Guest post: Hot take on our planet – freshwater biodiversity

Our friends at the Fisheries Blog do good work – you should check them out. Here’s a post from past CFL postdoc, Solomon David, on how nature documentaries seem to ignore freshwater systems and why they should be paying more attention.

by Solomon David Big-budget nature documentaries are chronically ignoring freshwater biodiversity relative to terrestrial and marine systems, and it’s getting ridiculous. I believe this treatment of freshwater diversity is ostensibly representative of broader conservation priorities, and can in turn affect public perception of those priorities. Spoiler alert: I’m going to focus mainly on fishes.

Why should we care? Fresh water is arguably our most valuable natural resource, and the organisms that live in it can be valuable indicators of the health of that natural resource. Further, freshwater systems are believed to be experiencing declines in biodiversity at a rate even greater than we observe in most terrestrial systems (Dudgeon et al. 2006), yet freshwater conservation priorities lag further behind those of terrestrial systems (Brooks et al. 2006).

Freshwater Diversity! Candy Darter Etheostoma osburni
Credit: Derek Wheaton

Let’s consider superficial aesthetics. Who cares about lake-dwellers and stream-spawners when we have bright coral reefs, elephants, whales, tigers, and penguins? In an age of incredible technology and stunning cinematography, we seem to be focusing on the same groups of organisms when it comes to mainstream nature shows.  A lot of the animals that organizations use to promote conservation also seem to be reruns (every other aquarium otter know better). Don’t get me wrong, conservation of those marine and terrestrial organisms is important; and terrestrial, marine, and freshwater ecosystems are all intricately tied together, but there does seem to be disproportionate representation.

Freshwater Diversity! Bowfin Amia calva
Credit: Derek Wheaton

When it comes to animals, in my experience, what people can see can greatly influence what they perceive as valuable, and what they see more of (e.g. prominently featured organisms) often reinforces that perceived value. If people aren’t exposed to a wide diversity of organisms, especially less “popular” animals (e.g. insects, snakes), how can they be expected to care about them? These might be broadly philosophical questions, and may require more of a social scientific analysis, but I’m sticking by these observations. Back to the nature documentaries…

Freshwater Diversity! Did you know there are over 330 species of crayfish in North America?
Cambarus coosae Credit: Derek Wheaton

I’m a huge fan of the impact and progress large-scale nature documentaries like Planet Earth, Blue Planet, and (most recently) Our Planet have made over the past decade. Viewers have been exposed to awesome, never-before-seen scenes of the trials of life in the natural world. The latest entry, Our Planet, puts human impacts, especially climate change, front and center, and that’s extremely important!

I was disappointed, however, by the treatment of freshwater biodiversity, particularly freshwater fishes. Over the course of a 50-minute program (I kind of went on a rant on Twitter), freshwater fishes were prominently featured in only three cases (fewer than birds and mammals in the same episode), and even those cases felt like reruns. Case #1 was the “classic” salmon migration that seemingly every other nature show uses; think Grizzly Bears swatting stream-jumping fish. Case #2 was African rift lake cichlids; this would have been unique had it not already been done by Planet Earth’s Fresh Water episode. Case #3 was spawning Siamese Fighting Fish (aka Betta spp.); this footage was interesting, however, these are the same fish you can find in little plastic cups at Wal-Mart, and aquarium hobbyists have been spawning them for decades. For a series that has been highly-regarded as groundbreaking, can we at least get something new, innovative, and…fresh to represent these integral components of biodiversity?

Freshwater Diversity! Sparring male Spotfin Chubs Cyprinella monacha in spawning colors
Credit: Derek Wheaton

In spite of my online rant (at least I wasn’t tweeting in all caps), I was encouraged when one of the editors of Our Planet (who also worked on Planet Earth and Blue Planet) replied to my comments with the question:

“Curious to know, what are your top 5 fish to feature in a fresh water film? Any new science you feel should be represented?”

A program editor being open to suggestions gave me hope, and I re-posted the question so others could contribute ideas (they did!) Through our ongoing dialog, I’ve offered to help refer the producers to colleagues and other scientists working on freshwater systems that might be able to contribute supporting information or additional suggestions. Again, I’ve been encouraged by the positive reception.

Perhaps, in future nature documentaries, we will see attention given to other impressive freshwater fish migrations like anguillid eels or even catostomid suckers. Other extreme adaptations featured could include African Lungfishes that can “sleep” for over five years to avoid drought; or Archerfishes that can rifle streams of water to take out terrestrial prey. Maybe even African Tigerfish that leap from the water to take birds right out of the sky! The list goes on, with over 15,000 freshwater fish species. Invertebrates, amphibians, and many other freshwater inhabitants definitely deserve more attention too.

Freshwater Diversity! American Green Tree Frog Hyla cinerea
Credit: Derek Wheaton

What other freshwater species would you like to see in nature documentaries? Leave your suggestions in the comments, and we’ll create a list for future showrunners (that way we are contributing to solutions instead of just Twitter rants). If you’re looking for some great freshwater documentaries, I encourage you to check out Freshwaters Illustrated; the more support these projects receive, the more freshwater content we can hope to see in the future.

Special thanks to Derek Wheaton for allowing me to use his photos in this post. Be sure to check out his stunning freshwater photography on Facebook and Instagram under Enchanting Ectotherms!

Note: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the entire Fisheries Blog team. Originally posted April 16, 2019

References and Further Reading:

Brooks, T.M., R.A. Mittermeier, G.A.B. da Fonesca, J. Gerlach, M. Hoffmann, J.F. Lamoreux, C.G. Mittermeier, J.D. Pilgrim, A.S.L. Rodrigues. 2006. Global biodiversity conservation priorities. Science 313: 58-61.

Dudgeon, D., A.H. Arthington, M.O. Gessner, Z. Kawabata, D.J. Knowler, C.Leveque,
R.J. Naiman, A. Prieur-Richard, D. Soto, M.L.J. Stiassny, and C.A. Sullivan. 2006. Freshwater biodiversity: importance, threats, status and conservation challenges. Biological Reviews 81: 163-182.