Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Rally 'Round the Rodent: small mammals are ecological foundation

When one thinks of animals and conservation, a range of iconic images come to mind: whales, sharks, polar bears, wolves. These tend to be larger species and, while they certainly deserve our attention, there is a large group of land-based animals that also deserve protection. Rodents.

Rodents, you say? Are we talking rats here? Protect the rat, save the rat? Well, yes and no. Of course, when one thinks of rodents, rats and mice and other pests that have thrived because of man's presence, particularly in our urban areas, come to mind. And they have been a problem through destruction of stored seeds and grains or through transmission of disease. However, rodents serve an important ecological role and, in so doing, deserve a measure of protection as much as any other land animal.

Of the approximate 4,000 species of mammals on the planet, about 1,500 fall into the rodentia family, primarily identified by having a single pair of incisors - front teeth that require continually
being worn down through gnawing on hard surfaces. In fact, that's where the name comes from, "gnawing animal." In addition to rats and mice, rodents also include squirrels, beavers, porcupines, prairie dogs, and many more. In fact there is an incredible range of rodents in tropical and jungle environments from tiny little critters up to 110-pound capybaras found in South America.

Rodents constitute some of the earliest prehistoric mammals. While dinosaurs were stomping their way into eventual oblivion, as far back as the Paleocene era, rodents were scurrying about their feet. Actually, there were some incredibly large rodents in prehistoric times, some as large as a bear. However, those toothy behemoths, along with other over-sized animals like dinosaurs, couldn't survive the radical climatic changes that the earth has gone through, from ice ages to meteors.

Today, while rodents in developed countries can be pests, causing billions of dollars in crop losses or pest control expenses, in many parts of the world they provide food and fur for local or tribal populations. And in the big scheme of things, they are a major food source for a variety of other animals. Just like with the predator-prey pyramid for marine species wherein plankton and small bait fish are highly reproductive to balance out the fact that they also are prey to a wide range of other animals, rodents serve as a cornerstone and key foundation for the chain of life in the terrestrial world.

Conservation International recognizes the significance of the rodent in a properly maintained ecology. With a little humor, they are making the case that rodents deserve our understanding and protection. They have a Facebook page designed for visitors to choose a favorite rodent for Valentine's Day. Here's Conservation International's take on why rodents deserve something more that a trap baited with cheese:

"We share our planet with millions of incredible species.

Just consider the bright color of spring flowers, the morning calls of migratory birds, or the snow-covered plumage of emperor penguins. We're lucky to live in a world where these creatures exist.

At Conservation International (CI), we've been working since our founding to protect and preserve species around the world. And with Feb. 14 quickly approaching, I hope you'll join me in sending a valentine — to some amazing species of rodents.

Rodents? Amazing? Yes, amazing. Sure, they're sometimes household pests. But they underpin the ecosystems that provide us with clean air and water, regulate our climate, and give us medicines.

And in many cultures, species play an important role — yes, even rodents. The Chinese zodiac has not one but two rodent representatives (the rabbit and the rat). And in the U.S. and Canada, today is Groundhog Day, a quirky holiday that, folklore says, determines how long the continent will remain under a winter chill.

Some rodents are even kind of cute.

Yet around the world, on land and at sea, species like rodents are in trouble. It's estimated that one species goes extinct, on average, every 20 minutes. Human activity, such as habitat destruction and pollution, is largely responsible. And for every species of plant or animal that disappears, we forever lose the unique and sometimes critical benefits that people receive.

How can you get involved in protecting species like these? Join us in celebrating rodents this Valentine's Day — and help us spread the word that people need nature to thrive.

Visit CI's Facebook fan page and click on 'Vote Now' to vote for your favorite rodent:

You can also visit
Crowdrise, an online fundraising site that makes it easy for you, your friends, and your family to donate small amounts of money to CI if you'd like. Each of our four rodents has its own Crowdrise page, so you can vote for your favorite not just with a click, but with your wallet!

The rodent with the most votes and dollars raised by Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, will be named the most loved rodent (as voted by CI supporters). So this Groundhog Day, send a valentine to a furry creature. Vote for your favorite rodents on CI's Facebook fan page and on Crowdrise."

Read more about rodents from UCMP.

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