If you could monitor only 7 species in the entire Pacific Northwest, which would you choose, in order to learn the most about the region’s ecological health?

Here’s why I ask…

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you probably already know that the ivory-billed woodpecker was re-discovered, not extinct after all, in the swamps of Arkansas. But unless you happen to be a mollusk biologist you’re probably not aware that two freshwater snails in Alabama were also recently re-discovered alive and well.

That’s the focus of a bit of thoughtful journalism by ABC News (unfortunately far too abbreviated to do justice to its subject): Why do large attractive animals—biologists call them "charismatic megafauna"–get all the attention when it comes to conservation? And what does it mean for the smaller and less-pretty species, that comprise the vast majority of species on our planet?

To take Idaho as an example, why do a relatively small number of re-introduced wolves garner endless amounts of media attention and public focus, when a newly discovered species of fairy shrimp, never before known to science is hardly mentioned?

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  • You have to admit: it has a lot to do with looks. It may also have something to do with expressiveness. Wolves and other charismatic species appear to express very human-like emotions—affection, fear, excitement—and their behavior is almost eerily similar to ours: they cling to tightly-knit family structures and they establish social hierarchies, for instance. Fairy shrimp, on the other hand… well, they basically just lie in the mud or perhaps float around in seasonal pools not doing a whole lot that resembles (most) human behavior.

    But is it smart to assign conservation priorities—which land will be protected and how—based on the presence of the charismatic creatures and without considering the not-so-popular ones? After all, it’s the unappealing species that make up the vast majority of the Earth’s inhabitants. And without the small, un-pretty, and perhaps unknown creatures, the fate of the larger ones would certainly be in doubt.

    Consider this:

    So far, biologists have named a total of about 1.7 million species and each year about 13,000 more are added to the list of Earth’s known organisms. But Harvard University biologist Edward O. Wilson has suggested that vast numbers of species – particularly the smaller, less glorious ones such as snails and insects – remain undiscovered. Some estimate that up to 100 million species have yet to be found.

    There are at least two conventional explanations for focusing on the big charismatics. First, it’s a lot easier to motivate action for attractive animals, or highly symbolic ones, than it is for ugly ones (that’s part of the reason why we hear a lot about salmon and little about lampreys, both of which are at-risk in the Columbia River). It’s much easier to get people to preserve a river for the sake of bald eagles than for those freshwater snails that no one noticed weren’t extinct after all.

    Second, many charismatic megafauna are also considered keystone or indicator species. That is, a habitat that supports a certain animal must also support a certain array of other species in the ecosystem—where there are spotted owls, for example, there must also be old growth trees, voles, and flying squirrels. Plus, they’re generally easier to monitor (it’s easier to count sea otters than the spiny sea urchins they prey on) so focusing on charismatic megafauna is simpler.

    Lately, I’ve been researching a small suite of species in the Northwest. It’s clear that data for big animals is generally much better than for small ones. But I want to figure out what these big species—caribou, sage grouse, and orcas—tell us about broader ecological conditions. From a conservation biology perspective, what’s the value in monitoring the likeable animals? 

    Which brings me back to my opening question: If you could only monitor 7 species in the entire Pacific Northwest, which would you choose?