“We will not fight to save what we do not love”

In The Netherlands we have a saying which I probably shouldn’t translate directly into English, but for the purpose of this post I will do it anyway: “ what the farmer doesn’t know, he doesn’t eat”. Basically, as you might understand already, it’s about preferring that which is closest to what you already know. Our fear for the unknown and our fear of other cultures is very visible in our society where the finger of blame is often pointed at the foreigners. But this aversion of the exotic also extends to the species we choose to conserve and the ones we perhaps don’t find interesting enough. In the book ‘Life is good’ by Jeremy Hance he discusses in the chapter ‘ What if Noah had left behind the ugly ones’ the rationale of our preference for certain species in conservation efforts. And according  to research from Berta Martin-Lopez, a Spanish scientist, the best predictor of the willingness to pay of humans for a particular species is nothing else than the size of the eyes of a creature.  And the explanation for this comes from how we are fooled by our evolutionary response to babies.

The Axolotl, a neotenic salamander species. Credit: Wikipedia

The Axolotl, a neotenic salamander species. Credit: Wikipedia

The explanation comes from what Jeremy Hance describes as the bias of neoteny: people prefer creatures with neotenic characteristics, being relatively large eyes, a round and large head and relatively small limbs.
Neoteny literally means ‘tendency to stay young’ and that’s exactly what we humans do in comparison to our sister great ape species; we have a much longer childhood than they have and although our neotenic features of course change during our lifetimes, we retain these features more than for instance a chimpanzee (we as adults therefore look more like an infant chimpanzee than an adult one). That we humans have a weak spot for creatures with neotenic features is something the Disney artists unconsciously already knew and used, as shown by Stephen Jay Gould. In his essay ‘A biological homage to Mickey Mouse’ he describes the evolution of Mickey throughout the years as follows: “He (Mickey Mouse, MB) has assumed an ever more childlike appearance as the ratty character of Steamboat Willie  became the cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom”. This change in appearance was triggered by the need for Mickey to become more likeable and to fit into the role of the straight man. As he became more and more a national symbol, the public did not tolerate any misbehaviors of him anymore. So here is how they made such an impeccable gentleman out of Mickey: gradually they transformed his appearance to make him look more childlike, by giving him shorter legs, a larger head and ever larger eyes. For the full scoop I advise you to read Stephen Jay Gould’s original article.

Our love for neotenic traits has an evolutionary explanation as Gould pointed out in his essay: he refers to Konrad Lorenz who stated that features of juvenility trigger “innate releasing mechanisms” for affection in adult humans. And that leads us adult humans to experience these same kind of affectionate feelings for animals (sorry plants, fungi and unicellular life forms) that provide the same type of visual stimuli as babies do. As Gould puts it: “ We are, in short, fooled by an evolved response to our own babies, and we transfer our reaction to the same set of features in other animals”. This fooling around with neotenic features could be seen as a mere curiosity would it not have been for the marked effect it can have on conservation efforts. That the WWF has such profound affectionate feelings for the giant panda very probably has to do with the neotenic features of the panda, making it a cute animal that the public loves to see. This makes the public hopefully more receptive to the conservation message the organization is trying to convey and I find nothing wrong with that; that’s just smart advertizing.

What is worrying though is the amounts of money that go to the conservation of specific species that are solely picked on basis of their looks. For those species that look very different than our babies do, it’s just bad luck. And for a species that prides itself in being more intelligent and rational than its relatives, deciding to conserve only the pretty species seems to me quite the contrary of rational and intelligent. Our irrationality is illustrated by the outcome of the research by Martin-Lopez on willingness to pay  for conservation of species, quoted in the first paragraph, in which scientific reasoning, such as the species’ role in an ecosystem or the threat status of the species, came in dead last.  However, you could argue that every dollar that goes into conservation efforts is better than having no money flowing to this cause and that money we give to WWF because we like the panda so much, will eventually end up benefitting the ugly ones as well. It’s hard to challenge the logic of the first part of the statement, as we should be happy with any money flowing to conservation work, but the disproportionate amount going to the pretty species means less money is available for the other ones, that might need it even more.

This is especially worrisome because, as Jeremy Hance points out, the money that goes to conservation efforts on these specific species doesn’t always trickle down to the whole ecosystem as is hypothesized by some.  And, if we prefer looking from a human standpoint , there is absolutely no correlation to be expected between neotenic features of a species and the ecosystem services it provides and on which we are so dependent. And lastly, bearing in mind the title of this blog, this explains why so much more money is going into saving the world’s mammals than the world’s amphibians, maybe even partly explaining why amphibian’s are the most endangered animal class. So I believe we need to make a more conscious and rational decision about  which species or which conservation programs we spend our money on.

