Rock pools reveal human interest in diversity of animal species

Scientists at Swansea University have found, using simulated rock pools, that greater animal biodiversity in habitats lead to more human interest.

Biodiverse rockpoolsThe findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports this week, strengthen arguments that maintaining and protecting biodiversity may be an important element of human wellbeing and environmental education.

Dr Tom Fairchild and Dr John Griffin led the research in collaboration with Dr Sabine Pahl at the University of Plymouth. Dr Fairchild from the University’s College of Science, said: “Humans are fascinated by certain animal communities, but less interested in others. Understanding what drives this interest in animal communities and habitats is likely to be important in preserving and protecting our ecosystems, as well as providing educational experiences.” 

Despite the importance of interest in determining how we view and interact with the world, little is known about what drives humans’ interest in nature. While studies in psychology and social sciences suggest that having more complex images or objects or those that are less familiar may incite interest, how this applies to the natural world is unknown.

Dr Griffin said: “What we wanted to determine was what aspects of coexisting groups of animals, or animal communities, we as humans find interesting. Are we only influenced by specific, charismatic animals? Or do we find communities of animals which are more diverse and complex more interesting?

In order to test different potential drivers for interest, the researchers used simulated rock pools - replicating those left on rocky coastlines by the falling tide – as a model system. 

Dr Sabine Pahl, Associate Professor (Reader) in Psychology at the University of Plymouth, said: “Bringing together natural and social sciences in a truly interdisciplinary project, this study demonstrates that experiencing nature’s complexity and variety is really important for the psychological feeling of interest. Interest is linked to exploration and engagement and thus a first step towards learning more about and connecting with the natural world. We don’t always need to see spectacular individual animals, even seeing a variety of animals together in a rock pool environment can enhance interest.”

Dr Fairchild said: “We expected that communities that included more, obviously different animal species would be more interesting, as they would contain a greater diversity of body shapes, colours or behaviours. And we were right. Rather than a single animal being particularly interesting, we found that scenes with more, and increasingly different animals, were more interesting to the people that we asked.

This is significant as it is a clear indication that people will engage more and gain educational value from areas that are more ‘bio-diverse’, further strengthening the growing calls to protect and restore our native biodiversity.”

The paper: ‘Multiple dimensions of biodiversity drive human interest in tide pool communities’ is published in the current edition of Scientific Reports.

Pictured: An example image from the online survey, looking at how diversity and obvious differences in animals can affect how interesting we find them