Parasites like this leech can be found all over the world, and anyone growing up near freshwater knows to check for them. But many consider these animals “gross”, so how can we motivate the public and scientists to care about them? (Image credit: John Douglas, CC BY-SA 2.0)
As someone who works with parasites, I have to confess that I love them. They are beyond interesting, and I delight in telling people about them and what they do to their host organisms to survive. More often than not, people cringe or look like they would rather run away than hear more about such disgusting creatures. I know that as a disease ecologist I am very much in the minority when it comes to how I feel about parasites, but I think it’s important that we understand how vital these organisms are to the natural world, and the benefits they offer to scientists and their research.
Species like koalas are cute and fluffy, and thus easy to provide funding for. But how do we save species that are more threatened and less charismatic? (Image Credit: Jesiane, Creative Commons CC0)
After my recent talk with Marlene Zuk (which we’ll be publishing later this week), I have been thinking more about the species we focus on in ecology and the species we neglect. Dr. Zuk is a specialist on insects, who has remarkably been able to sell the importance of topics as obscure as cricket sex and parasite wickedness to the public (as you can see in her brilliant TED Talk). However this is more the exception than the rule. In ecology, conservationists have traditionally focused on a select few animals. So why do we care about saving the pandas that do not want snuggles (or to get it on), and ignore the native worms that are being replaced by invasives? Can we change what the public cares about, and ask them to focus more on the role of a species in an ecologic system?