While the Earth braces under a mass extinction due to human causes, it’s easy to be on the side of charismatic and recognizable species. When Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer shot and killed Cecil the lion outside of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, it ignited outrage and thrust trophy hunting into the national conversation. Like lions, nearly everyone agrees on the importance of protecting tigers. Below a YouTube video from a BBC tiger documentary; commenters were full of vitriol when talking about tiger poachers.
“Another reason why humanity will destroy Earth.” “Please, if anyone these days sees someone with real tiger fur, they will get a beating from everyone.” “Once, when I saw the tiger skins, I just had to get mad. Anger was inside of me.” “It’s messed up because the Tigers are be skinned alive just so the poachers won’t damage the skin.” “I would very much like to meet the man (or woman) who buys Tiger skins and funds the poaching.”
As displayed by these passionate YouTube comments, emotions run high when the existence of likable animals is threatened. While these majestic species still need conservation attention and funding, there is no shortage of passion fueling their conservation movements. But who is looking out for the rest of the world’s vulnerable species? The ugly ones. The ones whose emotions and actions can’t immediately be understood through a human perspective? Unfortunately, these charmless animals constitute the bulk of extinctions. Millions and millions of species inhabit our planet, but there are only a few dozen we deem worthy of our protection. While humankind likely won’t shed many tears over their loss, the extinction of these species further disrupts their environment’s complex ecosystem.
Humankind has famously underestimated the complexity of ecosystems, in which the introduction or extinction of a single species can have disastrous effects. For instance, Europeans inadvertently introduced rats to the Hawaiian islands. Hawaiian native birds previously had very few predators, so many birds built their nests on the ground, leading to invasive rats and mongoose quickly ravaging the population. Additionally, adult female birds didn’t evolve to fear rats, making them easy prey for European vermin. Human-introduced species have decimated the native bird populations, many of which can only be found in Hawaii. According to the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, one 1999 estimate claimed that mongoose alone was responsible for $50 million in annual damages to Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
In Singapore, the country’s successful otter conservation movement in formerly heavily polluted waterways is a point of national pride. Whenever an otter is spotted scurrying down the streets, humans nearby will, without fail, pull out their phones and capture the moment. While saving these otters is important, it’s hard to imagine their conservation would have been as successful if otters weren’t cute and well-known creatures. Deforestation has caused nearly half of Singapore’s native butterflies to disappear from their local habitats since the 1850s, but there isn’t much of a conservation movement to reintroduce them or to save the remaining species.
Earlier this decade, the Ugly Animal Preservation Society named the blobfish the winner of the “most hideous species” poll. The group focuses its efforts on protecting Mother Nature’s uncharismatic but vulnerable inhabitants through public awareness campaigns. Everyone agrees that we should save elephants and tigers, yet few people are ardent supporters of blobfish conservation.
These fish live at depths of 2000 to 4000 feet, and their gelatinous skin allows them to drift in the water, opening their mouth to slowly catch any unsuspecting small ocean creatures. Blobfish’s signature look is slimy grey skin over a featureless form with a droopy frown, beady eyes, and a nose that seems to be in the process of melting off their face. In other words, a colorless cup of melting jello. Because of their motionless nature, blobfish are easily swept up in deep-sea fishing nets.
“The Ugly Animal Preservation Society is dedicated to raising the profile of some of Mother Nature’s more aesthetically challenged children… The panda gets too much attention,” the group said, as quoted in a 2013 article in The Diplomat by Jonathan DeHart.
According to IUCN Redlist, there are over 35,500 species currently threatened with extinction. The list began in 1964 to track the world’s biodiversity. 40% of the species on the Red List are amphibians, and 34% are conifers. Off the top of my head, I couldn’t name a single endangered amphibian or conifer. Only about 26% of listed species are mammals.
We know what elephants look like. We like elephants. We saw them in zoos as kids and our childhood cartoons. Elephant’s emotions and behaviors remind us of ourselves in many ways. We can appreciate the beauty and intelligence of elephants and identify with their emotions, so because of these things, we bestow a value on their lives. But most animals don’t have this privilege. A bug’s existence has meaning, whether humankind identifies with it or not.
Have you ever heard of the Saint Helena giant earwig? Me neither. However, it once held the record for the world’s largest earwig. These three-inch-long creepy crawlies lived on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena, where they would burrow underground and only emerge after a rainfall. No Saint Helena earwig has been spotted since 1967 despite four expeditions over a twenty-year period. It was driven to extinction, likely due to habitat loss. Nearly all the island’s surface stones, which the earwigs once used as shelter, were gathered for construction and human-introduced rats and centipedes preyed on the helpless earwig.
The baiji river dolphin holds a miserable world-record: the first dolphin species to be pushed to extinction by human activity. These fresh-water dolphins swam in China’s vast Yangtze River, and local folklore said they brought luck to anyone who could catch a glimpse. But the baiji’s luck ran out in 2006 when it was finally declared functionally extinct due to unsustainable fishing practices causing incidental baiji deaths and the destruction of their habitat with widespread industrialization. While dolphins are a widely loved species, the baiji was fairly obscure, especially for an American audience. If people aren’t familiar with a species, chances are they won’t be personally bothered if it disappears. Funding is desperately needed for successful conservation movements, and many species are limited by their complete obscurity.
Have you heard of the dromedary jumping slug? Hemphillia dromedarius, as scientists call this crawler, lives in the mossy forests of Washington and British Columbia. They wiggle their way under moist, woody debris on the forest floor to find an adequately cozy place to lay their eggs. But with local forests losing their thick overstory and understory due to deforestation and microclimate changes, their reproduction capabilities have sharply decreased. These unattractive slugs have no real value to humankind. They aren’t cute or well-known, and no one sprints to the jumping slug exhibit at the zoo. We won’t personally notice when they’re gone, but their eventual extinction will be felt in their habitat. Not only that, these slugs’ lives have inherent value independent of their relationships to humans.
“While there is scarce data on how much charisma favours animals in getting funding or support, conservationists worldwide cite the difficulties of getting people to care about less well-known species,” wrote Andie Ang and Karl Png in the Channel News Asia article, Commentary: Cute otters and pangolins get saved but are ugly animals a lost conservation cause? “The Zoological Society of London found that of the ‘evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered’ (EDGE) species tracked, more than 70 percent do not receive enough conservation attention.”
Helping these species in any significant way is nearly impossible for the average person. But reading about these threatened, obscure animals’ plights can give them the attention and respect they deserve. Interested in the western long-beaked echidna? You should be! The Edge of Existence organization calls them “one of the most mysterious mammals on earth.” Or you could read about the New Zealand greater short-tailed bat, the largest remaining bat species in New Zealand. This, unfortunately, isn’t much of an honor, as New Zealand only has three remaining bat species.
Check out Edge of Existence’s list of obscure and endangered animals here.
When conservationists focus primarily on saving popular animals, they are doing a great disservice to the world’s rich biodiversity. Protecting elephants is a noble purpose but, for the protection of vibrant and thriving ecosystems, someone needs to think of the planet’s Saint Helena earwigs.