Why I study obscure and strange little animals

I sometimes find myself defending why I study obscure and strange little animals.  Questions such as “what good are they” are asked of me.  I sometimes get weird looks when I describe what it is like discovering new distribution records of a tiny jumping spider, or the thrilling anticipation of turning over a rock to see what hides underneath.  I have to remind myself that not everyone is fascinated by the natural world.  I also think it is worthwhile reminding myself why I study small animals. Here is a list:

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (copyright C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

I study these animals because they are there even if we can’t always see them.

I study these animals because they are unknown, and stir up a sense of curiosity, wonder and awe; their biology is as amazing as any other species.

I study these animals because they play important roles in their ecosystems; roles that we have yet to fully understand.

I study these animals because they are one piece of a giant biodiversity puzzle – they are as interesting and fascinating as primates, blue whales, oak trees, honey bees, or coral reefs.  

I study small animals because they are giants in their own world; size is relative.

I study these animals because they are beautiful; they are a landscape painting; they are a a Bach Cello Suite; they are millimetres of perfection.

I study these animals because they have a history; a history as great as their larger cousins; they are evolution exemplified.

I study these animals because nobody else does.

The Arctic pseudoscorpion Wyochernes asiaticus (copyright C. Ernst, reproduced here with permission)

What are your reasons for studying small, strange animals?

(thanks to Crystal Ernst for the stunning photographs of Wyochernes asiaticus – these photos were taken on our recent field trip to the Yukon)


26 thoughts on “Why I study obscure and strange little animals

  1. Wonderful post Chris, I think all entomologists have been asked this question in their career (some more than others). Your post made my day, thank you!

  2. I think I might just print this and put and tape it to the wall in the lab 🙂 Most of my fieldwork takes place in public parks, and the number of people who asked me why I didn’t want to study something more ‘important’ got disheartening after a while. I always wondered why everybody didn’t want to study these beautiful, shiny, mysterious creatures!!

  3. As a soft-core (as in, not terribly academic or ambitious, but still fascinated) entomologist-turned-illustrator/artist I love this post, especially point #6 🙂

    I am often asked, “WHY BUGS?!” and it’s simply that I find them fabulously beautiful. They are so very interesting, different, fascinating. I love how well adapted they are to their own role in the ecosystem, the funky ways their body parts fit together, the aesthetics of function.

    What surprised me most is the positive feedback I received at a gallery showing of large pieces. A lot of people (and nearly all of them non-entomo-philes) appreciate seeing things that are typically ‘creepy’ and ‘crawly’ in a setting where they can stop and admire the fine hairiness, the iridescence, the grace, the texture of the animals.

  4. Brilliant post! I often stumble to explain myself when somebody asks why rotifers? or why Triops? Now I have a whole arsenal of answers! I agree with Chair, if people watched them up close it would be easier to explain. My three yr old summarized it nicely: ‘I don’t like spiders but I like their faces’

  5. YES – it’s about getting close and personal and when you get to the right perspective with small critters, their world opens up and so can yours. Thanks for the comments!!

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  7. Kudos! Thanks for expressing the reasons clearly. I always think that if you like something, it is important and worth looking at. I love tiny things, they have such an alien experience compared to us, definitely worth studying.

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  9. I appreciate all your reasons, especially the last one. Megafauna gets all the press. But these are megafauna in their own world, and I study them because no one else does. Why would I want to work in a saturated field when I could just go out and look at these wee beasties and discover something new every time?

  10. I am interested in biodiversity as a general phenomenon. If I was studying anything else than tiny obscure arthropods (alternatively microbes) I would not be able to study biodiversity.

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  12. Chris, thanks so much for this post! I study obscure little beetles and when asked “why?”, I respond with many of the statements you’ve made here. Additionally, I like to highlight the biodiversity to researchers ratio for small, obscure taxa compared to others. I think the better question might be “why wouldn’t you study small obscure animals?” 🙂

  13. Thanks everyone, for the comments and thoughts – anyone who works on little critters is a source for inspiration. And I agree with the sentiment ‘why wouldn’t you study small obscure animals!!’ – indeed!

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  17. Right on! Maybe by using these well-articulated arguments you can sway people to appreciate insects more! A couple of things to add:

    In On Being a Biologist, John Janovy Jr. argues, as other have, that many biologists study nature (and particular organisms) because of a particular experience with nature or animals they had very young. I remember being deathly afraid of insects as a little girl. My dad wanted me to get over this, and one day forced by to touch a small green june beetle (what I assume was Cotinis nitida) crawling across our deck. After much coaxing, I agreed. At the exact moment that my finger had almost reached the beetle, a larger beetle of a different, most likely, predacious species landed directly on top of it and carried it off! It seemed terrifying, yet, extremely exciting, to witness at the time, and it is something that has always stuck with me. Is that why I study insects? I have no idea.

    When I respond to that question, I usually try to use E.O. Wilson’s arguments from “The little things that run the world”–if they weren’t here, we wouldn’t be able to survive very long! And if people don’t immediately write me off as crazy, I try and explain the argument a little better.

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