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What is a Flagship Species?

Diane Goettel
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A flagship species is a species from the plant or animal kingdom that is used to represent a certain environmental issue or cause. There are a number of types of issues that can be represented by a flagship species. For example, the polar bear has been used as a species to raise awareness about what global warming is doing to the planet. There have been photographs and videos taken of polar bears standing atop melting chunks of floating ice. The purpose of these photos is to try and get people to understand that the human impact on the earth has led to global warming which creates a vast array of problems, including creating habitat problems for animals that live in glacial regions.

Very often a flagship species will be chosen because of its attractiveness or because it has unique features. In many cases, other species are overlooked because, for one reason or another, they are not seen as being sensational or do not seem to have the kind of appeal that will garner the the same sort of interest as a of large groups of whales. Although a vast number of species may stand to benefit or at least gain protection from a certain effort on the part of an organization, it is the flagship species of that organization that will be used to draw supporters.

Sometimes young members of the species are also used to garner sympathy for a certain cause. In the polar bear example, there is a video of a mother polar bear swimming away from her baby in search of food; the baby is left standing on the small, floating ice block, seemingly abandoned and alone. Because it is known that most people have an emotional response for young animals, using a baby polar bear to get the message out about global warming can be a very effective marketing strategy.

Sometimes a flagship species will be used as the representative of an environmental disaster. For example, a photograph of a brown pelican drenched in oil soared through the media and via online news sources and quickly became the face of the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that was a result of the BP oil spill. Not only was this one of the first available pictures of an animal drenched in oil, but the brown pelican served as the perfect flagship species for this event because it also happens to be the state bird of Louisiana.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By bear78 — On Jul 15, 2011

I know that the flagship species that is selected has to be beautiful and charismatic to grab attention. But I think that they should be selected based on their potential of helping and protecting other species.

What do you think?

By ddljohn — On Jul 15, 2011

I also agree that having a flagship species for an environmental movement is a good idea. But a part of me feels sad that we need to see a suffering animal to understand the seriousness and intensity of a problem.

There must definitely be a psychological factor there. There is something about a beautiful animal that is experiencing difficulty, pain and even death because of things that humans have done. I think the flagship species idea relies on human consciousness and guilt.

A flagship species can only impact people who feel guilty for what is happening to that species. Those who don't feel that they are a cause of the problem are not going to want to do anything about it.

I guess it's both good and bad. Because you can't possibly get everyone to feel this way and take action. But I doubt that any other strategy would even be this successful.

By discographer — On Jul 14, 2011

I think this is a great strategy. Unfortunately, the public does not easily gain awareness about an issue. And sometimes these environmental issues are taking place really far away from where we live and it is hard for us to imagine what is really happening there.

I think photography and films are a great medium to reach out to the public because it allows the public to witness something they couldn't otherwise. The flagship species is more like the symbol or emblem of that movement. It's how people identify with that organization or group.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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