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Cultural Keystone Species: Implications for Ecological Conservation and Restoration

Ann Garibaldi, University of Victoria
Nancy Turner, University of Victoria

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Abstract

Ecologists have long recognized that some species, by virtue of the key roles they play in the overall structure and functioning of an ecosystem, are essential to its integrity; these are known as keystone species. Similarly, in human cultures everywhere, there are plants and animals that form the contextual underpinnings of a culture, as reflected in their fundamental roles in diet, as materials, or in medicine. In addition, these species often feature prominently in the language, ceremonies, and narratives of native peoples and can be considered cultural icons. Without these "cultural keystone species," the societies they support would be completely different. An obvious example is western red-cedar (Thuja plicata) for Northwest Coast cultures of North America. Often prominent elements of local ecosystems, cultural keystone species may be used and harvested in large quantities and intensively managed for quality and productivity. Given that biological conservation and ecological restoration embody human cultures as crucial components, one approach that may improve success in overall conservation or restoration efforts is to recognize and focus on cultural keystone species. In this paper, we explore the concept of cultural keystone species, describe similarities to and differences from ecological keystone species, present examples from First Nations cultures of British Columbia, and discuss the application of this concept in ecological restoration and conservation initiatives.

Key words

Porphyra abbottiae, Sagittaria spp., Thuja plicata, British Columbia, First Nations, cultural keystone species, ecological restoration, traditional ecological knowledge
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087