To prove how this can be done otherwise Jeremy Hance puts the spotlight on a relatively new conservation program, called EDGE, short for Evolutionary Distinctive and Globally Endangered.  And I am very pleased to see that it has also reached the mainstream media as this post in BBC News proves, so aptly named “Are these animals too ‘ugly’ to be saved?”. The choice of targeted species in this conservation program has been made on a much more scientific and rational basis than in other cases by looking at the threat status of the species and how evolutionary unique it is. As Jeremy Hance says “the idea is that the more unique the species, the greater the loss if it goes extinct”.

The Mexican burrowing toad, the most evolutionary unique amphibian. Credit: Paddy Ryan

The Mexican burrowing toad, the most evolutionary unique amphibian. Credit: Paddy Ryan

You might think that each species is evolutionary unique and that’s basically true (no other species has travelled the exact same evolutionary road), but some species only have living relatives that are at best distantly related to them: they carry with them an unique genetic package which cannot be found in other living beings, separated from the rest of the natural world by (sometimes) millions of years of evolution. So in an evolutionary sense, they are more unique than other species (I am doing a wonderful job of inflating the term ‘unique’ I know!). If you want to see what evolutionary unique looks like, watch some examples here. And even though genetic diversity and evolutionary distinctiveness is often overlooked as a vital part of biodiversity, compared to mere species richness, it plays an important role indeed.   E.O. Wilson has illustrated this in his book ‘The diversity of life’ for instance by referring to the discovery in the 1970s of a maize species that is resistant to diseases and unique among livings forms of maize in possessing perennial growth. E. O. Wilson states that “these genes could potentially boost the production of domestic corns by billions of dollars”.  Seeing how corn is vital for the livelihood of many people, this is a clear example of the  importance of genetic diversity.

The EDGE program has first focused on amphibians and mammals (now going to coral reefs and birds) and this has resulted in a top hundred of EDGE amphibian species, 33 focal amphibian species and a top fifty of evolutionary distinct amphibians. The number of focal amphibian species is higher than the number of mammalian focal species, indicating that more conservation efforts within this program are directed towards amphibians, quite the opposite of other general conservation programs and therefore  so very refreshing. This also shows why the decision criteria of this initiative are closer to reality than our normal emotional criterion of neotenic features: there are more different amphibians in the world than mammals, 7000 against 5500 (and it is more probable that more new amphibian species will be discovered than their mammalian counterparts), and just as important, around 41% of amphibian species is at risk of extinction against ‘only’ 25% of mammal species.

I highly recommend you go to the website of the project just to get a taste of what diversity of amphibians there is out there. Because the EDGE program focuses on evolutionary uniqueness all the pariahs and bon vivants of the amphibian world are represented there. When I see all that wonderful and interesting information, I wish I could a way to pour directly into my brain and remember it all instantly, as to make me knowledgeable of all the fantastic amphibian diversity that is out there.  Actually it makes me want to get high on information. However, reading it is a good substitute. To give you an example, I’ll cite what it reads on the Mexican burrowing toad, the most evolutionary unique amphibian on earth: “[…] with over 190 million years of independent evolution, the Mexican burrowing toad is the most evolutionarily distinct amphibian species on Earth today; a fruit bat, polar bear, killer whale, kangaroo and human are all more similar to one another than this species is to any other amphibian”.  It shows why we shouldn’t rely on appearances or phenotype alone; this toad looks more like other toads  than I of any of you look like a killer whale or a fruit bat, but his genotype differs very much from them.

More than just being a source of information, the EDGE project has been started to preserve those species that need it the most and until now have not been targeted or only marginally by conservation efforts. One of the successes they have achieved so far is preservation of  7000 hectare of land in New Zealand that is home to two top priority EDGE amphibians, Archey’s frog and Hochstetter’s frog, and that was designated for mining. Besides that, they are helping conservationists in developing countries with funding, building conservation programs for several amphibian species and helping to raise awareness for the amphibian cause. And they launched an app called Instant Wild in which everybody around the world can aid scientists in identifying animals that are caught on cameras in places like Indonesia and Kenya. Although it is mainly targeted at megafauna, with amphibians being too small to identify on these camera images, I think it is a great way in letting the public participate in conservation efforts by using modern techniques. I can see how people that are usually not interested enough to read a website will be drawn towards conservation with this smart technology. And in that way people will be informed about the beauty of nature; this is of the utmost importance, “for we will not fight to save what we do not love” as Stephen Jay Gould taught us.

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