No Respect for the Spineless: A Dramatic Bias Against Invertebrate Species in Conservation Science

July 27, 2016

A new paper published in FACETS investigates the conservation science literature to identify trends and bias in the amount of research conducted on imperiled species. The paper notes that while conservation science continues to grow and expand, threatened invertebrate species, animals without a spinal column or backbone, are vastly understudied compared to their spine-bearing counterparts.

Certain animals, such as large predators, often receive more attention from people compared to other, less awe-inspiring species, such as most insect species. Even researchers and research funding bodies often show more interest in certain species compared to others, a phenomenon known as “taxonomic bias”.  For at-risk species, understanding taxonomic bias can help researchers better understand key knowledge gaps, which can in turn be used to help prioritize research activities and conservation actions. 

The paper, titled “Taxonomic bias and international biodiversity conservation research”, compared research trends for more than 10,000 threatened, vulnerable, and endangered animals from around the world. The authors utilized the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List to identify at-risk animals (i.e., those categorized as critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable).

The authors observed dramatic differences in the number of studies conducted on vertebrates compared to invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, the analysis revealed that at-risk mammals had on average over 17 papers published per species on the IUCN Red List, followed by reptiles with over 9, birds with over 8, and fishes with over 5. In comparison, each of the at-risk invertebrate groups that were examined had less than 1 paper published per species. This trend was apparent in both terrestrial environments (i.e., on land) and also in aquatic environments (including both freshwater and marine habitats).


Elkhorn coral was one of many critically endangered invertebrate species included in the analysis (Wikimedia commons).

Perhaps not surprisingly, a handful of species have been the focus of most conservation-focused research studies and the analysis showed that all of these species were vertebrates. Large bodied animals, such as the tiger and African bush elephant were the most studied mammals. Among fishes, Atlantic cod and common carp were the most commonly studied, although for the latter, this is in part due to introductions to different locales outside their native ranges. For reptiles, the leatherback, hawksbill, and green sea turtles were the focus of more than 600 biodiversity conservation papers each.


The African bush elephant emerged as one of the most studied at-risk vertebrate species in the analysis (Wikimedia commons).

The analysis also reveals substantial data gaps with respect to the conservation of at-risk species, particularly for invertebrates. While simply conducting more research cannot ensure the protection of understudied and at-risk species, identifying common threats to species in different environments may help to prioritize conservation and research activities, which in turn may narrow the research gap between threatened vertebrates and invertebrates at a global scale. As a step towards this goal, the paper provides a threat analysis to identify common risk factors affecting both vertebrates and invertebrates on land and in aquatic environments. 

Narrowing the research gap between vertebrates and invertebrates will take time but is an important step towards developing more effective conservation policies to limit biodiversity declines. 

[Thumbnail image: the Hawksbill sea turtle was one of the most studied at-risk vertebrate species (Wikimedia Commons).]

Filed Under: FACETS

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