On the (in)visibility of species
GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS, Ecuador — Of all the species that inhabit these islands, a handful exist to represent them: the blue-footed booby; the magnificent frigatebird with its red gular sac; the Galapagos marine iguana with the ability — unique among lizards — to feed in the sea. And, of course, the giant tortoise, Galápagos penguins and sharks.On $10 souvenir shirts, one can see an image of some of these animals walking on a zebra crossing, a la The Beatles. There are also turtle- and sea lion-shaped bags for kids, and replicas of blue-footed boobies of all shapes, materials and sizes. Hotels and restaurants are named after them, and so are streets, ferries, travel agencies.
I have seen all the above animals in the course of my visit, and I must say that they deserve their fame. From the mating dance of the boobies in Seymour Norte to the playfulness of the sea lions in Isla Isabela, their fascinating movements will forever be etched in my memories.
But the focus on these animals also raises some questions: Of all the species in the Galápagos, which animals are rendered (more) visible, and how do they come to occupy their place in the pedestal?
Some might suggest that one criteria is sheer beauty, but this also raises the question of how we come to regard “beauty” or “cuteness.” If all birds have blue feet, would people even notice the boobies? Famously, Charles Darwin described the marine iguana as “a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black color, stupid and sluggish in its movements.”
Another possible criteria is endemicity: What makes Galápagos special is that nowhere else in the world will you see its over 300 endemic species. But this does not explain why some endemic species get more attention. Ditto with vulnerability: Which among the up to one million species that humans are driving to extinction—per last year’s landmark IPBES report—elicits the gravest concern?
Clearly, there is some subjectivity in the way we regard other species, doubtless informed by our cultural imagination and our (physical) place in the world. Thus, size matters: Despite its own endemic status, Galápagos locusts don’t get to walk down the zoological Abbey Road. And were it not for Darwin, I don’t think there would be much attention toward the finches.
This unnatural selection is not unique to the Galápagos, or to tourism. Anthropologists since Evans-Pritchard have long documented “folk biologies” that see different cultures perceiving animals differently, and today, human-animal relations are an exciting field of research. Biologists, for their part, have long recognized the existence of a “taxonomic bias” in research, with scholars preferring to study mammals over reptiles, and famous species like giant pandas and polar bears receiving disproportionate amounts of funding.
There are mixed findings about the consequences of this bias. Some have argued that protecting one species can also protect others, and that “charismatic megafauna” can help sustain public attention and raise support for conservation efforts and ecotourism.
However, as a Nature article pointed out (Troudet, et al. 2017), “Focusing on a few, often charismatic, species, prevents reaching global conclusions and developing efficient conservation plans.” It goes on to point out that “less than 1 percent of known species have been carefully studied,” which skews our biological understanding.
Focusing on a few animals can also diminish our appreciation of nature. In one snorkeling trip here, so many fish passed our way, but the guide paid them no attention, because the goal was to see some turtles and the Galápagos penguin. Similarly, one can go on a Tanzanian safari searching for the “big five”—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and African buffalo—and lose sight of other species.
And so, for my part, I will try to be mindful of my own taxonomic biases. I still hope to see a Philippine eagle or a Visayan spotted deer in the wild, but I should be just as delighted — and concerned about — our stick insects and sunbirds, forest trees and ferns, and the countless other species for which our actions can spell the difference between survival and extinction.
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