There’s many things that we don’t know about the ocean, and most people won’t find that too surprising, but what might be surprising is the extent of our ignorance in some areas. This is the subject of a recent paper by McClenachan et al. in the journal Conservation Letters, entitled “Extinction risk and bottlenecks in the conservation of charismatic marine species.” The problem, they contend, is that while the oceans are currently undergoing a massive loss of biodiversity, the full picture of that loss cannot be seen because we’re not even close to knowing how many species have been lost or how many are currently threatened with extinction.
As a small first step to dealing with that issue, the authors of this paper examine marine charismatic species as a way of estimating the threat to some of those species and identifying possible impediments to their conservation. What are charismatic species, you ask? They’re species with widespread appeal that receive more attention and funding for conservation (some might say too much attention and funding); it’s suggested that charismatic species can raise awareness and drive conservation goals. In this paper, the authors leverage the fame and fortune of marine charismatic species by arguing that because they receive special attention and are – theoretically – at the least risk of extinction even when threatened, charismatic species can serve as an estimate of the lower boundary of the probability of extinction.
The paper takes an unusual and amusing tack to do so. In their own words: “we summarize the extinction risk of 1,568 species within 16 families of well-known marine animals represented in the 2003 Academy Award-winning movie, Finding Nemo“. It’s not many papers in which you get to start “with all major characters, as defined by those with credited speaking parts”, including all species in their taxonomic families which included invertebrates, bony fishes, elasmobranchs (sharks and rays), birds, and turtles. You can follow through the paper for the exact details of how they constructed the lists, but they then took that list of species and evaluated their risk of extinction. Following that, they evaluated the potential bottlenecks to conservation among the various families. There’s a lot of fascinating detail in this paper, but I’ll skip to the punchline and let you read the rest for yourself. For me, the most interesting aspect of this paper is captured by Figure 3:
Here we see that many species, especially in the invertebrates and fishes, are almost entirely ignored either in terms of scientific effort (here the number of papers published on the species), status evaluation (are they endangered?), or conservation assignment (listed by CITES, the species-protection for threatened species). The authors point out that the charismatic species like turtles and birds receive the bulk of the attention at every level, while conservation bottlenecks arise in the other families.
The focus on Finding Nemo is an amusing hook, but though the paper deliberately trades-off rigor for rhetorical power, the argument that the authors make is a clear and important one. In calling for a greater focus on the marine biodiversity being lost before our eyes, McClenachan and her coauthors make a great point and deserve the attention that they received for publishing this paper*.
Having said all that, there’s a lot left that to talk about regarding the issues that this paper raises. In particular, I’m struck by the elements of economics, social psychology, and sociology that would interact with the conclusions of the authors’ work. The fact is that conservation is, and probably always will be, a finite resource (limited in part by money, and in part by scientific personnel) that must be spread about the overwhelming number of species that are likely to be threatened. This isn’t to say that the status quo is right, or that we shouldn’t strive to improve it – quite the contrary. But even in the best of all possible worlds, the fallible human beings tasked with the goal of saving these species (scientists, polticians, the general public) are going to exhibit biases of cognition and simple attention that may make it difficult to drum up support for, say, many of the invertebrates in the paper’s list of species.
Take another look at Figure 3 and try to imagine reasons why some of these species might be relatively ignored. Off the top of my head, a few potential hypotheses jump to mind. Physical features of the species’ in question may play a role; for instance, simple preference for anthropomorphism could account for some of the attention paid to the charismatic megafauna. It’s easier to care if you can imagine the animal talking but it’s a lot easier to imagine a talking shark or clownfish than a talking shrimp (and don’t discount preference for neoteny; this paper by Mark Estren looks like a good read on that subject). Or, even something as obvious as size could play a role: it’s a lot harder to find or pay attention to many of these marine invertebrates than the turtles or sharks or birds that they compete with.
Even the sheer number of species involved could be important, in more than one way. On one hand, the fact that there are 6 species of turtles compared with 536 species of invertebrates in this paper seems relevant, as the sheer effort involved in finding and cataloguing the marine invertebrates is daunting. On the other hand, I’m also reminded of work in economics by people like Barry Schwartz and Sheena Iyengar on the paradox of choice: when confronted with too many options, people are unhappy and find making decisions difficult, even though they claim that they prefer to have more choices available to them. The number of possible targets in marine invertebrates for conservation efforts could drain the will of politicians, the attention of the public, and the interest of new grad students selecting a species to work on.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear that the people involved in conservation work have thought about some or even all of these issues, but I would not hesitate to recommend a multidisciplinary approach to this problem. The answer to the call put out by McClenachan and her co-authors has to include a sober analysis that maximizes the efficiency of the resources we have while, perhaps, searching for innovative new ways to increase those resources. Here’s one thought: maybe it’s time for a Kickstarter for conservation – a ConservationStarter? If the idea of a charismatic species is to reach its fullest expression, I can imagine that it might be in the form of directly crowdfunded conservation efforts targeted at particular species.
Whatever we do, the authors of the paper make it clear that we have to do something, and that our actions have to start with knowledge. There’s simply too much out there that we don’t know; we may have found Nemo, but we don’t know very much about his friends and we’re in danger of losing them too.
* My post isn’t especially timely when it comes to this paper, as it was published in January, and others have written about it before me; a good example is the fine folks over at Southern Fried Science or the Scientific American blogs. However, the paper was only recently brought to my attention by the good folks in Bill Sherwin’s lab, and the discussion we had about it inspired this blog post.