Conserving the Sidekicks

Have you ever heard of the Chupadera springsnail? How about the chinook salmon or the gopher tortoise? All of these species share two things in common: I had never heard of them before working at Defenders of Wildlife, and they are all on the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

As a summer intern in the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders, my duties involve cataloging the major threats faced by each of the 1,600 species listed on the ESA. Most of these species were entirely new to me. I would come home and share my day with my roommates, telling them about a particular species of snail, fish, or some plant that doesn’t even have a common name. Many of my friends’ reactions were the same: why should anyone care about the status of a plant or fish or turtle they’ve never even heard of?

There is a good reason why species like the southern resident orca, the gray wolf, or the eastern indigo snake are the Bruce Waynes, Tony Starks, and Peter Parkers — the beloved superheroes — of the world. Salmon certainly do not have the same charisma as orcas, which have their unmistakable black and white patterns and high capacity for emotional intelligence. Nor can springsnails measure up to the posterchild of conservation — gray wolves — who govern ecosystems as top carnivores in the food chain. The eastern indigo snake — the longest non-venomous native snake in North America — appeals more strongly to reptile enthusiasts with its deep metallic blue coloration than a tortoise the color of stale coffee grounds. So why are some species celebrated superheroes, while others are Alfred, Robin, and Edwin Jarvis? It comes down to human values.

As humans, we value species for two main reasons. One is economic value. Species that we rely on for sustenance, clothing, ecotourism, or other products are regarded more highly than those that don’t contribute to our economy. Another reason is personal connection. There have been several studies on the favoritism we humans feel towards certain species. We prefer charismatic megafauna that are often potentially harmful to people. Therefore, if a species like the gopher tortoise or Chupadera springsnail seems to serve no purpose economically and people aren’t naturally gravitating towards it, do we try to conserve it?

In terms of national values, the answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ The U.S. Endangered Species Act makes little distinction between protecting wolves, springsnails, plants, or any other species. That is, we have decided as a nation that we value species, period. The catch is that how we spend money and effort too often leaves the less charismatic species far short of their needs. In other words, this lack of appeal causes us to allocate less conservation and financial support for these species. In 2016, the total reported expenditures for the 93 ESA-listed mammals reached nearly $200 million, whereas plants and lichen — a group with ten times the number of listed species — received only one-fifth the budget.

So what happens when we only protect species that we value and love? We overlook the ecological connections that these superhero species share with more obscure sidekick species. Connections that, when ignored, lead to the breakdown of entire ecosystems. Just like how Batman will always need Alfred, every species requires others for their survival.

As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Connecticut, what I loved most about wildlife was the species that were so different from me; creatures that could see in the dark or withstand extreme temperatures. Unfamiliar creatures regarded as the underdogs to more charismatic species, but that were essential for their continued existence. Southern resident orcas will continue to decline in the Puget Sound without an abundance of healthy chinook salmon to feed on. Eastern indigo snakes would be without shelter if it weren’t for the burrows created by gopher tortoises. And though the consumption of algae and decaying plant material might not sound like a very glamorous superpower for the Chupadera springsnail, an absence of this snail would result in a loss of clean water for other aquatic species.

The interconnectedness of species means that we will tear apart ecosystems if we allow both superhero and sidekick species to disappear. Defenders of Wildlife contributes to efforts to stop extinction by ensuring that declining species receive the protection and conservation that they deserve — not based on economics or aesthetic appeal, but intrinsically. And of course none of this would be possible without the support of Defenders’ members, who know that every hero needs a sidekick, and that even the world’s sidekicks are worth saving.