Blue Planet: Only the big and beautiful?

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Science News  |  Aug. 9, 2002 at 2:23 PM
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When environmentalists and wildlife biologists talk about landscape-scale preservation of endangered animals, eventually you will hear them mention "charismatic megafauna."

This highfalutin term means large, cuddly (in the abstract), fuzzy or feathered animals to which humans often feel affection and attachment. Charismatic megafauna are the sales-animals of the Endangered Species Act -- the bald eagle, grizzly bear, condor and blue whale. They provide the political and fundraising cover under which other, less glamorous animals hide.

It is not an accident, for instance, that the World Wildlife Fund uses a panda as its icon. The same with Smokey Bear and the U.S. Forest Service. Years ago, when I was editor of the Rocky Mountain environmental bi-weekly, High Country News, we considered virtually every mammal between the Mississippi River and the Cascades for our paper's masthead. We ended up choosing a mountain goat. We did not consider a spider or the narrow-foot hygrotus diving beetle. Too icky.

I used to think if you woke the biologists up in the middle of the night, while they were still groggy and dressed in their pajamas, they might admit they used this overblown, poly-syllabic nomenclature with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Now really. Charismatic megafauna? It sounds like the topic of a lecture Margaret Dumont would be giving in a Marx Brothers movie shortly before the boys burst in and brought down the house.

Now I'm no so sure. The term seems to have crept into common use among environmental types. The implication is overt -- Size Matters. The animals most deserving of protection are the biggest, most popular ones.

Popularity can be a fleeting thing, however. Just ask Burt Reynolds.

Fashions in wildlife appreciation, like fashions elsewhere, change. Two hundred years ago, the most fashionable fauna, along with birds and butterflies, resided within the Coleoptera order of taxonomy -- beetles. In the early 19th century, a craze for collecting beetles swept England, inspired by the beautifully written, four-volume handbook "An Introduction to Entomology," by William Kirby and William Spence.

In 1828, according to the biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, a young Charles Darwin climbed "3,000 feet to the top of Cader Iris ... (There) Darwin netted untold numbers of beetles and butterflies, showing his friends the tricks of the trade." Later in life, Darwin devoted many years to the study of barnacles.

Had Darwin lived today, and achieved celebrity, perhaps we might be following his affection for charismatic minifauna.

The point is if there had been an Endangered Species Act in 1828, the charisma would have been attached to much smaller animals. Back then, the big animals were considered hazards at worst and nuisances at best. The wolf was cheerfully dispatched from the American frontier and, until about 1980, nobody seemed to mind very much. The Falkland Island wolf --- an animal that holds its own footnote in history by helping inspire Darwin to pursue his theory of evolution -- was extirpated from its habitat, the only canid known to have been driven to extinction in modern times. It was a threat to the sheep of the islands, which had been imported from England.

Nowadays, the big animals get all the publicity and the little ones afterthought. Justifications abound for this imbalance of attention. Big animals require big spaces, it is argued. By saving the big spaces, you save lots of other species that live in them. Although this may be true, as far as I know, it never has been tested empirically. Lots of things that seem self-evident turn out to be not so under close examination.

In marine environments, for instance, sharks and whales get all the ink, but new research from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California at San Diego, suggests so-called "intermediate players" in natural communities often impact ecosystems as much as or more than larger species.

Scripps scientists Enric Sala and Michael Graham conducted field experiments and lab studies evaluating interactions between predators and prey -- also called "interaction strengths" -- in a kelp forest community.

Sala and Graham found 1 kilogram of large red sea urchins removed up to approximately 12 percent of small kelp per square meter per day. A similar amount of purple sea urchins, a much smaller species, removed up to 25 percent per square meter per day -- more than double.

"Being bigger means you will eat more, but you will not necessarily be able to effectively eat all the small stuff," Sala said. "This research emphasizes the importance of various species levels."

Although the scientists studied marine ecosystems, they said their findings are applicable to terrestrial ones as well.

Max McFadden, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service's Northeast Forest Experiment Station in Radnor, Pa., eloquently described one such terrestrial habitat in a 1994 paper in the "The Canadian Entomologist."

In the fall of 1959, he was on a collecting expedition with a colleague, George Ball. Driving along a road, Ball pulled suddenly over to the side and walked down the shoulder to a newly installed culvert.

"George explained that this site was the only known location for the carabid (beetle) Bembidion lachnophoroides Darlington," McFadden wrote. "He told me that several years earlier this been a wet area and apparently had caused drainage problems for highway maintenance crews."

The culvert had worked very well. It dried up the wet area, and with it the only known habitat for B. lachnophoroides.

"This was my first experience with extinction," McFadden wrote. "It made a great impression on me. I couldn't help thinking: was fixing a wet spot on the side of a highway worth the demise of a species? But of course, how would anyone in the Highway Department even know about the little beetle?"

The late B. lachnophoroides suffered from two problems, each at the opposite end of the scale. On the one hand, its diminutive stature could not compete with the mighty grizzly, majestic condor or beguiling wolf. On the other hand, it merely was one of more than 350,000 known Coleoptera species. Entomologists have suggested there may be as many as 10 million. If true -- and if beetles could argue the point -- they could be considered the most successful non-microbial lifeform on Earth.

Yet somehow we must understand more fully the impact of our spending millions to keep the condor soaring through the blue skies above but not a penny for a beetle dwelling in a single muddy puddle below. We cannot justify it solely because the condor is large and obvious and the beetle is not.

As the scientists like to say, more research is needed.

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