Working in a giant morgue
Updated: Dec 14, 2019
In P3, and since I have been working with amphibians, I have been used to working with live animals. A large part of our summer fieldwork in the mountains consists of hunting tadpoles in mountain lakes with a fish net, which sometimes requires certain dexterity, as some species are more difficult to catch than others. Then we take the samples. Animals do not let themselves be handled (they are right!) and twist in all directions. So, we have to find the right compromise to make sure we do not hurt them while swabbing their soft skin, and do it as effectively as possible to keep their stress to a minimum (e.g. first swabs).
At the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), in Paris, we worked in very unusual conditions. Helen, Alessandra and I were comfortably seated in a laboratory, with tables for our instruments, swabs and amphibians, as well as seats to sit on. Instead of the pure mountain air, the atmosphere was saturated with the smell of alcohol and formaldehyde, and the air temperature was kept constant and low.
But above all, there was no need for using a fish net: the amphibians were brought to us in jars, in large numbers. The individuals did not move when swabbed. They did not try to escape and for good reason: they were dead. Swabbing these cold, rigid bodies, hearing the scraping sound on the fixed skin was extremely strange. I felt like I was working in a morgue. A giant morgue, filled up with hundreds of thousands of cadavers.
For me, the most shocking thing was certainly the display of dead amphibians in our basins. We collected nearly 900 individuals in one week, but we handled many more, and in my whole life, in such a short time, I had never seen so many dead animals, although I’m working on a deadly disease called chytridiomycosis. Plus here, most individuals looked quite healthy when they were killed.
Amphibians have been protected in most European countries since the 1970s, which means that amphibians and their habitats are not allowed to be destroyed. However, derogations exist for various reasons, such as the construction of infrastructure of societal or commercial interest, or for scientific reasons, such as constitution of Museum collections. As a researcher, I obviously place a high value on science and the production of knowledge. But in front of the alignment of hundreds of corpses of salamanders, frogs, toads and other newts, sacrificed on the altar of science, I could not help but wonder about the need to sacrifice so many animals. Sometimes a whole population of a species that is now in serious decline.
Working in a morgue has put me in front of our responsibility, as citizens, and as scientists, to the decline of species. The scientists of the past, by populating zoos, building collections of butterflies or other insects that were fashionable in "curiosity cabinets", introducing new species on isolate islands and transporting pathogens and parasites from one continent to another, were the first cogs in a form of biodiversity destruction (hence the importance of ethics in research, see a previous blog entry on this subject).
When, with a dead salamander in one hand and a swab in the other, I opened myself to Helen and Alessandra from these reflections, Helen wisely replied: "This is the reason why the work we are doing is so important. At least all these dead amphibians will not have died for nothing”. Agreed.