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Lab Rats

Ugly critters

Why rare isn't always beautiful

Tom Mahony 13 June 2010

Unsung: not as sexy as a blue whale

Protecting rare species is a messy process

Not all rare species are equally appreciated. Everyone gets misty-eyed over blue whales, bald eagles, and grizzly bears. But Dudley’s lousewort, San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat, and Ohlone tiger beetle? Not so much. Let’s face it: some rare critters are pretty damn ugly. Yet they’re all unique organisms hanging by an evolutionary thread.

It’s always awkward telling a landowner that a rare species is going to complicate their project. But when you tell them it’s a plant, rat, or insect, they get a little flummoxed or, on occasion, downright hostile. Yet even the most sympathetic people might question it.

On one project, as I discussed with a landowner the rare species on her property – nesting raptors, pond turtles, red-legged frogs – she grew visibly excited about her ecological wonderland. But when I mentioned the woodrat nests scattered throughout the property, and recommended she leave them intact after she built her house, she practically slapped me across the face.

Another time I found a rare species of Ceanothus and had the population surveyed so it could be avoided by development. The surveyor was a thoughtful guy, a lover of the outdoors, and asked what was special about the plant.

“Well,” I said, quite pleased with myself for finding it. “It’s rare.”

“Yeah, but what’s special about it?”

I scratched my head, flummoxed. It was a spindly little shrub, sort of lost in the chaparral and not providing any significant wildlife habitat or primary production or erosion control or much of anything else. It was a naturally uncommon species, just a poor competitor restricted to a narrow substrate, and even to the trained eye it was virtually indistinguishable from a related common species growing throughout the region. There wasn’t much overtly special about it at all.

The plant would cost the landowner a lot of money and hassle, but what was so great about it? Sure, you start pulling out one thread and the whole ecological web could unravel. But something told me this particular thread could get pulled and nothing much would happen.

Protecting rare species is a messy process, but in my view – for both scientific and moral reasons – it’s a horrible idea to let even a single species, no matter how seemingly insignificant or just plain butt-ugly, become endangered or go extinct. But at that point, you’ve left science and entered philosophy.

And it gets even messier: should bacteria and other microscopic organisms be protected? How about an ecological reserve for rare strains of virulent bacteria growing in the soil? A “Save-the-E. coli-League”? It might be tough to generate donations for that foundation, though with some slick advertising perhaps the organism could stage an image makeover.

But I digress.

I never did come up with an answer for the surveyor.