On Sunday, the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. closed its invertebrate exhibit. This exhibit, which represented 97 percent of the animals on Earth, is no longer open to the public because the zoo plans to prioritize charismatic megafauna (i.e. large animals that people care about). Specific plans include renovations to the Bird House. Among the closures, to my personal chagrin, is the Butterfly House.
This may seem like no big deal, but it’s actually a very big deal and shameful to boot. The National Zoo is shirking its responsibility as a place of education.
If you’ve ever been to a zoo, you know that certain animals really put booties in the seats. Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my! But also apes and condors and frogs. Vertebrates are popular, there’s no doubt about that. If you count every species of mammal, bird, amphibian and reptile, you’d have about 64,000 species of animal to choose from when populating a zoo. But that is nothing when you compare it to the diversity of invertebrates. As Chris Clarke at KCET put it:
64,000 species of vertebrates may seem like a lot. It’s not, compared to animal life as a whole. One 1988 estimate in the journal Science (republished here) put the overall percentage of animal species that are vertebrates at around three or four percent. We’ve discovered a lot more invertebrate species since then.
Put it this way: there are around 400,000 species of beetle known to science, with most coleopterists agreeing that the total number of beetle species on the planet, described or yet to be discovered, is at least a million.
A million beetle species, compared to a measly 64,000 covering the entire range of fish, fowl, fur, and frog.
Taking the low-end estimate, that’s 400,000 species of beetle alone, compared to 64,000 vertebrate species. There are so many other invertebrates! Butterflies and coral and octopodes. And now they have no representation at the National Zoo.
But it’s about the money! No, it’s about priorities. The National Zoo is free. It doesn’t depend as much as other zoos do on getting people to buy tickets. The zoo is choosing to invest in high-traffic animals at the expense of educating the public on the true diversity of the planet.
Zoos are one of the few places that lots of people can go learn about natural history, or the description and study of whole organisms. It’s one of the few places where we can see the many different types of animals this planet has to offer up close. What the National Zoo has done is significantly deplete our ability to appreciate biodiversity.
And that is something we need to be concerned about. In university biology departments, natural history has become an anathema. Since 1995, the median number of natural history courses a biology undergraduate needs to take is zero. As reported in Scientific American, since World War II, natural history has been replaced by focuses on cell biology or genetics:
That most professional biologists should know so little about life outside their labs is rather shocking, when you think about it. But this process began in the 20th century. At universities, process began to trump product, and what was once an esteemed part of biology evolved into a dusty, fusty relict. The pendulum swung away from outdoor field studies toward indoors laboratory research on fundamental processes. Scientists who studied underlying processes of biology — evolution, cell biology, biochemistry, etc., — got bigger grants and better publications than those who studied the organisms themselves. Funding and grants for natural history evaporated, and with them, tenured faculty positions. Pyle recalls his own college experience: “The only young naturalist on the faculty, shortly after receiving the outstanding teaching award for his magnificent classes in field natural history, was denied tenure; the department wanted superstar lab candidates who published frequently in all the right journals. A few profs interested in complete organisms survived by being strong on theory.”
With the loss of faculty positions and departments came the loss of specimen collections, which we now know are crucial for documenting the effects of climate change. People seem to think that the study of nature on this macro level is somehow done. But, like other branches of science, it’s never done.
But this isn’t just about losing biology faculty jobs. The lack of understanding of natural history has real, terrifying consequences. Understanding natural history allows us to predict outbreaks of cholera in India. Misunderstanding natural history caused us to adopt a disastrous forest fire policies that have done long term harm to the forests of the western United States.
I’m not blaming the National Zoo for shutting down natural history programs across the country. I am saying this invertebrate closure is happening at a bad time, a time when even biologists are ignorant of the true scope of diversity in the natural world. As an educational institution, the National Zoo should be trying to bridge that gap, not widen it.
Photo Credit: Alias 0591 via Flickr