National Geographic and how not to write a headline

It had been quite a calm January for attacks on Almería agriculture. During the short history of this blog we have found misinformation about our agriculture in the BBC, El País and Cuatro. Last week it was the turn of none other than National Geographic, with an article by Alec Forssmann sporting an eye-catching headline:
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Article on the National Geographic website
It makes you want to say: “Why, what bad luck. They just realized that it exists and we are already threatening it”.
It would be difficult for us to refute a scientific article without having a broad knowledge of biology in general, or arachnids in particular, so we are only going to use the article itself, and its arguments, to criticize a headline that so clearly blames us for the problems of this spider. You know what journalists say: don’t let the truth ruin a good headline.

To begin with, the news is that a new species of spider has been found, but it does not talk about danger of extinction, or say that its population is low, or anything like that. The article, as with in all in this famous magazine, features prominent photography, where we can see the new species of spider in very close detail. They explain to us that, although it had actually already been detected, it had not been scientifically described until now, because it’s small and hard to see.

They also tell us that they are of the Maghreb genus and that they live in North Africa, so it’s suspected that this new species is a relic of when the two continents were joined millions of years ago.

In other words, this spider has lived in the southeast region of our country for 6 million years, but the species had never been described. And so, without having figures of what the spider population is right now, or what it was 60 years ago (when there were no greenhouses), it turns out, according to this article, that the greenhouses of Almería are a threat to them. Looking at the map that appears in the study, we wonder what is so special about Almeria’s greenhouses to threaten this species that isn’t found in the greenhouses of Granada or Murcia, the tourist or industrial sector, or, in general, any activity that happens in the space between Granada and Alicante.

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Image of the study where the new species of spider is identified.

Actually in the text (and not the headline) it says that the greatest threat is the unstoppable urban development that is destroying their habitat, but to read that you have to get to the last paragraph of the article. Of course, in the scientific article they do not say a word about the greenhouses. The author does mention them in an interview with the Natural History Museum: Sergio Henriques says that spiders have been found around the greenhouses, so the spiders probably inhabited the greenhouse area. From this phrase, that “it may be” that we have taken over part of the habitat of an unknown species, we get the headline from this prestigious magazine. But the funniest thing of all is that nowhere, neither in the scientific article nor in the interview, does Henriques say something that Forssmann presents as statements of the researcher: that the plastic pollution from our greenhouses affects the soil, their prey and the spiders’ ability to nest. However, if this were so, we do not understand how it is possible that spiders have been found around the greenhouses.

In white, the surface occupied by Almeria’s greenhouses

Be that as it may, Henriques may not know that the greenhouses of Almeria generate 40% of the GDP of the province, while they occupy only 3.7% of its surface, as well as that in our province, 40% of the territory is protected land. This is above the Andalusian average, which is 30%, and national average, which is 27%. Perhaps it is thanks to this that this spider has been able to live the last 6 million years here without anyone noticing. Henriques also talks about how sensitive these spiders are to temperature increases. Maybe he hasn’t heard of the albedo effect, which has had a cooling effect in areas with many greenhouses. Thanks to the white surface of the greenhouses, they reflect the sunlight, while the rest of the world is getting hotter. Who knows, the spiders may live around greenhouses because of this. Or they may be attracted by the large number of insects that farmers have used to control pests for the past 20 years. Or maybe the interviewee is right and we have taken over part of the spider’s territory.

In any case, if there is anything more we can do to improve respect for the flora and fauna of our province, we will do it, as always. But before taking action we will have to detect the problems. We know that we are not perfect, but blaming us, based on assumptions, for being a threat to a new species–that is not threatened–simply doesn’t seem fair.

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