For three years I taught Animal Biology labs to undergraduate students at George Mason University. Extra credit assignments were not permitted, so I liked to build in a few intermittent low-ball quiz questions to provide some levity to an otherwise strict and challenging syllabus. My favorite question to ask was “what is your favorite species?” (Please take a moment to decide for yourself before you read on).
To most people this question unconsciously translates into “what is your favorite vertebrate animal?” However, this is another question entirely and millions of species lie between these two points. (Quick recap: animals, plants, and fungi are the three multicellular forms of life – animals are mobile, multicellular, and heterotrophic.)
What at first seems like a simple question turns out to be loaded with drama as people struggle to reconcile internal loyalties and produce an answer that still often evades defensible justification – as it turns out it can be difficult to explain why a Polar Bear is your favorite animal and not a Sloth Bear. Why one species makes the cut over another for each person is a fascinating journey into their emotion, allegiance, convention, and knowledge of biodiversity.
Some people choose species with which they form strong emotional connections. Treasured pets often determine this clear choice and people who choose pet animals as their favorite species are often unwavering in this choice. Pets made up a large proportion of favorite species for my students and this is not surprising since some of the first emotional connections people make with other species are through their pets. These emotions are so strong that people donate hundreds of millions of volunteer hours and dollars and to finding homes for dogs and cats and there are strict laws about cruelty to these select species.
Although dogs and cats were popular choices, species of wild animals always made up the majority of “favorite” species. I suppose what’s most striking about the answers to this question is that despite two million discovered species only about 50 were ever named by my students and none were ever invertebrates, none were ever plants, and nobody even hinted that fungi were a respectable and distinct taxon. Nobody ever chose a species of food and nobody ever chose an extinct species, even though people eat all sorts of tasty species and dinosaurs continue to be incredibly popular animals.
To combat this biased favoritism to large vertebrates students learned about the amazing characteristics of cephalopods (octopuses, cuttlefish, squid), mantis shrimp (Stomatopoda), water bears (Tardigrada), velvet worms (Onychophera), and my personal favorite – insects (Insecta). Admittedly, species like tigers and elephants are certainly worthy of the attention people grant them—but with so many incredible species in the world it seems lazy to confine oneself to the typical large vertebrate list.
For instance, mantis shrimp are incredibly aggressive and use their spring-loaded front legs to literally smash open snails with underwater lightning bolts. See a great explanation by The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman on why the mantis shrimp is his favorite animal and a fascinating research-based explanation by Dr. Sheila Patek here
Water bears are the only species that can survive the vacuum of outer space (read about it in Weird and Wild)
When we examine the question of what a favorite species means to each of us, we realize that not only is it impractical to choose just one, but that it is something that changes as we learn more about biodiversity and as we think more about why we choose the species we like the most. How much thought does one give to the reasons behind this choice and are we being honest if Homo sapiens isn’t our true favorite species?
Part of the reason that people keep choosing the same 50 favorite species is that they haven’t yet learned about the millions of other amazing species out there or the enthralling diversity of life that surrounds and supports our lives mostly beyond vertebrate life. This knowledge gap is exactly what must be overcome for the effective conservation of global biodiversity and it is one of the hallmarks of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
In 2012 IUCN released Priceless or Worthless, a document that allowed the global species expert community to list their top threatened species. You’ll see from this list that the biodiversity that is being lost are species that almost nobody knows about, and certainly weren’t making many favorite species lists for my former students.
For the sake of species it is essential that we start to broaden our biological horizons and find new favorite species of animals, plants, and fungi and support their assessment and conservation throughout the world through the IUCN Red List and through active engagement in your local conservation activities, wherever that may be.
Now, what’s your favorite species?
Craig R. Beatty: IUCN