March 3, 2010

How do taxonomic preferences shape conservation and science?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgI’m surprised there aren’t grooves worn into our concrete slab of a back porch by now. Nightly I pace while I chat with my mom and/or dad about the day’s events. They both stay informed in retirement and it’s refreshing to file the things we learned between one another, with a healthy dose of cynicism and humor.

Global warming and conservation is a frequent topic. The other night, dad asked me, with all sincerity, no rhetoric implied: inherently, isn’t there a problem with conservation? Species become extinct, that’s history, fact, that’s process. Can we sensibly prioritize and protect with any assurance that this is a useful, productive endeavor?

Whenever I sit down to review a new paper discussing conservation issues, this is a question in my mind, as I’m sure it is for every conservation biologist and restoration ecologist. We are setting out to protect life from our influence by exercising our influence. It’s a difficult concept to justify. I don’t have a succinct answer. I’m not sure anyone does.

There’s a hope that we’re removing the damaging effects of pollution and habitat infringement by studying these organisms and creating measures to reinstate historical prevalence and distribution without furthering the problem. We hope that the science that supports these measures is more or less correct, and trust the intentions and skills of conservation managers to assess and implement strategies.

Dad and I talked about the species concept, and how that was inextricably tied to our perceptions of life, by the very fact that our brain travels along the dimension we call time and we have a hell of a time finding any useful applications of a “longview” of biological differentiation. In case you have no clue what I’m talking about, it’s the idea that species differences are temporal and created by our own perceptual prejudices, based on arbitrary or apparent genotypical or phenotypical differences. It’s a game of where you draw the line. How many or what types of differences justify a separate species? Is subspecies a useful designation? Species is an important concept in conservation, often the deciding factor in the extension of legislation to protect certain populations.

So when I came across this paper from Conservation Biology, I immediately thought back to the conversation with my father, specifically regarding perceptual preferences and how they shape science and conservation. The paper is an analysis of the frequency and depth of research based on the mammal, reptile, amphibian and bird species in southern Africa. The study questions scientific priorities, highlighting the massive inequality of attention received by differing groups of organisms.

Determining conservation priorities has been a much talked about issue in the past decade, with some groups like EDGE trying to promote a more scientific approach. It’s a question of impact and access. Is it important to protect currently endangered species if they’re doomed to extinction? Perhaps the attention should be given to species on the cusp or perhaps keystone species that are threatened. Maybe the focus should be holistic, focusing on the ecosystem and environment; instead of figuring out ways to preserve one species, a push could be made to address larger issues of disruption. Others think that all species should be treated with an equal priority.

One thing is clear: according to the study, there’s no standard at the moment.

Using the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List database, the authors compiled “records” – the number of studies associated – for 1909 species in southern Africa.

The study of large mammals dominated. The mean of associated records exceeded amphibians, small mammals, birds and reptiles by 500, 216, 15 and 2.6 times, respectively. Threatened large mammals were only slightly more likely to be studied than Lower Risk mammals.

For birds and reptiles, Threatened species seemed to be studied more frequently than Lower Risk, but the leaders of these categories are mobile (sea turtles like the leatherback and hawkbill) and in some cases, cosmopolitan species with extensive distributions. For amphibians, Lower Risk species were studied more than Threatened.

Even within groups there is a further narrowing of attention. Among large mammals, 70 percent of research was focused on ~30 percent of the total species. For reptiles, 98 percent of research was focused on only 22 percent of species.

The reasons “why” there are such large discrepancies are varied. The authors suggest that ease of access and proximity can be large factors in determining what species are studied. What’s at my figurative doorstep, which species are immediately apparent? The top three amphibians studied are frequently kept as pets. Funding can be an issue. The farther you are from home and the harsher the environment, the greater the cost of transportation and supplies.

