Unique Traits Shouldn’t be the Key Reason for Protecting a Species

Jan 13, 2022 | Commentary

By MERRILL SAPP – Earth Island Journal

Every animal has a role within its ecosystem, even if we have little knowledge of what that role is.

Over summer last year, giraffes were elevated to a new height. Though they are an iconic species, giraffes have never gotten the kind of attention their charismatic African savannah neighbors, such as elephants or even baboons, who can often be obnoxious, draw. As ungulates, giraffes have been viewed roughly as glorified cattle. One writer even claimed that a giraffe is “the herbivore that does the least to reward the fascination it inspires in visitors… When they’re not browsing, typically giraffes are just standing there looking back at you.” The implication is that giraffes do not have a lot going on upstairs.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the news about giraffes’ social behavior is the researchers’ suggestion that their social world would require complex communication that we essentially know nothing about. Photo by Michael Levine-Clark.

But we now know that’s not true. Researchers at the University of Bristol who have been taking a closer look at the social lives of giraffes over the past decade have figured out that these animals are much more intelligent than we have given them credit for in the past and have complex social lives. Coverage of this news in the press has focused on comparison with other species with complex societies, such as elephants. The hope is that the news about giraffes will elevate them to a status that confers a higher level of protection. This is vital because giraffes are in danger — their numbers have dropped by some 40 percent in the past 30 years as a result of hunting and habitat loss. Giraffes are suffering from what some conservationists call “silent extinction.”

When I read the news about giraffes, it immediately brought to mind two other groundbreaking revelations from the last few years: One is that elephant bulls are not loners and the second is that fish feel pain. Taken individually, these findings are interesting and important. Taken collectively, they show a pattern of how we approach animal life: Discover animals can so something that we did not know about, elevate their position in the hierarchy, and argue for better treatment or conservation efforts for the species in question.

Elephants are known for their complex social lives, but until recently, we believed that females were inherently more sociable than males. Bulls were studied as loners who occasionally socialized for breeding purposes. We learned the hard way that those old bulls are essential in a variety of ways. Not only do they account for the majority of successful reproduction, but they also mentor adolescent bulls. In the 1990s, in a South African National Park, a group of teenage bulls, left as orphans after their families were culled, were wreaking havoc. They were killing rhinos and harassing older female elephants. When ecologists figured out that the young bulls needed adult guidance and moved several older males to the park, the problem stopped.

It is not simply that adult bulls dominate the younger bulls into behaving like proper elephants, but that they develop relationships. In her book Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants, author Katy Payne tells a story of seeing a tender interaction between bulls, wild elephants in Kenya. On an “unbearably hot day,” she saw a large bull and a small bull standing together in the sun. “The older bull had closed his eyes and was swaying when the younger bull moved in very close and touched his front left shoulder. The older lifted his huge left ear and the younger moved under it.” The “sun umbrella” settled and covered the younger bull’s head. They stood motionless for a long time, but when the older bull fell asleep and his ear started to slip, he “opened his eyes suddenly and restored his ear to its former posture.”

Elephants are known for their complex social lives, but until recently, we believed that females were inherently more sociable than males. Photo by Brian Lauer.

For a long time, researchers actively denied that fish had cells that respond to pain, but now we know that fish not only feel pain but also fear. Photo of dwarf hawkfish by Klaus Stiefel.

It turns out that while adult bulls may not participate much in the baby years, they are much more involved with their teenage sons, brothers, or even unrelated bulls.

For a long time, researchers actively denied that fish had cells that respond to pain, called nociceptors. Then they denied that fish had the full nociception pathway. Now we have moved to a higher-level debate over whether fish have consciousness or not. Victoria Braithwaite was a British scientist who demonstrated that fish not only feel pain, but also fear. She also discovered cognitive skills that fish use to navigate.

Braithwaite and colleagues tested fish on a basic maze and food reward system. They found that fish from ponds rely on visual cues and fish from rivers navigate by using information from the direction of water flow. In another experiment they found that fish in low predatory, low stress environments, were better able to explore and use visual cues than fish in high stress areas.

