Whales, spiders and viruses

931 people took part in this 4-question poll (and lots of you emailed me about it too).

It was all about choices – if you could save a species, which species would you save? You were put in a position where ‘all of them’ wasn’t a possible answer and so, perhaps, our choices (because mine reflected yours) do reflect our feelings about which species are more important to us.

The first choice was between saving the Blue Whale and something called the Reddish Parachute Spider (which is a real species) which is ranked by IUCN in the same category of threat – both are Endangered species. It didn’t surprise me that 82% of us chose to save the Blue Whale.

But that’s not because we hate spiders, because given the choice of saving that same spider and saving nothing then 92% of us chose to save the spider.  That tells us that we would rather save species than not save one but if the species is a spider then we’d rather save the Blue Whale than the spider.  I’m not surprised – are you?

The spider had another outing in question 3; this time it was up against two ‘species’ – the two viruses that cause smallpox.  89% of us chose to save the spider and lose the smallpox viruses.  Again, I’m not surprised.  The smallpox viruses are ‘extinct in the wild’ as smallpox has been eradicated, and they may well be totally extinct but you have to wonder whether there are a few vials containing the viruses sitting in military installations somewhere in the world.  There aren’t many examples of species which many people don’t like and these viruses were the best I could come up with.

And so, I was interested to see what we would think about the last choice; save the two smallpox viruses or let them go extinct? Most people would choose their extinction – 64% of us voted that way.  Which does mean that 36% of us voted for their survival.  I know from emails I have received that some found this choice uncomfortable – they were torn between feeling that any species deserved to be saved and the feeling that smallpox was a terrible disease and the world would be a better place without it.

I don’t think there are many species in the smallpox virus category for most of us.  I struggled to find an example.  Can you think of any more examples? Can you think of a vertebrate example? Anyone saying the Brown Rat?

So I suspect that we would want to save most species if we could (easily, without effort or expense).  But I am pretty sure that we would be able to develop a hierarchy of species and types of species which we would rank above others. Blue Whale would rank higher than most species I reckon.  Generally, birds and mammals would probably do well – that’s my prediction!

There are scores of PhDs to be written on this subject – maybe they already have been but I haven’t seen them.  Would it be possible to construct a league table of our likes using this method? Would different cultures rank species differently?  If we have more information on the species does it affect our decisions a lot or a little?  Have fun!  I think it is interesting rather than useful.

I started thinking about this, it may not surprise you, when writing about the extinct Passenger Pigeon. Do I wish that the Passenger Pigeon had survived (read the book next year for the answer)? Do I wish we could have the Passenger Pigeon back (read the book next year for the answer)? And I wrote a little about this issue of choices and then decided to cut it out – but it was sufficiently interesting, I thought, to form this poll and blog post.

I know that I would have driven anywhere in the USA this spring to see a colony of Passenger Pigeons but I didn’t even stop the car to look for a Henslow’s Sparrow even though I knew where to look, and drove past it twice.  John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson each wrote in glowing terms of the Passenger Pigeon but neither sparkled in their writing of Henslow’s Sparrow.  I think we have quite strong preferences for species with the ‘Wow!’ factor. And I think we are a bit embarrassed about that.  Do you think we should be?

In fact, what do you think about any of this?

The ‘quite interesting’ henslow’s Sparrow. Photo: Dominic Sherony [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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30 Replies to “Whales, spiders and viruses”

  1. "Generally, birds and mammals would probably do well – that’s my prediction"

    Yip. I'd agree. As would most I think. We're a dull lot aren't we?

    Mammalia and Aves pale into virtual insignificance when it comes to variety of invertebrate spp.

    To get all American for a second.... Hell! There are more species of (just) bees on this planet than all mammals and birds combined.

    Invertebrates are almost invariably infinitely more fascinating than vertebrates.

    Apart from swifts. Of course.

    The link below stems from Australia but goes into this subject and is well worth a read.


  2. Oh. If I had to banish any species into extinctionville, Alabama....
    It'd be Culicoides impunctatus.
    Yeah yeah. I know they're an intrinsic part of the ecosystem yadda yadda yadda....
    They need to go. (Fascinating invertebrates though they are!)

  3. "save the two smallpox viruses or let them go extinct? Most people would choose their extinction – 64% of us voted that way."

    Now here's what I struggled with: was the option paired with saving small pox 1) not saving small pox or 2) saving nothing. I chose to save the small pox because I think it's better to save even horrors if it means that we then save everything else too. So am I in the 64 or in the 36? I'm not good in this 🙂

    If the choices were 1) save small pox and 2) eradicate small pox, I'm not sure what I'd say. If I ruled the world as a dictator, I would say eradicate, but in a democracy I'd have to live with other people's choices as well. So eradicating small pox would give others the power to possibly eradicate something I'd think was too valuable to eradicate. Hence I might vote for saving small pox.

