by Zara Gladman, Society of Biology
Mid-way through Biology Week we held a launch night in Parliament, to highlight the importance of biology to decision-makers. The climax of the evening was our very own ‘Save a Species’ election. Six candidates – each representing a different endangered species – did their best to persuade the guests that their species was the one most worthy of being saved from extinction. The giant panda, spoon-billed sandpiper, belalanda chameleon, arrow cichlid fish, dark guest ant and Hibiscadelphus woodii (that’s a plant) parties spent a gruelling couple of hours canvassing among the electorate.
I was representing the arrow cichlid fish (Amphilophus zaliosus), a red-listed, tropical fish species which is only found in one place in the world: Lake Apoyo in Nicaragua, Central America. This species has suffered major declines due to the introduction of non-native species (Nile tilapia) to the lake and deterioration of its habitat.
Lake Apoyo actually hosts a number of closely related cichlids (nine Amphilopus spp have been described so far), which have been the focus of research by evolutionary biologists.
These dull coloured, perch-like fish might seem unremarkable but in fact, the Amphilopus species complex provides a rare example of “sympatric speciation”: new species which have formed from a common ancestor without the aid of a geographical barrier (i.e. in the same lake). Only a handful of examples of sympatric speciation have been demonstrated in animals (Arctic charr in Scottish lochs appear to be undergoing the process right now).
Unfortunately, this interesting evolutionary history didn’t help the arrow cichlid party at the election: the species came last place, gaining just 5% of the vote. The conventionally cute and cuddly animals – giant panda and sandpiper – came out top, followed by the chameleon, plant and ant.
The victory of the hugely charismatic panda (the ‘poster child‘ for conservation) over my humble fish did not come as a big surprise. It was, nonetheless, a disappointing result and highlights the scale of the PR job needed if we are to promote aquatic species and ecosystems as worthy of conservation.
Fresh water accounts for just 0.01% of the world’s water and 0.8% of the Earth’s surface but supports around 6% of all described species, including 10,000 species of fish. Such biodiversity confers clear benefits for society, whether it’s providing scientists with an insight into evolutionary processes (see the arrow cichlids), supporting the livelihoods of communities in developing countries (like the tilapia fish in South East Asia), forming an economic mainstay (angling in Scotland generates £113 million annually) or simply being of aesthetic or recreational value (fish are pretty!).
Safeguarding these ecosystems is of clear importance and this must be better communicated to the public – especially given that biodiversity in freshwater is being lost on a greater scale than even the most impacted terrestrial ecosystems.
The question is, how do we garner the same support for aquatic species as snuggly pandas or adorable sandpipers? Perhaps aquatic conservation needs its own poster child. Finding Nemo worked for the clownfish… I’m open to suggestions.