Research Ruled by Heart not Head

(April 11th, 2014) A recent study by the Zoological Society London shows that researchers are biased in the choice of their research subjects. Will this human perspective put some species even closer to extinction?

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most popular of them all? No, we’re not talking about Justin Bieber or Royal Baby George. A new study, recently published in PLoS ONE, tracked down the carnivore enjoying greatest popularity with zoologists and ecologists, according to the number of published papers. The scientists, working for the Zoological Society of London, wanted to identify certain “patterns and causes of biases in research effort”. Are those biases justified? Do the most-studied ‘meat eaters’ really deserve all the attention they get?

Among researchers, biologists might be the ones least afraid of going into the wild to study their research subjects. But even biologists have their limits. “Biases in research effort may be influenced by practical considerations such as ease of study which may be related to species abundance, larger geographic ranges, whether species are found in convenient-to-study locations or the complexities of studying ecosystems,” write Zoe Brooke et al. Besides practicability, there are other reasons for scientific bias: predatory species might be more “attractive” to study and studies about “charismatic” species like lions or bears are sure to get more attention among the scientific community, than research on less charming species like civets, and might thus be preferred.

The Zoological Society of London researchers combed through 16,367 research papers focussing on issues of biodiversity, zoology, ecology and evolutionary biology published between 1900 and 2010. When it comes to absolute number of papers, Canidae, the dog family, were the most popular. They were the leading actors in 3,387 research papers. On the other side of the spectrum, Nandiniidae, with the African palm civet as its only family member, are not very appealing to zoologists; only four papers were written about them. This number might be small but there are 28 carnivore species from seven families including the mongoose family, Herpestidae, and the weasel family, Mustelidae, that did not attract any research attention whatsoever. Not a single paper exists in the scientific record. Coming back to scientists’ favourites: The top 5 most published species are the red fox (Vulpes vulpes, 923 papers), the wolf (Canis lupus, 919 papers), the brown bear (Ursus arctos, 787 papers), the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina, 580 papers) and the Eurasian badger (Meles meles, 547 papers).

What could be a reason for this favouritism? Is it body size, diet preference, distribution area or perhaps threat status? From a biodiversity/conservation perspective, the latter would be most sensible but, as it turned out, threat status “was not a significant driver of research effort”. The Madagascan fossa (pictured), for instance, belongs to one of the most threatened carnivore families, the Herpestidae, but, as mentioned, this is one of the least studied families. If it’s not risk of extinction, what else predicts a species’ research attractiveness? - It is body size and range size. "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 Zoe Brooke in a press release.

Study co-author, Chris Carbone, sums up, “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.”

Kathleen Gransalke

Photo: Flickr/Chad Teer (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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