Despite biodiversity conservation slowly creeping into national and international political agendas, monitoring and protecting all species remains impossible. We simply do not have the people, time or resources. So, at a time in which species are declining at unprecedented levels, which species should we focus on? Which species should concentrate all of our attention and conservation efforts, and which should be left to their fate?
Defining focal species
To tackle this issue, one of the best-known strategies adopted by conservation biologists is the designation of focal or surrogate species. This aims to simplify monitoring by concentrating relevant aspects of the ecosystem in few species. These focal species include:
- Indicator species: that function as proxies for other species, reflecting changes in the ecosystem.
- Keystone species: whose well-being impacts positively on other species, usually more than expected by their sheer abundance.
- Umbrella species: whose area of occupancy and habitat requirements are wide enough that by protecting them, other species are being protected indirectly.
- Flagship species: species charismatic enough that have become a symbol for conservation, attracting the public’s attention and funding.
Charisma as a starting point
Although we do not have a formal answer to what makes a species charismatic, a survey conducted by Albert and colleagues in 2018 found out most of the species the public cited were large, exotic, beautiful and terrestrial mammals. If we analyze actual conservation research efforts, it seems that this charisma is one of the main driving forces behind funding allocation. For example, the IUCN Red List has evaluated 100% of the world’s described birds and 90% of mammals, but only 10% of plants and less than 1% of invertebrates.
Studying and protecting charismatic species has its advantages. Most of the charismatic species are also top predators, and can act both as keystone and umbrella species, regulating the whole ecosystem as they need a healthy food web to survive. They also accumulate the highest concentrations of pollutants in their area, serving as indicator species. Some of them are species that have been traditionally considered sacred and symbolic, incentivizing the involvement of local populations in conservation actions. And let’s not forget that because charisma is a social construct, it can be artificially created. This has been the case of the Komodo dragon, which originally was feared and hunted by locals and now has become an emblematic species of the area.
But focusing on charisma-based conservation has its downsides. It can contribute to promote an idealized — and unreal — conception of wildlife, in which lions, elephants and tigers peacefully roam in the wild. It is not uncommon that children grow up knowing more about animals present in different continents than those living in their backyards. Furthermore, if we focus a conservation campaign solely on a single animal, it is possible that the public will want to use the money specifically for that species and not for the whole ecosystem. This can be problematic if we consider that many charismatic species are not keystone species or of conservation concern; whereas many endangered capital keystone species are not charismatic, such as worms, algae, plants or insects.
But if charisma can be created, why not making non-charismatic important species more attractive to the public? Well, having charisma is not always good news. Many non-vertebrate endangered species have traits that could be considered charismatic such as a nice shape or color. But instead of becoming more protected, they have turned into valuable collectibles or souvenirs, with local and tourists collecting them for personal use or trade. Such is the case of the Apollo butterfly, a mountaintop invertebrate that has genetically isolated and morphologically distinct populations; making them a valuable addition to private entomological collections. Another example is the emblematic Edelweiss flower, that saw how its populations declined due to overcollection, but that is now protected and considered as least concern.
If charisma is not the solution, how can we protect these species?
Seven problems and solutions for invertebrate conservation
If we look at Earth’s biodiversity, about 80% of the described species are invertebrates, and it estimated that one out of every four living beings is a beetle. Invertebrates perform many vital environmental functions, from fixing nitrogen into the soil to controlling pest species and decomposing organic material. It is of vital importance to consider invertebrates when planning for ecosystem and biodiversity conservation.
In their 2011 paper “The seven impediments in invertebrate conservation and how to overcome them” Pedro Cardoso, Terry Erwin, Paulo Borges and Tim New summarize the main conservation issues for invertebrates, proposing solutions for all of them. Nine years have passed since the publication of this study and their findings remain relevant. So, which are those problems and solutions?
Problem 1: Invertebrates and their ecological services are mostly unknown to the general public.
Gaining the public’s support is vital to gather the necessary resources to protect a species. Sadly, most people are unaware of the vital role that invertebrates play in the ecosystem. They do not realize the wide diversity of species that exist and the amazing things they do to keep the world going. On the contrary, many people only see them as pests and inconveniences, believing that a world without invertebrates would be a better one.
