Spiders · Urban Ecology · Biodiversity

Conservation Conversations – saving our smallest species

On the 2nd of October I ran a “Conservation Conversation” event at Macquarie University focused on discussing invertebrate conservation in Australia.

The idea arose after talking with a group of my lovely friends and colleagues late last year about the fact that we all work with invertebrates, and are passionate about saving them, but few of us actually worked directly in conservation programs. This lead us to start thinking about ways that we, as scientists, could have an impact on “saving our smallest species”.

I opened the conversation with this quote:

“Invertebrate conservation biologists are few in number, and, with few notable exceptions, entomologists tend not to raise their concerns when species, ecological communities or habitats are under threat. Yet, often it is these scientists who are in the best position to inform the general public, decision makers and land managers on conservation issues because they possess the very specialised knowledge and expertise of the particular organisms that they study” (Braby 2017)

It rang very true for me because it made me think: “well if we’re not going to try and conserve these wonderful creatures, who is?”

In order to get a bit of participation from the audience, I used an online poll to collect responses to a few questions. I like this method because you get real time feedback without putting anyone on the spot (or getting too off track!).

My first question to get the ball rolling was…

You can tell that there were lots of audience members who are spider enthusiasts from our Behavioural ecology lab…

Secondly, after outlining some of the impediments for invertebrate conservation that have been outlined in the literature, in particular (Cardoso et al. 2011), I asked the audience what they saw as being the greatest impediments:

I was glad of this result! Because outreach and public engagement are one of my main strategies, and the focus of the rest of my introduction!

We all recognised that invertebrates can be a bit of a hard sell sometimes, despite how fascinating we find them. But are some strategies more useful than others? This is what the audience thought:

There was a lot of talk of using citizen science, which again I found really interesting, because it can be very effective but at the moment there are few invertebrate scientists that use it. My thoughts are that this is because citizen science has two, often very different or even conflicting aims: 1) to collect data for research, 2) to get the public engaged with a species or area of research. Due to the overwhelming diversity of invertebrate species and the expertise needed in order to identify them to species level, this can be a real challenge for citizen science. I think that very effective public engagement activities can be developed which incorporate scientific methods are very achievable, but ensuring that the data collected are of use is not easy.

Dr Tanya Latty was one of the speakers for the morning and she gave a really great overview of the state of invertebrate conservation and examples of a number of citizen science projects that have been successful, such as the School of Ants, the wild pollinator count and the caterpillar conundrum which gets people to rear caterpillars and send in the parasites that hatch out! (I hadn’t heard of this one before, I LOVE the idea and am very keen to learn more).

We were also lucky to have Dr Chrissie Painting skype in from Auckland University to talk about the state of invertebrate conservation in NZ. I was really impressed that New Zealand has some reserves that have been established on the basis of conserving habitat for select invertebrates. It was also really good to hear about some public engagement strategies that have been successful. In particular, the radio segment Critter of the Week  seems to have almost cult following and has significantly increased the public profile of invertebrates. Chrissie was talking about an initiative to  update the Wikipedia entries for each weekly critter and how the number of hits for each species profiled increased significantly. I would love to see a similar radio segment and Wikipedia drive established in Australia.

Our next speaker, Kate Dodds from the Macquarie University Marine lab, gave us some information about invertebrate conservation projects being undertaken in Sydney. She gave an impressive example of how Volvo was involved with one of the projects involving artificial substrates on sea walls. That got us all thinking about how wonderful it would be to get more of the world’s big brands involved in conservation! As far as public outreach goes these companies have a much larger audience than we do, and have the opportunity to bring people on board who would not normally be interested in invertebrate conservation. So bring on the Woolworths for weevils campaign, or Coles for coleoptera!

Our final speaker, Dr Chris Reid gave us an overview of the work being done at the Australian Museum. They are making great efforts to describe and list endangered species, but everyone working there has so many different roles to fill that there is never enough time! It was great to hear Chris’ perspective on the difficulties of getting invertebrate species onto the endangered species list. As recognition of conservation status is the foundation for conservation policy and practice, and invertebrates are vastly underrepresented we hope that more work can be done in this area in the future.

We ended the session with coffee, cake and one final question:

I really enjoyed the opportunity to chat with other people who are also keen to get out and make a difference in the world of invertebrate conservation. We had some great discussions and we hope to run a larger event along these lines (or even a conference!) next year.

We would like to thank Macquarie University for providing the venue and the NSW department of Industry for providing essential financial support.

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