ECOLOGISTS SHOULD BE LIKE SPORTSWRITERS

by Whit Gibbons

September 18, 2011


With football season well under way, many of us regularly go online or check the newspaper to see where our favorite teams rank and what their prospects are for next week. How many people are checking environmental sources for the status of life on Earth? Probably more than a few decades ago but nothing to rival the millions who check for sports updates daily.

Why the disparity? Why are sportswriters so much better than ecologists at generating interest in their subject? Why can't ecologists develop comparable techniques for focusing public attention on the environment? Some groups of animals (songbirds, tropical frogs, and sea turtles come to mind) generate a bit of excitement, and their supporters, though few, are passionate. But compared to any major sport, interest is minimal.

One difference between sports and most nongame wildlife is the length of the season. Any given sports cycle lasts less than a year (though it may feel longer if you're not a fan) and highlighted events seldom last more than a few days. The decline of wildlife species is usually measured over years, even decades. Who can keep track of the slow losing season experienced by thousands of species as tropical rain forests are ravaged, oceans polluted, and wetlands destroyed? Successes and failures in sports receive extensive media exposure.

The number of teams and contests in sports is small and tractable relative to the number of wildlife species in peril. In addition, before-and-after statistics about the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Championship, and Stanley Cup Finals abound, whereas for wildlife, attention is generally focused only on the final event--extinction. Severe declines in biodiversity (struggling through the playoffs) and the disappearance of species (losing the final game) are noteworthy. But usually minimal attention is given to the events that lead to a showdown, and statistics are only gathered for the endgame.

Win-loss records for the Minnesota Timberwolves and Carolina Panthers are readily available. But what's the status of their mascots in the real world? Do we have more or fewer timber wolves or panthers than last year? Exact numbers are hard to come by. We can easily discover whether the Maryland Terrapins play the Temple Owls next week. Is the next challenge for real terrapins a new airport runway near a salt marsh; for real owls, a new mall in Pennsylvania?

Who's keeping track of the status of wildlife species? When the New York Yankees play the Detroit Tigers we know the score at the end of the game, how many batters Justin Verlander struck out, and whether Derek Jeter added to his 3,000-plus hits. Such detailed environmental information, if available at all, is usually restricted to specialized websites and newsletters. A noteworthy comparison of interest in sports versus wildlife can be seen with a Google search. "Minnesota Timberwolves" generates more than 4 times as many hits as "timber wolf," the animal itself.

Sportswriters provide statistics with no qualifying disclaimers. Most scientists are cautious about presenting information. Determining population status of a species is an uncertain process. Ecologists cannot present clear-cut, concise statistics on a daily basis like sportswriters can. Wildlife scores are not available, but the games are still being played.

One possibility for increasing interest in environmental trends would be a species status scoreboard with records of the declines (and occasional increases) of various species. With greater awareness, people might become fans of actual timber wolves, owls, or panthers. Box scores would allow people to follow their favorite species. And unlike in the wide world of sports, people might influence the outcome for their favorite "teams" so as to avoid environmental bouts in which there are no winners and no chance of the losers ever making a comeback.

A close accounting would show that most wildlife species are being reduced in numbers worldwide. The statistics may not be as exact as for sports, but the evidence is clear: more and more species that would have been content to be cellar dwellers will soon be out of the game forever.


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