Rare and endangered species receive a lot of attention. Large, beautiful animals pushed to the edge of extinction like pandas and orangutans are very alluring, as are strange tropical creatures that have only been spotted a time or two because of their small population and reclusive habits. Other times there is public controversy over the effort put into restoring species that there is no perceived need for, like wolves.
So what does rare and endangered mean, and how do we answer the question “why should we care?”
In general the word “rare” describes a species that normally has relatively low population numbers, as far as we know. This is somewhat different from “endangered,” which describes a species that has fewer individuals than they would naturally, such that they are at risk of going extinct. While “rare” and “endangered” are not interchangeable, they often overlap and may be similarly vulnerable to human impacts.
Like many other scientific fields, people working with or studying rare and endangered species get a lot of “who cares?” questions. For example, if there are only a few tentacular voles in the wild, what’s really going to change if they go extinct?
For an intro, check out this website.
When I saw the “whocares.html” in the URL, I inferred all of the frustration, the futility, the existential crisis of the US Fish and Wildlife Service employee was experiencing when tasked with creating the website. It can seem like an insurmountable obstacle to conserve a species AND to garner public support.
Luckily, there really are a lot of reasons to care!
Like the website linked above says, the interconnectedness of all organisms and the environment means that removing even rare organisms could have unexpected detrimental effects.
There’s the “cure for cancer” argument: As we are always making new discoveries, rare and endangered species could have important human uses that we don’t know about yet. We risk losing those uses, and scientific knowledge, if that species becomes extinct.
An argument that’s new to me is that rare organisms have unique, important, and quantifiable roles in their ecosystems, even though there aren’t many of them. A study published in May 2013 by Mouillot et al shows that rare organisms support vulnerable ecosystem functions that common species cannot replicate ! For example, the article states that the batfish is a rare coral reef dweller that has a key role in reef regeneration [1,2], and a tropical tree found only in certain parts of French Guiana is a critical buffer against fire for the forests it inhabits [1,3].
So is it worth protecting these species even if it is hard? I think so! All species are a part of the diverse, complicated web of life on Earth. They all have their place, and we know that they serve important functions. There is so much more that we don’t know about each species, and we risk never knowing.
1. Bellwood DR, Hughes TP, Hoey AS (2006) Sleeping functional group drives coral-reef recovery. Curr Biol 16: 2434–2439. doi: http://dx.doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2006.10.0300.
3. Brando PM, Nepstad DC, Balch JK, Bolker B, Christman MC, et al. (2012) Fire-induced tree mortality in a neotropical forest: the roles of bark traits, tree size, wood density and fire behavior. Glob Chang Biol 18: 630–641. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2486.2011.02533.x.