Globally, natural ecosystems are being lost to agricultural land at an unprecedented rate. This land-use often results in significant reductions in abundance and diversity of the flora and fauna as well as alterations in their composition. Despite this, there is little public understanding of which taxa are most important in terms of their total biomass, biodiversity or the ecosystem services they perform and an important issue is how to guarantee that there is a next generation that is both knowledgeable about and concerned about the natural environment.
In a study published in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE on July 2, Edgar Turner and colleagues at the University of Cambridge investigated children's perceptions of rainforest biodiversity by asking young visitors to the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, UK to draw their ideal rainforest, as part of a competition, and found that while children have a sophisticated understanding of rainforest ecosystems, they tend to overestimate the relative numbers of some taxa (mainly "cuter" mammals, birds and reptiles) while underestimating the proportions of other, less charismatic taxa, such as insects and annelids.
The competition, which was held as part of a public event at the museum, allowed the researchers to record the frequency at which three- to 11-year-old children drew different climatic, structural, vegetative and faunal components of the rainforest. They could then quantify children's understanding of a rainforest environment by comparing the relative numbers of the taxa drawn with the actual contributions made by these taxa to total rainforest biomass and global biodiversity.
Turner and colleagues found that children's awareness of rainforest biodiversity is highly developed, with the majority of the children depicting a rainforest with a diverse animal fauna, even though most have presumably never visited a rainforest. This knowledge of the natural world is crucial for inspiring and recruiting the next generation of naturalists and conservationists.
However, the low representation of social insects and annelids in the children's drawings relative to the actual numbers of these taxa within the ecosystems is rather concerning. The researchers suggest this could either be due to children's greater awareness of larger taxa (thanks, perhaps, to more frequent depictions in the media) or because the children thought that the larger, more charismatic creatures would create a "prettier" drawing and thus give them a better chance of winning the competition.
Turner and colleagues concluded that scientists and naturalists must continue to emphasise the diversity and functional importance of lesser-known taxa through public communication and outdoor events (such as this week's National Insect Week in the UK) to aid invertebrate conservation and to ensure that future generations are inspired to become naturalists themselves.
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Dr Edgar Turner
Citation: Snaddon JL, Turner EC, FosterWA (2008) Children's Perceptions of Rainforest Biodiversity: Which Animals Have the Lion's Share of Environmental Awareness? PLoS ONE 3(7): e2579. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002579
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