You might think that scientists are rational, logical creatures, but it turns out we are biased and lazy. A recent publication by Trish Fleming and Phil Bateman in Mammal Review has analysed how research on Australian mammals is distributed, and the results are not pretty.
What is being reported in the media is that ugly animals are at greater risk of extinction because research funding is more often directed towards species that are considered cute and cuddly. Having read their publication, I will argue this is not entirely true, but the researchers did find that Australian mammals fell into three broad categories that they called the good, the bad and the ugly.
The researchers used a tool called a species h-index: basically they compared research on various species by assessing how often they are mentioned in publications and how often those papers were cited by other scientists.
The Good: Monotremes and marsupials
Australia is well known for its unusual and unique mammalian fauna, and of course the stars of the show either lay eggs or have pouches. Echidnas and platypus are of great interest biologically because they are the only extant monotremes: they lay eggs and feed their babies with milk. There is nothing like them anywhere else on the planet, so it makes sense that even though they are only 0.6% of the mammal species in Australia, they are in 4% of publications.
Our native marsupials are also well researched. Kangaroos, koalas, Tasmanian devils, possums and their relatives constitute 49% of Australian mammals. They are also well researched, as they are in 73% of the publications assessed.
The Bad: Introduced eutherians
Eutherians are the placental mammals like ourselves. No pouches, no eggs, and relatively common outside of Australia. Most of our feral pests fall into this category and they attract a lot of research interest and funding because of their disproportionate economic impacts. Rabbits, house mice, foxes, cats and deer fall into the category of “bad” mammals. They represent 6% of mammal species in Australia and are mentioned in 12% of the publications.
Controversially, the authors decided to categorise the dingo as an introduced mammal, even though many of us consider it to be an important component of a healthy ecosystem. Other research shows that when dingo numbers are healthy, foxes and cats have less of an impact on small native mammals.
The Ugly: Native eutherians
Many people do not realise that we have a large number of native mammals that are not marsupials. These species found their way to our continent millions of years ago and have adapted to conditions here. Unfortunately, these are the rodents and bats, which have a bad reputation even though in most cases they are not interested in infesting your home or your hair.
The native eutherians represent no less than 45% of Australian mammals, but they are only in 11% of publications, which is less than the introduced ferals. The researchers put them in the “ugly” category despite the fact that many of these are quite cute.
For example, we keep Mitchell’s hopping mice as pets and I can assure you that they are adorable. Everyone who is lucky enough to visit after dark (they are nocturnal so only come out at night) has agreed. They jump, they play, they have personalities. So nobody is going to convince me that they belong in the ugly category.
What they are is small and cryptic. Given the difficulty of finding them in their cage during the day, I can only imagine how difficult it would be to observe them in the wild. Bats are even more difficult as their sleeping quarters are high up in trees or deep in rocky crevices.
Most research on big animals with large ranges
Unsurprisingly, given the challenges, the animals that attract the most research attention are large and are distributed over a large geographic range. This may be in part because these are the species that are of more interest to the public and therefore attract more funding, but it also makes scientists look lazy.
It is far easier to survey koalas than it is to survey microbats, but when we consider that the microbats are eating insects for us, while koalas are more likely to kill trees, there may be good reason to shift our focus. (By the way, you can build a microbat roosting box to attract them to your house, see here).
Where should the funding go?
Of most concern is that there was no correlation between a species’ IUCN status (endangered, threatened, etc.) and the amount of research interest. Given the large number of species that are data deficient, this means that vulnerable species are not getting enough attention.
Australia has suffered the greatest loss of native mammals globally and many of us want that to change. Unfortunately, good intentions are not enough. We need research funding, and this is not evenly distributed. Australia belongs to the 40 most underfunded countries for conservation. One researcher has suggested the shortfall is over $350 million AUD, and yet we do not receive international biodiversity funding aid.
Here’s hoping the ugly mammals of Australia are not made to suffer the ultimate fate of extinction, just because we are unable to take a step back and set priorities based on evidence rather than emotion.
Perhaps we need to start an Ugly Animal Preservation Society, like they have in the UK.