Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Screw The Pandas?

A pretty interesting and mildly provocative blog post on the Scientific American website about the phenomenon of "taxonomic bias" in how conservation research dollars are allocated...

From the story, entitled "Why We Don't Need Pandas"...

"...The fact is that conservation biology suffers from a phenomenon known as taxonomic bias. It has been long acknowledged that popular species such as lions, eagles and pandas receive disproportionate amounts of funding and public attention over others. This shouldn’t be surprising; you don’t have to look much further than the city zoo to see how the famous animals draw in crowds of people, eager to catch a glimpse of an orangutan de-felting himself. They are the faces of conservation charities around the world and they appear all the time on the covers of magazines. They are on our clothes, they have their own movies, heck, they even show up in breakfast cereal.
However, many in the conservation community have taken off their panda cap long enough to realise that while focusing our attention on popular mammals may attract public support and funds for these particular animals; it results in a significant lack of interest in less ‘glamorous’, yet often more endangered species. Less ‘exciting’ groups like invertebrates, amphibians and fungi are particularly unacknowledged by the public at large, often finding themselves relegated to the bin of creepy-crawly-sticky-slimy crap. There’s no cereal for them, and as far as I know nobody has ever wanted this guy on a T-shirt (a shame in my opinion).

Despite increasing recognition of the importance and conservation status of these species, it simply doesn’t seem to be translating into actual interest in less well known plants and animals. What’s worse is that the bias of interest runs right down to the academic literature, where species like amphibians are particularly underrepresented. For example a 2002 study in Science found that invertebrates are perhaps one of the most understudied groups of organisms in terms of papers relative to their number. Despite making up 79% of all species on earth, research into invertebrates makes up just 11% of the conservation literature. A stark contrast to mammals that have a 68% share of the research yet make up just 3% of the total number of species. Many of these species are not only more endangered than our favourite mammals but they are arguably more important in terms of ecological interactions within the biosphere, having key roles in things such as pollination and soil management.

So basically, the "trickle down" theory of conservation funding works about as well as the "trickle down" theory of economic policy...

It raises an interesting question: does this "taxonomic bias" transfer to research and conservation funding for game animals? I think you could make the argument that it does, to a point. For example, I have long argued that the white-tailed deer is the most unnecessarily studied animal on the continent, and that the vast majority of research, habitat and conservation dollars and effort that states currently waste on whitetails should rightly go to other species.

On the other hand, some of those popular, photogenic game species are in some pretty serious trouble.Our other primary ungulate target, the mule deer, is in a troubling, range-wide decline, and it's hard to argue against it winning a funding battle with, say, the western goat-sucking toad. Unless, of course, the western goat-sucking toad is an environmental indicator species whose decline can be directly tied to that of the mule deer and that research into it will ultimately benefit the mule deer, seeing as that when you get right down to it, pretty much everything is connected. Including us.

So I guess it's complicated. Most things are. I still like pandas, though. And tigers. And eagles. And bears. And even wolves. But as a lifelong herpe (a herpetology buff, not a virus carrier...) and haunter of streams, creeks, fields and woodlands, I love the little stuff, too. The frogs, the toads, the lizards, the snakes, the rodents, the insects, the fish and all the other unloved creepy-crawlies I collected as a child (And teenager. And adult...). They're pretty damn important, too. Like me, they just had the unfortunate luck to be born rather...unglamorous, at least to the masses.


  1. Great points, and the emphasis on "charismatic megafauna" is a double-edged sword. While many of these animals (like pandas, or rhinos, or grizzly bears) are very effective at galvanizing human support for their conservation, they may not be the most effective at emphasizing the habitat conservation necessary to truly protect them and the other species in the ecosystem. "Keystone species" or "indicator species" are certainly more effective, but unfortunately few of them are megafauna, and most lack the generally accepted levels of "charisma" (the toad vs mule deer comparison is perfect. We really should, at some point, learn Leopold's First Rule of Intelligent Tinkering (save all the parts). Until then...

  2. Pandas have hidden treasures, too.


  3. I already quoted Leopold's save the parts at Retrieverman earlier this wek so let me be mildly contrary here: charismatic species can be used as poster children for entire ecosystems- save them and you have to save their home, which is full of good herps and creepy crawlies. One example, relevant: Sage grouse. Multiply...

  4. I was talking about this with Shooter the other day, he made a modest proposal.
    Farming, or most specifically Ranching Tigers and Rhinos, as demand for their penis' and horns is large enough to support wholesale poaching, and there are more Tigers in Texas than in their countries of origin, why not let market forces take care of the problem?

    Passing though Euston station a few days alter: I put this to a couple of Chuggers who were rattling the tin for yet another small Tiger charity. They took it surprisingly well.

    Who knows?

  5. You mean to say that my chapter of Caddis Unlimited isn't going to garner any sufficient funds from the bleeding hearts?