Australia’s ‘Ugly’ Mammals Get Little Love From Science

A new study finds that iconic animals and invasive species get studied more often than less attractive critters.

Little red flying foxes roost in a tree in Great Sandy National Park in Queensland, Australia. (Photo: Bob Stefko/Getty Images)

Mar 7, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Think of Australia’s wildlife, and a mix of furry, brown-eyed koalas and kangaroos are probably what come to mind.

But these appealing species are not only stealing the hearts of tourists; they’re taking the lion’s share of scientist’s attention too.

That has left “ugly” animals, such as Australia’s native bats and rodents, disproportionately unstudied and neglected in conservation efforts, according to a new study released Monday in the journal Mammal Review.

To test how an animal’s appearance affected scientific research choices, study authors Trish Fleming, an associate professor at Murdoch University, and Bill Bateman, a wildlife biologist at Curtin University, divided Australia’s 331 mammal species into three categories.

The “good” included iconic species such as kangaroos, echidnas, and koalas; the “bad” included invasive species, such as cats and rabbits; and the “ugly” were mostly rodents and bats such as native ghost bats and species of hopping mice, which made up 45 percent of the total known mammal species found in Australia.

Ghost Bat, native species to Australia. (Photo: Mark Cowan)

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After searching through 14,248 research articles going back 115 years, they found that 6,693 publications focused on the 89 native species in the order Diprotodontia, which include marsupials such as kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, and koalas.

By comparison, only 622 publications focused on the continent’s 83 species of microbats, while 20 invasive species were mentioned in 1,740 publications—more articles than those written about Australia’s rats and bats combined.

“For the majority of species, researchers have been able to do little more than catalogue their existence,” Fleming said in a statement. “We need to document observations of their diets, habitat selection, space use and reproduction in order to identify threats and management options.”

Two trends have exacerbated the problem, according to Fleming and Bateman.

The first is that concern for protecting native species has led federal officials to focus a large percentage of funding toward identifying invasive species impacts.

Nonnative mammals such as the feral cat and the red fox have contributed to the extinction of more than 20 Australian mammal species.

“Within Australia, federal government funding is largely directed towards investigating invasive species, and with no global funding to support biodiversity conservation research, Australian mammals face a significant plight,” Fleming said.

Scientists are also influenced to focus on famous rather than obscure mammals because papers on the “ugly” species are more likely to be rejected by editorial boards for being too “parochial and of limited interest,” the researchers concluded.

They have called for improved funding and political backing to help conservation agencies protect all species, and hope citizen science programs can help increase research capacity.

“For the ugly animals, the small bats and rodents, it's very difficult for people to understand how important they are,” Bateman told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “But they are very important seed dispersers, pollinates and sources of food for multiple other species. I think it would be tragic if we ended up causing the extinction of even more without even knowing anything about them.”