What do the wormwood moonshiner beetle, the black scabbardfish and the elegant earthstar all have in common? Other than their fairy-tale names, these three species, along with another 97, have each been tattooed onto a different volunteer as part of the ExtInked project.

Run by the Manchester-based Ultimate Holding Company, ExtInked is a “lifetime social experiment” that began in the year marking the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. One wonders what Darwin would have made of this army of inked ambassadors. He might not have been so surprised: the tattoo had its heyday in the late 1800s, when 90 percent of the British navy had been inked. In the iconography of tattoos, Darwin would have qualified for a turtle, the symbol of an equatorial crossing.

ExtInked’s 100 line drawings of Britain’s most threatened species were displayed in a disused railway arch in Salford. Visitors to the exhibition were invited to apply to become an ambassador for one of the species. Then, in the gallery, the species and volunteers were hemmed together, with ink rather than thread.

Each ExtInked ambassador received a passport for her species, explaining her ambassadorial responsibilities (“I hereby commit myself to supporting and promoting awareness of my species and playing my part in reversing its decline in the UK”) as well as further information on the species’ biology, habitat, and conservation status. The exhibition was sponsored, in part, by Arts Council England and run in association with three British conservation charities, including the Marine Conservation Society. Sixteen of the ExtInked species are marine, including the sperm whale, leatherback turtle, and the sandy ray.


Ines Dahal
An ExtInked ambassador displays her otter tattoo.

I’m now joined at the hip with the native oyster, Ostrea edulis. But while my relationship with the oyster is guaranteed, its survival is not. I keep a fearful eye out for the principal threats to native oysters in the UK: the menacing-sounding American oyster drill (Urosalpinx cinerea) and the slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata), which threaten to cut short the oyster’s 6-year lifespan. I shuddered at recent news that farmed oysters in Kent have succumbed to a form of herpes, which is feared to have spread to wild native oyster populations. And I eschew the use of exfoliating scrubs containing microplastic polyethylene pellets, mindful of the delicate filter-feeding system of my flock. Happily, the threat posed by tributyltin- or TBT-based antifouling paints is one I don’t need to worry about, at least not in Britain. Their use on vessels less than 25 meters long was banned in 1987, following concerns that these chemicals were affecting oyster reproduction rates.

Unfortunately, mitigating these dangers is just dabbling at the edges. A calcareous shell-forming species, like the oyster, faces a more serious threat: acidification of the oceans through the increase of dissolved CO2. That is one problem that any number of ambassadors can do little to protect against.

As I continue to foreswear wearing pearls and eating oysters or their marine kith and kin, other ambassadors are finding ways to highlight their species. The sand lizard has a vocal advocate in the Girl with the Lizard Tattoo (sandlizard.wordpress.com), while the capercaillie, the largest member of the grouse family, has a Facebook page. The ambassadors have held one reunion, and more are planned, to monitor the fluctuating fates of our species over our lifetimes.


Elizabeth Allen

Elizabeth Allen works for the international conservation charity Fauna and Flora International and is based in Cambridge, UK, as part of the editorial team for Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation.

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