The pole of the environment: biodiversity in the shadow of charismatic species

Biodiversity labels are often the same: giant pandas, bengals, elephants or polar bears are often featured in newspapers around the world, while in Quebec, caribou and whale cases are among the most publicized. . The phenomenon is even called: charismatic megafauna.

Charismatic species, which are considered attractive and popular large animals, are of particular public interest and are usually promoted to help secure funding for conservation activities.

If the use of their image effectively allows to raise funds needed to protect their natural environment, it nevertheless distracts species that are considered less charismatic. Often smaller, less colorful and less well known, they are, however, just as important in their ecosystem.

In an article published in a scientific journal PLOS ONEthe researchers wanted to identify the species that is considered the most charismatic among “Western audiences.”

We find there in order: tiger, lion, elephant, giraffe, panther, panda, cheetah, polar bear, wolf, gorilla, chimpanzee, zebra, hippopotamus, great white shark, crocodile, dolphin, rhino, brown bear, koala and blue whale .

The 20 most charismatic species identified by researchers give honor to large animals (19/20), mammals (18/20) and terrestrial species (17/20).

Slightly more than half are African species, nine of which come from savanna ecosystems. On the other hand, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish are almost not on the list.

Invisible and primordial

Beatrix Beisner, a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at UQAM, is well aware of this phenomenon. Those who specialize in freshwater biodiversity admit to working with “less attractive” fish species.

“Our species are often less interesting to watch, but the loss of biodiversity in freshwater is faster and even greater than what we see in marine life today,” she complains.

An important but “invisible” example: plankton, these small organisms at the heart of the food chain in our reservoirs. “If it weren’t for them, there would be no life on our lakes,” she said.me Beisner.

For his part, Dominic Gravel, a professor of biology at the University of Sherbrooke, said problems affecting less visible species were also harder to distinguish.

“It is easier to observe a decline or change associated with a charismatic species close to us, such as a roe deer that grows in abundance. […] For a particular spider, which can only be identified by specialists, it will be more difficult to arouse passions and popular affection, “he said.

However, some “non-charismatic” species are in significant decline. For example, almost half of the world’s insect species are rapidly declining, while more than a third of North America’s bird species, for example, are endangered.

For Beatrix Beisner, using the image of charismatic species of megafauna can be beneficial, as preserving the ecosystem of a species favored by the public will protect several other endangered species that also live there. It is also a way to “get closer to a world that has no real interest [pour la biodiversité] otherwise”.

However, the professor argues that it is also necessary to sensitize and educate the public about “all the diversity in which the species occurs.” In fact, some natural environments do not necessarily have a charismatic megafauna to act as ambassadors.

“I think we will look for another world anyway,” she said. This is often the solution to a great debate. »

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