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Naturally charismatic - 'flagship' species have distinct roles in their ecosystems

Naturally charismatic - 'flagship' species have distinct roles in their ecosystems
12 May
2020
Protecting the most famous members of the animal kingdom may be the right move, and not just because they attract more funding

Flagship species – those most able to lever public support – such as the elephant, tiger, emperor penguin and snow leopard, are often emblemised by conservation charities to raise aw­areness and funds. Recent research has revealed that as well as being a useful tool to attract cash, there may also be a real conservation purpose to focusing on these animals.

The research, led by Dr Robert Cooke at the University of Gothenberg, shows that species at threat from extinction often have irreplaceable roles in their ecosystems. The team assessed body mass, reproductive traits, diet type and diet diversity to calculate the ecological distinctiveness of more than 16,000 species. They combined this data with the IUCN Red List to show that ecologically distinct species are often at the highest risk of extinction.

The team also found a significant overlap between these species and those that scored highly in public surveys of ‘willingness-to-pay for conservation’ and animal charisma.

White-Tailed Sea EagleCharismatic predators, such as the white-tailed sea-eagle, have indispensable roles in their ecosystem, preventing overgrazing and disease outbreakIn the past, conservation campaigns have been criticised for over-prioritising charismatic species, but Cooke is hopeful that identifying ‘flagship umbrella species’ could be a unique opportunity for conservation. ‘Protecting charismatic species could be beneficial to the whole ecosystems in which they live because they could be the most ecologically important,’ says Cooke. ‘It’s a win-win scenario where charismatic species can draw conservation funding that can then be potentially more effective across ecosystems.’

Good examples include herbivores such as elephants and rhinoceros which influence vegetation structure and nutrient cycling through grazing, while predators such as the white-tailed sea-eagle and the leopard prevent overgrazing and disease outbreak. ‘These larger species are also the ones under most pressure from humans – so we’re selectively losing the ecosystem engineers,’ says Cooke.

ElephantElephants are engineers, regulating vegetation structureEcological distinctiveness is not a metric currently incorporated into key species protection frameworks, such as the IUCN Red List and the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) Index. Cooke may have identified a gap in the establishment of conservation priorities. ‘Our work builds upon what has already been done with the IUCN Red List and the EDGE Index, which prioritises species most unique on the evolutionary tree. However, we thought there was a little bit of a blind spot with ecology,’ says Cooke. He hopes that ecological distinctiveness will be used alongside established conservation frameworks to streamline the future protection of distinct species for the benefit of entire ecosystems.

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