Biodiversity in the shadow of charismatic species

Biodiversity emblems are often the same: across the planet, a giant panda, a Bengal tiger, an elephant, or a polar bear often make headlines, and in Quebec, the caribou and whale cases are among the most famous. . This phenomenon even has a name: charismatic megafauna.

Considered attractive and popular large animals, charismatic species attract special attention from the public and are commonly advertised to secure funding for conservation efforts.

While the use of their image is effective in raising funds needed to protect their natural environment, it nonetheless diverts the attention of species considered less charismatic. Often smaller, less colorful and less well known, they are nevertheless just as important in their ecosystem.

An article published in a scientific journal PLUS ONEthe researchers wanted to identify species that are 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, rhinoceros, brown bear, koala and blue whale.

Among the 20 most charismatic species identified by the researchers, large animals (19/20), mammals (18/20) and terrestrial species (17/20) take pride of place.

Just over half are African species, nine of which come from savannah ecosystems. On the other hand, reptiles, amphibians, insects and fish are almost absent from the list.

invisible and primal

Beatrix Besner, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at UQAM, knows this phenomenon well. Someone who specializes in freshwater biodiversity admits to working with “less attractive” fish species.

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

An important but “invisible” example: plankton, these small organisms at the base of the food chain in our water bodies. “If they didn’t exist, there would be no life in our lakes,” says Besner.

For his part, Dominique Gravelle, professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Sherbrooke, notes that problems affecting less visible species are also harder to recognize.

“It is easier to observe the decline or change associated with a charismatic species close to us, like the roe deer, whose numbers are increasing. […] A particular spider, which can only be identified by specialists, will have a harder time evoking the passions and commitment of the population,” he says.

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

For Beatrix Besner, using the image of a charismatic megafauna species can be beneficial because preserving the ecosystem of a species loved by the public will at the same time protect the few other endangered species that also live there. It is also a way of “approaching a world that has no real interest”. [pour la biodiversité] otherwise “.

However, the professor argues that it is also necessary to inform and educate the public about “the whole variety in which this or that species occurs.” In fact, some natural environments do not necessarily have charismatic megafauna acting as ambassadors.

“I think that in any case we will look for another world,” she notes. This is often the solution to a big debate. »

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