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

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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.

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  1. “Engineering” has an ecological basis, and some authorities consider ecosystem engineers as a distinct subset of keystone species (Caro 2010). Whilst keystone species should have disproportionate effects in comparison to their relative abundance, this is not necessarily true for ecosystem engineers.



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The author would like to thank Prof. Stuart Pimm for his invaluable suggestions in improving the manuscript, and Paul Jepson and Sushrut Jadhav for many stimulating conversations. This work was completed through the support of the University of Oxford Clarendon Fund, Felix and Wingate Scholarships.

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Correspondence to Maan Barua.

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

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Barua, M. Mobilizing metaphors: the popular use of keystone, flagship and umbrella species concepts. Biodivers Conserv 20, 1427–1440 (2011).

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