In Schrodinger’s famous thought experiment involving an unsuspecting, limbo-bound feline, the mere act of observing something can change its state.

The very idea of ecological science as it’s practised nowadays is that what you see when you go into the great expanse of  nature is the reality; that you’re observing animals doing what they do, unaffected by your presence.

And in this week’s Nature, Claire Saraux and her colleagues report a 10-year project on penguins that demonstrates pretty unequivocally a big problem associated with the standard research tool, the flipper band.
As my news story relates, in a nutshell, the bands harm the penguins – slowing their foraging, shortening their lives and having a major impact on their breeding success.

So for anyone wanting to use flipper bands on penguins while they’re at sea now, there are two dilemmas.

Firstly, will the research produce a conclusion that’s reliable – that isn’t distorted by the bands?

And secondly, are the project’s aims important enough to justify harming the birds?

King penguins, the species used in this study, are pretty abundant, with an estimated population in the millions; so there’s no conservation reason why shortening the lives of some would be an issue.

Even so, many of us would think twice about the ethics of research that carried these consequences.

Would it have been worth harming one whale in order that the whole population could be better conserved?

In many parts of the oceans, you can find fishing boats engaged on something that might sound like an oxymoron – fishing for conservation.

Scientific sampling of ocean areas determines fish abundance. Trials with new nets aim to reduce bycatch, or improve the specificity of fleets for certain fish species or ages – but again, fish die in the process.

So is that justified?

Occasionally, the mere presence of conservation scientists has been enough to damage wildlife.

One of the first principles of medical ethics is “first do no harm” – and some have suggested this could usefully be adopted for conservation too.

But the only way to be sure of doing no harm is to do nothing at all… and then it becomes very difficult to do any good.


The older I grow, the more I know, and the more gray areas become evident to me. Any kind of study is going to be intrusive in some way or another, no matter how hard one tries to make it not. It’s a choice between standing by and doing nothing and watching it all slowly disappear, or making some sacrifices and trying everything you can think of, and sheer, blind hope.