Conservation Comes in All Sizes: Protecting our Smallest Creatures
by KristieRae Ellis
When it comes to conservation, there is tremendous emphasis on what scientists refer to as “charismatic megafauna.” Humpback whales in the ocean, polar bears in the Arctic, and orangutans in the Sumatran Rainforest. We’ve seen these animals in advertisements, on soda cans, and some of us have even symbolically adopted a few, pledging our sponsorship in the form of a stuffed animal. Now don’t get me wrong, I love when companies and organizations promote conservation and putting an adorable animal on one’s product is a great marketing tool! Who doesn’t love animals? Who doesn’t want to protect whales, polar bears, and orangutans? These are the very creatures that got me interested in ecology as a kid! Certainly, I want to see them protected! But in the same breath, I would beg for us to not forget the smaller, often less charismatic species.
As a young aquatic ecologist, I spend the majority of my time studying small stream ecosystems, where charismatic megafauna are sorely lacking. As you might guess, there’s no whales, no sea turtles, and sometimes, there aren’t even sport fish to get the attention of local anglers. But despite their lack of publicity, the inhabitants of these streams can be amazing! When I first began studying these streams, I was fresh out of college and had only a basic understanding of stream ecology. During my first survey, I was shocked to learn how many organisms were missing from my vocabulary!
Rainbow Darters and Longear Sunfish are just two of the fish I had never heard of before graduating from college. The thing that amazed me most about these fish were their colors! The Rainbow Darter has beautiful patterns of orange and blue spattered across their bodies, making them beautifully bright in a stream of grey minnows and chubs. The Longear Sunfish, a threatened species in my home state of Wisconsin, could rival most tropical fish with its beautiful orange, red, and green coloring! But both the Rainbow Darter and the Longear Sunfish require clear water streams, free of chemical pollutants and high sediment loads, which are unfortunately becoming less common in urbanizing areas.
While these fish may never appear in an advertisement, they are in some sense the “poster children” for healthy waterways and responsible waste water management. So while we rightly continue our charismatic mega fauna marketing, let’s take a second to remember the little guy, who plays an equally important role in the ecological community.
Lastly, there’s just something wonderful about knowing these creatures exist right in my backyard. I have the ability, as an active conservationist in my community, to positively impact their well-being! While they may not be as endearing as an orangutan or a whale, I don’t have to go far to see them or share their story with others! So, I encourage you all to get out there, explore the environment around you, and learn about the amazing creatures you can help protect every day!