Celine Frere: Working With Charismatic Species

Charismatic species like the bottlenose dolphin are generally easier to find funding for. So what's it like to work with them as a scientist. I spoke to evolutionary biologist Celine Frere to find out

Charismatic species like the bottlenose dolphin are generally easier to find funding for. So what’s it like to work with them as a scientist. I spoke to evolutionary biologist Celine Frere to find out (Image Credit: Jason Pratt, CC BY 2.0)

We’ve talked at length about charismatic species on Ecology for the Masses. They’re the ones that draw in the public, whether they’re cute and fluffy, majestic, or dangerous. They’re generally easier to procure funding for. So what’s it like to work with them?

During a recent visit to the University of the Sunshine Coast, I sat down with Doctor Celine Frere to find out. Celine works with two of Australia’s most charismatic species, the koala and the bottlenose dolphin. We talked about the pros and cons of charismatic species, getting the public interested in them, and the future of global conservation.

Sam Perrin (SP): What are some of the benefits of working with charismatic species?

Doctor Celine Frere, Faculty of Science, Health, Engineering and Education, University of the Sunshine Coast (CF):They speak to the public, which makes them a good pathway for communicating science. People are always interested in fluffy, cute animals. It can be challenging though. Talking to the community about koalas for instance can be a balancing act, as their populations are not doing well. Dolphins on the other hand are fascinating, because even though they’re a marine species, they’re very similar to humans. Humans can identify with dolphins. Dolphins are friends, they stay with their mums for long periods of time, and that makes it easier to communicate dolphin science to the public. So that’s the science communication perspective.

From a scientific perspective, charismatic species sell. If you write the exact same paper with the exact same results on a reptile like the water dragon, versus a dolphin, you’ll probably see an impact factor increase of 2 or 3 for the dolphin. High impact factors very often are about the quality of the science that you produce, but also about the sexiness of the species that you work on.

SP: Are there downsides?

CF:Some people don’t necessarily see you as a scientist, they see you as a dolphin lover. So I’ve had students approach me and say they want to study dolphins. And I ask what are you interested in? And they just want to study dolphins. These are the students that I ask to walk away. Because as a scientist, you have to be interested in questions rather than a species. If you love the species, it’s a good thing, but more importantly you need to have interesting questions.

SP: We have a lot of species nearing extinction in Australia, particularly smaller mammals and lizards, species that are nowhere near as charismatic as koalas. Is it a problem that we’ve spent so much time focusing on koalas?

CF:Of course, it’s a major issue. But we live in a society that we have created, which is obviously run by economics and politics. And at the end of the day charismatic animals push politicians to make decisions about conservation. And that’s why koalas get so much focus, because people get so upset about losing their koalas. Dolphins are a little more difficult because they’re harder to observe. But koalas have obviously been living amongst us for decades in the community. We always hear people reporting that 20 years ago they used to see koalas everyday and now they don’t. So I think that the loss of that species has been very public, and has been observed by the public, so the public puts tremendous pressure on government to take action. Whereas if you think about less charismatic reptile species, nobody is screaming out for their conservation.

At the end of the day, conservation is constrained by funding, and in the political world that we live in, conservation for other species is not the number one priority. Simple as that.

Children are incredibly open to the beauty of nature, and I think that when they are shown it, they resonate with it…

SP: So how do we get people interested in the conservation of other species?

CF: I’ll give you an example, which concerns my daughter. She’s six and a half, and she bugs me every day about Pokemon. Virtual reality stuff, it drives me crazy. But at the end of the day, she’s not interested in virtual reality, what she’s interested in is treasure hunting. That goes back to when you and I were kids, the excitement of finding something that’s rare. I always said to her, why don’t we go hunting for threatened species. We need to do is make a pokemon-type app that is not about virtual reality, but about finding rare species. I think that would be awesome for kids to engage with the environment. Children are incredibly open to the beauty of nature, and I think that when they are shown it, they resonate with it, and that gets lost later on. But young children are open to the beauty of nature. So creating games that enable them to interact with nature would be great.

SP: Australia is a country full of natural beauty. Do you think there’s enough communication between our ecologists and the tourism industry?

CF: I think in Australia, potentially yes, because people fly to Australia to see our natural beauty. And the Australian government knows that. Now whether that makes them proactive is another question. They are paying attention, but we’re still being reactive rather than proactive. We’re putting out metaphorical fires rather than trying to set up a system where there will be no fire. And community engagement is very difficult when you keep giving them bad news, because they just switch off. No-one wants to be told that we’re going to die in 100 years.

So what’s really important is to focus on the positives and the solutions rather than problems. But there are lots of really interesting unisons. So for example we know that the health system is very concerned about the obesity crisis that we are facing, and the governments are putting huge amounts of funding into trying to get people to be physically active. I think maybe tying in this idea of species conservation into outdoor activities could really engage people with community science. You’re not only going for your walk, but trying to identify where koalas are, or black cockatoos.

…in Australia, the fact that students in high schools went out in the street and are starting to take ownership of the climate situation is incredibly inspiring, because at the end of the day it’s their planet.

SP: Speaking of fires, do you think by-products of climate change like fires in the tropics are something Australians will eventually find normal and have to get used to?

CF: I don’t think Australians will ever see bushfires as normal, because it obviously threatens their livelihood. At the end of the day we have the technology to deal with what’s happening, it’s just a matter of political willingness. I feel like in Australia, the fact that students in high schools went out in the street and are starting to take ownership of the climate situation is incredibly inspiring, because at the end of the day it’s their planet. Hopefully what we’re going to see is a shift in the attitudes of the younger generation. An ownership of responsibility for the earth, which the political system has lacked for many many years.

I come from Europe. I recall a woman coming to talk to us in school about the French revolution after the war, when I was 14 or 15 years old. She was part of the revolution, and she said “the greatest gift is your ability to vote and make political decisions”. And I think that younger generations have connected to that and what that means. At the end of the day politicians are there to serve the people. And if people start talking, politicians will act.

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