Not cute enough to be loved or scary enough to be feared, but wonderful enough to be treasured.
Despite being only an early career taxonomist, I've already had to endure many times the "why is this species important?" kind of question. This comes under many different forms and in a variety of situations.
For example, it might happen when applying for research fundings or for a scholarship. In this more practical, goal-focused instance I have to convince people that yes, it is important to understand the taxonomy of what I'm studying, and yes, especially if the aim is to kill the damn' insect.
It can also happen at the pub, among friends, or on the bus, after I've spent what seems like just a few minutes (more likely too many) describing in excitement two new species of psyllids. The question is often accompanied by very dubious facial expressions and squinting eyes. Why is this new species important? Why should we care?
Let's be clear, these questions are not wrong or unfair. Why would you care about a new species of insect that is so small you almost cannot see it? Is it a cute animal that will leave your interlocutor in awe? Or is it something they should be scared of? Does it bite? Is it a dragon? What has taxonomy to do with all this?
Alas, quite often the species I tend to talk about are not as cute as koalas. I soon realized that no, despite the exquisite setae on the legs or the weird antennae being almost cute to me, they don't make up for the lovely fur of a native wallaby. In the case of psyllids, I have to admit, beauty and cuteness aren't really their strongest asset.
"Is it dangerous, then?" they might ask.
"Well, some species are dangerous to agriculture, yes. They may be vectors for viruses or plant patho..."
"No, no, I meant, is it really dangerous? Like a deadly wasp?"
"Well wasps aren't often deadly to humans. They are pretty crazy insects....but no, psyllids are not deadly"
While you try to quickly think how to sell your beloved insect, maybe with some very cool fact (you can find some cool stuff here!), the other person often moves to the next topic with an almost mumbled "..okaay".
Recently, this kind of conversation assumed a whole new importance for me.
After a few months of peer-review and after completing my PhD I finally described my first two new species of psyllids. Unfortunately for my friends and my partner, this has obviously become the main topic of every conversation.
One of these two new species, Acizzia errabunda, is native to Australia.
It does not bite, it's not a vector for any pathogen (that we know of) and, despite my personal taste, it's probably not cute. Then, why have I spent so much time describing something like this?
Well, after pondering on this for a while, I think I finally found an answer to the question. It might not be the answer.. But I think it should work for the next chat over a beer.
Any species description is important for us, humans, because it forces us to open our eyes and finally see what's around us. With a name on it, it is now a tangible being. Of course, that "new" species you read about was there all along. It had been there for many many years. We simply didn't notice it before.
But now that you have noticed it, now that you know its name, you will probably pay a lot more attention to it. How many times does this happen in our lives? How many times do we walk around without opening our eyes and without knowing the names of coworkers or new neighbours? How many incredible creatures are hiding in plain sight just because they are a bit too small for us to notice?
Charles Darwin referred to our biodiversity as "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful".
Indeed, we are surrounded by an endless number of animals, plants, fungi and bacteria of all forms and colours to the point that we can still discover species that went unnoticed until today, 2019. The crazy thing is that 'new species' are everywhere. You don't have to go far to find them, especially if you live here in Australia.
Actually, these species are already in your gardens, we simply haven't seen them yet. We just have to discover them and to learn their names. They might become our new friends.
And that's not all.
A lot of these species are probably native to Australia, maybe even endemic. This means they live only here and nowhere else. We are the only people in the world who are responsible for their protection. By safeguarding their environment, we are protecting a species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
How cool is that? HOW COOL IS THAT?!
If, by now, your interlocutor at the pub isn't as excited as as you are, please, consider talking to someone else.