There are lots of invasive species vying for the public’s attention -- especially in the Great Lakes -- so researchers trying to raise awareness about a tiny aquatic animal called the spiny water flea have to get creative.
University of Wisconsin Extension
A video on YouTube shows a guy dressed as a military general, with insect-like arms protruding from the front of his uniform -- like a creature from a cheesy 1950s sci-fi movie. He's supposed to be a spiny water flea. Mid-way through the video, the scene switches to a bizarre, almost psychedelic, sequence with dancing and maniacal laughter.
There's no other way to say it -- the video is weird. Its creator, Tim Campbell, says that’s kind of the point.
"On social media, people like to share really, kind of crazy, weird, out there things."
Campbell is an aquatic invasive species outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute. He’s trying to raise awareness about the spiny water flea.
So far, the video has almost 1,800 views. "We're not viral, we're not 'Charlie Bit My Finger' yet, which is kind of a bummer, but the response has been really good."
The spiny water flea is an invasive species about the width of a pinky nail. It has a long spiny tail, and several arms it uses to catch and kill its prey: other little crustaceans and zooplankton.
Jake Walsh, who studies them at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, describes them as "a tiny, alien, velociraptor-looking hybrid."
Because they’re so spiny, Walsh says, they’re like Velcro. They stick to everything. The mini-crustacean found its way into the Great Lakes by hitching a ride on some transatlantic cargo ships years ago.
Despite its size, it has the potential to wreak havoc on the ecosystem by disrupting the food chain and eating other animals that keep algea at bay.
Weird imagery and music aside, the video is peppered with a lot of facts about the little flea. And, like any good public service announcement, it ends with a call to action – a plea to boaters to clean, dry and drain. The hope is, that’ll help slow the species spread into inland lakes and tributaries.
Walsh says the video does have a lot of good, accurate information. But they got one fact totally wrong:"It's not like invasive species are doing those things on purpose. They're just coming here, fulfilling biological functions."
For Walsh, personifying animals can be problematic. It's not objective to demonize a species.
But it might be the only way to get people to care. This type of attention-grabbing tactic is necessary online, according to Stephanie Slater, the past president of National Information Officers Association.
She says when it comes to awareness campaigns, the benefits of social media are pretty obvious: a message can reach thousands of people in seconds. It's grabbing their attention, and keeping it, that proves challenging.
"When they're watching videos, they're doing it on their mobile phones and if you don't grab them in the first couple seconds, they're going to move on."
So, outlandish videos with pop culture references can often be effective. And, in the Great Lakes, there are so many other bigger, flashier non-native species: Asian carp that literally leap out into boats, zebra mussels that blanket the lake bottom, or sea lamprey that suck the life from fish like an aquatic vampire.
With all that competition for attention, the spiny water flea could use an edge. Though Walsh might not totally agree with the method, he understands the best way to reach people may be by wrapping the subject matter in silliness and putting it on YouTube.