Thursday, April 10, 2008

Bats, Birds, and the Cuteness Effect

In the contest of which species gets protected and which doesn’t, it is interesting how often the attention goes not to the most endangered or the most critical to the environment, but to the cutest. Minks kept in cages elicit great cries of protest, yet their near cousins the rats and mice are killed in traps that are gruesome by any standards. Rats and mice are ugly and not deemed worthy of protection because of it, simple as that.

And now we read that bats play a far greater role in controlling insect pests than do the far-more-protected birds.

Bats play a bigger role than birds do in controlling tropical insects, and the loss of bats might mean that morning cup of coffee gets more expensive, researchers said on Thursday. Two separate studies show bats eat far more insects than birds do, protecting plants of the rain forest and, in one of the studies, coffee plantations…During the summer wet season, the coffee trees under the nets that kept the bats out had 84 percent more insects, spiders and other bugs than unprotected plants, they reported.

And yet the efforts to protect the birds are far greater than for the bats, and the researchers understand the large reasons why:

"People like birds better and they are more obvious -- they are colorful, they are singing," she said. "People love them -- they see them eating bugs off leaves. It seemed more obvious that birds have a role in pest control. Bats hunt in the dark so it is really hard to study them. They are completely overlooked."


Harriet said...

Actually, bats are a big attraction in Austin, Texas. They are actually popular there.

ScienceAvenger said...

Yes, having lived in Austin for many years, I can attest to that. But sadly, Austin is an oasis of enlightened attitudes in the middle of a desert of ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I think your post raises a great point. Mind if I expand on it?
Now, minks and rats are animals that are "close together". But how about if they're "far apart"? Does that make a big difference? For example:

If killing bugs that annoy us is OK, why isn't killing dogs that annoy us OK? (Perhaps we can eliminate the 'pain' factor by making the type of killing equally painful/pain-free.)

ScienceAvenger said...

Indeed. The lesson here, as in so many places, is that there is no moral help in biology. It just has no answers to those questions.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean biology has no answers /yet/ to questions of morality, or was that a categorical assertion?

ScienceAvenger said...

It's categorical of course. You can't get an "is" from an "ought" without some "ought"s to start with. That's why all this Darwin-led-to-Hitler nonsense is, well, nonsense.