Zoologist Lucy Cooke is on a one-woman crusade to champion ugly and unloved creatures, the creeps, which are so vital to Earth's biodiversity.
Quick! Which species pulls at your heartstrings--a tiger
cub or an algae-covered sloth? A panda or a toad? A lion or a dung
beetle? When it comes to emotional attachment, research funding, global
popularity, and conservation support, the fluffier your fur and the
bigger your eyes, the better your chances--unless zoologist Lucy Cooke
has a vote. She's on a one-woman crusade to show the world why some of
the most unlovable animals are actually the most interesting and
deserving of our attention, study, and protection.
blogs, online videos, films, and TV programs bring her trademark humor
and quirky storytelling style to a serious message: If we only care for
the best known and best loved species, other enormously crucial parts of
the web of life could vanish forever. With her unconventional attitude,
she leverages the Internet to reach a new audience that more
traditional wildlife programming has yet to tap.
"My goal is to
preach to the unconverted," says Cooke. "A lot of conservation messages
are difficult to hear; they make people feel guilty. I think humor is
the sugar coating that helps people swallow the pill. If you manage to
make someone laugh while you tell them something important, they'll
stick around and listen to more."
Cooke worries about what she
calls "the tyranny of the cute." "There are so many television shows
about koala bears and kittens," she observes. "All the attention seems
focused on a handful of charismatic 'celebrity' animals. Even scientists
get less funding for animals that aren't cute and cuddly. In fact,
large mammal species appear in 500 times as many published papers as
She adds: "I've always loved an underdog.
Weird, freaky creatures fascinate me because they tell an amazing
evolutionary story. I'm interested in all of nature, not just the shiny,
Amphibians, particularly frogs, top Cooke's
underdog list. "Over a third of amphibians are going extinct; it's the
worst extinction crisis since the dinosaurs were wiped off the planet.
Yet I couldn't convince anyone to commission a film about it. That
motivated me to start my Amphibian Avenger blog." The widely read blog
showcases creatures that rarely attract the spotlight. "Frogs are a
miracle of evolution that come in myriad forms and every color of the
rainbow. You literally can't get bored with them."
occupy a crucial spot in the middle of the food chain. "If you remove
them, everything else goes haywire," she notes. "The ripples are already
reverberating through the whole web of life--when amphibians go extinct,
birds and snakes that eat them also disappear. Since amphibians breathe
through their delicate skin; they are very vulnerable to pollution,
climate change, and disease. That makes them fantastic barometers of the
health of ecosystems. If amphibians aren't doing well, chances are
their overall environment is sick."
Even the story of why
amphibians are so endangered is fascinating. "The deadly fungus,
chytrid, is creeping across the planet, wiping out whole swaths of
amphibians like something from a sci-fi movie," Cooke says. A leading
theory says the fungus came from the African clawed frog, which was bred
and exported by the thousands to produce frog-based pregnancy tests. A
woman's urine would be injected into the frog, and if eggs were laid,
the woman was pregnant. When new forms of testing emerged, the frogs (by
then in labs all across the world) were released into the wild.
Scientists, totally unaware the frogs carried the lethal fungus, had
unwittingly helped start a worldwide epidemic.
"It's exciting to
tell stories that haven't been told," Cooke says. "Take Wallace's flying
frog. It lives in the tallest trees on the planet, atop Borneo's rain
forest canopy. To avoid going all the way up and down, this frog evolved
with flaps of skin that allow it to glide from tree to tree. Or
consider the golden poison dart frog, the most poisonous vertebrate on
the planet. Only one centimeter long, yet loaded with enough poison to
kill ten men. Or Darwin's frog, the only species excepting the seahorse
in which the male gets pregnant."
Cooke's blog and videos
transport you to one of the world's highest lakes, where the endangered
Lake Titicaca frog survives huge variations in temperature and intense
UV rays by permanently living on the lake's floor. Since it never
surfaces, it breathes only through its skin and consequently evolved
with copious folds and flaps to increase its surface area. "Tragically,
I've only seen this frog in a blender," Cooke reports. "People have
decided he's a medicinal cure for impotence." Her videos expose frog
juice bars that have brought the ancient species to the brink of
Cooke reached her widest audience yet when her online
video about sloths went viral. Millions have viewed the film about a
sanctuary for baby sloths that were orphaned due to power lines and
roads that now wind through Costa Rica's jungles. Cooke is pleased to
help elevate the status of sloths; animals that she insists are unfairly
derided and misunderstood. "They've always had a reputation for being
lazy, stupid, and dirty. The first European to describe a sloth said, "If there was one more thing wrong with it, it wouldn't survive.' It's
even named after one of the seven deadly sins."
"slothfulness" is the key to the animal's success. A slow metabolism
allows the sloth's liver to process toxins found in the leaves it eats.
Moving slowly also keeps it hidden from predators. "My video showed the
world how cute and interesting these babies are," Cooke says. "I'll use
any tactic to make people like things."
The wobbly-nosed proboscis
monkey, dung beetles, bats, and more get their moment in the sun thanks
to Cooke. "It's about championing animals that don't have a voice and
telling their stories in a way that engages a wider audience. I want
people to share my sense of wonder, amazement, and love for these
creatures. Once you understand why they're ugly or odd, I hope you'll
appreciate and want to save them as much as I do."