Although these findings may be interesting and may possibly apply to more general principles, such as that animals that develop in high stress situations are not as “flexible” in their learning as others, the specific relevance is not always clear. At the very least, fish are not the mere stimulus-response creatures that some people assume.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Rebecca Schwarzlose, neuroscientist and author of Brainscapes: the Warped, Wondrous Maps Written in Your Brain—and How They Guide You, to talk about how to interpret the unique gifts of different species. Schwarzlose argues that the ways in which we perceive and interact with the world are literally mapped to a physical location in the brain and that this is true for all species. Interspecies brain maps are not a tale of hierarchy, they are a tale of investment. They represent what a species needs in order to survive. According to Schwarzlose, the value of a brain map “can only be determined in the context of a creature’s environment and moment-to-moment needs for survival.” A fish that uses visual cues has a different brain map than a fish that uses the feeling of water movement over its skin in order to know where to go to hide from a predator. There is no implication of better or worse, simply that every species has different needs and a unique way of interacting with the world.

One of the big lessons from our new understanding of giraffes is that females work together to look after calves. This allows the mother more time roam in search of food, which is especially important if the calf is still nursing. Add giraffes to the list of species, such as elephants and, probably, humans, whose offspring are more likely to survive if the grandmother is around.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the news about giraffes is the author’s suggestion that their social world would require complex communication that we essentially know nothing about. According to the authors, interactions between wild giraffes are common, but “their behavioral significance is poorly understood.” My own interpretation is that we have no idea what goes on between giraffes. For an animal described as the least to reward the fascination it inspires, we have a spectacular mystery here.

Misconceptions about animals are not simply about semantics, they have real implications. This may not shock you, but we are often invested in those misconceptions because they are convenient for us. Little has been done to conserve the lives and habitats of giraffes, though they are listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Before Braithwaite advocated for fish, we did not think much about how they are treated. The work of Braithwaite and others has led to changes in the guidelines for how fish are handled in the UK, Europe, and Canada. The new guidelines attempt to minimize pain and stress.

Before we understood that multiple ways in which old elephant bulls are needed for a healthy population, we thought that removing them from the population did little harm. This was convenient for hunters because old bulls have the largest tusks. The income garnered from trophy hunters was considered too valuable to pass up in return for killing an old male who was past the age of breeding and wandering around Africa by himself. But now we know that killing them does tremendous harm and threatens the very existence of the population. While this may be known in animal rights circles, it has not made a huge impact on the trophy hunting debate. Hunting proponents still insist that animals must pay for the privilege of living wild by sacrificing a few to generate income for the costs of conservation.

If the knowledge that giraffes may be socially on par with elephants leads to their protection, that is wonderful. However, do our efforts at saving them have to depend on this relative evaluation of their worthiness? What if, one day, we find the most elusive animal of all — the animal that is dumb and boring. Personally, I believe that this beast is mythical, but what if it really exists? Could we find no reason to save it? Will enigmatic species all die before we have had the chance to document what makes each of them special?

If we revisit our consideration of interspecies intelligence, and consider intelligence contextual — dependent on the particular needs of a species to stay alive, can we judge ourselves in this context? Humans are the only species that actively, knowingly destroys its own habitat. Does this not make us the dumbest of all?

There are approaches to conservation that focus on the importance of all inhabitants of an ecosystem, rather than recognition of the specific merits of each animal. Every species has a role within its natural ecosystem and contributes to that community. Focusing on the ecosystem combines those who want to protect animals with those who want to maintain the biosphere, but might not believe that animals have inherent rights. Another way to think of this is about habitats. Healthy habitats are essential for the stability of the biosphere, but also enable animals to thrive.

One example of this is mangrove restoration along coastlines. We spent many years removing mangrove forests. This was done for a variety of reasons, including reducing mosquitoes and creating land suitable for development. Then we realized that mangrove forests reduce erosion and flooding and store carbon. We had also destroyed habitat for marine life and the animals that live in mangrove ecosystems, such as birds and reptiles. Restoration of mangrove forests is increasing biosphere stability, and is also recovering habitat for animals. If we look at conservation in the right way, what is good for the individual animal is the same as what is good for the ecosystem.

I love studying the behavior of animals, but I also appreciate that there is something unknowable about them. What if we never understand what goes on between giraffes? What if we never agree on whether fish have consciousness or not?

I value understanding animal life because it makes my own life more full. But my concern is that if we focus on cataloging every skill and unique trait of animals, species that do not inspire our wonder as much will be left behind.

There is beauty in recognizing the richness of animals’ existence without being able to fully know them. If we approach animal life, and protecting animal life, by recognizing that every animal has a role within its ecosystem, then we can save them by design rather than by arguing for each species. And maybe we can revel in their beautiful mystery.

Merrill Sapp is a cognitive psychologist and student of nature. She teaches at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.