An umbrella species is a plant or animal species with a wide range that has life needs as high or higher than other animals in its habitat. This means that if the needs of this species are met, so will those of many other species in its area. As such, these animals are commonly used in conservation. While this term is related to other conservation ideas such as the flagship, key, or indicator species, it is actually something very different. There are criticisms of the umbrella system; however, it has been shown to be useful in several situations.
There are no international criteria for selecting animals to serve as umbrella species, but they are generally large mammals or birds, as they tend to have the widest variety of environments and often have a significant impact on their ecosystem. Types of endangered or vulnerable animals are often chosen because more people know them or because environmental legislation can be used more easily to protect them. Some environmentalists use an extended umbrella model, in which they choose multiple species of great need that have overlapping requirements, in order to have the best chance of meeting the needs of as many animals as possible. Common umbrella species include the northern spotted owl, tigers, grizzly bears, rhinos, and whales.
The use of umbrella species is designed to facilitate the process of conservation and environmental decision making. With so many millions of diverse forms of wildlife in need of surveillance and protection, it can be difficult to assess the individual needs of each species. Since the requirements of umbrella species include those of so many other species, conservationists can reasonably assume that they have helped all other species that share requirements with it when they help it.
This model is also used in the creation of wildlife reserves. In this situation, conservationists calculate which area an umbrella species would need and then designate which area this animal would need as an area of concern or reserve.
Although the protection of an umbrella species is supposed to automatically provide protection to other surrounding organisms, this is often difficult to control in practice. Some also believe that focusing on one species to the detriment of others is not the best method of conservation. In addition, little research has been done to confirm whether the umbrella model really works, and many studies that have been done on it show that it is not always effective. For example, Noss et al. (1996) found that while grizzly bears would function quite well as an umbrella animal, the needs of reptiles in the bear area would not be met. Despite these criticisms, the model worked well in several situations. For example, Martinkainen et al. (1998) found that white-backed woodpeckers worked well as an umbrella for a particular type of beetle.
The idea of choosing a species to help or control is also used in choosing a flagship, key, or indicator species. Flagship species are animals that are chosen as the “face” of an environmental campaign because they are attractive and known to many people. For example, pandas or whales are commonly used as iconic animals.
Key species are animals that have a fairly small range, but have a large impact on their environment, such as beavers. Indicator species are those that can be used to learn certain things about the environment around them. For example, some types of fish can only live in very clean waters, so the presence of this fish in an area would indicate that the water is clean.