The Known and the Obscure

Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Thomas Hardy

water buffalo

Last week, The New York Times put out an article (  on animal ugliness — how it affects which animals we like, which we have as pets, and ultimately which animals we spend most of our time studying.

Though the article does a good job of pointing out that cute animals get more than their fair share of study, the article itself only mentions conspicuous organisms.  As Biodiversity Institute research assistant Kendra Koch points out:

"From my point of view the inconspicuous and less 'palatable' organisms are often simply ignored or at least shied away from. Parasites of course seem to have a special cringe factor. Even this article on ugly creatures focuses on mammals and vertebrates with no mention of the bulk of animal diversity, let alone any of the other kingdoms."

Animals are far outnumbered by other kingdoms in regard to number of individuals, and if the under-studied insects weren't included (insects are animals!), they would be dwarfed in species count, as well.  An in-the-flesh example of this diversity is shown in our museum's BugTown exhibit. 


Koch is a Research Assistant for Parasitology, a field of study still making sense of a huge diversity, the extent to which is unknown.  New parasites are found every year, and it is estimated that there may be twice as many undiscovered species as known species. 

"Nearly every time I explain what I do to someone who asks, the response is similar," says Koch. "A surprised and sometimes disgusted look accompanied by the question, 'why does studying elasmobranch tapeworms matter?' All living things (even parasites) are part of a greater system that has evolved toward some balance and ideally have an equal right to be conserved."

The natural world is always more complex than we think.  Ugly critters have something going for them, as well — they're ugly.  While we're worrying about the cute ones, or even the ugly ones, the worst off are the unnoticed.