Umbrella species: a waterproof concept for conservation?

By Ine Dorresteijn

(Introductory note by Joern Fischer: We are introducing a new category in our blog — ‘concepts in sustainability and conservation’. In this category, we will briefly summarise some of those key concepts that we all ought to know about, including a small number of key references. The concepts discussed will come from both the social and natural sciences. I hope this new category will be of interest to you!)

Biodiversity conservation is an integral part of sustainability. In practice, biodiversity conservation often relies on the use of shortcuts due to (a) a lack of available data on abundance and distribution of species of conservation concern and (b) limited funding and time. One of the shortcuts in conservation management is the use umbrella species. Umbrella species are species whose conservation grants the protection of a large number of co-occurring species (Roberge & Angelstam 2004). The concept of umbrella species was introduced in the eighties when it was suggested to focus management on species with a large-ho

me range size so that the rest of the community within this home range would be protected as well. Area loss was perceived as a major threat to habitat degradation, and by protecting large species (most often mammals or birds) large tracts of habitat have to be maintained. Besides using umbrella species to set minimum requirements for protective area size, umbrella species have also been suggested as a basis for selecting conservation sites.

The use of umbrella species for conservation management has received substantial critique. First of all, very few studies have evaluated the effectiveness of conservation schemes based on umbrella species. Empirical studies that tested this presumption showed (a) very little support for the effectiveness of using an umbrella species to determine area requirements for conservation sites and (b) although the site selection approach received more support, the results were still equivocal (Roberge & Ange

lstam 2004). However, judging from basic ecological concepts this is not an unexpected result (Lindenmayer & Fischer 2003). The coexistence of species is possible through niche differentiation, and responses to environmental conditions and threats are species-specific. Therefore, it seems unlikely that one or a set of few species can be used as a proxy for the rest of the community. Despite the fact that the biological knowledge on both the umbrella species and the co-occurring species determine the feasibility of a conservation scheme, most schemes had failed to include important ecological or life-history history traits of the umbrella species (e.g. population persistence, sensitivity to disturbance, movements). Nonetheless, even though the limitations of umbrella species were known, a potential for umbrella species has been recognized and the concept has been further developed and refined. New guidelines and criteria for selecting umbrella species have been proposed which include a more detailed knowled

ge on ecology and natural history, a large home range size, the co-occurrence with species of conservation concern, a moderate sensitivity to human disturbance, and address the feasibility of sampling (Seddon & Leech 2008). Still, empirical evaluations of the umbrella species concept remain few and the potential use of umbrella species other than birds and mammals have received little attention. Recently, Branton and Richardson (2011) performed meta-analysis on 15 published studies to test whether umbrella species (birds and mammals) actually do protect co-occurring species. They also tested whether specific pre-defined criteria would help in the guidance to find appropriate umbrella species (taxonomic group, taxonomic similarity to co-occurring species, body size, generality of resource use, and trophic level). Overall, they found that abundance and richness of co-occurring species were higher in sites were umbrella species were present compared to sites were they were absent.  Furthermore, cons

ervation schemes based on avian umbrella species were more effective than schemes based on mammalian umbrella species. However, the meta-analysis did not support the use of specific criteria they had set for selection of umbrella species. Thus, again they found a potential for the use of umbrella species, but the selection criteria remain unclear.

Despite the uncertainties in selecting the right umbrella species, the concept of umbrella species remains a popular tool in conservation. For example, WWF uses the concept for promoting the protection of tigers. More applicable to our study interest, large carnivores have been suggested as umbrella species in the Romanian Carpathians since many mammalian and avian species of conservation concern would benefit from their protection (Rozylowicz et al. 2010). Since meeting all individual and species-specific needs of complex ecological communities in conservation management is not feasible,
umbrella species will most likely continue to be used frequently in the future. Since selection criteria for umbrella species can be uncertain, it means that it will be important to act with care when implementing a conservation scheme based on umbrella species. For example, Rozylowicz et al. (2010) acknowledged the li

mitations of using large carnivores as umbrella species for conservation management. However, they proposed to use them as a temporary solution, which allows time for a an efficient protected area network to be set up while at the same time halting unsustainable forestry practices such as uncontrolled clear cutting. Thus, the use of umbrella species might be a valuable tool complementary to other strategies. Wiens et al. (2008) presented a good example of how to set up an conservation plan based on multiple umbrella species which incorporates the nature of the system, the objectives and available knowledge. They highlight the importance to evaluate the effectiveness of the conservation plan, and to assess whether the assumptions of the umbrella species meet the management objectives.

Environmental regulations and a feasible environmental management plans
are considered to be essential to ensure sustainable conservation. Due to the difficulties concerning the selection of umbrella species, the concept does not provide a waterproof approach for biodiversity conservation. Nevertheless, the use of multiple umbrella species on its own or complementary to other strategies offers potential for biodiversity conservation. Additionally and importantly, umbrella species is an understandable concept that is successful in raising people’s awareness of environmental problems and the need for conservation.



Branton M, Richardson JS (2011) Assessing the Value of the Umbrella-Species Concept for Conservation Planning with Meta-Analysis. Conserv Biol 25:9-20

Lindenmayer DB, Fischer J (2003) Sound science or social hook – a response to

Brooker’s application of the focal species approach. Landscape and Urban Planning 62:149-158

Roberge JM, Angelstam P (2004) Usefulness of the umbrella species concept as a conservation tool. Conserv Biol 18:76-85

Rozylowicz L, Popescu VD, Patroescu M, Chisamera G (2010) The potential of large carnivores as conservation surrogates in the Romanian Carpathians. Biodiversity and Conservation 20:561-579

Seddon PJ, Leech T (2008) Conservation short cut, or long and winding road? A critique of umbrella species criteria. Oryx 42:240-245

Wiens JA, Hayward GD, Holthausen RS, Wisdom MJ (2008) Using surrogate species and groups for conservation planning and management. Bioscience 58:241-252


3 thoughts on “Umbrella species: a waterproof concept for conservation?

  1. Pingback: Happy birthday to our blog: One year of “Ideas4Sustainability” | Ideas for Sustainability

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