Purpose: In this activity, students will consider whether the cultural significance of a species should be an important factor in allocating conservation resources. After reading “A new metric of extinction risk considers how cultures care for species” in Science News online, students will gather information to prepare for a student-moderated debate on whether conservation resource allocations should consider a species’s cultural significance. During the debate, students will collaborate with their peers to formulate their arguments and rebuttals. After the debate’s conclusion, students will work together to identify a middle ground on the issue and determine how conservation resources should be allocated in the future, considering both biological and cultural factors.

Procedural overview: In class, students will read “A new metric of extinction risk considers how cultures care for species” from Science News and then define “biocultural status.” After the term is defined, students will divide into three groups. During the debate, one group will speak for and one group will speak against using cultural connections to determine conservation resource allocations. The third group will prepare the debate questions and moderate the debate.

Students will bolster their arguments with facts from the Science News article and other online resources. The moderators will determine which team had the stronger argument at the debate’s conclusion. After the debate, students from all three teams will collaborate to develop a conservation resource allocation plan acceptable to all parties.

Approximate class time: 2 class periods




Yellow and red construction paper

Cultural Connections for Species at Risk student worksheet

Directions for teachers:

The setup

Students will read the Science News article “A new metric of extinction risk considers how cultures care for species” in class. A version of this article, “Scientists propose a new metric of extinction risk,” was included in the Feb. 25, 2023 print issue of Science News.

Biocultural status

After reading “A new metric of extinction risk considers how cultures care for species” from Science News online, students should answer the following discussion questions and develop a definition for “biocultural status.” Students will share their definitions and determine which will be used for the purposes of the debate.

1. Define conservation resources. Provide at least one example.

Conservation resources can vary from methods used to monitor and regulate populations to actions that can help preserve populations. Population monitoring, restrictions on hunting and policies that protect habitats are some of the methods used to preserve species.

2. What factors need to be considered when planning how to allocate conservation resources?

Student answers will vary. Considerations for conservation resource allocations might include the size of the species population, recent habitat loss, the species’s extinction risk status, the sensitivity of the species to pollution, funding and cultural significance.

3. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designates a species’s extinction risk status. Why might a specific population of a species have a different status from the species as a whole?

While a species might not be at risk for extinction, with many individuals and populations doing well, specific populations could be in decline. This means that while the species might not go extinct, it could go extinct in some parts of the world.

4. The IUCN recently changed the dugong’s extinction risk status. What is the dugong’s new extinction risk status, and why was it changed?

The dugong as an entire species was reclassified as vulnerable, with specific populations reclassified as either endangered or critically endangered. The dugong’s status changed because the Torres Strait Islanders that once monitored dugong populations and prevented over-hunting are no longer able to provide these conservation resources.

5. Using the dugong as an example, why might it be important to consider the cultural significance of a species when determining conservation resource distribution?

Some cultures might provide protection for a species to ensure their survival. The Torres Strait Islanders hunted dugongs but also monitored their population. With the Torres Strait Islanders threatened by rising sea levels, the islanders no longer monitor the dugong population size as effectively as they used to. When a culture is threatened, the protections the people once provided for their culturally significant species may also disappear, leaving those species vulnerable to extinction.

6. What does it mean if a species has biocultural status?

If a species has a biocultural status, it means it is important to a particular culture. The species could be a staple food within the culture, or the species could hold cultural or religious significance for the people that live there.

7. Define “biocultural status.”

Biocultural status is a mutually beneficial relationship between a culture and an organism, where the culture protects or monitors the organism’s population, and the organism provides a provisional or cultural resource to the individuals within that culture.

Debate preparation

After students share their definitions of biocultural status, they should identify common themes and terms to create a single definition. The definition should reference the relationship between a culture, the organism being protected and their shared ecosystem.

After creating a single definition, explain that debate participants often argue for or against a single motion and that as a class, they will determine a statement about biocultural status as it relates to the allocation of conservation resources. Using the student definition, guide students to create a motion for their debate. This motion should be a statement, not a question. Here is a sample motion: Biocultural status must be considered when allocating conservation resources to protect both cultures and endangered species.

After creating the motion, divide students into three groups to prepare for the debate. One group will agree with the motion, one group will be against the motion and one group will moderate the debate. Remind students that they must speak for their designated group, even if they disagree with their own team’s position.

The two debate teams will receive a set of guiding questions to help them frame their arguments and identify their speakers. While forming its arguments, each team should reevaluate the information provided by the article. To bolster their positions, teams should search for any examples where cultural considerations played a role in protecting species or ecosystems and whether there is supporting data.

While the debate teams answer the questions, the moderators will develop two debate questions, learn more about the topic and compile resources that can be used to fact-check the debate. The moderators should also receive a copy of the debate structure and should identify the timekeepers, fact-checkers and facilitators. The moderators should prioritize forming the two debate questions, which should be rigorous and provided to both debate teams upon completion. It is important that these debate questions are provided to both debate teams before the end of the class period to give them time to prepare their responses before the debate.

To give the debating teams time to prepare, provide the following questions and information about the debate structure. The moderators should also be provided a copy of the debate structure and should identify the timekeepers, fact-checkers and facilitators.

