AUBURN, Ala. (WRBL) — Science might not be the only factor involved when species become protected by the Endangered Species Act. Recently published findings from Auburn University Alumni Professor Christopher Lepczyk, 52, and his colleagues revealed human bias plays a role in what species are listed as threatened or endangered. The results come just ahead of Endangered Species Day, which is typically celebrated on the third Friday in May.
Lepczyk described how the project was born around 2001, following the publication of his graduate research focused on where endangered species were in the United States.
“One of the reviewers mentioned that endangered species were probably located closer to universities than anywhere else because he thought how people spent their time looking for organisms was related to where they were, [where] they worked,” Lepczyk said.
The comment stuck with him for years until 2006 when Lepczyk and his undergraduate students began building a database with endangered species data from as far back as 1967. They used information from natural history collections, refining the concept over time as sources and accessibility changed.
As Lepczyk and his team suspected, larger species were logged on the Endangered Species Act list earlier than smaller species. So were species which called and congregated. These factors made them more easily identifiable, especially when technological limits prevented the identification of smaller species and microorganisms.
“Today, we have quite a bit of wonderful technology that really allows us to observe species in ways that we couldn’t do, you know, 15 or 20 years ago and that certainly we couldn’t do in 1967 or 1975,” said Lepczyk.
He mentioned the ability to tag animals and observe migration patterns has been a big help. Sometimes, Lepczyk told WRBL, scientists find species considered rare are not. Particularly important for the local area, new tech has helped researchers discover and protect rare mollusk species only found in Alabama.
Lepczyk said what is important to know is species added to the Endangered Species Act list sooner are protected earlier as a result of policies and initiatives made for this purpose.
As long as it took to complete the project, Lepczyk revealed publishing the research was also a difficult and lengthy process.
“I don’t think it’s controversial, but many of the peer reviewers were very – there’s a split decision,” Lepczyk said, “Almost every time I had it reviewed, I would have one or two people that loved it and thought it should be published immediately and one or two that didn’t agree.”
Lepczyk explained findings could lead to further research, policy changes and greater public thought concerning endangered species. He hopes it will help species which need petitioning to become protected or are not currently protected get on the Endangered Species Act list.
The professor is currently teaching summer classes on the species of Hawaii with his wife Jean Fantle-Lepczyk, an associate research professor at Auburn University specializing in the study of Hawaiian forest birds.
He is also working on a project with iNaturalist called “Yardversity” in which users are asked to observe and catalogue species in their backyards. Lepczyk reported the goal is to help people learn about biodiversity and assist scientists in understanding more about where species live.
The researcher said, “I think it’s always good to know that a person in New York City has as much, kind of, ownership or stake in the issue [of protecting], let’s say something like [protecting] a bison or an eagle as a person living in Alabama, as a person living in Hawaii.”
In honor of Endangered Species Day, the Georgia’s Atlanta Zoo will double conservation contributions from May 19 to 21. Each ticket purchased will automatically generate a 25 cent dotation to the zoo’s Quarters for Conservation project.
In a press release, the zoo said funds will help protect chinchillas in Chile, North American songbirds and Costa Rican sloths. They will officially celebrate Endangered Species Day on May 20 with family-friendly activities that are free for members or with the purchase of a ticket for nonmembers from 10 to 2 p.m.