Out of sight, out of mind

Many animals in need of conservation attention are the least studied due to human bias, reveals new research by scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Their results found that large, wide-ranging carnivores that exclusively eat meat, such as wolves, are more likely to be studied than smaller carnivores with varied diets, which are often more threatened.

Published in the journal PLOS ONE, the study looked at the number of papers published (research effort) between 1900 and 2010 for each of the 286 carnivore species. The authors then analysed the papers to see if research effort was linked to the characteristics or extinction risk of a species.

By analysing more than 16,500 papers they found that conservation status was not a significant driver of research effort, despite significant improvements in the tools used by conservationists to identify species most at risk of extinction.

The cat-like Madagascan fossa belongs to one of the most threatened carnivore groups, the Herpestidae, but this group was the second least studied. Dogs proved to be the most studied group, with the red fox the subject of the largest number of published papers.

"Out of the top 20 most studied species, most are larger species with large geographic ranges, like black bear and brown bear.

“There also is a strong geographic bias, with 16 residing in North America and Europe - the exceptions include large charismatic species like lions, tigers and cheetah,” says Dr Zoe Brooke, lead author of the study.

Despite only accounting for 13 per cent of the species in the study, marine mammals such as the sea otter and the walrus were the focus of 37 per cent of published research.

The authors suggest that research effort may lean towards carnivores that regularly come into contact with humans, particularly when interaction results in human-wildlife conflict. However, they also note that many of the 28 species with zero published papers were from areas where there may be a lack of skill or funding for research.

Co-author Dr Chris Carbone says: “We have identified serious gaps in our knowledge that could lead to greater biodiversity loss if we continue to be ruled by our hearts, not our heads.

“Technological advancements mean we no longer have the excuse of not studying species in remote locations. We hope our analysis technique can be applied to other animal groups – and even other areas of science – to ensure research is driven by evidence and continues to plug our knowledge gaps.”

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