What Is an Umbrella Species? Definition and Examples

Learn why certain animals are instrumental in the conservation of ecosystems.

examples of umbrella species illustration with nine animals

Treehugger / Ellen Lindner

Umbrella species are species that are selected as representatives of their ecosystem when conservation plans are being made. By protecting these organisms, other species that are a part of their ecosystem will also benefit under the same conservation "umbrella." An umbrella species is usually chosen to make ecosystem management strategies easier in areas where there are a large number of species of concern or where the true biodiversity of an ecosystem isn’t known.

Using an umbrella species can also help conservationists make a larger positive impact with fewer resources. The term umbrella species was first coined in 1981—though the concept was used widely before then. Scientists today disagree about whether or not umbrella species should be used in conservation planning.

List of Umbrella Species

Umbrella Species Definition

Umbrella species are usually chosen because scientists believe that they are the best representatives of the ecosystem that needs to be protected. One characteristic that researchers look for in an umbrella species is their large size. That’s because the larger the individual is, the more area they need to survive. They tend to require more space to find enough food, good mates, and raise their young. Since the area where they live is often very large, it's more likely that those areas will also be home to lots of other species that need conservation.

Flagship species are also likely to be larger, more visible animals. They are used to raise money and awareness around conservation issues. But they are more often picked because they are easily recognized by the public or their charismatic appearance or behavior helps raise awareness about the need for conservation of their native ecosystem.

Like indicator species, which help alert us to changes in the environment where they live, umbrella species also need to be easily observed for scientists to study them. Plants and animals that are hard to find because of their small population size or because they move around frequently are less likely to be chosen.

How Do Umbrella Species Help Protect Their Ecosystems?

Hide and seek with spotted Owl
Spotted owl. by iqbalsiddiqui / Getty Images

The umbrella effect is the idea that protecting one species will help protect a large amount of co-occurring species. Species co-occur when their home ranges overlap. This is usually because they share some of the same habitat needs, like the types of temperatures they can survive in or the need to live in rocky terrain. By protecting the home range of an umbrella species, the habitats in that area will stay intact and livable for the other species that need to live there, too.   

A study out of the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that the number of vertebrate species in protected conservation areas for the sage grouse was 82% higher than the amount they would expect to find in an unprotected area.

Similarly, the umbrella effect of the coho salmon was tested by a team of researchers in British Columbia. They found that the species richness of other fish in the coho’s protected home range was significantly higher than outside of the conservation area.

Maybe the most well-known umbrella species is the giant panda. Research from scientists at Duke University showed that 96% of giant panda habitat overlaps with the habitats of species that are only found in that area of China. Current conservation areas for giant pandas overlap all but one endemic species habitat. By protecting the home ranges of the giant panda, the essential habitat for these species is also preserved.

Pros and Cons

The benefits of using umbrella species to protect other species in a region have been shown through decades of research. Conservation based on the identification of umbrella species home range has provided a "shortcut" to the protection of areas that may otherwise have been disturbed.

But as more studies are done on the effectiveness of umbrella species, scientists are finding holes in the theory. They’re now redefining how umbrella species should be selected so that more species have a chance to benefit. Several studies have also found that what benefits one species under the umbrella might not be best for all. For example, when the habitat of the greater sage-grouse was managed for its benefit, it actually reduced the numbers of two other species of birds that depend on sagebrush for survival. By changing the habitat of the umbrella species for its benefit, instead of just conserving the area, other species may be harmed.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is the importance of umbrella species?

    An umbrella species is chosen for its specific characteristics (for example, its large size) to protect other species in the same ecosystem during conservation efforts.

  • What's the difference between umbrella species and keystone species?

    Umbrella species is chosen as a representative of an ecosystem specifically for conservation purposes. This species protects other species within its ecosystem. While its definition does not directly involve conservation, a keystone species also holds a position of importance in its environment. The removal of a keystone species would create massive disruptions in an ecosystem.

View Article Sources
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