Them or us

Where should we concentrate conservation efforts?

Back in January, Kevin Gaston at the University of Sheffield argued in Science that conservation efforts should be directed towards common species as well as the ‘obvious’, rare and ‘threatened’ ones1.

The argument is beguilingly simple. In the absence of a detailed understanding of what each species does in an ecosystem, it would be foolish to allow the loss of any one of them.

The paper was selected by David Lindenmayer of the ANU in our Ecology Faculty (Spatial & Landscape Ecology) just two weeks ago. David says the paper makes a plea for the conservation and management of common species, which is different to much past conservation biology that has focused around the need to ensure the preservation of rare and endangered taxa.

However, we’ve just published a dissent by Ferdinando ‘Nando’ Boero of the Universita’ del Salento (who, by the way, claims that Frank Zappa has cited his work. Read the full story). Nando, in an intelligent and well-argued dissent, while granting that more common species are indeed important to the continued functioning of ecosystems, maintains that rare species do deserve special attention.

During battles, military surgeons divide wounded soldiers into three categories: those who will die anyway (and they do not treat them); those who need immediate care, otherwise they will die (and they are treated immediately); and those who can be treated later because the wounds are not life-threatening. Maybe, with conservation biology, we are caring more about species that are practically extinct (the ‘soldiers that will die anyway’) and, in doing so, we let other species die because we do not care as much about them.

It’s a fascinating debate: do feel free to share your thoughts here.

And for some light relief this Thanksgiving weekend, also check out this video of Nando talking about jellyfish, art and music, including Frank Zappa’s response to having a jellyfish—Phialella zappai—named after him.

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Filed under art, Culture Friday, Faculty Members, Friday afternoon, music, Video.


  1. bg says:

    The example given about doomed soldiers was given to identify those that do not require saving. How can the individual giving the example be sure he can properly identify the truly hopeless cases? His choice has long-term effects. Life does not exist in a vacuum. If we keep removing components of a complex system, humans could end up being the species with a hopeless prognosis. Eliminating one species that appears weak in the short term, but is a sentinel of potential long-term problems for humans could result in significant human consequences.

  2. Azur says:

    This is really about big symbolic species like tiger and rhino, but that’s not where the bulk of extinctions are taking place. The bulk of extinctions right now are in tropical and subtropical freshwaters, mainly due to hydroelectric dams and draining or diverting water for agriculture. As an example, the Belo Monte dam alone is estimated to extinguish at least a dozen species of fish (plus one frog). That’s just one of over 70 dams to be built in the Amazon – and even that is dwarfed by predicted impact of the planned dams in the Mekong.

    Arguing whether to preserve common or rare species misses the greater point that what is important is to protect _habitats_, and nothing at all is presently done to protect the habitats with the highest rates of extinction.

  3. nando says:

    Azur is right. If you want to protect a species, protect its habitat. This is the philosophy of the Habitats Directive of the European Union, though. Many initiatives, however, are focused on species. To save the tiger while keeping it in a zoo is a sad solution to the problem of tiger conservation. Do not destroy the habitat of the tiger and the tiger will be saved (together with many other species that are not perceived as important by most people). That’s why the tiger is an umbrella species. Ex situ conservation is similar to the NASA solution to human-caused destruction of our habitat: let’s colonize another one!
    In this debate, the plea for a wise management of common species is in agreement with Azur’s comment. Common species are often also habitat formers (especially plants in terrestrial habitats) so to conserve them equals to conserve the habitat. If you ask me if habitats are more important than species, I have no doubt: yes, they are. By the way, the definition of habitat is not so straightforward, and neither is their classification (in the EU Habitats Directive there are hundreds of terrestrial habitats, and nine (!) marine habitats).