Super-whales, metalmarks, and troubling charisma in conservation 

Man standing in front of wall with paintings of 4 whales.

The “super-whale” is a species we will never encounter, and yet it seems to have captured hearts globally. Are our conservation efforts fairly directed, or are we clouded by our human susceptibility to charisma? Image credit: Collab Media via Unsplash.

Crowds stumble across sandy scrub, staring out towards a river. It’s May 2007, and people have come to California’s Antioch Dunes to see Delta and Dawn, a humpback whale mother and calf, on a record-breaking trip along the Sacramento River. Seeking connection with a rare and compelling natural spectacle, the whale-watchers unknowingly trample a unique habitat severely modified by industrial exploitation, and long seen as barren.  

Despite public perception, the Dunes host remarkable wildlife, including the entire global population of the Lange’s metalmark butterfly. The draw of a celebrity cetacean cameo almost drove these lesser-known creatures to extinction. Yet, who would write this article about squashed slugs? Surely the metalmark’s beauty and rarity play a part in why this story is noteworthy at all? Here, I explore the feelings people hold towards wildlife, how these fit with conservation, and why they cannot be taken as universal. 

Biodiversity conservation can sometimes seem impersonal, with a focus typically on wildlife rather than people, and an air of scientific neutrality and rationality. Even the least socially oriented conservation projects, however, rely on human decisions determining funding, research, and policy priorities. Nonhuman charisma (how other organisms make us feel) can be a powerful tool for engaging people with biodiversity issues. WWF’s iconic panda is a classic use of a cuddly flagship for a broader agenda.

Even the least socially oriented conservation projects rely on human decisions determining funding, research, and policy priorities.

Charisma, though, is contextual. Which organisms are deemed charismatic (and by whom) can produce inequalities in conservation awareness and effort, and failure to account for cultural differences may undermine local support on which conservation effectiveness relies. Human values do not correspond neatly to the dynamic and contested biological species concept. Conservationists can only navigate fair pathways for people and wildlife by recognising impressions and categorisations of organisms as constructed and socially situated.  

Nonhuman charisma motivates conservation across public and academic arenas. In today’s neoliberal conservation landscape, where funding is scarce and marketing is crucial, a creature’s ability to move people is increasingly important in determining its fate. Through whales and butterflies, this article shows some risks and benefits of using charisma to guide conservation.  

In today’s neoliberal conservation landscape, where funding is scarce and marketing is crucial, a creature’s ability to move people is increasingly important in determining its fate.

What is nonhuman charisma? 

Charisma is an organism’s capacity to move people emotionally based on its appearance, ecology, or interaction with people. Aesthetic charisma is perhaps most intuitive, seen in both favoured and disfavoured characteristics, such as cuteness or scariness: a badger and a snake both possess aesthetic charisma for many people, but often for very different reasons.  

Ecological charisma comes from an appreciation of organisms’ biological attributes, such as their scale of lifestyle through space and time or how they sense and interact with the world. Redwoods’ size, Arctic terns’ migration, tortoises’ longevity, and river dolphins’ specialisation each promote ecological charisma to me. These characteristics can be unveiled through technologies or further ecological understanding: organisms may have their ecological charisma found, as with the increasing popularity of fungi coinciding with greater awareness of mycelial networks.  

Corporeal charisma emerges from contextual interactions between organisms, such as keeping pets, research, hunting, or foraging. Pet owners, and people who know them, see corporeal charisma in action, and scientists often become unusually fond of who they study (as anyone who has heard me talk about Arctic willow or seagrass is probably aware). Charisma is rooted in perceptions of, and interactions with, the living world. 

Charisma is contextual 

Interactions and perceptions vary among people and are grounded in cultural, experiential, and ecological knowledge. Variability among people is furthered when considering the extended “cyborg’” of humans with technologies. Technologies which may reveal charisma (from TVs to microscopes to snorkels) can be inaccessible, particularly for people in high-biodiversity areas where foreign organisations and donors often decide conservation priorities. 

Nonhuman charisma is complex and built on social norms and acculturation. Creatures may possess no charisma or all three kinds, and their charisma may change over time, space, and among individuals and communities or with access to knowledge, technology, or the organism itself. 

Effective and just conservation often relies on a variety of people, motivations, and relationships with wildlife, but cohesive initiatives need unified governance and mutual support. Charismatic organisms can become “boundary objects”: entities through which diverse stakeholders can present their own (and others’) agendas. While boundary objects can facilitate cooperation, power imbalances between actors lead to injustices in and through conservation action.  

Super-whales as boundary objects 

The Save the Whales campaign of the 1970s created a global symbolic whale from various species’ characteristics across the whale family. This “super-whale” is not a living creature but a representative of the collective charisma of all whales: the largest animal to have ever lived, who sings melodiously, travels the oceans’ breadth and depth, is gentle, social, highly intelligent, and facilitates human relations to 89 (-ish) species who most people rarely, if ever, meet (but for people who do, the interaction can be transformative).  

The species most resembling the super-whale is arguably the social, migratory, and vocal humpback whale. The multi-platinum 1970 record Songs of the Humpback Whale introduced the public to whalesong and is credited with catalysing the Save the Whales movement. Biologist Roger Payne was compelled by US Navy recordings of humpbacks and, with support from Capitol Records and National Geographic, created a phenomenon that galvanised support and awareness for whale conservation. In this, we see the role of technology and social currency in the manufacture and spread of charisma.  