The reasons can also be practical, studying species that affect our living conditions or resources:

Several of the most studied small mammals draw focus because they are pests (Natal multimammate mouse and African grass rat, Keesing 2000; Egyptian fruit bat, Skinner & Chimimba 2005) or because of their interesting social systems (meerkat and African mole rat, Skinner & Chimimba 2005). Additionally, the large number of records returned by the African clawed frog likely reflects the use of the species as a model laboratory organism and its status as an invasive species (IUCN 2008)…

It shouldn’t be surprising that large mammals have received so much attention. The authors found 1,855 records for the chimpanzee, by far the most for any species, because of what the apes can tell us about ourselves. Large mammals are studied because of their charisma, because people can identify with them, both the scientists and the public. We watch them eat and sleep and nurture their young like we do. They’re symbolic, icons for NGOs and even entire countries.

Take a look at the focus of the source, the IUCN database:

Among vertebrates, the IUCN has evaluated all described mammal and bird species and 99% of amphibians, but only 16% of reptiles and 11% of fishes. On the other hand, just 4% of described plants, 0.5% of invertebrates, and 0.04% of fungi and algae have been evaluated by IUCN (Vie et al. 2009).

Those numbers are abysmal. Don’t point the finger squarely at the IUCN, however; they’re just compiling. There is a significant lack of research on organisms that form the cornerstone, the trophic foundations of ecosystems. As the authors note, the results are definitely not in the spirit of ecological preservation; they seem, at best, guided by factors that are not entirely focused in origin.

It depends on the priority. Does China want to save the panda as a species or save the entire ecosystem in and into which it has evolved? Different measures are required for different scopes, but it’s important, as the danger increases, to determine some sort of standard (which doesn’t have to be single-minded in approach).

It’s clear we can’t study everything and we can’t save every species. Also, let me make clear that there’s no specific blame to be placed except on our inclinations. But now that the disparity is recognized, perhaps the approach can refined.

So, like I told my father, if the damage done is the result of our ambitions, our prejudices, then it’s our responsibility to do our very best to mitigate the damage using our very best applied knowledge. It’s all we can do.

Rob also covered this paper a couple days ago.

TRIMBLE, M., & VAN AARDE, R. (2010). Species Inequality in Scientific Study Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01453.x


  1. Hi Jeremy,

    I just found your blog and I love this post. You've voiced so many things I think about regularly: whether conservation is a useful endeavor; extinction as a part of evolution; how humans fit into ecology; the extreme focus on "charismatic megafuna,"

    The main problem I see is that humans are not just the ones usually causing harm to species - but we're also deciding which ones are important to save. I wish there was another intelligent lifeform on earth to form a council so that we not doing everything to our own benefit.

    Generally habitat conservation is the most important thing we can do as I see it. Simply block off land and no one is allowed in it. Period. But other interests interfere...

    I feel a bit helpless sometimes.

    I also wrote about the species concept in my last blog post a few days ago if you're interested.


  2. Hey Hannah, glad you enjoyed the post. Great blog you have there, I found it via Research Blogging a couple weeks back.

    In most cases, like you said, I think we have little choice but to manage ecosystems if we want to see them persist, but it's definitely a burden; history will look back and judge the choices we've made.

  3. When I read about conservation efforts, I usually feel like scientists are simply "documenting the decline." I try not to be pessimistic, but sometimes it's hard not to!

    Your port brings up a conservation issue that has touched me and many of my friends over the past 2 years: bat conservation. White Nose Syndrome is slowly moving down migration routes and killing about 95% of all bats. A huge problem in dealing with this problem is that bats are so poorly studied. Sure, some scientists will go into one or two fairly simply caves or mines to conduct annual counts, but the vast majority of bat habitats are never studied. Most biologists never conduct studies to learn standard weights for bats, typical diets, general baseline data. The largest gray bat cave in the country is not too far from where I live, but getting into the cave requires technical rope skills. So guess how many bat biologists have visited this critically important habitat over the last 30 years? Three. My husband and I are currently conducting any inventory and basic research biologists need because we have the skills required to enter the cave. The lack of information about bats was never really a problem in the past. However, now that a disease is ravaging pretty much every bat species in the eastern US, it sure would have been nice for scientists to have collected more robust baseline data to more thoroughly understand these animals. I'm working on a post about WNS!

    This is probably why many species are never studied, or inadequately studied: they're difficult or inconvenient to access.

  4. Blogs are so informative where we get lots of information on any topic. Nice job keep it up!!

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