The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.