Iconic Invasives: When Problematic Populations have Charisma
If I had to make a word cloud about my research project and the terms that people use to describe our work on invasive tanuki, the word CUTE would stick out in capital letters from the very center of the cloud. This is a problem. The way that we talk about - and what we associate with - living things, can impact our relationships with them, and complicate decisions regarding conservation strategies.
In biology, researchers will often use the term "charismatic mega-fauna" to describe species which seem to captivate the public - species with widespread appeal that are often seen as 'flagships' of their habitats. Examples of charismatic mega-fauna would be elephants, tigers, lions, bears, and pandas. As someone with a background in entomology (the study of insects) and herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians), the term "charismatic mega-fauna" was often said by my colleagues with an accompanying eye roll, as species such as fungus gnats or snakes are often left without funding or public support due to their less charismatic appearances and behaviours.
The debate about the efficacy of using flagship species to attract public attention and corporate sponsorship rages on, with a recent Nature article discussing the relevance of flagship species in helping to protect the broader biodiversity of at risk eco-systems. In short - some researchers argue that identifying species which evoke a positive response from the public and corporate funders, can help protect an entire ecosystem (fungus gnats and all!). In short - cuteness can be a powerful motivator for conservation.
But what happens when a charismatic species that the public loves, is introduced to a place where it isn't supposed to be, and could potentially be negatively impacting native flora, fauna, and the local economy?
An article published in The Conversation describes that while introduced species such as horses and foxes impact biodiversity, one in five Australians is opposed to conservation strategies (including culling) because of the perceived cuteness and charisma of these species. And perhaps the global poster species for complex invasive species conservation strategy are feral cats. A feral cat cull was met with protests in New Zealand as protestors argued that the glorification of killiing any animals, introduced or not, was unethical. Simply put, cuteness can impact the decision to remove a species from an environment even when it is causing harm. Of course culling populations can be controversial no matter the circumstances, and the pros and cons of this conservation strategy is a conversation best saved for more experienced conservationists than I. But I wanted to highlight here the strong reactions elicited from the public about the regulation of introduced populations when they are deemed a charismatic species. For very complex reasons, not all species are perceived in the same way, and the perceived cuteness and charisma of a species can impact conservation strategies.
A tanuki statue that was recently installed among Buddhist Jizo in Japan.
Tanuki are an iconic species in Japan. Their cultural significance in storytelling dates back to the 4th-7th centuries C.E. In their present day form, they are perceived as loveable, shapeshifting tricksters, sipping sake and looking for ways to wreak a little good natured havoc. Many people keep tanuki statues outside of their homes as symbols for good fortune. It's possible that this strong cultural association stems from the appearance of tanuki. The Science of Cuteness (brilliantly described in this article from the University of Oxford on 'How Cute Things Hijack Our Brains and Drive Behaviour') describes mammals with an appearance and behaviours similar to human babies as particularly cute to the majority of humans. Tanuki, with eye patches to make their eyes appear larger (large like human baby eyes), their high pitched vocalizations, and generally gentle demeanors, are excellent candidates for cuteness, and this may contribute to their beloved image in their native range.
Tanuki were introduced to parts of Europe as fur bearing animals, and in some countries are now more common than native species of carnivores.
But we know from studies on invasive tanuki populations in Europe, where they have been ranked among the top one hundred worst invasive species, that their presence in non-native landscapes can be deeply problematic. To understand their impacts on Yakushima and Chiburijima, we have a responsibility to understand, but also look beyond their cultural significance as a species, to see their influence on these sensitive island habitats. And the language we use about their appearance can impact how local people perceive their presence, and potentially, future conservation strategy. As part of the first team of researchers to investigate invasive tanuki in Japan on the sensitive island ecosystems where they have been introducted, our aim is to understand if tanuki are negatively impacting these areas, and if so, how? At present, we are focusing on understanding the scale of the populations on Yakushima and Chiburijima (more on our exciting expansion into Shimane prefecture later, in the next post!), the associated parasitology of these populations, as well as the predation of native species, particularly focusing on rare/endemic/endangered species (such as loggerhead sea turtles, endemic shrews, crabs, and amphibians.) Until we understand the roles of tanuki on these islands, we cannot advise for or against any particular conservation strategy, and we are careful to be mindful to conduct our research objectively, without the influence of this species charisma.