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 are:
- "A wide-ranging species whose requirements include those of many other species"
- 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:
- "Traditional umbrella species, relatively large-bodied and wide-ranging species of higher vertebrates"
In land use 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. Dunk, Zielinski and Welsh (2006) reported that the reserves in Northern California (the Klamat h-Siskiyou forests), set aside for the northern spotted owl, also protect mollusks and salamanders within that habitat. They found that the reserves set aside for the northern spotted owl "serve as a reasonable coarse-filter umbrella species for the taxa evaluated", which were mollusks and salamanders.
In the Endangered Species Act (US)
The bay checkerspot butterfly has been on the Endangered Species List since 1987. 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 has a loophole excluding federally protected plants on private property. However, the California Environmental Quality Act reinforces state conservation regulations. Using the Endangered Species Act to protect termed umbrella species and their habitats can be controversial because they are not as well enforced in some states as others (such as California) to protect overall biodiversity.
- Northern spotted owls and old-growth forest: 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
- Right whales
- Roberge, Jean-Michel; Angelstam, Per (2004). "Usefulness of the Umbrella Species Concept as a Conservation Tool". Conservation Biology. 18 (1): 76–85. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2004.00450.x.
- Groom, Martha (2006). Principles of conservation biology. Sinauer Associates. ISBN 978-0-87893-597-0. OCLC 70686894.
- Ozaki, Kenichi; Isono, Masahiro; Kawahara, Takayuki; Iida, Shigeo; Kudo, Takuma; Fukuyama, Kenji (2006). "A Mechanistic Approach to Evaluation of Umbrella Species as Conservation Surrogates". Conservation Biology. 20 (5): 1507–1515. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2006.00444.x.
- "Glossary". NOAA. 2007. Retrieved 22 April 2018.
- Launer, Alan E.; Murphy, Dennis D. (1994). "Umbrella species and the conservation of habitat fragments: A case of a threatened butterfly and a vanishing grassland ecosystem". Biological Conservation. 69 (2): 145–153. doi:10.1016/0006-3207(94)90054-x.
- 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. Archived from the original on 2016-02-20. Retrieved 2016-02-03.
- On the Right Way to Right Whale: Protections in the Gulf of Maine—Case Study (pdf)
- Caro, Tim (2010). Conservation by proxy: indicator, umbrella, keystone, flagship, and other surrogate species. Washington, DC: Island Press. ISBN 9781597261920.