The concept of an umbrella species has been used by conservation practitioners to provide protection for other species using the same habitat as the umbrella species. As the term implies, a species casts an “umbrella” over the other species by being more or equally sensitive to habitat changes. Thus monitoring this one species and managing for its continued success results in the maintenance of high quality habitat for the other species in the area. Animals identified as umbrella species typically have large home ranges that cover multiple habitat types. Therefore, protecting the umbrella species effectively protects many habitat types and the many species that depend on those habitats. Although the effectiveness of this conservation approach is debated, it is often used by practitioners to select a minimum size for protected areas.
Although the exact origin of the term is difficult to pin down, the word “umbrella” was first used in conjunction with conservation measures by Frankel and Soule in 1981. They suggested that directing conservation measures at large species could provide protection to other species that were not the focus of the conservation efforts. Thus, the concept of an “umbrella” was discussed and used by conservationists before the phrase “umbrella species” was in common use. Wilcox (1984) defined an umbrella species as one whose minimum area requirements are at least as large as the rest of the community for which protection is sought. This protection is obtained through the establishment and management of protected areas.
The umbrella species concept is often applied to conservation efforts, both to create and to maintain protected areas. In some land conservation cases, a species is identified as an umbrella species, the minimum land required for their survival is calculated, and then the project seeks to protect this area. It is important to clarify that although the name implies that this conservation technique is focused on the selected wildlife species, it is inherently an approach focused on selection of quality habitat. This requires conservation practitioners to have a clear understanding of the actual habitat requirements of the umbrella species or of other species under the umbrella.
Scientists do not agree on what characteristics identify a species as an umbrella species. Most often, umbrella species have large ranges; more specifically they are often large, terrestrial mammals. These animals are typically used because adequate protection efforts for them generally require that large areas of land be protected. Examples of umbrella species include grizzly bears in British Columbia, Canada and black rhinos in Namibia, Africa. Smaller animals that have been used as umbrella species include the hooded robin (a songbird in Australia) and the bay checkerspot butterfly in California (United States). Alternatively, some conservationists will choose an animal as an umbrella species based upon its rarity and sensitivity to human disturbance.
Using the umbrella species concept as a conservation tool is not always perceived as effective. Today, there is some question about the usefulness of conservation projects that have been based on the umbrella species concept. Some conservationists feel that no single species can adequately encompass all habitat requirements for all the species that share its habitat. A commonly cited example of this controversy is the conservation effort based on the California gnatcatcher (a songbird). Researchers found that areas where the gnatcatcher lived did not necessarily support populations of three insect species that share habitat with the bird. Therefore, using the gnatcatcher as an umbrella species did not offer enough protection for all three of those insect species.
Similar conservation terms
Several other conservation concepts are also based on a single-species approach to conservation. A few examples are listed below:
- Indicator species: a single species (or more often, a suite of species) is identifiied as an indicator species because (their) presence, absence or abundance reflects a specific environmental condition. For example, the Northern Spotted Owl is used to indicate old growth forest in the United States, or amphibian species are used as indicators of freshwater ecosystem health.
- Flagship species: a species that has become a symbol and leading element of an entire conservation campaign, often a large charismatic mammal. For example, the Florida panther in the United States or the polar bear which has come to symbolize the perils of climate change.
- Keystone species: a species whose presence contributes to ecosystem function and whose elimination would lead to the disappearance of other species in the ecosystem. For example, black-tailed prairie dogs in the United States, or elephants in Asia or Africa.
- Fleishman, E.D., D. Murphy, and P.F. Brussard. 2000. A new method for selection of umbrella species for conservation planning. Ecological Applications 10:569-579.
- Frankel, O.H., and M.E. Soule. 1981. Conservation and evolution. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
- Roberge, J-M., P. Angelstam. 2004. Usefulness of the umbrella species concept as a conservation tool. Conservation Biology 18:76-85.
- Rubinoff, D. 2001. Evaluating the California Gnatcatcher as an umbrella species for conservation of southern California coastal sage scrub. Conservation Biology 15:1374-1383.
- Wilcox, Bruce A. 1984. "In situ conservation of genetic resources: Determinants of minimum area requirements." In National Parks, Conservation and Development, Proceedings of the World Congress on National Parks. J.A. McNeely and K.R. Miller, Smithsonian Institution Press, pp. 18-30.
This article created as part of the Student Science Communication Project. Graduate student authors: Nathaly Filion and Kim Hoffmann, Reviewer: Therese Donovan. Class: Conservation Techniques and Approaches. See: EoE in the Classroom