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Smithsonian's Closing of Invertebrate Zoo Is a Bad Move

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Corals in the Invertebrate Exhibit at the National Zoo | Photo: Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Pandering to scientific illiteracy isn't a new thing in Washington D.C. Every day in the nation's capital seems to bring its share of ludicrous statements and actions from people who ought to know better, from denial of the reality climate change to fourth-grade misconceptions about human reproductive biology.

It's just disappointing when that pandering comes from the Smithsonian.

In a decision described as a cost-cutting move, the Smithsonian's National Zoo in the District of Columbia has announced it will be permanently closing its Invertebrate Exhibit tomorrow. The exhibit, which opened in 1987, has introduced two generations of visitors to the vast majority of animal species that don't possess backbones, from octopi to dragonflies to corals. There are no plans to reopen the exhibit, though the Zoo has mentioned a vague Biodiversity exhibit plan to be built sometime in the next 20 years that will include invertebrates.

By closing the exhibit, the Smithsonian and National Zoo are contributing to the dumbing-down of zoo-based science education, further emphasizing a few charismatic mammal species at the expense of showing the world as it really is. And for this to happen at our National Zoo is embarrassing and shameful.

Big mammals are typically the most popular attractions at zoos. Rhinos, elephants, lions and pandas bring in crowds. But here's the thing: there are about 5,400 species of mammals in the world. Of birds, another reliable crowd-pleasing group of animals, there are about 10,000 species. Add 10,000 species of reptiles and about 7,000 of amphibians, and you've got just over 32,000 species of what biologists call "tetrapods," the group of vertebrates that make up the vast majority of animals publicly exhibited in zoos. If your zoo has an aquarium, then add another 32,000 potential species of fish potentially displayable.

64,000 species of vertebrates may seem like a lot. It's not, compared to animal life as a whole. One 1988 estimate in the journal Science (republished here) put the overall percentage of animal species that are vertebrates at around three or four percent. We've discovered a lot more invertebrate species since then.

Put it this way: there are around 400,000 species of beetle known to science, with most coleopterists agreeing that the total number of beetle species on the planet, described or yet to be discovered, is at least a million.

A million beetle species, compared to a measly 64,000 covering the entire range of fish, fowl, fur, and frog.

And that's just beetles. Invertebrates include all the other insects, crustaceans, mollusks, spiders and their kin, sponges, corals, echinoderms like the starfish, worms, corals, and for that matter microorganisms such as bacteria and amoebas.

Three of the most successful and important animal lineages in the history of life on earth are lumped together within the category "invertebrates." Arthropods, which include insects, crustaceans, spiders and their relatives, and millipedes and centipedes, are the most diverse phylum of animals on the planet, with at least 1.7 million species. There are about 85,000 known species of mollusks -- including octopi, clams, and snails -- making that phylum the largest group of marine species. One in four species found in the world's oceans is a mollusk. Annelids, which include earthworms, leeches, and the weird tubeworms found at deep-sea thermal vents, make up another 17,000 or so species, found in just about every part of the planet that isn't permanently frozen.

In fact, the very term "invertebrates" is pretty misleading, as it defines the vast majority of animal diversity on the planet solely in terms of their failure to belong to a minuscule group of species. It's as if we classified occupations as wide-ranging as dancers, construction workers, cooks, lawyers, and schoolteachers as "nondentists."

We're vertebrates and we tend to identify with other vertebrates. That's to be expected. The public's tendency is to want to see things that remind us of ourselves, with spines and (usually) four limbs and (usually) two eyes.

But an institution dedicated to public science education is supposed to be better than that. An institution like the National Zoo is supposed to expand our horizons, make us learn about the 97 percent of animal species that don't remind us of ourselves quite as closely.

Centuries after Copernicus and Galileo we also still reflexively think of ourselves as the center of the universe, but planetaria don't try to draw in the crowds by showing photos of our cities. They show us the rest of the universe in all its remote, not-about-us glory.

The Smithsonian says the Invertebrate Exhibit costs $1 million a year to operate, and that necessary upgrades to the facility will cost another $5 million. "We have several other fundraising priorities which preclude us from launching a... campaign for the invertebrates to stay in their existing space," reads a statement on the Zoo's Facebook page.

The National Zoo's annual budget runs about $20 million, with its friends group kicking in another $4 to $8 million a year. Which basically means the Zoo has decided it can't afford to allocate five percent of its annual budget to educate the public about 97 percent of the animal species in the world.

The decision is self-evidently about focusing on the crowd pleasers, the pandas and big cats and apes, that bring in hordes of visitors who gawk, perhaps catch a glimpse of an interpretive sign, and walk away essentially uneducated. This might be understandable in a zoo that relied on admission fees for income. But the National Zoo doesn't charge admission, and thus is at least in theory less tied to big public draws for its operating revenue.

If there is good news about this ludicrous closure, it's in the public response. Thousands of people who've visited the Invertebrate Exhibit, some of whom were inspired into deep study of the biological sciences as a result, have complained on social media and in the press about the short-notice closure. There are online petitions pleading with the Smithsonian to change its mind, or at least to delay the closure so that fans can get a last look.

There are dozens of zoos in the United States where you can see lions and tigers. The National Zoo, supported almost entirely by public funds, should be something more than all the other zoos in the country.

Science education should be about dethroning us from our comfy seat in the center of the universe. That's what the Invertebrate Exhibit did. After Saturday, it won't do that any more. And in a nation already reeling from government-backed assaults on science, that is simply shameful.

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