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Copyright © 2004 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Garibaldi, A. and N. Turner. 2004. The Nature of Culture and Keystones. Ecology and Society 9(3): r2. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol9/iss3/resp2/

Response, part of Special Feature on Traditional Knowledge in Social-Ecological Systems

The Nature of Culture and Keystones

Ann Garibaldi and Nancy Turner

University of Victoria

Published: September 21, 2004

We appreciate the concern expressed by Davic (2004) of the ever-broadening use of the term "keystone species" and the resulting diminished ability to effectively use the concept in conservation efforts. However, as stated in the article we propose the term ‘cultural keystone species’ as a "metaphorical parallel with ecological keystone species", rather than a convenient extension of the original term described by Robert Paine (1966,1969).

There were several reasons we chose the term ‘cultural keystone species’ to describe those species that significantly influence the structure and functioning of a culture. First, existing terms that address socially significant species are not necessarily addressing species that support the cultural integrity of a human community. For example, ‘flagship species’ are socially appealing species (frequently large mammals) that are good candidates to evoke public sympathy and action to conserve large tracts of land (see Simberloff 1998). While these species certainly have merit, both ecologically and socially, they differ from cultural keystone species. The definition of a cultural keystone species hinges on its social salience and significance – its removal alters the structure of a community just as the removal of a keystone species would modify its associated habitat. Not necessarily true of a flagship species.

Second, the term cultural keystone species was selected because it shares social parallels with many traits of ecological keystone species. These include context dependency (Power et al. 1996), the fluid nature of their role based on changes in community diversity (Chapin et al. in Power et al.1996) and the possible existence of ‘keystone guilds’ (Power et al. 1996). Cultural keystone species share these traits within a social framework (see Table 1 of Garibaldi and Turner 2004).

Third, scrutinizing the linkages between social and ecological systems helps illuminate the importance of species not only to ecological systems but to human communities as well (see Berkes and Folke 1998; Dove 2001; Seixas 2002; Berkes et al. 2003). The cultural foundation of many peoples is directly tied to the continued use and availability of plant and animal species (see Cristancho and Vining 2004). The ethnosphere (see Davis 2001) is affected along with the biosphere from loss of diversity, diminished habitat and the like. Just as identifying keystone species may help understand and ultimately conserve ecosystem functioning the acknowledgement and subsequent delineation of cultural keystone species may help strengthen and support social systems, which in turn, will help maintain ecological integrity.

We share the view that a definition or concept may be rendered unusable if it becomes vague or overly inclusive. However, we iterate that the use of the term ‘cultural keystone species’ is intended to be used independently from the term keystone species and holds similarity to it in a metaphorical sense.


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Berkes, F., J. Colding, and C. Folke, editors. 2003. Navigating social-ecological systems: building resilience for complexity and change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

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Seixas, C. S. 2002. Social-ecological dynamics in management systems: investigating a coastal lagoon fishery in Southern Brazil. Dissertation. University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada.

Simberloff, D. 1998. Flagships, umbrellas, and keystones: is single-species management passé in the landscape era? Biological Conservation 83(3): 247-257.

Address of Correspondent:
Nancy Turner
School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria,
Victoria, B.C., Canada V8W 2Y2
Phone: (250) 721-6124
Fax: (250) 721-8985

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