Considering the characteristics the humpback doesn’t possess (size of a blue whale, diving of a sperm whale), the super-whale’s full charisma doesn’t describe a single living organism that can be conserved. Nonetheless, this mythical whale combines ecological, corporeal, and aesthetic charisma, and the power of its image and subsequent human response has been associated with global policy shifts, the broad cessation of whaling, and the wider popularisation of environmentalism.  

This mythical whale combines ecological, corporeal, and aesthetic charisma, and the power of its image and subsequent human response has been associated with global policy shifts, the broad cessation of whaling, and the wider popularisation of environmentalism.

Recently added to the list of super-whale characteristics and reflecting the rise of wildlife as ‘”nature-based solutions” are whales’ roles in carbon storage and transport, ecosystem engineering, and fishery productivity. The super-whale shifts through ecological, moral, and now functional arguments for its protection. It remains an interface through which stakeholders, from children to transnational policymakers, can project their individual and common interests. Through this, the super-whale retains its hybrid identity over its six-decade career, making it an effective, versatile, and charismatic boundary object.  

The potential of charisma for conservation is demonstrated by the humpback—a distant, mysterious species becomes a global star saved from industrial persecution. However, the super-whale also reveals flaws in charismatic conservation, particularly when that charisma draws on a diverse group of organisms. Whale species face different pressures, and not all recover at the same rates or under the same conditions. While humpback whale populations are recovering, the northern right whale is already considered “functionally extinct” and further threatened by climate change. So, did the charisma of the artificial super-whale work as a tool for activism, awareness, and conservation? 

The super-whale imaginary unified a movement against whaling, but is less useful in addressing specific threats, such as the fishing practices endangering the vaquita, the world’s most endangered cetecean. Relying on the charisma of some “star” species to speak on behalf of their relatives risks ignoring the distinct threats others face, especially if the species are muddled in the public imagination.  

Metalmarks and impermanence 

The Lange’s metalmark lives in the Antioch Dunes, a highly modified coastal sand dune habitat with exceptional biodiversity. The Lange’s metalmark is found nowhere else and became a flagship species for local community conservationists through aesthetic, ecological, and (for lucky lepidopterists) corporeal charisma, compelling enormous citizen science engagement.  

Despite habitat restoration and monitoring efforts, the metalmark continues to struggle. Relying on charisma will only get an organism’s conservation as far as its reputation. The impacts of Delta and Dawn’s fans highlight the importance of awareness for threatened species. Still, as the chimeric super-whale’s ability to pull a crowd shows, biological species are not always the unit of an organism’s appeal. 

Genetic research has since shown the Lange’s metalmark to be a subspecies of the more common Mormon metalmark. In this moment, the Lange’s metalmark is both relegated to extinction (the species no longer exists) and simultaneously rescued (the butterflies belong to a less-threatened species). Species are often “split” apart or “lumped” together by phylogeneticists, whose field is newer than natural history and tirelessly re-evaluates the tree of life. The “species” researched aren’t always as threatened as the Lange’s metalmark but are often studied to see whether their genetics and evolutionary history are suitable for conservation intervention. 

What does this recategorisation mean for the people conserving the Lange’s metalmark? Not a whole lot—they still work to protect the butterflies and their habitat. They can even breed among populations to limit inbreeding and help the Antioch Dunes’ population grow.  

The stakes are still high—the population remains of conservation concern but is no longer a distinct species. Insofar as these distinctions serve to help navigate the world’s biodiversity, people still care for the butterflies on the dunes. The “downgrading” of a species to a subspecies may mean very little to the people invested in conserving them and presumably makes even less difference to the butterflies themselves. But for conservation organisations, funders, and policymakers who pull the strings, the notion of species can be very important—typically, less support is available for subspecies or populations than for distinct species. 

The Lange’s metalmark drew considerable support through its charisma. Still, lumping together charismatic species with un-charismatic (or at least lesser known or valued) ones shows the precarity of pinning conservation hopes on a single species. Fortunately for the Lange’s metalmark, efforts persisted despite reclassification—though had its conservation been less grassroots and more reliant on external funding and interest, the story could’ve been very different. 

What does this all mean? 

Nonhuman charisma is powerful for mobilising conservation support, shown by the “super-whale”, the Lange’s metalmark, and their brief crossover episode. However, each of these stories also reveals flaws with relying on species’ appeal: what if a creature’s charisma expands beyond biological reality, poorly reflecting diverse threats faced across a group? What if a charismatic species is no longer a species? What if it’s threatened by the draw of another, higher-profile organism? 

What if a charismatic species is no longer a species?

The species concept is challenged constantly, and human understandings of other organisms don’t always fit with what they need or what they even are. To ensure the ongoing function of the living world, we must conserve wildlife and ecosystems beyond those who appear and appeal to us most immediately and broaden our idea of who we mean by “we”. Charisma isn’t universal, inherent, or a reflection of importance—if it’s treated as such by decision-makers and remains unchallenged, we risk losing the biodiversity we depend on.