SciSun: Faces only a Mother could Love   Leave a comment

Remember the charismatic megafauna we talked about a few weeks ago? It’s the elephant in the room. Literally. Aside from being large, well-known (and usually very fuzzy and huggable!) animals, there’s another way many scientists and researchers are approaching these, and other species that are an important connection not only to human concern and compassion, but also a vital biological link to other species within their ecosystem.

Flagship species are animals and plants that most people recognize or are familiar with (not just Megafauna, but Megaflora!), and are also regarded for the important role they provide within their environment. As a Flagship species the, for example, Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is considered not just as individual threatened species, but also as a part, although an important part, of the larger ocean system and the lives of all other ocean species and the seas themselves.

Because recently scientists, researchers, and friends-of-wildlife have been faced with the question: Does highlighting large, well-known, charismatic animals benefit only these few recognized species while neglecting thousands of other animals and plants that most people don’t know, or even care about? And if these overlooked species become extinct, won’t that eventually lead to the failure of entire systems and the loss of all, small and large alike? Not many people find tiny, oddly-shaped and jelly-like coral polyps appealing, but in oceans all over the world coral is just as endangered as are many species of shark; or whales; or even adorably cuddly polar bear cubs. (Plus there are almost no stuffed toy animal versions of coral. What’s with that?)

So flagship species can be seen as key indicators of an ecosystems health, and by emphasizing an endangered species represents not only itself, but hundreds or thousands of other species that are all connected with the environment. So the actions of trying to save the shark or the elephant or the tiger takes on a much larger and more immediate meaning; because not only are these species connected to their larger ecosystem: Mankind itself – all of us – are connected to the environment, too.

This sounds like a win-win for everyone: Focus on large species leads to protection of entire ecosystems and smaller, overlooked species living within those environments. Humans have the opportunity to make a difference by spotlighting and supporting not just the large, well-known animals but all the little critters, too. And fuzzy, cuddly stuffed toy animals are made for everyone.

In a rare pre-season matchup, the Fightin' Smelts face their arch-rivals, the Mighty Mayflies!

In a rare pre-season matchup, the Fightin’ Smelts face their arch-rivals, the Mighty Mayflies!


But in a recent study, scientists found that areas highlighted for protection as the homes of flagship species had no difference in biological complexity – the numbers and different types of species in one area – as other similar regions that were not studied based on the presence of any large, recognized species, but as a complex ecosystem in itself. Natural environments, it seems, don’t rely on charismatic species to survive – it’s us as humans that need to identify a species ‘champion’ – the majestic tiger, or powerful elephant, or thousand-year-old tree, to help us connect with the environment. Maybe that’s why our school mascot is the Fighting Eagles and not the Fighting Earthworms; and there’s never been a professional team named the Delta Smelts or the Crawling Water Beetles. Go Smelts!

Maybe needing something to cheer for is just human psychology. Let’s just hope that in championing the few big, impressive, fuzzy and familiar species, we remember all the little, unnoticed, sometimes plain and often under-appreciated species that are just as important. We’re sure their mothers love them.,997,NS.html


Michonne Says: I don’t think there’s anything more cherish-matic than a Marmot.

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