How the fish got its back rubbed

You know the world's a stressful place when even the fish are looking for a back rub. Portuguese researchers working among the coral of Australia's Great Barrier Reef have seen surgeonfish getting "massages" from the "cleaner fish" that normally just consume the surgeonfish's dead skin and parasites. Measurements of stress hormones taken before and after the procedure showed that dorsal-fin massages make the surgeonfish feel more relaxed.

It'll take a lot more than a back rub once their coral habitats disappear. Many corals are already migrating northwards, towards cooler waters, at an alarming rate. Others are being severely damaged by the warmer waters that climate change is creating. The outlook is so bad that, of the scientists who study tropical coral ecosystems, 88 per cent now admit they are resigned to losing significant numbers of these ecosystems as a result of climate change.

It's not just the marine biologists either. The survey, to be published in December, polled 583 conservation scientists in all. A shocking 99.5 per cent of them said their studies show a "serious loss of biological diversity is likely, very likely or virtually certain".

Perhaps that's why there's a new phrase in town: scientists are talking about "conservation triage". Apparently, it's no longer worth making an effort
to save certain species; we would do better to concentrate on the areas of biodiversity that stand a chance.

Take the western black rhino, for instance. Ah, too late, the poachers already have - it is officially extinct as of this month. You'll have to settle for the South African black rhino, 19 of which were airlifted out of the range of poachers this past week.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's newly issued Red List of endangered species, a full 25 per cent of the world's mammals are now at risk of becoming extinct. Researchers in the conservation triage unit are going to have to make some difficult decisions - and fast, too: the International Energy Agency has just issued a warning that current energy policy planning has left us just five years away from "irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change". That will only accelerate the problem.

It must be even harder to press on, given this month's revelation that - if the purchases of broadcasters are anything to go by - most people are happy to look at nature but don't want to think about its decline. When the BBC sold the international rights to its current Frozen Planet series,
a third of the channels chose not to buy the important but not so cuddly seventh episode, in which David Attenborough confronts the effects of climate change on the two poles.

Happy together

We must not allow the world's conservationists to give up altogether, though, so let's find them a bright side. We find ourselves in a situation where most European states, many scientists, much of the natural world and certainly a million or so young Britons are in dire straits. But there's an upside to this widespread misery, according to a paper to be published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation next month.

The study looked at suicide rates in the United States and showed that they were much higher in states that had the highest scores for happiness - evidently there's nothing like being the sad one in a crowd of happy people to make you want to end it all. So, raise a smile, conservationists. Science says we're better off because we're facing our miserable future together. Back rub, anyone?

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood