Animal intelligence – a tool for motivating publics to support conservation?

A window into the brain of a widely known, but poorly understood species

As some readers may already be aware, Queen Mary University of London have been researching bumblebee cognition in order to determine how intelligent this species is. Research into invertebrate cognition has not been as widely publicised as that into primates & avians, for example, although arguably it’s time for that to change. The video released last week by QMUL on The Guardian news website shows bumblebees pulling on pieces of string to get food. 2 from each group of 10 bees were able to solve this puzzle, but perhaps most fascinating – and indicative of a high level of intelligence – is that 6 from the remaining 8 were able to learn this skill upon watching their fellow bees!

Bumblebees pulling on string to get food, QMUL

Why does this matter, and why should we care?

Unfortunately, two species of bumblebee have been declared extinct since the start of the century, and others such as the Great yellow bumblebee and the Shrill carder bee are currently at great risk due to their small population sizes. Bee decline is a hot topic, and has been for the past few years, with numbers decreasing dramatically due to factors such as pesticide use (neonicotinoids) and habitat loss due to agricultural intensification. As is now widely known, we rely on bees (among other species such as wasps, ants & flies) to pollinate not just wildflowers – which support herbivorous animals at the bottom of the food chain – but also much of the food we eat, meaning that their extinction would have catastrophic effects on ourselves and the rest of nature.

Using species traits to inspire their protection

The Natural Capital concept has been employed in order to quantify our reliance upon pollinators, with their services having been valued at £hundreds-of-millions in the UK alone. This has been one way of demonstrating the value of pollinators in terms easily comprehensible across sectors (everyone understands money!), and is a form of justification for their protection, helping to rally support for bees and aid their conservation, with an EU-wide neonicotinoid ban introduced in 2013, and the UK government rejecting the NFU’s call to use the pesticides this year.

However, the dangers of an over-reliance on economic arguments are obvious, as they are too simplistic, neglecting the cultural and existence values of species. It is therefore my hope that a new focus on bee intelligence could help raise additional support for the conservation of these species, as research has shown that people are more likely to want to conserve intelligent species. My own research with the Loro Parque Foundation in Tenerife supported this, as the Max Planck Research Station investigating parrot cognition inspired pro-conservation attitudes amongst its visitors, many of whom commented that they did not realise parrots were so intelligent, and that with this new awareness they felt it was important to conserve them. This is valuable as parrots have wide ranges, meaning that they are umbrella species that can help to conserve vast habitats and ecosystems. Through the conservation of parrots, therefore, large areas of the Amazon rainforest, and other globally important biodiversity hotspots, can be protected.

parrots-flying-in-amazonMacaws flying through the Amazon

Throughout the conservation movement, it is important for us to continue innovating, and following new trends in society, if we are to halt species extinction and habitat loss. Conservation is, after all, a social movement, with origins closely tied to animal welfare, and it is therefore crucial for us as conservationists to not only be at the cutting-edge of science, but also to truly understand the societies in which we operate, and upon which our success ultimately relies. If we can gain a deeper understanding of the features (or traits) of certain species that make them irresistible to people, such as familiarity, bright colouring and intelligence then we can learn how to produce effective communications that garner valuable support for species that are irreplaceable within the natural world, such as the humble bumblebee, so often overlooked in favour of the panda or the tiger.

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Joanna Trewern

Joanna Trewern

RSPCA Wildlife Care Assistant and recent MSc Conservation, Biodiversity & Management graduate from the University of Oxford. Interests in British wildlife, rewilding, conservation communication and education.

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