What's in a Name?

The Pokémon GO! phenomenon has invaded our smartphones and public areas over the last few weeks, causing excitement, confusion, approval and outrage (i.e. all the responses that usually accompany a viral craze). To conservation scientists, however, the current obsession with ‘catching them all’ has reignited a concern that was famously highlighted in a study published in Science back in 2002. This study, which focused on English primary school aged children, found that kids were much better at identifying Pokémon species (with an average success rate of 80%) compared to real English wildlife (where they could only identify an average of less that 50%). 

Not sure if rakali or Raticate...? Image: Leo Guida

Not sure if rakali or Raticate...? Image: Leo Guida

This seemed to confirm what conservation scientists and the general public alike already suspected – we as a society are getting much worse at identifying local flora and fauna. Professor Michael Clarke from La Trobe University has dubbed this phenomenon the ‘crisis of ecological illiteracy’ and fears our increasing disengagement from nature may mean we care less about protecting it.

But from the general public’s perspective, what’s the big deal? Considering the multitudes of actual crises popping up daily on the news, knowing ‘what type of lizard that is’ doesn’t rate very high. Remembering the names of species is merely for those obsessed individuals among us with spectacular memories; the rest of us can just use Google it if ever we need to.

Although, seeing you’re reading this article on Wild Melbourne, you may indeed be one of those obsessed individuals, or at least relatively good at paying attention to nature around you and identifying it. The mission of Wild Melbourne is to get people engaged with local wildlife – so being able to name the animals and plants in our immediate vicinity goes hand in hand with this goal. In this case, though, you may think that I’m preaching to the converted.

But to be perfectly honest – I’m not converted. I confess, I’m absolutely terrible at remembering species names, and it’s gotten to the point where I don’t try anymore. As you can imagine, as an ecologist this often causes me much embarrassment. “You’re meant to know these things!” people say. Yes, yes I am – it’s my job. But my memory just isn’t up to it, so over the years I’ve retreated, under the threat of humiliation, to a stance of “Whatever! I don’t care anyway!”.

How easily could you identify this banskia? Image: Australian National Botanic Garden

How easily could you identify this banskia? Image: Australian National Botanic Garden

Of course, I realise this isn’t a very productive stance to take. I really do care about our local environment and want to be a part of a community that values and protects it. Maybe making an effort to identify the animals and plants around me, their names, their morphology, the calls they make, would be another contribution I could make to increasing awareness – and getting others to think about doing the same may be even better. So in this article I’ve decided to see if I can convert myself, and those like me (but if you’re already a wizz at IDing, just come along for the ride and feel good about the positive impact you might already be making!).  

So I did a little bit of research, and I’ve found arguments for caring seem to fall into two broad groups – benefits to the individual, and benefits to the environment.

Firstly, the benefits for ourselves: as you may be aware, even a small amount of nature in our daily lives is extremely beneficial. Being outside and connecting with nature has been linked to improvements in mental and physical health. But being busy people, it may sometimes be hard to stop and take a moment to recognise those small occurrences of nature in the daily hustle and bustle. One way to do this (and therefore reap the benefits) may be simply to name it – therefore bringing it to the forefront of your thoughts.

Can you picture it? “Oh isn’t that a beautiful magpie-lark that’s just landed next to me while I wait for my coffee! Isn’t the world a beautiful place!” *happy sigh* (or more likely something similar but infinitely less cheesy).

In terms of the big picture, being able to name something also goes a long way. Taxonomy is extremely important for conservation because, of course, we need to know what we have before we can begin conserving it. For instance, being able to tell the difference between invasive and native species is very important – how else could we combat harmful species and maintain healthy ecosystems?

It's important to know your black rats (introduced) from your bush rats (native). Image: Sydney University

It's important to know your black rats (introduced) from your bush rats (native). Image: Sydney University

Identifying something is also a way to keep track of the local environment, and helps you recognise changes if and when they occur. The urban ecosystem is extremely turbulent – by not knowing what is out there we can become oblivious to these changes and consequent losses of native species. And if we didn’t know it was there in the first place, why should we care when it’s gone?

That all sounds fairly important and valuable – right? And the only real shortcoming of caring about IDing species is the humiliation associated with failure – but what is a little risk of failure in the face of all the benefits? Even if I continue to bomb spectacularly and only manage to remember one new species name a year, I guess it’s still better than none!

So, I have managed to convert myself, so I very much hope that there are other closeted “awful IDers” out there who are at least considering trying a bit more as well.

If so – here are some great apps that could help (if you have room on your phone after downloading Pokémon GO!):

Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at: @elkelly1210