Plankton, Amphibians, Elephants or Bees: which would you choose?

On Wednesday evening the BES Policy Team joined a packed audience to consider the cases made by academics and media commentators for the species they would choose to save. Organised by the Zoological Society of London and the Wellcome Trust, the ‘Surviving the Century’ debate provided some fascinating insights into the importance of a number of species to humankind, along with a fantastic demonstration of passionate science communication.

Each debater was given ten minutes by the chair, Vivienne Parry, to ‘speak up’ in defence of their chosen organism. Susan Canney, Director of the Mali Elephant Project for the WILD Foundation, highlighted the role of elephants as ‘ecosystem engineers’ and ‘gardeners’ of ecosystems. Elephants have a fundamental role to play in breaking down branches to render food more accessible to other organisms, as well as dispersing seeds, and encouraging germination, through their eating habits and dung. Susan argued that removing the largest organisms from ecosystems has a disproportionate impact on the ecosystem as a whole, with the most resilient ecosystems being those where the largest animals remain. Susan also emphasised the psychological importance of elephants to humans and their place in our culture. Their complex social structures, their capacity to solve problems and to communicate over long distances allows us to empathise with them, whilst they remind us of our place in nature, Susan suggested.

But, how would elephants fare against the whole class of Amphibia? Helen Meredith, a PhD student at the Institute of Zoology, made an impassioned case for conserving amphibians. Helen emphasised not only the importance of amphibians’ place in our culture (Kermit the frog featuring prominently), but, more seriously, their importance to medical science. Nearly 10 per cent of all Nobel Prizes have been won through research that has used amphibian models. The skin of amphibians has also been shown to produce many different compounds with vital medical applications, from antimicrobial agents active against MRSA, to those to combat malaria, HIV and Leishmaniasis. The Giant Fire-Bellied Toad produces compounds that stimulate the growth of blood vessels, which could prove extremely helpful in assisting wound healing in humans. The pharmaceutical industry has spent billions of pounds to synthesise compounds with similar effects, to no avail.

Overall Helen stressed that a vote for amphibians would be a vote for ‘unknown nature and what it can do for us’; amphibians are being driven to extinction at such a rate, with the recent IUCN Red List showing one in three amphibians as at risk, we’re losing these vital species before we know what we have.

BBC journalist and passionate beekeeper Martha Carney made a strong case for conserving these vital pollinators. £14 billion worth of crops are pollinated by bees in the United States each year, whilst the situation in Sichuan, China, emphasises how we cannot afford to lose this ecosystem service. Each year villagers must pollinate apple and pear trees by hand due to the disappearance of bees. Martha quoted figures estimating that bees make a £400 million contribution to the UK economy, at farm-gate prices, rising to £1 billion a year if prices at the supermarket are used. Like the other speakers, Martha emphasised the importance of her chosen species to our cultural life, focusing on the inspiration that bees have proved to poets since ancient times. A poem by Carol Ann Duffy, the Bee Carol, was used to illustrate this beautifully.

Dr Richard Kirby, Plymouth University, provided a fascinating defence of plankton. Richard illustrated the range of organisms that comprise zooplankton, from copepods and krill, to crab, shrimp and barnacle larvae, to tiny jellyfish, fish and fish eggs. Without plankton, there would be ‘nothing in the sea or the sky’; no fish that depend on the plankton to disperse their eggs and for food; no larger organisms such as blue whales that feed on billions of tonnes of krill every day, and no seabirds soaring over the ocean surface. Without plankton the sea would be a barren wasteland.

Dr Kirby illustrated the dependence of humans on plankton with figures detailing the global per capita consumption of seafood, at 17kg per person per year. The 115 million tonnes of seafood harvested each year to satisfy these appetites equates to 1 billion tonnes of zooplankton needed to sustain this amount. In addition, the vital role that plankton play in sequestering carbon down to the seabed, through their death and decay, is important not just for climate change mitigation but also, in our carbon-dependent economy, for fuelling our cars, cooking and houses as fossil fuels.

But who won overall? Plankton, perhaps suprisingly to some as they are not seen as charismatic species, which usually win in such contests. It could be argued that it’s rather unfair to compare a single species, elephants, with a number of species, bees, and the whole gamut of amphibians, with plankton, which represent a huge proportion of the biomass in the entirety of the world’s oceans. But it was a useful exercise and enjoyable nonetheless.

A member of the audience suggested that debates such as this are dangerous, somehow persuading the general public that species are substitutable and that it’s fine to conserve some if others are left to die out. That wasn’t the message picked up by the BES and by the majority of the audience. It was fascinating to have a spotlight shone on a small number of organisms, to understand more about them and how they are connected to one another. All in the room would happily have voted for all of the organisms to be saved. In a time of limited resources, the reality is that very difficult decisions do need to be made in the real world regarding conservation. Perhaps not on the scale of ‘all plankton’ and ‘every amphibian’, but at a smaller scale NGOs are making choices like this today.