    Another thing I struggle with is taking a philosophical debate too deep into the hypothetical - I wonder if we don't do more harm by thinking that we can think things out. Every issue is like a Rubik's cube and trying to out-think them kinda leads to a place where it's difficult or impossible to make choices, and then nothing gets done.

    So in my opinion this isn't that interesting a topic 🙂 But then my wows aren't limited to mammals and birds. Most, if not all of my anti-wows are linked with the human kind.

    1. I agree with you Minna in that I thought the quiz was clumsily worded.
      Like a chimp trying to scrawl with a crayola, tongue sticking out, with its jacksie in the air.
      I'm sure it wasn't your quiz (wording) Mark.

  4. I was 'lucky' enough to have been slightly involved in the world's last, hopefully, smallpox outbreak investigation, which, as some may recall, was in Birmingham, and was lucky enough, no irony this time, to have worked with an extraordinary man who worked on the team that eradicated this appalling disease from India.
    There is no need for those 36% who voted to save the disease to worry. There is very little likelihood that the forces of darkness would allow such a potentially lethal weapon to disappear.

    1. I doubt anyone would want to save smallpox out of any affinity with the virus. I think I'm in the 36 % but cannot say I'm worried. If I understand your comment right you're thinking I'd save the virus because of the virus itself?

  5. One of my favorite books is Miriam Rothschild's New Naturalist's book on Fleas! A better question would be which species deserves a book and why! Work for the future Mark!

  6. I have to admit that I voted as a biologist and this is why:

    1. I voted to save the spider because the blue whale is to all intents and purposes an apex animal and removing (as may yet happen) it will have far less impact on the world as a whole than removing an organism from the middle of the food chain.

    2. This made question a choice between nothing and the spider automatic. Spider.

    3. Still the spider but this gives away both 3 & 4. In its disease-causing form no difficulty losing the virus because viruses mutate all the time and the small pox virus is barely being kept alive as a 'species' (probably not an apt classification for viruses) in the laboratory.

    4. This means I would not concern myself about letting the virus go because other strains will inevitably arise.

    Of course, the limitation in this exercise is that we all assumed the organisms had wandered inadvertently onto the track and the rest of the world was still populated by a myriad of other organisms. Even from a biologist's standpoint the exercise would change if this was a weird universe where life only existed on the railway track.

    1. Peter: agreed completely on point 1. I voted for the spider for the same reason. It might not be a key component of the ecosystem, but I don't know - I doubt anyone does.

      This is also why I would be strongly opposed to the hierarchy that Mark proposes. We simply don't know enough to say that one species is more important than another. I also suspect that the hierarchy would rank species most like ourselves highest, which would probably be very far from their true ecological importance.

      Regarding smallpox, there is, for me, an irreconcilable conflict on the subject of organisms that cause disease. From a humanitarian perspective we should obviously seek to reduce disease, even if this means the extinction of the species that causes it. A purely scientific argument would be that these species, and their effect on our population, are an important part of the ecosystem. Certainly we would see any species that controls the population of another as purely natural. I don't have the answer to this, as I am distressed by human suffering but also recognise the need to control our population.

      1. Mike - thanks for your comment. I'm glad that it stimulated you so much.

        To be fair to me - I didn't say that we should develop a hierarchy, I said we could. I think it is quite likely that, as in this little example, people would agree more about which species they liked than which political party they liked! And I didn't mention 'importance' either.

      2. Species definitions are difficult in viruses Mike, hence why the less biological term 'strains' is used for the most part. In fact, even strains is inadequate because it is often down to just the chemical make up of contact points between the virus and its infected host (cell or cell interior). Even without modern medicine, the strains mutate at a fantastic rate and rhinovirus is a typical example. It is almost impossible for a true organism to acquire immunity and the flu epidemic of 1917 (loosely attributed to H5N1) actually died out because the strain mutated into a non-infectious form. For that reason, I chose to use the terms 'species' and 'strain' as interchangeable even though it is biologically inaccurate in more ways than one. To be honest, there is even some debate about whether viruses are examples of true life given that plant and animal cells are effectively built from 'colonial' virus-like structures (Note: I am hedging my bets on the description there;) )

        1. "there is even some debate about whether viruses are examples of true life"

          As there should be. I prefer to think of them as "evil replicant chemicals" but I'd love to hear of any that are beneficial to their hosts.

        2. In my mind I was including bacteria and viruses in my use of the term 'species' (bacteria clearly are). In hammering out a quick comment I've confused issues slightly.

          Regardless, I think my point still stands - viruses are a part of the ecosystem the same as any other environmental (or biological) variable.

