Can ugly people be charismatic

Ugly animals are also important to biodiversity

A young orangutan campaigns for the conservation of the Southeast Asian rainforests with big eyes and a wild hairstyle. A herd of elephants draws attention to the poaching crisis in Africa, a polar bear to the negative consequences of climate change. And when it comes to the problems of marine life, whales, dolphins and seals are sought-after ambassadors: There also seems to be a kind of celebrity bonus in nature conservation. While large and attractive species attract the most attention, most of the biodiversity disappears in secret. Who is interested in the needs of spiders, snails or beetles? The small and inconspicuous, the unsympathetic and ugly seem in the race for publicity, so that research and nature conservation funds cannot keep up. But efforts are being made to give greater consideration to their interests.

After all, many of these species are in no better position than their more conspicuous counterparts - on the contrary. A team led by William Ripple from Oregon State University recently investigated whether there is a connection between body weight and the degree of danger to vertebrates. For this purpose, the biologists evaluated a huge database with information on 27,600 different species. They encountered a similar trend in birds, mammals and cartilaginous fish: The largest risk of extinction is borne on the one hand by the largest and on the other hand by the smallest species. The researchers conclude that the mini fauna, which has received little attention so far, urgently needs more attention. Both by conservationists and scientists.

This article is included in Spectrum Compact, Species on the Edge - The Struggle for Survival

Because apparently the research interest is not evenly distributed among all threatened species. Nor does it necessarily focus on those who need it most. Patricia Fleming from Murdoch University in Western Australia and her colleagues analyzed which representatives of Australian mammals their colleagues deal with and how often. They found very few studies on rodents and bats native to Down Under - even though they made up almost half of the 331 species examined. Perhaps these animals are too inconspicuous and, because of their clandestine way of life, too difficult to study to attract a larger scientific fan club.

Half of Australian mammals have hardly been explored

The rodents made up 14 of the 30 Australian mammals that have become extinct since 1788. The loss of bats is not that great, but there are already losses in this group of animals. The International Union for Conservation of Nature IUCN officially declared the Christmas Island bat extinct in September 2017. Since the mid-1990s, the populations of this globally unique flutter had declined massively. It is likely that imported enemies and diseases played a role. Nobody knows more about it.

For Patricia Fleming and her colleagues, this is exactly what is symptomatic of the problems of neglected mammals: in many cases, biologists do not know much more about such species than that they exist at all. What they eat, how widespread they are or what demands they have on their habitat, is largely in the dark. It is therefore difficult to assess whether and how these species could get into trouble. And unlike the Christmas Island bat, you'd like to know that before it's too late.

Ā»For example, no tourist pays attention to the dung beetles in the SerengetiĀ«
(Christof Schenck)

In addition, the loss of small and inconspicuous species can have far-reaching consequences for the entire ecosystem. "For example, no tourist pays attention to the dung beetles in the Serengeti," says Christof Schenck, managing director of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS). This fascinating savannah landscape, together with its elephants, lions and huge herds of ungulates, depends crucially on the work of these insects. Millions of beetles incessantly roll the excrement of large mammals into manageable balls and bury them in the ground. "They process around 4,000 tons of manure every day," explains the zoologist. "That is an amount that would fill a freight train with 200 wagons." It is only thanks to this surge of fertilizer that the grass on which the large herds of animals thrive in the Serengeti.