1. Review the debate structure and assign roles to each member of your group.

Pro opening statement – 3 minutes
Con opening statement – 3 minutes
Moderators present question 1 – 1 minute
Pro answer – 2 minutes
Con answer – 2 minutes

Caucus (both teams formulate their rebuttals) – 5 minutes
Pro rebuttal – 4 minutes
Con rebuttal – 4 minutes
Moderators present question 2 – 1 minute
Con answer – 2 minutes
Pro answer – 2 minutes

Caucus (both teams formulate their rebuttals) – 5 minutes
Con rebuttal – 4 minutes
Pro rebuttal – 4 minutes
Con closing statement – 3 minutes
Pro closing statement – 3 minutes

Opening statement speaker: Student name
Speaker answering question 1: Student name
Rebuttal speaker 1: Student name
Speaker answering question 2: Student name
Rebuttal speaker 2: Student name
Closing statement speaker: Student name

2. The opening statement of a debate often explains the debate team’s perspective on the motion and uses evidence to back up the claim. Using data, draft an opening statement for your team.

Student answers will vary. In a project funded by the European Research Council, Victoria Reyes-García and colleagues  found that 68 percent of 385 culturally important plant and animal species are both biologically vulnerable and at risk of losing their cultural protections. The cultural protections vary from species to species, but often include monitoring of a species’s population numbers.

For example, the dugong, native to the coastal waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans, have had their populations monitored by the Torres Strait Islanders. While the islanders hunted the dugong, they did it sustainably — ensuring that the population size of the animals remained stable. In that way, they provided protection for these animals. Now that the Torres Strait Islanders’ way of life is threatened, the dugong is losing the protection that the culture once provided.

But considerations such as these are not generally included in the designations of threatened species from the IUCN. The IUCN designation is important for the allocation of resources. So species that are culturally threatened might not be getting the conservation resources they need.

To summarize, culturally important species, like the dugong, are vulnerable, and are losing their cultural protections. These culturally important species need increased population monitoring and conservation resources over other vulnerable species that are not in the process of losing their cultural protections.

3. Rebuttals are used in debate to point out flaws in the opposing team’s argument. How will your team fact-check the opposing debate team?

Student answers will vary. All members of the team who are not actively speaking will be looking through their notes or through resources as the opposing debate team is speaking. They will write down anything that they cannot verify is true.

4. During the caucus, debate teams will discuss the flaws in their opponents answer and formulate their rebuttal. How will your team share information and formulate the rebuttal in five minutes?

Student answers will vary. During the caucus, the fact-checkers will share their notes, identifying any points stated by the opposing team that might not be accurate. The fact-checkers will also share any points the team can overrule. Using the shared information, the team members will write down the points they believe their speaker should address during the rebuttal.

5. The closing statement presented in a debate should reiterate the most important points of your argument, including the rebuttals. What information will your team use in the closing statement? How will your team craft/modify the closing statement during the debate?

Student answers will vary. Our team will reference our opening statement by saying that without a recognition of cultural threats, culturally important species cannot realistically be granted conservation resources based on their need. Because 68 percent of the culturally important species studied are both biologically threatened and at risk of losing their cultural protections, conservation resources should be allocated to them over vulnerable species that aren’t also losing cultural protections.

Along with referencing our opening statement, we will also reference our responses to the debate questions and highlight our rebuttals. When including the main points of our rebuttals, we will make sure that we include both the information that strengthens our arguments and the information we used to weaken the arguments of the opposing debate team.

During the debate, anyone who is not speaking will be identifying some of the key points we present and will write down the main points that we make during our rebuttals. This way, we can reference our strongest arguments and pinpoint our opponents’ weakest arguments for the closing statement.

Debate day

To prepare for debate day, rearrange the classroom so that there are three separate sections, one for each team. The debate teams should be placed on opposite sides of the room with a middle section for the moderators. Two “speaking chairs” should be placed front and center for each debate team’s speakers.

Before starting the debate, ensure that the moderators have access to stopwatches, yellow paper to signal that the speaker has 30 seconds remaining and red paper to signal the end of time. Use the debate structure you previously provided the students.

As each debate team’s speaker answers questions, the students on the other team should be listening to the statements delivered, looking for factual errors and weak arguments that could be rebutted. During the caucuses, each debate team will develop its rebuttal.

At the end of the debate, the moderators will discuss the outcome of the debate with their teacher and determine the winner based on accuracy of information presented, the quantity of supporting evidence substantiating a team’s claims and whether teams were able to provide contradictions or weaknesses in the opposing team arguments. When revealing the winning team, the moderators should explain which points provided by each team informed their decision.

Middle ground

Following the debate, students should participate in a discussion to find a middle ground for both arguments presented in the debate. In this discussion, students should identify a way to consider biocultural status in conservation resource allocation that satisfies both parties. Students should work together as a class to identify what this solution might look like. Alternatively, students can be assigned to propose a way to allocate conservation resources that satisfies both debate teams. The goal is to identify a middle ground that uses both the information and arguments provided during the debate.