It’s time we talked about the unpopular 97% of Earth’s animal diversity

It’s time we talked about the unpopular 97% of Earth’s animal diversity

Curator of Invertebrates Rodrigo Salvador led the team investigating how science communication of invertebrate animals is done and how the general public feels about it. Here he talks about some of the findings.

Endless forms most ignored

Invertebrates are animals that neither have nor develop a vertebral column, more commonly known as a spine. But that word is a grab-bag term to contain dozens of distinct lineages that share the ‘feature’ of not being a vertebrate.

Unbeknownst to most people, invertebrate animals make up the vast majority of life on the planet and represent over 97% of all animal species known to science.

To those unfamiliar with their astounding diversity and complexity – and the evolutionary history behind them – invertebrates are perceived as ugly or repulsive creatures; or even worse, as “lower” forms of life.

Nevertheless, they’re the ones that keep the world going round. Invertebrates are key animals for maintaining most ecosystems, from coral reefs to the Amazon rainforest, and it’s not a stretch to say that guaranteeing their wellbeing is a requirement for the survival of our own species.

A selection of mounted beetles
Oddly enough, beetles form the backbone of biodiversity on our planet. With nearly 400,000 known species, beetles alone make up one quarter of animal diversity. Beetles in the Hudson Collection, 2018. Photo by Rachael Hockridge. Te Papa

Even as concerns about mass extinctions and biodiversity loss increase, invertebrates are rarely acknowledged by mainstream media, which tend to focus on “lovable” and “adorable” creatures such as pandas and whales.

An unfortunate side effect of this is that science communication of invertebrates is thus very specialised and a large part of it falls to scientists.

Good science communication about this topic is a must going forward, given how public perception can affect nature conservation. In fact, it has been proposed that the present crisis in invertebrate conservation might be rooted in public prejudice against those animals.

Therefore, we set out to investigate effective science communication practices about invertebrates, drawing on the perspectives of both scientists and members of the public.

Surveying both sides of the equation

We prepared two questionnaires, one for scientists and one for members of the public. The former was shared online with scientists worldwide. We collected data about which strategies and approaches they use when talking about invertebrates to the public.

The latter questionnaire was done in person with visitors to Te Papa, Zealandia, and Otari-Wilton’s Bush. It happened in pre-pandemic times, so we had a lot of international respondents as well.

We collected data on their knowledge about invertebrates, engagement with science, and preferences. We did so in such a manner that the answers could be immediately compared to the first survey.

The scientists’ point of view

We discovered that scientists typically prefer to use biodiversity as an overarching topic and mostly resort to the following approaches when talking about invertebrates to the general public: the pleasing aesthetics of some animals (the prime example being butterflies); the amazing feats some animals are capable of (like the monarchs’ migration); and “disturbing” facts of the animals’ biology (such as female mantises).

Roll over, butterflies! Sea slugs are way cuter. Sea bunnies (Jorunna parva) live all around the Indo-Pacific. Photo by crawl_ray via iNaturalist. CC BY-NC 4.0

However, scientists know that different age groups require different approaches. For instance, they tend to focus on those disturbing facts and on pop culture when addressing younger audiences but will resort to history and the animals’ importance to humankind when dealing with older audiences.

The voice of the people

Most of the members of the public had a good grasp of what invertebrates are (if they didn’t, we made sure to tell them). However, the majority was unaware of the proportion of biodiversity made up by invertebrates – that 97% mentioned above.

Our respondents said they got most of their information about invertebrate science from TV documentaries, though many also relied on museums and zoos/aquaria and internet articles. Going against expectations, they had a clear preference for cephalopods (such as octopuses and the giant squid),  jellyfish, and crustaceans.

Conservation was reported to be the most interesting overarching topic, though that could be a bias created by our ecofriendly kiwi respondents. The topics of evolution and biodiversity come right after conservation.

Finally, respondents were more interested in the animals’ amazing feats and in which species are “beneficial” or “harmful” to humans.

Comparison between public interest and how often scientists use each of the different approaches to engage the public in science communication about invertebrates: a. aesthetics; b. amazing feats; c. archaeology/history; d. beneficial species for humankind; e. folklore/myths, f. harmful species; g. pop culture; h. weird/disturbing facts. Image extracted from Salvador et al. (2021).

A bit of a misalignment

Our study, thus, has some bad news and some good news.

The bad news is that scientists and the public are only tangentially aligned. For starters, scientists think the public likes butterflies, when in fact they don’t. Instead, there is an unrecognised love for jellyfish and crustaceans.

Who’s a good jelly-boi? Sea nettles belong to the genus Chrysaora, named after the Greek hero Chrysaor and meaning “bearer of golden armament”. Photo by Anastasia Shesterinina via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

Furthermore, among other findings, the public is more interested in evolution than the scientists are willing to admit. Likewise, there is interest in topics that scientists rarely address, such as history, folklore, pop culture, and pathology.

Thus, there is plenty of ground for scientists and communicators to pay attention to and explore in order to achieve more meaningful and balanced science communication.

The good news is that, now that we are aware of this, we can start defining the way forward. Scientists need to account for the public’s interests and institutions such as museums should start considering that as well when allocating the budget for exhibitions and events.

You can find all the details in the full article, published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science. It is open-access and written with a non-specialist audience in mind, so be sure to check it out.

Additional reading

Invertebrates in Science Communication: Confronting Scientists’ Practices and the Public’s Expectations by Rodrigo B. Salvador, Barbara M. Tomotani, Katrin L. O’Donnell, Daniel C. Cavallari, João V. Tomotani, Rhian A. Salmon, and Julia Kasper

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    I appreciated this article especially to know that invertebrates make up 97% of the life of this planet. We need to protect them, even if we do nto think they are adorable.

  2. Avatar

    So often invertebrates are portrayed as pests we should get rid of, or horrors (spiders!) we should get rid of or as inconsequential and ignorable like moths. I wish we were urged to respect them, or at least to make room for them in our lives, more often.

  3. Avatar

    To be fair to the general public, the majority of invertebrates are too small to be noticed, let alone appreciated.

    I work with activists trying to protect trees in Auckland. Until I started to tell them about it, all they saw were the trees and the birds in them. They readily embraced the fact that a vast biodiverse universe is supported underground and on the tree by every tree. The key was being able to show them photographs of collembola, acari and micro-molluscs too small for them to see unaided. Then explaining their ecosystem roles.

    Now, when they talk about the life supported by a tree, they mention not only the birds but the ‘small, wee things in the ground’.

    A bit of progress.

    1. Rodrigo Salvador
      Author

      Great story of successful science communication, Tom! I’m happy to hear to that.
      I should say, however, that in tropical environments where the vast majority of biodiversity is, invertebrates are not so small and invisible. 😉 So we still have a long way to go to protect them all. And the birds too, of course, they are also cool.

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