Today is usually my day off but I did forget to do a Caturday article yesterday so I kind of feel like I owe my audience a little. Even though my regular audience is somewhere in the region of 5 people, but I love those 5 people enough to take time on my Sunday morning to put together a small piece.
It’s also here partly because this current set of articles is genuinely making me angry. The world is in delicate balance, you should know this, David Attenborough’s told you enough times. I’ve told you enough times. When I wrote about the Kodkod a couple of weeks ago I discussed it’s enigmatic behaviour, how little we know about it and why that’s important to do. I gave the example of the complex mutualism between orchid bees, brazil nut trees and agouti, small South American rodents and the only creature capable of extracting brazil nuts.
If, say, we thought of agouti as pests, vermin, and did not study their behaviour then we would not know of their value to the ecosystem in terms of creating new forest growth. We do know, thankfully. Agouti are not considered ugly, dirty, unclean, pests or useless. They’re actually quite cute.
The point is, though, what species are out there whose massive service to their ecosystem is completely unrecognised because we just don’t like them?
I mentioned in the introduction that I would not be including jellyfish. There are a couple of reasons for that, one being that in my experience living on the coast everyone is happy to point and smile if they see a jellyfish. It’s a novelty. The other is that a lot of them can actually sting you so there is reason for caution.
But I think I underestimated the effect of that aversion and that caution. I think when there are animals we have a singular identity for we perhaps don’t consider their wider role in the ecosystem. Jellyfish, for one, are just beautiful. They have an otherworldly beauty, a beauty so completely alien to us, yet apparent and hypnotic.
What they also are is great food. For example after a jellyfish bloom (when a large amount congregate in one location, usually to exploit a feeding ground.) Unfortunately when the food runs out…well often so do the jellies! They then fall to the bottom of the sea in what’s called ‘jelly-falls’ which, yes, it does sound like the world’s tastiest waterfall.
Not only does this shift resources from one benthic level (layers of the ocean based on depth) down to others, but it also operates as part of a carbon cycle. The jellies lock carbon from the upper-layers and when they fall, transfer it to the deep sea. Now this is useful because a lot of that carbon might otherwise end up as carbon dioxide in our atmosphere which is pretty problematic right now.
Whether you like jellyfish, or are afraid of their stings, or think they’re creepy, the recognition of this ecosystem value, the understanding that if it exists it is because it has adapted a place in this complex, chaotic, interconnected clockwork of life, it’s a valuable thing to possess.
I’ve talked multiple times about how I personally dislike spiders. In fact, fuck it, I’ll out myself. I’m a screeching arachnophobe. I can turn from grown man to quivering child in just one house spider. Then I pull myself together, remember my training, trap it under a glass and generally put it near a shed or my neighbour’s house or something. By the way, don’t just put house spiders outside. The clue is in the name! It’s a house spider. There’s a special name for a house spider outside, it’s ‘bird food’.
A lot of spiders I just let live comfortably in the corners of my room. I like having a spider friend, I am very sensitive to biting insects and spiders are very happy to be my contract killers for them.
Speaking of biting insects, one of the most common questions I get asked. “What is the point of mosquitos?”
Look, for one they don’t need a point. They’re here, they suffered the same near-4 billion year endless suffering and survival your ancestors did, they’re just as good as you, they deserve to be here.
But if it makes you feel any better the single biggest ecosystem service we can see that mosquitos provide is food.
Mosquito lay their eggs, and their larvae live, in water. Have you seen how many mosquitos can be darting around the water? It’s a veritable feast for any fish or amphibians in that body of water. Then they hatch into their annoying flying phase and it’s a bird and bat free-for-all.
Some adult mosquitos feed on plant nectar as well as blood, meaning they are pollinators, too.
The point is, never assume something is pointless or diminish its role in the ecosystem. The negative aspects of mosquitos are available to us, they bite, it itches, and sometimes it causes a very terrible disease. To us it can seem like they exist only to torment us.
But they have a role, other species use them, they are part of a wider, interconnected community.
Then we have wasps and…Ooh boy am I realising I had my list all wrong!
As far as I can see the negative perception of wasps is based on a few specific species of wasp and entirely socio-cultural. There is some evidence that wasp stings feel more painful than bee stings, but frankly being dumped hurts more than both of them and I doubt we go around crying and screaming “What’s the point of sexual partners!?”
I’m not going to speak too much about wasps other than to say that the ones that you do hate provide billions of pounds (or dollars) worth of ecosystem services to your communities, to your food producers, as natural insecticides. They are incredible predators and, for a few months from around April-September, in the Northern Hemisphere, they are voracious. They feed their larvae a high-protein diet and a lot of that protein comes from bugs that infest our plants, our trees, our orchards, our crops. We’d be talking billions spent on pesticides without them and food covered in even more grim chemicals.
And it was the wasps that got me realising a lot of our animal hate is memetic. It is all a socio-cultural thing passed down as folk-knowledge. I can find few, if any sources, telling me jellyfish are disgusting! I can see no written record of hatred for wasps. The filth associated with common flies exists mostly within our minds. We are spreading this mythos the traditional way! The way we interact with these creatures, the way we speak of them with the young people in our lives, is colouring their ideas of the values of creatures within the wider ecosystem. Very few people think of mosquitos as valuable to the ecosystem. Very few people are aware of the benefit of wasps as secondary pollinators and predators of crop pests. We justifiably warn people about jellyfish, or snakes, but do we also tell people of their wonder, of their value, of their beauty? Or do they read only disgust and learn that’s the appropriate response!?
It’s clear to me that greater biological education is needed, but that training needs to be in respecting the value of existence for existence’s sake first and foremost. Each life has its place. There is no unconnected species. We can educate about what things do later. We can figure out personal likes and dislikes later. But if we start from a grounding point of ‘every species is valid, presumed useful’ and go from there I think we’re moving in the right direction.
We can’t like every species. We do have to respect them.
Catch up with the rest of the Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals top ten!
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals : Introduction
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Bats
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pigeons
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Wolves
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Foxes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Aye-Ayes
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Pika and Moles
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: Vultures
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The European herring gull
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Brown Rat
Top Ten Hated (But Misunderstood) Animals: The Wasps