Umbrella species are species selected for making conservation-related decisions, typically because protecting these species indirectly protects the many other species that make up the ecological community of its habitat. Species conservation can be subjective because it is hard to determine the status of many species. With millions of species of concern, the identification of selected keystone species, flagship species or umbrella species makes conservation decisions easier. Umbrella species can be used to help select the locations of potential reserves, find the minimum size of these conservation areas or reserves, and to determine the composition, structure and processes of ecosystems.
Two commonly used definitions:
- A: "A wide-ranging species whose requirements include those of many other species"
- B: A species with large area requirements for which protection of the species offers protection to other species that share the same habitat
Other descriptions include:
- A: "The protection of umbrella species automatically extends protection to other species. i.e. spotted owl and old growth trees"
- B: "Traditional umbrella species, relatively large-bodied and wide-ranging species of higher vertebrates"
Use in landuse management
The use of umbrella species as a conservation tool is highly debated. The term was first used by Wilcox (1984)  who defined an umbrella species as one whose minimum area requirements are at least as comprehensive of the rest of the community for which protection is sought though the establishment and management of a protected area.
Some scientists have found that the umbrella effect provides a simpler way to manage ecological communities. Others feel that a combination of other tools establish better land management reserves to help protect more species than just using umbrella species alone. Individual invertebrate species can be good umbrella species because they can protect older, unique ecosystems. There have been cases where umbrella species have protected a large amount of area which has been beneficial to surrounding species such as the northern spotted owl.
Currently research is being done on land management decisions based on using umbrella species to protect habitat of specific species as well as other organisms in the area. Dunk, Zielinski and Welsh (2006) reported that the reserves in Northern California (Klamath-Siskiyou forests), set aside for the northern spotted owl, also protect mollusks and salamanders within that habitat. According to their conclusions, the reserves set aside for the northern spotted owl “serve as a reasonable coarse-filter umbrella species for the taxa [they] evaluated,” which were the mollusks and salamanders.
Use in the Endangered Species Act (USA)
The Bay checkerspot butterfly has been on the Endangered Species List since 1987 and is still currently listed. Launer and Murphy (1994) tried to determine whether this butterfly could be considered an umbrella species in protecting the native grassland it inhabits. They discovered that the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has a loophole to eliminate federally protected plants that reside on private property. However, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reinforces state conservation regulations. Using the ESA to protect termed umbrella species and their habitats can be controversial because they are not as reinforced in some states as others (such as California) to protect overall biodiversity.
Examples of umbrella species
- Northern spotted owls and old growth forest: ex. Molluscs and salamanders are within the protective boundaries of the northern spotted owl.
- Bay checkerspot butterfly and grasslands
- Amur tigers in the Russian Far East are considered umbrella/keystone species due to their impact on the deer and boar in their ecosystem
- Roberge, Jean-Michael and Per Angelstam. 2004. "Usefulness of the Umbrella Species Concept as a Conservation Tool." Conservation Biology, Vol. 18, No. 1, 76-85
- Groom, Martha J., Gary K. Meffe and C. Ronald Carroll. 2006. Principles of Conservation Biology. Sunderland, Massachusetts, Sinauer Associates, Inc.
- Ozaki, Kenichi, Masahiro Isono, Takayuki Kawahara, Shigeo Iida, Takuma Kudo and Kenji Fukuyama. 2006. "A Mechanistic Approach to Evaluation of Umbrella Species as Conservation Surrogates." Conservation Biology, Vol. 20, No. 5, 1507-1515.
- NOAA. 2007. Glossary. Available: http://www8.nos.noaa.gov/coris_glossary/index.aspx?letter=u.
- Wilmers, Christopher. 2007. Lecture: April 11, 2007.
- Launer, Alan E. and Dennis D. Murphy. 1994. "Umbrella Species and the Conservation of Habitat Fragments: A Case of a Threatened Butterfly and a Vanishing Grassland Ecosystem." Biological Conservation, Vol. 69, No. 2, 145-153.
- 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.
- Dunk, Jeffrey R., William J. Zielinkski and Hartwell H. Walsh, Jr. 2006. “Evaluating reserves for species richness and representation in northern California.” Diversity and Distributions, Vol. 12, 434-442.
- "Russia's Tough Tigers - National Zoo| FONZ". nationalzoo.si.edu. Retrieved 2016-02-03.