Monday, July 07, 2008

Perceptions of What Species Matter

Early education is crucial for forming one's attitudes towards the environment and conservation. When I was young, I was exposed to information about the environment through a variety of source. As a result, I grew up with a sense of the importance of conserving resources and maintaining habitats and the wildlife that uses it – a trait that my siblings share.

Conservationists in the U.K. wanted to know how well grade-school age children understand rainforest ecosystems and which taxa they think are most important. So they used a drawing competition to find out. The result?

Our results clearly demonstrate that primary-age children have very sophisticated perceptions of rainforests and include a wide variety of different climatic and vegetative components in their drawings. They are also aware that rainforests are populated with a diverse animal fauna. Such perceptiveness by children, the majority of whom have presumably never visited a real rainforest, demonstrates a significant public awareness of what a rainforest environment consists of and what makes it important. Such understanding is a crucial first step in conservation. Although awareness will not guarantee protection, lack of awareness will make achieving conservation of endangered environments and species difficult. Knowledge of the diversity of species and of the natural world is also important in recruiting the next generation of naturalists and conservationists.

Despite children's awareness of rainforest biodiversity, several taxa, particularly social insects, insects and annelids, are still under-represented compared to their contribution to rainforest biomass and global biodiversity. Such a finding supports previous studies, and may be driven by a variety of factors. Two likely explanations for this are that children are more aware of larger taxa or that children prefer larger taxa. An additional factor in the latter point could be that children drew larger taxa because they felt that this would give them a better chance of winning the competition (perhaps because they deem them to be prettier). Either of these explanations reveals that children's perceptions focus on mammals and birds and undervalues the true importance of invertebrates.
The authors link these early perceptions to the current underrepresentation of invertebrates in conservation plans for vulnerable ecosystems. I am not entirely convinced by that, but I agree with their suggestion that the public profile of invertebrates and other less charismatic fauna could be a lot higher than it is now, especially among the adults who decide on priorities. Perhaps that would lead to stronger support for conserving them.