  7. I have always felt uncomfortable by the use of a single species as a means to gain funding or lobby for policy changes by anyone. I understand wholly how vital 'indicator' species are, a very useful tool for my own work, but this is due to immensely complex systems at play yet to be fully understood and the concentration on single species which, as you have demonstrated, so easily play into the hands of the new legions of PR people.

    It may well have been impossible to have highlighted threats to the natural world to a wider audience by way of showing how integral everything is to each other (symbiotic relationships are rarely taught beyond a few easy to understand examples), but there is now far too little mention of the interconnections between all species, flora and fauna, as a whole or in any localised ecosystem. And as such idiocy such as biodiversity offsetting is easily unleashed.

    Can we not celebrate the complexity and diversity of life much more, despite not fully understanding it (indeed celebrate our lack of scientific knowledge) and in doing so help to persuade research into all ecosystems local or nationally and internationally more. So many of those who influenced we in nature conservation and land management by way of describing their own route to discovery by what was around them in their place (such as Gerald Durrell's books) would surely be astonished by the species specific methods adopted today. Bearing in mind one of the easiest places to discover a new species is in the soil of your own back garden and it may well be a species that forms a vital link in the survival of everything else in your landscape.

  8. It was certainly challenging and thought provoking, ill give you that. I think for me the greatest realisation was that in nature it appears that something has to pay the price, often it's own existence, for another species to thrive. Perhaps even more stark was the thought that often it's a human choice.

  9. This survey was fascinating, simple wording and as ever that means so many of us have our own responses to it! I read all sorts of hidden depths in the questions:
    No 1 I thought was about sex appeal of the species and yelped 'The secret is in the habitat more than the species' - but the Blue Whale still wins
    No 2 It seemed was about political expediency - allocation of scarce resources vs ethics
    No 3 Appeared to be about life vs warmongering (not spotting smallpox as an allegory for all things natural having a role - realising that, it all gets more complex and emotive)
    No 4 Seemed to be again on the ethics of biological weaponry - so missed the point on that one as well!

    All in all huge food for thought.... Thank you!

    1. Amanda - the whole point of this was to be interesting. There are no right or wrong answers and, if you 'enjoyed' it, then that's fine by me.

  10. No-one else has yet commented on the 'quite interesting' Henslow's Sparrow, which for me has been amongst the most interesting birds I have encountered. Ten years ago next week (early October 2003), whilst ringing (banding) birds with my colleagues at the famous Powdermill Nature Reserve in western Pennsylvania, we caught a Henslow's Sparrow. This was quite a rare species at the site, only the 11th banded in 42 years after much of the area's grasslands had been lost, but had been depicted on the cover illustration of Birds of the Ligonier Valley, written by Bob Leberman, founder of the Powdermill banding station. It was great to get a photo of Bob holding this bird and a copy of the book, side by side.

    But it turned out that that individual Henslow's Sparrow was even more interesting than most, as it had an extra set of tail feathers, with 14 rectrices instead of the normal 12. We were able to check that none of the specimens in Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History showed that abnormality, then visited Dr Ken Parkes, famous author of the Humphrey-Parkes system of plumage and moult terminology, and after whom the genus of north American waterthrushes is now named Parkesia. Dr Parkes, former curator of birds at the CMNH, had written a paper entitled 'Supernumerary rectrices', published in the Bulletin of the British Ornithology Club in 1996, but had no record of such an effect in any Ammodramus sparrow.

    Much of this story is told, with a stunning close-up photo of the bird, from half-way down the page at http://www.powdermillarc.org/archives/Powdermill%20Website%20Original/Pictorial_Highlights_100712_2003.html

    So, Mark, even a sparrow can be 'quite interesting', to say the least!

  11. I 'kin' hate spiders. Wiv a passion. Not so much for their excursions to a baff near you, but for eating (cringe)... damselflies (sob).

    That said, at each opportunity to vote 'Big Red' off of the planet, I din't.

    Mark, wot have you started?

    Yours uncertainly,


  12. I think I need to seek some help as in question 1 I opted for the spider, I figured alot of species under threat would be marine based so to see it go my enable another species to be saved.
    I'm one of the 36% in my simple mind I figured you might need some of the original smallox virus to survive in order to predict mutations and possible antidotes....

    1. 'I’m one of the 36% in my simple mind I figured you might need some of the original smallox virus to survive in order to predict mutations and possible antidotes….'

      My simple mind also came to the same conclusion.

  13. I saved the RPS on the flip of a coin, RPS won over nothing, RPS was in a no-brainer over smallpox, but smallpox still exists somewhere because if I saved nothing, then nothing would be saved and everything would become extinct.

  14. My thought is that F C would have said that those of us who did not know what you look like now do thanks to D M D enlightening us.

    1. There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

  15. I thought saving all of them was an answer - at least, I thought I'd voted for the runaway train to wipe out 'nothing at all' rather than the various spider, smallpox, bird, etc


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