It would seem that appearances do matter when it comes to the funding food chain for Australian animals.
New research has revealed that Australian animals deemed ‘ugly’ have historically attracted far less funding, research and, generally speaking, love, than their more cute and cuddly counterparts. The paper was published in the journal Mammal Review earlier this week.
“It’s because people think they’re not very charismatic or difficult to work on, they’re out in arid areas or they’re nocturnal,” says Dr Bill Bateman, one of the study authors and a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Curtin University.
Dr Bateman believes that it’s time for more funding to start being directed to those lesser-known species lest they run the risk of extinction. But the term ‘ugly’ is actually a bit of a misnomer.
“We’re using it as a term to mean disregarded,” he says.
The study took into account mammals which were perceived as ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ according to the number of papers which explored their biology since the early 1900s - and, um, surprisingly, few researchers had chosen to research animals like the white-striped freetail bat (Tadarida australis).
"Of the 330 species in Australia, 45 per cent are bats and rodents - [this means] almost half our mammals are not the really familiar ones," says Bateman. "They’re quite an important group but one that we haven’t really invested a lot of research into."
By 'familiar' Bateman means the bulk of Australia’s monotremes and marsupials, including platypuses, koalas and kangaroos - the usual zoo superstars.
But the animals we see far less of are who we should actually be concerned about, say researchers.
Since European settlement, Australia has managed to wipe out 20 per cent of its animal population, and risks throwing its ecosystems even further out of balance if a concerted effort is not made to learn more about the 'other 45 per cent’.
“Apart from naming them we’ve done very little with them,” says Bateman. “We hope that this paper will try and draw some attention to the disregarded, small animals which are very important for the ecosystems in which they exist.”
Lead author of the study, Trish Fleming from Murdoch University, has also called for a more considered approach to the way we manage ecosystems and habitats, explaining how reckless back-burning, for example, could be to the detriment of a species researchers and scientists know little about.
“Many bats depend on fallen tree logs,” says Fleming. “We risk burning too frequently or too infrequently to support animals within a particular habitat … [and] we tend to ignore the fact that small resources tend to affect the animals within a certain habitat.
“At the moment in Australia, all of the funding is being directed towards triage, towards fixing a problem. Funding bodies such as the Australian Research Council will not look at animals for the sake of understanding their biology," says Fleming.
“These smaller animals make up an important part of functioning ecosystems, a role that needs greater recognition through funding and research effort."
"In terms of the biology of individual species we’re letting the ball drop.”
No ugly native bats could be reached for comment at the time of writing.