Unpopular animals: important for the ecosystem – but without lobby

Status: 08.10.2022 11:07 am

Spiders, worms or insects: many of them are in danger of extinction – a major problem for the ecosystem. Yet compassion for some animals is rather limited.

Pandas, koalas and kangaroos have one thing in common: we often think they are “cute”. That is why they have many supporters who are committed to their survival. On the other hand, we do less for less popular animals, such as spiders or insects. Studies show that animals we think of as “unlikeable,” “ugly,” or “disgusting,” as well as “dangerous,” are less likely to lobby. With serious consequences: these creatures are also increasingly threatened with extinction. But why is it so?

Animals benefit from the “kid scheme”

Fear and aversion often play a role. Researchers concluded that spiders are often portrayed negatively in the news. Of the 50,000 species of spiders, very few can be dangerous to humans. In Germany, about 32 percent of spider species are already endangered or extinct.

Neuroscientific aspects also influence which species we protect better. According to scientists, we develop more empathy for animals that fit the “child” pattern, with a high forehead and a small chin that resembles a baby.

The beautiful large button eyes are probably one of the reasons for the popularity of koalas.

Image: -/AUSSION ARK/dpa

This is probably why they have been studied better than furry spiders with long legs and up to eight eyes.

Image: San Diego Museum of Natural History

Colorful fish are more popular than monochrome fish

And what applies on land applies the same to water: according to a study, fish whose color and pattern contrast sharply with the background arouse joy in the human brain. In addition, scientists found that yellow fish are studied more often than other fish in coral reefs such as the Great Barrier Reef. In contrast, smaller, more inconspicuous fish that live hidden on the seabed or above the reef are less frequently examined – and even less frequently counted.

They fulfill important functions: they are the prey of other fish or they eat plankton. This in turn can have consequences for the entire ecosystem. The scientists also found that more inconspicuous gourami are important for the reef: they eat macroalgae on the coral, which can damage the reef.

Better survivability for Nemo & Co

There is another problem: unattractive fish often live in cooler waters and are often larger. They feed on other fish or plankton. Because the sea is warming due to climate change, the habitat of these fish is shifting or shrinking. Colorful fish, on the other hand, tend to be medium to small in size and are more likely to live in warmer waters. They are better able to cope with the changes caused by the climate crisis.

Not exactly handsome: the monkfish.

Image: photo alliance / dpa

Colorful fish, on the other hand, make people happy.

Image: photo alliance/dpa

More research money for beautiful animals

However, it’s not just the animals that have problems – scientists say that funding for research projects is often determined based on criteria such as “popularity”, “attractiveness” and “conspicuousness” of the species. It also affects sightings and counts. An example: bird lovers report sightings of their darlings more often than reptile enthusiasts. In general, such reasons can even lead to biased biodiversity statistics.

And the type and direction of the projects is sometimes very different: while in Australia the ‘popular’ marsupials are more often examined for their anatomy, ‘unpopular’ animals have focused more on population control.

Unstable ecosystems and economic consequences

The big problem: Inconspicuous animals – such as insects – often play a major role in the ecosystem. For example, food chains can become more vulnerable to changes at the lowest level. “The more elements that fall from a food web, the more unstable ecosystems become. Decades of human influence mean that ecosystems are increasingly disrupted,” says Christian Hof of the Technical University of Munich.

But people can also feel the effects of food. The example of parasitic wasps shows this, says Teja Tscharntke, an agricultural ecologist at the University of Göttingen. His research shows that parasitic wasps can regulate infestations on grain fields and thus secure the harvest: they lay their eggs in aphids; the larvae that come out feed on them and thus kill them. However, many parasitic wasp species are endangered.

And the death of insects can cause very real economic damage, for example if they don’t pollinate crops. As are certain bearded mosquitoes, which along with other insects are considered the main pollinators of the small cocoa blossom and prefer the shady forests of the Amazon. However, lack of water and less choice of aromas due to the monocultures bothered them. This could necessitate time-consuming manual pollination by humans in the future – and that is expensive.

More research, more knowledge among the population

Unpopular species have fascinating, sometimes unique, properties and functions in nature. If they are lost or left unexplored, this could have an impact on biodiversity. Therefore, according to experts, the focus should also be on “uncharismatic” and little researched creatures.

Because even the smallest environmental changes can have major consequences and destabilize ecosystems, researchers at the University of Oldenburg found. Another requirement is to improve knowledge about biodiversity and to inform the population. Because every one is asked to draw his attention to the animals that are all too often in the shadows of the others, crawling, flying or swimming.

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