible impacts on international research exchanges. Some have put a freeze on sending samples to Australia until they are assured that their packages won’t meet a similar fate, and others are discussing broader ways of assuring safe passage of priceless specimens.

"This story is likely to have a major chilling effect on the loan system between herbaria across national boundaries," says Austin Mast, president of the Society of Herbarium Curators and director of the herbarium at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "Without the free sharing of specimens, the pace of plant diversity research slows."

As a result of the customs debacle, curators in New Zealand put a stay on shipping samples to Australia. So has the New York Botanical Garden in New York City, which holds the second largest collection of preserved plants in the world. "We, and many other herbaria, will not send specimens to Australia until we are sure this situation will not be repeated," says herbarium Director Barbara Thiers. 

Herbaria are guardians of plant biodiversity data. Around the world, about 3000 institutions keep a total of 350 million plants specimens that have been pressed, dried, and stored in cabinets. Some are hundreds of years old; others are rare examples of extinct species. Particularly valuable are so-called type specimens, used to describe species for the first time. Botanists consult these when they are identifying new species or revising taxonomy. Many herbaria have digitized images of their specimens, allowing initial research to be conducted remotely. But some details must be examined first-hand. To do that, biologists often request specimens through a kind of interlibrary loan. "The system works well when the risk of damage or destruction of loaned specimens is perceived to be very low," Mast says.

When things go awry

But sometimes things go awry. Earlier this week, many botanists learned about the destruction of six type specimens of daisies—some collected during a French expedition to Australia from 1791 to 1793—which the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Paris had mailed along with 99 other specimens to the Queensland Herbarium in Brisbane, Australia.

After the package arrived in Brisbane in early January, the specimens were held up at customs because the paperwork was incomplete. Biosecurity officers asked the Queensland Herbarium for a list of the specimens and how they were preserved, but the herbarium sent its responses to the wrong email address, delaying the response by many weeks. In March, the officers requested clarification, but then incinerated the samples. "It's like taking a painting from the Louvre and burning it," says James Solomon, herbarium curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis.

According to Australia’s Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, which enforces biosecurity rules, part of the problem was that the samples had a declared value of $2—and its agents routinely destroy low-value items that have been kept longer than 30 days. Michel Guiraud, director of collections at NMNH, says his museum's policy is to put minimal values on shipments. "If it is irreplaceable, there is no way to put an insurance value on it," he says.

Guiraud says the package was sent with the usual documentation and he's trying to find out what went wrong. Concerned about the possibility of other scientific samples being destroyed, the museum is considering stopping loans from all of its collections to Australia.

Australia’s agriculture department admitted in a statement that it erred in prematurely destroying the specimens, but didn't take sole responsibility for the snafu. "This is a deeply regrettable occurrence, but it does highlight the importance of the shared responsibility of Australia’s biosecurity system, and the need for adherence to import conditions." The department has reviewed its procedures for handling delayed items and is considering how package labels could highlight the “intrinsic value” of scientific specimens. On Monday, officials met with representatives from a consortium of Australasian herbaria to help them understand and comply with importation rules. "At this stage it appears we are resolving the matter very positively," says botanist Michelle Waycott of the University of Adelaide in Australia and the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria.

A second incident came to light after botanists at the Allan Herbarium in Lincoln, New Zealand, heard last month about the destruction of the French specimens. They inquired about six lichen samples, including a type specimen of Buellia macularis, that they had shipped to the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra last year. It turned out the specimens had been destroyed in October 2016 by biosecurity officers in Sydney, Australia. The department is investigating what happened in this case.

New Zealand herbaria have suspended loans to Australia while they wait for written guarantees that their specimens will be safe. “We are disappointed we have lost an important part of our collection but we’re looking forward to further international collaboration,” said Ilse Breitwieser, director of the Allan Herbarium, in a statement this week.

Looking for solutions

Curators elsewhere are reviewing how they ship samples internationally. "We will rethink our policy of lending specimens to countries that would pose a risk for loss of collections," says Christine Niezgoda, collections manager of flowering plants at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, who, like others, was surprised to learn that specimens would be destroyed rather than returned. The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections, which is following the situation in Australia, hopes to increase communication among curators about shipping regulations and border inspection procedures.

A long-standing frustration for many is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), like its counterpart in Australia, does not have a separate category for low-risk scientific specimens. "The way that the U.S. and Australian governments are treating these shipments is basically going to bring taxonomic work to a halt," says Ellen Dean, curator of the Center for Plant Diversity at the University of California, Davis. "We are thinking of no longer loaning our specimens to other countries, because we are uncertain that APHIS will allow our own specimens back into this country."

Whatever the destination, veterans emphasize that every detail matters, even the most obvious. "Nothing derails a shipment faster than a wrong address," says Thiers, who maintains a public database of herbaria addresses and contact information. "Sometimes they don't get returned for years, and unless you take extraordinary measures, you won't get them back." (With the volume of specimens that get mailed from the New York Botanic Garden—up to 30,000 a year—Thiers can't afford tracked shipments and uses cheaper library rate shipping.)

Even the most diligent curators confess to late-night worries. "Any time you let something go out the door, there's a risk," says Solomon, who is continuing to send specimens to Australia. "The benefit from making the material available far outweighs the risk." Says Niezgoda: "Collections are meant to be used to promote scientific inquiry and this should not change."

With reporting by Elizabeth Pennisi.