‘Charisma’ of invasive species like grey squirrels is winning the hearts of humans and making it difficult for conservationists to stop the spread of the foreign rodents, scientists claim
- Scientists define an animal’s charisma as popularity and perception by humans
- Say it can quickly become adored by the media and members of the public
- Affection can hinder conservation efforts of scientists protecting native species
- Scientists list the well-loved grey squirrel in Italy, Britain’s ruddy duck and Spain’s prickly pear as examples of species that won over humans with charisma
If the old adage of curiosity killing the cat is true, it may well be that charisma saved the squirrel.
Some invasive species, such as the North American grey squirrel, have the innate ability to endear themselves to humans.
This leads to public opinion shifting in favour of the animals and away from the conservationists tying to limit their spread.
Attempts to control populations of the foreign animal in Italy, for example, resulted in public opposition and long-drawn legal battles, stunting conservation efforts.
The popular North American grey squirrel in Italy (pictured) threatens the existence of the native red squirrel but its charisma endeared itself to the media and public which hindered population control efforts from conservationists
This is despite the animal threatening native red squirrels as they carry a disease they are immune to but can be lethal to their auburn cousins.
Conservationists in Italy proposed measures to control the grey squirrel’s population and stop its spread but the scientists did not account for the animal’s appeal.
Emotive messages in the media and disgust from the public revealed adoration of bushy-tailed rodents extended to both trans-Atlantic species.
Researchers say this is all driven by the ‘charisma’ of the animal, which they say is its popularity and perception by humans.
A ‘concept and question’ paper published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment sees researchers outline their findings.
They write: ‘Charisma can, and historically has, affected species introductions, media portrayal, public perceptions, opposition to management, research effort, and public participation in research and management.’
They added explicit consideration of charisma of invasive species is ‘critical for understanding the factors that shape people’s attitudes toward particular species’.
HOW IS THE GREY SQUIRREL KILLING THE RED SQUIRREL?
Red squirrels are native to the UK and spend most of their time in the trees.
Grey squirrels, however, were introduced to the UK in the late 19th-century from North America.
Initially introduced as an ornamental species, they soon spread throughout the UK and other European nations, such as Italy.
Grey squirrels carry a disease called squirrel parapox virus, which does not appear to affect their health but often kills red squirrels.
Grey squirrels are more likely to eat green acorns, so will decimate the food source before reds get to them.
Reds can’t digest mature acorns, so can only eat green acorns.
When red squirrels are put under pressure they will not breed as often which has amplified the initial problem of the grey squirrel.
Another huge factor in their decline is the loss of woodland over the last century, but road traffic and predators are all threats too.
Currently, it is estimated there could be as few as 15,000 red squirrels left in the UK.
Scientists list the well-loved grey squirrel in Italy, Britain’s ruddy duck (pictured) and Spain’s prickly pear as examples of species that won over humans with charisma
Franck Courchamp, a researcher at the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris who specialises in conservation biology and one of the study authors, told PA: ‘Biological invasions are considered the second cause of recent species extinctions, the current second threat to biodiversity, and the reason for an economic cost of hundreds of billions of dollars every year globally.
‘We propose a claim that the charisma of species is likely to favour their invasion and we examine it under evidence of different aspects and processes with examples.’
Meanwhile in the UK, the ruddy duck, an invasive species from North America, also embedded itself in the hearts of people.
It was adopted as the emblem of a birdwatchers’ club 50 years after it was introduced, although numbers have reduced drastically in the recent years.
Another continental example is that of the prickly pear, introduced from Central America to Europe by the Spanish conquerors.
It swiftly became an iconic symbols in the Spanish landscape, featuring on stamps and postmarks.
According to the team, examples like these show many alien species are considered desirable and might even be subject to protection or restoration measures in situations where they are threatened or suffer population declines.
WHAT IS AN INVASIVE SPECIES?
An invasive species is one – be it animal, plant, microbe, etc – that has been introduced to a region it is not native to.
Typically, human activity is to blame for their transport, be it accidental or intentional.
Hammerhead flatworms have become invasive in many parts of the world. They feast on native earthworms, as shown
Sometimes species hitch a ride around the world with cargo shipments and other means of travel.
And, others escape or are released into the wild after being held as pets. A prime example of this is the Burmese python in the Florida Everglades.
Plants such as Japanese knotweed have seen a similar fate; first propagated for the beauty in Europe and the US, their rapid spread has quickly turned them into a threat to native plant species.
Climate change is also helping to drive non-local species into new areas, as plants begin to thrive in regions they previously may not have, and insects such as the mountain pine beetle take advantage of drought-weakened plants, according to NWF.