Written by Dhruv Gangadharan Arvind
The cruciality of communicating proper information cannot be understated while reporting biodiversity conservation to global audiences. With respect to our understanding of animals, the Indian Army’s announcement a few months ago of “Mysterious Footprints of mythical beast 'Yeti’” – with photographic evidence of footprints – reveals how the “discovery” of such a cryptic species is communicated. It is also an example how such (mis)information has wider implications for biodiversity conservation.
With approximately 8.7 million species, our planet harbours a staggering diversity of life in its ecosystems. Conservationists, taxonomists and geographers catalogue and map this bio-diversity in systematic ways to formulate patterns and understand variations to develop conservation models and combat the biodiversity crisis.
A pioneering study by biologists at Dalhousie University published in PLOS Biology in 2011 showed that of the 8.7 million species only 1.2 million have been formally identified and catalogued, while 86% of biodiversity still awaits description. Despite the use of sophisticated tools and technology, this statistic shows how little we actually know about the diversity of life. This grimly coincides with a time when up to a million species are at the risk of extinction due to human influences, as reported by the United Nations earlier this year.
As the global conservation movement becomes a highly systematised and concerted effort that is data-driven, such gaps in our knowledge of biodiversity hinder conservation action. They can mainly be attributed to incomplete or questionable data met with a lack of robust methods of enquiry that end up producing uncertain information on the presence of species in an area.
The Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778) popularised the concept of binomial nomenclature that has been used to identify and catalogue species. Modern species inventories like Encyclopaedia of Life that provide access to species information and knowledge on biodiversity have their origins in Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae. Regarding the 86% that quantifies our incomplete knowledge of biodiversity, the discrepancy between the actual number of species and the number of species described by scientists constitutes a ‘Linnean Shortfall’, named after Linnaeus.
©Shunya Net/ Sikkim Times
Yeti occurrences can be understood in this context. As a creature of myth sustained through folklore in the Himalayan-Tibetan region, the ‘abominable snowman’ has fascinated many. Much to public dismay, an article in Popular Science communicated the findings of a study published in 2017 that ascribed the identity of yetis to extant brown and black bears, viz. Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus), Tibetan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus) and Himalayan Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus laniger). This means that sightings of yetis were actually sightings of bears. The myth has been busted, but the conflict is only seemingly resolved.
While it is clear that yetis can’t be defined as a separate species, the three bears are biologically distinct. If one were to chronologically look at all yeti sightings ever recorded, which of the three bear (sub)species could the yeti be attributed to? This isn’t merely a superfluous problem exquisitely concerning bear enthusiasts. The example shows how erroneous primary information such as yeti sightings can negatively affect our efforts to extract information specific to the three bears pertinent to their individual identities.
Addressing threats of endangerment, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists “awareness and communication” as conservation actions and calls for research on the bears’ “population size, distribution and trends”. This obviously doesn’t include the communication of misinformation.
A map from the 2017 bear study shows that samples of a Tibetan Brown Bear were collected from Makalu Barun, Nepal. The Makalu Base Camp was where the army located its supposed yeti sightings. This dichotomy reveals another problem on the subject: the veracity of primary data that is used in models to determine how species are geographically distributed and mapped.
Map of bear encounters in the Himalayan-Tibetan region. The red and blue lines represent the range of Himalayan Brown Bears and Tibetan Brown Bears respectively. Triangles, diamonds and circles indicate sampling locations for with Asian Black Bear, Tibetan Brown Bear and Himalayan Brown Bear. Source: Lan et al (2017) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
If the use of pugmarks is an established method of locating species like tigers, why can’t the yeti’s footprints be used to indicate its presence? Should maps now show the occurrence of a yeti in a region populated by brown bears?
The blame falls on the produce of data such as yeti footprints. If these footprints were legitimately examined and communicated, they would serve as valuable information while mapping the distribution of bears in the region. This would indeed be vital research as listed by the IUCN.
Information deficits on the geographical distribution of species are acknowledged to be a large gap in our conservation knowledge. This amounts to a ‘Wallacean Shortfall’, named after British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) who co-founded the theory of evolution by natural selection (along with Charles Darwin).
The yeti case isn’t isolated. The North American bigfoot or sasquatch is a similar (misidentified) cryptic species that has been reported in places populated by American Black Bears (Ursus americanus). A study published in the Journal of Biogeography in 2009 shows how similar the sasquatch’s and bear’s distributions appeared while mapped. The study thankfully didn’t attempt to check if the sasquatch really exists, but drew an important conclusion that conservation models are only as good as the data that is fed into them. It showed that the introduction of errors in the process of publicly sourced faulty data would result in serious inaccuracies that impact actual conservation action: Garbage in, garbage out.
Map of bigfoot encounters from Washington, Oregon and California in North America. While the points represent visual/auditory detection, foot symbols represent footprint data. Source: Lozier et al (2009) in the Journal of Biogeography.
Citizen science has certainly allowed crowdsourcing of conservation information such as species sightings. For example, iNaturalist is a novel database that allows the public to engage with biodiversity and record their observations at specific locations by uploading photographs. The process facilitates valuable information for the conservation community. iNaturalist doesn't return searches for ‘yeti’ and ‘sasquatch’ (the author manually checked if it did).
It is pragmatic to maintain checks on the inclusion of wrong information, rather than discouraging citizens from contributing data on biodiversity. In this regard, reportage on the yeti was essentially bad data for biodiversity. Soon after the incident, experts noted that the finding was “most certainly” a Himalayan black bear and cub.
The encounter could have responsibly been used to communicate the presence of endangered bear species in the region to capture public imagination on conservation. Rather, the episode has veritably illustrated the seriousness of knowledge shortfalls in conservation. In Conservation Biogeography (2011), professors Richard Ladle and Robert Whittaker note:
“The crux of the problem is that if we don’t know what is out there or how widely species are distributed, how can we convince people about the reality and form of the biodiversity crisis? An equally problematic issue is how to go about filling the shortfalls when funding for conservation in general – and taxonomy in particular – is extremely limited.”
Conservation cannot afford misinformation and myth as the biodiversity crisis looms large over us.
This article originally appeared in a different form on TheWire.in and has been republished with permission.