Mobilizing metaphors: the popular use of keystone, flagship and umbrella species concepts

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10531-011-0035-y

Cite this article as:
Barua, M. Biodivers Conserv (2011) 20: 1427. doi:10.1007/s10531-011-0035-y


Misrepresentation of terminology is a major impediment for attempts at enhancing public conservation literacy. Despite being critically important for improving conservation practice, there have been few systematic analyses of the popular use of conservation terminology. This paper draws from science communication studies and metaphor analysis, to examine how keystone, flagship and umbrella species concepts are used and represented in non-academic contexts. 557 news articles containing these terms were systematically analyzed. Mammals featured in 60% of articles on keystones, 55% on flagships and 63% on umbrella species. Number of articles explaining the terms keystone (35%) and flagship (31%) was low, and keystones were the most misrepresented term. Keystones were metaphorically linked with balance, flagships with representation and umbrella species with protection. These metaphors influenced public interpretation of scientific terminology, oriented actions towards select species, and led to a valuation of such actions. Together, the findings highlight three important aspects of popular use of conservation terminology: (1) communication is largely biased towards mammals, (2) everyday language plays a vital role in the interpretation of concepts, and (3) metaphors influence peoples’ actions and understanding. Conservation biologists need to engage with issues of language if public conservation literacy is to be improved. Further evaluations of concepts with high public and policy relevance, systematic identification of communication shortfalls, and linguistic assessments prior to promoting new terms are potential ways of achieving this.


Conservation literacy Flagship species Goodhart’s law Keystone species Language Media Metaphor Umbrella species 



International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Supplementary material

10531_2011_35_MOESM1_ESM.xls (48 kb)
A complete list of explanations of keystone, flagship and umbrella species in the news articles (Appendix S1) is given below. (XLS 48 kb)

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geography and the EnvironmentUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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