Solution: Increase the public’s awareness on the value and diversity of invertebrates through media and outreach events and programs.
Problem 2: Policymakers and stakeholders are mostly unaware of invertebrate conservation problems
The people in charge of creating and following the laws and actions that would protect invertebrates, do not know about their specific needs. Most of the policymakers assume that by protecting vertebrate umbrella species it will be enough, ignoring invertebrates when allocating resources for biodiversity conservation.
Solution: Push for a better representation of invertebrates in official lists such as the IUCN Red List, allowing people to push for specific conservation actions.
Problem 3: Basic science on invertebrates is scarce and underfunded
Traditional taxonomy is slowly dying, as older taxonomists are retiring, and the remaining professionals are forced to move to other fields due to the lack of funds.
Solution: We need to keep funding taxonomists and joining their power with the knowledge of people that study invertebrates outside of academia. Frequently, these non-academic researchers are the best at describing species in many taxa and are often integrated in citizen science programs, which provide other useful data such as species’ distribution and abundance.
Problem 4: Most species are undescribed
The estimated number of invertebrate species varies greatly, but it’s obvious that their number is huge and we know a very small percentage of them. Currently, even though a new invertebrate species is described every 35 minutes, we’re still hundreds of years away from describing every single one of them. Imagine how many will go extinct before that happens!
Solution: we need to increase the support for taxonomic research, facilitate the publication of new species descriptions and use indicator species to focus conservation efforts so that they benefit undescribed species.
Problem 5: The distribution of species is mostly unknown
We know most of the invertebrate species from a single locality, ignoring the extent of their whole distribution. If we do not know the distribution of a species, it is impossible to know which are endangered and where to focus efforts to preserve them.
Solution: promoting the upload of the distribution data of museums, survey projects and citizen science programs in common and accessible platforms such as GBIF. In the absence of data, species distribution models can be useful tools to predict where the species could be found.
Problem 6: The abundance of species and their changes in space and time are unknown
Obtaining species abundance is very difficult, especially for invertebrates. To obtain a measure of relative abundance, researchers need standardized and optimized sampling protocols. This absence of protocols has caused that many of the data from previous surveys are lost in collections, as the researchers did not extract all the information possible after collection.
Solution: develop better standardized sampling and analytical methods for biodiversity assessment and monitoring; and promoting long term ecological studies.
Problem 7: Species way of life and sensitivities to habitat change are largely unknown
We still have a lot to learn about the diverse ways of life and ecological services associated with many invertebrate species. Thus, we don’t know what they need to survive or the consequences of their extinction on other living beings, making their conservation more difficult.
Solution: again, determining which species are good indicators for a specific environment seems the most efficient way to overcome this problem.
Even though invertebrate conservation has many difficulties to overcome, there is space for optimism. As the authors conclude, the main issue that we need to tackle is the public perception of invertebrates. If invertebrates stop being considered as inconveniences and become well known and loved living beings, protecting them will be possible. This is why we need to inform society of the amazing and, generally unseen, invertebrate world that surrounds all of us. As Daniel Janzen said, “if you don’t know it, you can’t love it, if you don’t love it, you won’t save it.”
It’s time to open our eyes to our small neighbors and help raise their voices. Because in the end, what is good for them it’s good for us too.
Albert, C., Luque, G. M. & Courchamp, F. (2018). PLoS ONE, 13 (7), e0199149. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199149
Cardoso, P., Erwin, T. L., Borges, P. A. V. & New, T. R. (2011). Biological Conservation, 144, 2647-2655. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2011.07.024
Donaldson, M. R., Burnett, N. J., Braun, D. C., Suski, C. D., Hinch, S. G., Cooke, S. J. & Kerr, J. T. (2016). Taxonomic bias and international biodiversity conservation research. FACETS, I, 105-113. https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2016-0011
Ducarme, F., Luque, G. M. & Courchamp, F. What are “charismatic species” for conservation biologists? (2013). École Normale Supérieure de Lyon BioSciences Master Reviews, July, 1-8.