Washington Evening Journal

Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 24, 2018

Tracks and Tales: Thankful for the Little Things

By Pam Holz

My daughter used to love zebras; now she is into elephants.  My other daughter collects giraffes.  I know other kids who like cheetahs, tigers, wolves, or bears.  Oh my.  
I had a former boss who referred to these animals as charismatic megafauna.  The word fauna refers to animal life, so she meant large animals that had those characteristics that fascinate people.  For example, take pandas.  Who doesn’t want to cuddle a panda?  They look like oversized teddy bears, the very definition of adorable and very definitely charismatic.  
Our world, naturally, is richer for having these animals live wild and free.  Yes, it’s nice to see them in zoos, and perhaps we’ll never see them in the wild ourselves. But just knowing that they are out there
On the flip side, how much does it matter to us that there are no longer silkworms in the wild?  Had we even considered it?  We may not be interested in the caterpillar itself (the silkworm actually being the larval form of a moth), but farming them worldwide produces over 70 million pounds of silk annually.  That’s a lot of nice fabric!
In the spirit of the holiday season, I thought I’d focus on these unsung heros, these uncharismatic microfauna (or the small and not so appealing) who give us so much but we take for granted.  Let this be our thanks to them.      
When we think of animals or wildlife, we tend to focus on vertebrates, or those with backbones.  A recent study by ISU found that while 98 pecent of those surveyed considered deer wildlife, only 55 percent considered mussels to be so.  However, while deer munch on our young trees and create a hazard along roadways, mussels – relatives of oysters and clams – clean water, removing pollutants and bacteria from our waterways.  They are also now being used as relatively cheap purifiers in water treatment plants and polluted lakes.  If that isn’t enough, they also, like oysters, have the potential to make a pearl.  
In that same ISU survey, only 43 percent classified mosquitoes as wildlife.  We do tend to give insects a bad name for the 2 percent of them who are harmful to humans.  However, the million-plus insects contribute so much to our lives that we would be unable to live without them.  Here is just a sampling of some of the work they do for us:  source for several types of medicine, soil improvement and enrichment, pollinate many of our crops, assist forensics in solving crimes, used heavily in medical research, clean skeletons for museum displays and research, used for pest control, and ingredients in dyes and inks.  
Even the ones that are potentially harmful may have benefits.  Mosquitoes are essential in insect food chains.  Honeybees are not only responsible for pollinating many of the food plants we eat, but the viability of them as bomb detectors is now being researched.  Poisonous spiders have done little lasting harm since the introduction of antivenom and are useful in eating pest insects.  Even blood-sucking leeches are making a comeback in health treatments.  
In addition, in many cultures around the world, insects are used as a high-protein food source.  While the U.S. may not be ready for that, we have been seeing an upswing in insects and their relatives being used as pets.  Most people know someone who has a pet tarantula, and many science classes are introducing students to the world of the Madagascar hissing cockroach.  
These “lower” life forms – both insects and their relatives – are essential early steps in the food web and often, despite their small sizes, are crucial to maintaining a healthy environment.  In the soil of a forest alone, the amount of invertebrates in an acre can surpass 3 tons.  That is far, far more than the weight of all vertebrates in the same area.  Even in cities, invertebrates outnumber those of us with backbones.
We may pay more attention to those charismatic animals but it’s the unseen ones who get the job done.  These gifts are often given freely for us.  Maybe it’s time we add a new holiday:  Thank a Creepy Crawly Day.  Or, maybe not.