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Biases In Wildlife And Conservation Research | Science Trends

Biases In Wildlife And Conservation Research

We all have a fascination for large and charismatic animals and normally grow up having a poster of tigers or bears on our wall. Large cats, in particular, are often the symbol of power and strength, due to which they are popular mascots for businesses, sports clubs, or governments. Even the earliest historical records depict lions and wolves as powerful cultural figures. Large carnivores also receive much attention from scientists and conservationists due to their charisma and public popularity. However, the order Carnivora extends much beyond large carnivores and contains many elusive and poorly-known species. Some species are largely overlooked by science, and many areas and research topics remain understudied.

From a conservation point of view, resources should preferably be focused on species that need it the most. Even though some consider all species to be equal, others believe that conservation funds should be spent on keystone species, which play an important role in ecosystem functioning and govern the well-being of other species. Some argue that species with a limited distribution should be prioritized because they are more prone to extinction. Yet others debate that taxonomically unique species deserve additional conservation and research focus, so to preserve genetic diversity across species. It is generally agreed that species with a high risk of extinction should be targets for conservation management, although this is not always the case.

It is important to know what factors influence the allocation of conservation efforts and scientific research. This study made an attempt to assess potential bias in research and conservation prioritization of two carnivore families, namely the Felidae (38 cat species) and Canidae (36 dog species). Scientific output, measured by the number of scientific publications, was quantitatively compared to species characteristics, such as body size, conservation status, keystone effect, geographic range, and taxonomic distinctiveness. A total of 4,351 peer-reviewed articles were included in this study, which were published between 2013 and 2017.

The number of scientific articles varied greatly among species. The largest member of the cat family, the tiger (Panthera tigris), starred in 359 publications, whilst the smallest wild cat in the world, the rusty-spotted cat (Prionailurus rubiginosus) was studied only once. In the canid family, the underdog was the side-striped jackal (Canis adustus), with only one publication in its name. As expected, the grey wolf (Canis lupus) came out as the winner with 579 publications. When looking at the topics that were studied, a notable difference was that studies on felids mainly focused on conservation and wildlife management, whereas studies on canids most often involved diseases and other health-related issues (Figure 1). This is likely explained by the fact that dog-like species more often carry diseases that pose risks to humans and livestock. They also more often pose an economic risk as an invasive species.

Figure 1. Overview of peer-reviewed articles published on Felidae (N = 2205) and Canidae (N = 2146) species from 2013 to 2017, subdivided in the following topics: 1) ecology and behaviour, (2) conservation and wildlife management, (3) anatomy and physiology, (4) diseases and other health issues, (5) captive housing and artificial reproduction, (6) genetic diversity and phylogenetic structure, (7) taxonomy and palaeoecology. Image republished with permission from Elsevier from open access article: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2018.e00423

The best predictors for research allocation were the body size and keystone effect of species. The two characteristics are related, as large carnivores are more likely to have a keystone function in ecosystems. Another argument in support of favoring large carnivores for scientific research is that they are normally more vulnerable to extinction and more often come in conflict with humans due to increased competition over resources and perceived risk to humans. Nonetheless, many small and endangered carnivores remain highly understudied. It was found that the ten smallest felid species received an average of 10.4 articles, compared to an average of 170.2 articles for the ten largest felids. For instance, the bay cat (Catopuma badia), Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita), and Darwin’s fox (Lycalopex fulvipes) are endangered yet included in only 2 to 3 publications.

The conservation status of species, by means of IUCN category and population trend, was not a good predictor of research output. Hence, threatened species are generally not more often studied than non-threatened species. For felids, however, scientific research was more likely to be allocated to threatened species. For canids, the opposite was true. This is expected to relate to the higher aesthetic appeal and popularity of wild cats. Dog-like species are generally considered less charismatic, which changes the human attitude and their relevance to science and conservation.

This study also found no proof that geographic range size relates to research allocation. That species with a small range do not receive more research and conservation attention is not particularly surprising, as species with a large distribution can simply be studied in more locations. For instance, carnivores with a large distribution, such as the puma (Puma concolor) and Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), were the main study topic of on average 387 articles. Carnivores species with a small distribution, such as the snow leopard (Panthera uncia) and Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), were studied an average of 40 times. It was also apparent during this study that taxonomically unique species are not prioritized in scientific research. Monotypic species, which have one representative per genus, that are highly understudied and all near-threatened are the manul (Otocolobus manul), marbled cat (Pardofelis marmorata), and bush dog (Speothos venaticus).

This study affirms that research efforts are not yet focused on species that need it the most. Taxonomic, biological, and ecological studies are still missing for many species, even though these aspects are essential for setting conservation goals and management plans for species. Preferably, an attempt should be made to allocate research and conservation funds towards species that remain understudied, that are threatened with extinction, and that are taxonomically unique.

These findings are described in the article entitled Biases in wildlife and conservation research, using felids and canids as a case study, recently published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation.

About The Author

Laura Tensen

Laura Tensen is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Wildlife Genomics at The Centre for Ecological Genomics and Wildlife Conservation, University of Johannesburg.