Since much of what I write – especially my books – is focused on endangered species, I often get asked why we should bother protecting rare species, especially those that are less-than-charismatic, like snakes, mice or Rhode Island’s state insect, the American burying beetle.
I try to explain their contribution to maintaining the health of their ecosystem or their role in the food web, and sometimes I offer a philosophical note that they have just as much right to be here as we do.
But more often than not, the questioners aren’t satisfied with those answers. What they really want to know is what value these rare animals have to people and why should we spend money protecting them if they don’t provide a return on our investment. It’s a difficult question when focusing on specific creatures, like burying beetles, for which there isn’t an obvious answer.
If we were talking about whales or ducks or fish, for instance, I could point to the economic contribution of the whale watching industry or their value to recreational hunting or fishing. But it’s hard to pinpoint a precise economic value for most species. We don’t know what they may contribute to human society, if anything.
I argue that animals don’t exist to serve us – with the possible exception of our pets – and so their existence shouldn’t have to be justified based on what they offer us. Unfortunately, that too is an unsatisfying answer for many people.
So then I offer another angle.
Most of the active ingredients in pharmaceutical drugs originated in plants and animals. The Pacific yew tree provided the original molecules for Taxol, a life-saving cancer drug. The diabetes drug Exendin is derived from the saliva of a lizard called a gila monster. There are hundreds of other examples, most of which come from animals or plants that few people cared much about until their health properties were discovered. The University of Rhode Island has an entire team of researchers studying molecules in marine algae that could be turned into medicines.
If we only cared about what wild animals and plants can do for people, it might have been difficult to justify the existence of many of the species that eventually provided the key molecules in our medications. The thing is, we don’t know what species could provide the cure for diseases we don’t know exist yet, so it’s probably a good idea to save as many species as we can, just in case.
One reason I bring this up now is because there may be a plant or animal out there somewhere that could help us cure or treat COVID19 – if we can find it and if we haven’t already driven it to extinction.
I also bring this up now because I just learned that a professor at my alma mater, Ithaca College, helped to discover a unique new medical adhesive derived from the sticky secretions from a slug. This slug slime apparently shows promise as a replacement for medical stitches because it maintains its sticky properties even when blood makes the area slick. The professor told Smithsonian Magazine that the slug goo “literally oozes off the back of the slug and sets in seconds into a really tough, elastic gel.”
While that slug adhesive isn’t going to cure cancer – as far as we know – it might become a new product that solves any number of problems in the human world. And maybe that just might be enough to justify keeping that slug around a while longer.