Reframing Keystone Species

'Keystone species’. This simple, two-word term evokes images of Jaguars skulking through Amazonian jungle, Sea Urchins grazing their way over coral reefs and Beavers towing freshly gnawed branches across a dammed stream. As a concept that is taught to A Level biology students (in the UK) and regularly features in natural history television productions, most people with even a passing interest in conservation are familiar with the basic premise.

Indeed, the concept has been popularly used within conservation circles since it was introduced by Robert Paine in 1969. Whilst some argue over whether focusing on individual species is appropriate, and others use multiple definitions of the term, most uses refer to a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. Put simply, specific organisms are attributed elevated importance within an ecosystem. For example, apex predators such as the Jaguar help to keep prey species populations in check, and ecosystem engineers such as the Beaver alter the physical environment which influences the ecological niches within which species have to adapt and survive. Conservation efforts can then be targeted to attempt to simultaneously protect or even re-establish populations of the identified Keystone Species and the ecosystem within which it exists.

The purpose of this blog is not to critique or discuss the merits of the traditional use of the Keystone Species concept, but to introduce an alternative way of framing approaches that highlight the importance of individual species and the role that they perform.

Beaver Image courtesy of Pixabay @ Skeeze

Psychology and – perhaps more importantly – sociology are often not given enough consideration within conservation. This contrasts with other topics within the broad ‘environment’ sector, such as energy use, travel habits and sustainable living. Traditionally, research and policy-making relating to conservation has been grounded in the natural sciences and focused on the interactions of ecosystems to environmental changes or stresses, particularly those caused by human actions. However, there has been a growing acceptance that whilst understanding the ecological and biological context is crucial, it is also important to understand the role that individuals and wider society have in both the degradation and protection of the environment. Furthermore, it is important to consider the cultural context(s) within which people live their lives, to better understand and anticipate the challenges and opportunities for conserving nature.

One such approach was introduced by ethnobotanists Ann Garibaldi and Nancy Turner in 2004, who researched the cultural importance of plant species to indigenous peoples in British Columbia. They devised a concept that they termed ‘Cultural Keystone Species’.

Cultural Keystone Species can be understood as organisms that shape the cultural identity of people. For example they may play important roles in people’s diets, medicine, rituals or spiritual practices. In short, they are species that are culturally significant to people’s lives and sense of identity. This concept thereby assumes that if such species are lost or damaged – or for other reasons access to them is restricted – it can influence the way that people think about themselves and can have negative impacts on individuals, families and communities.

Indeed, the idea resonates with attempts to identify cultural components within ‘Ecosystem Services’ approaches to assessing the ‘value’ of the natural environment. The concept opens up potential avenues and ‘hooks’ for policy-makers to gain a broader sense of the role that specific species perform, in an ecological, social and cultural sense.

Badgers are considered a typical example of a keystone species Image courtesy of Pixabay @ StefanHoffmann

Grounded in ethnographic research, ways of identifying culturally significant species necessitate engaging with local people. Asking them about specific plants or animals and observing the role that these have in their lifestyles, whether this involves daily practices or occasional rituals, inevitably helps to increase interest and public participation in conservation, which is arguably one of the most important – and often most difficult to achieve – goals.

Whilst the concept was originally devised through local-level ethnographic observations undertaken with indigenous peoples in British Columbia, it could conceivably be widened out to regional or national scales. For example, species such as Badgers, Bluebells, and Oak trees could be considered as culturally important in a UK context, or indeed species such as Robins or Holly that are intrinsically and nostalgically linked to Christmas could perhaps be emphasised or targeted in conservation strategies.

The idea certainly provides an interesting and different angle to considering which species should be attributed more importance. This approach seemingly fits in well with recent moves towards Citizen Science projects and public engagement in conservation. Projects such as The ObservaTree programme highlight the cultural role and heritage associated with ancient woodland as a way of moving beyond their purely ecological value, which is then used to raise interest of specific, species that are being studied.

However, there are also important aspects that arguably make this approach inappropriate for informing conservation practice. Basing strategies on cultural understandings of key species may inappropriately prioritise species, and also misses the point that cultures and the role that nature plays in them evolves over time. For example, cowboys, ranching and other equine practices are engrained in Latin American culture, yet horses were absent from this area before the arrival of Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century.

Fenced in wild horses Image courtesy of Pixabay @ Skeeze

There is also the issue of promoting or prioritising species that over-dominate and destroy ecosystems – such as the deforestation of tropical forests for bananas or coconut plantations. Immigration – both historic and contemporary – inevitably results in the introduction of cultural keystone species, as people transplant their favourite species for the production of food and materials. Also, people may grow attached to species that have been present for longer than living memory, but are actually in ecological terms invasive. For example many Californians are passionate defenders of Eucalyptus trees that often locally dominate the environment and form dense groves, despite the fact that Eucalyptus trees reduce biodiversity compared to ‘natural’ forests. Furthermore, they promote and tolerate wild-fires as part of their natural cycle, which causes havoc for some Californian species that have not evolved this tolerance, along with the more obvious economic and social impacts of fires destroying landscapes and everything else in their path. Indeed, such is the level of attachment that attempts to remove and manage these ecologically-devastating species are often delayed and hampered by campaigners opposed to their removal.

Responding in 2005 to Garibaldi and Turner’s ‘Cultural Keystone Species’ concept, Martin Nuñez and Daniel Simberloff highlighted the coevolution of culture and ecology, and warned that trying to base the management of ecological systems on ever-evolving interactions between cultural and ecological systems is a difficult and perhaps futile endeavour. Furthermore, they suggested that whilst attempting to encourage increased engagement from individuals and communities should be encouraged, it is not necessarily a given that the protection of a species deemed to be culturally important will necessarily be ecologically important (or indeed even appropriate) or protect the natural ecosystem that it is situated within.

This response helps to highlight the limitations of the Cultural Keystone Species concept and raises legitimate questions for its application towards researching cultural-ecological interactions. However, the debate can also be interpreted to suggest that in specific circumstances when a species is deemed to be both ecologically and culturally important, this approach can help to strengthen the case for protection as well as increasing public awareness and support, and therefore is a useful addition to conservationists’ tool kits.

Herring Image Courtesy of Public Domain Images @Axel Kuhlmann

An example is the Pacific Herring. This species is commercially important and plays a key role in the marine ecology off the coasts of British Columbia. For this reason achieving the sustainable management of the fishery is a key priority.

Furthermore, ethnographic accounts of the preparation of culturally important dishes such as K’aaw (which involves harvesting and frying kelp covered in Herring roe) and other academic studies have helped to raise awareness of the need for Herring populations to be sustained.

Whilst there is arguably less of a direct link between UK cultural customs and local flora and fauna species than those found in Canadian indigenous peoples, it is still interesting and potentially useful to consider the Cultural Keystone Species approach.

Perhaps future conservation efforts should aim to adopt more nuanced understandings of the cultural importance of nature in the UK.

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