GOOD IS IT?
by Whit Gibbons
September 8, 2003
good is a rattlesnake? What good is a river clam? What good is a green
People ask ecologists such questions many times each year. The question
is seldom malicious. People really want to know what justification exists
for protecting some creature or plant they are never likely to see and
know little about.
The answer I give varies. Not because I keep changing my mind, but because
the question has many acceptable answers. Most people want to understand
why protection of endangered, rare, or seemingly insignificant species
is important. Or why we should maintain species that can be dangerous
or can restrict economic development. People want the justification
to be relevant to their own lives. Because different people relate better
to different answers, I try to pick the best answer for the audience.
I recently gave a talk to a group of deer hunters. As I was showing
them a big canebrake rattlesnake, someone said, "What good is it?"
That's a fair question for anyone to ask, but the man sounded a tad
hostile, like I was the reason his hunting dog had been bitten on the
face by a rattler in August. So I paused to consider the right response.
Before I could speak, another hunter in the room looked at the man and
said, "I can answer that. What good are you?" Two others chimed
in with "Yeah. Yeah."
Indeed that is one response to the question of what "good"
another species is. However, that's not how I usually answer the question,
especially when the inquirer has a shotgun on the floor beside him.
Nonetheless, in some situations and with some groups the way to respond
is to point out that other species could ask the same question of us.
If I had responded, I might have pointed out an example from California
in which local residents destroyed a den of hibernating rattlesnakes,
only to have the community overrun by rats and mice that summer, presumably
because a primary predator had been exterminated. The same case could
be made for rat snakes, kingsnakes, or rattlesnakes in the East. Espousing
the environmental value of a species in a tangible way works in some
Another approach is to champion a species because of its research value.
Thus some turtles can be used as biomonitors of unsuspected chemical
contamination. A biomonitor is an organism with traits that reflect
some feature of the environment. For example, in a lake contaminated
by a pollutant such as arsenic, the turtles would incorporate low levels
into their bodies and shells. Because some turtles move overland between
lakes, sampling turtles anywhere throughout a region would likely reveal
the presence of the contaminant. Once identified as present in a region,
the arsenic's specific location could then be determined with further
Clams can also serve useful environmental roles both for research and
as part of the aquatic food web. Clams are early indicators of environmental
problems. If ecologists find that clams in a river are declining, we
should look for serious water quality problems upstream. In addition,
clams serve as food items for numerous fish and birds that most people
place on their list of worthwhile species.
And, of course, in some situations one could resort to religious answers
about humans serving as stewards of the earth and all its creatures,
and ask whether we should be the ones passing judgment on other species
that share the earth with us.
Answers to the question of "what good is it" are many, but
I have two nonconfrontational favorites that cannot really be challenged
by anybody. If I say I want to protect green pitcher plants "because
I like them," who can argue with that? You may not like pitcher
plants, but you can't tell me I don't or can't. And because I do, you
must justify why you would get rid of something I like to have around.
But perhaps the best answer of all is, "we don't know yet."
In other words, let's not denounce other species until we know for sure
whether they have some value that we have yet to discover. They may
have some trait that could be of direct utility to us. We just don't
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