Science and the giant rubber duck… He's watching..
This article was originally published in Scientific American
Now I know what you are thinking. Don’t need Pandas!? How dare he! On some days I might even be inclined to agree with you. Even now as I write this I feel I am getting some pretty judgmental looks from the stuffed panda toy at the other side of the room. Well calm down; I love pandas, perhaps even more than most. Pandas are among the most interesting, charismatic and culturally significant animals in the world and ones that need our protection if they are to survive. So why would I write such a thing? Well as much as I like pandas, I like conservation even more.
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 wantedthis 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.
What’s worse is that when papers do research these ‘less exciting’ groups, they are more likely to be underfunded, unfinished or unpublished, and when they aren’t, they are published to much less eager eyes. The bias even seems to affect choice of research projects, among scientists and editors actually working in the field (albeit subconsciously). There is again a heavy preference for flagship mammals and birds and a further preference for studying species primarily in the developing world. As much as we might not like to admit, it seems being a frog in the Amazon means you are nobody’s friend.
What about the flagship species themselves? It is true that pandas and charismatic animals charm a lot of money for conservation in general, but consistently spending large amounts of money on particularly endangered species is potentially harmful for two reasons. First, because many of the high-profile conservation campaigns focus funds on animals that actually only have a very small chance of conservation success. There is a good argument to be made that the money can be spent on less critically endangered species that often have a much higher chance of actually being saved. The second problem is that campaigns like these perpetuate the spending of large amounts of funding on our favourite species like pandas, bringing their media profile even higher, in turn receiving more money for (but usually only for), you guessed it… pandas. Again the less popular species are left out in the cold.
This clearly has profound consequences for our understanding of conservation and throws up a lot of pertinent questions about which species we should be protecting and why. While I doubt anyone’s intentions are insidious, there is a good amount of evidence to say that at the moment our conservation attention is simply focused on how charismatic and popular a species is, rather than how endangered or important it is for the biosphere. Despite a growing acknowledgement of this bias in journals, there is not much sign that things are getting any better.
I think the time has come to say that as much as we all love pandas, something needs to change. It is one thing using popular species to sell magazines, but this imbalance in research needs to be rectified if we are actually to take real steps in conserving the biosphere. We need a conscious effort on the part of the public, editors and scientists to recognise the implications such a bias has on conservation and make real steps towards changing it, both in the research we do and where we put our (usually limited) funds. It would be a sad state of affairs to find ourselves creating an entirely human based selection pressure on animals; with the ones most likely to survive being the ones we most like to cuddle.
So perhaps my title for this article was a little misleading, I do like pandas, even though I think they are a bit overblown. I guess it could be changed to the more accurate: “Why we don’t need (more) pandas in conservation research”. Who knows, perhaps I just chose something inflammatory to get people to read my article… but oh look you already finished reading it… Oh well, maybe next time.
Image: Aaron Logan