Nature, beyond its intrinsic value, provides us with a wealth of benefits and services that support us through our daily lives. Biodiversity, however, is declining globally and greater recognition and appreciation of nature is essential to reverse these worrying trends. Patrick Walkden, a postgraduate research student on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP at Imperial College London and the Natural History Museum, celebrates the many contributions of nature and asks for us to give animals more love! Patrick, along with the Biodiversity COP challenge team and Grantham’s biodiversity and nature campaign organised the Unloved Animals Club event that brought together researchers across the globe in highlighting some particularly misunderstood animals.
All animals deserve love!
When you think of a ‘loved’ animal, what comes to mind first?
Perhaps a stalking tiger, a soaring golden eagle or a majestic whale breaching the water? Acacia ants, common toads, white-backed vultures, red mason bees or puff adders are less likely to come to mind (although I am sure there are a few passionate supporters out there). This may be because you just haven’t heard of them – there are too many species out there to know them all – or you’re just not too fond of them. Maybe animals are portrayed unfairly in literature and films. The Lion King didn’t paint a pretty picture of scavengers like vultures, while Shakespeare alluded to the role of toads in nefarious magic.
The Unloved Animals Club is here to be in these species’ corner. Nature is vital to human life, be it small or large, friendly or scary, loved or currently unloved! Our purpose is to highlight the many surprising ways humans – and biodiversity – benefit from these animals. For example, take the puff adder, an animal that should be revered instead of feared.
Hiral Naik and the puff adder (Bitis arietans)
What have animals ever done for us?
Animals acting in healthy, functioning ecosystems facilitate the provision of Nature’s Contributions to People (NCP): processes that benefit people across the world. These contributions are integral in maintaining a functional society, combatting climate change, and motivating us to live healthier, more fulfilling lives, and they are provided to us in a variety of ways.
The bare necessities
More often than not the food we eat, the water we drink, the clothes we wear and some of the medicines we take are provided by nature. We extract a lot (too much and too often), but these ‘provisioning services’ enable us to improve our standard of living, be healthy and gain economic opportunity.
Look around you: very few things are without nature’s influence and sometimes from unexpected sources. Did you know, for example, that toads can produce substances used in the development of medicines to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety and stress?
Dr Jon Bielby and the common toad (Bufo bufo)
This is an example of a service we can easily measure and observe. However, many of nature’s contributions are hidden from view and require a closer look to reveal the true wealth of the benefits that biodiversity provides.
Keeping food on the table
Many animals provide ‘regulating services’ that are essential for the systems we need to stay alive. For example, pollinating animals make it possible to grow food by facilitating crop growth and propagation. It’s widely known that bees pollinate many of our crops, with most people able to recognise the honeybee and the occasional bumble bee, but did you know that there are around 270 species of bee in Britain? And there are many other pollinators out there, including wasps, butterflies, and birds. All this diversity is vital but frequently overlooked.
Daniel Kenna and the red mason bee (Osmia bicornis)
These regulating services are silent, only noticed when something goes wrong. Food shortages, floods and (of course) pandemics are just some examples of what happens when the system breaks down with far reaching and often devastating consequences.
Nature is an endless source of wonder. Many people find that a walk in nature eases anxiety, reduces stress and improves emotional wellbeing. A love of birds might have inspired someone to take up bird watching or even go on to study them for a career. The benefits that animals provide, can improve our mental health, inspire us, and are the foundation of spiritual beliefs in many cultures.
Our lives would be much poorer if there were fewer animals on the planet, not only because of the reasons outlined above but because of the intrinsic value of biodiversity. Wouldn’t the world be a worse place without the ingenious Acacia ant protecting their host tree?
Hollie Folkard-Tapp and the acacia ant (Pseudomyrmex ferruginea)
We strongly believe that all the animals of the Unloved Animals Club are amazing in their own way. It is vital that we appreciate Earth’s biodiversity and our dependence on it, but the reality is that biodiversity is declining globally, and this decline is accelerating. Threatened by land-use, climate change, pollution, invasive species and over-exploitation, the benefits that nature provides are in jeopardy.
However, it is not too late to reverse these trends. Everyone must be better informed about the threats facing the natural world and the ways to stop them, so we can hold decision-makers to account and demand a more sustainable planet for all.
Effective collaboration between governments, NGOs, researchers and conservation practitioners, held accountable by a knowledgeable public, is essential for delivering transformative change and building a planet for the future.
This piece has focussed on animals, but our message extends across all of nature. Let’s show it some love.
Finally, I leave you with our Unloved Animal Club champion (as voted for by our audience), the white-backed vulture, whose actions prevent the spread of disease, but are deeply threatened by poisoning and persecution.
Niall Walkden and the white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus)
Watch the full Imperial Lates event to discover which animal won the audiences affection.
Dr Rikki Gumbs, who completed his PhD at Imperial in 2020 and now works with the Zoological Society of London to prioritise biodiversity for conservation action, discusses the current status of global biodiversity policy, providing insight on recent failures and successes of biodiversity conservation.
Imperial’s Dr Emma Cavan, lead author of a recent Nature Communications paper on the role of krill in influencing the environment, and the University of Tasmania’s Professor Steve Nicol, author of ‘The Curious Life of Krill’, blog on why krill are so much more than they seem.