WESPEN Online Order Form print this page
US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

Connecting to the Outside: Surrogate Species for the Non – Scientist

Region 1, December 14, 2012
With a greater understanding of why the Service is 
shifting to a surrogate species model, the connection of the public with nature will also be enhanced.
With a greater understanding of why the Service is shifting to a surrogate species model, the connection of the public with nature will also be enhanced. - Photo Credit: n/a

James Conright U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Region 1


As a Service employee without a scientific background, I feel that it is essential to our mission to explain the surrogate species program in a way that can be easily understood by the American public. In addition, it is vital to promote an understanding of the methods of land management that have been developed over the past 140 years of conservation.

With a greater understanding of why the Service is shifting to a surrogate species model, the connection of the public with nature will also be enhanced. In the recent past, many land managers have used ecosystem management to conserve the plants and animals within their respective areas by creating a healthy home for the various species. While this provided a holistic approach designed to encompass all of the species within the manager’s area, the vague term of “habitat health” associated with this system led to vague goals.

Many of the land managers focused on the processes that sustain the lands instead of the lands themselves, which could be likened to trying to drive a car by only looking at a GPS, and not at the road. One could see where one needs to turn, but would miss any of the specific details of the road such as stop lights, pedestrians and the occasional speed bump. In much the same way, land managers could easily overlook certain unknown factors and unexpected circumstances in managing the habitat, which could have potentially devastating effects.

Another well-known system for conservation management is the use of an indicator species. By monitoring a particular species, land managers could estimate the general health of the habitat. However, much like ecosystem management, vague goals and definitions have led to varying results.

Probably the biggest conundrum of this method would be to identify what was to be indicated, and how to measure it. Using the moving vehicle analogy again, this could be akin to a car full of biologists who are all trying to determine the best way to reach a city via a highway. Some would argue that by reaching the city limits, their goals have been met, while others would insist on reaching the city center. Also, each would have varying ideas of the routes to take, as well as the best indications of how their trip was proceeding. Some would argue that speed and time was the best overall indicator of the trip, while others would say that gas mileage was the way to determine how it was going.

While the use of both ecosystem management and indicator species management systems have met with some success, budgetary constraints have often left some species out of the conservation plan. Working with restrictive monetary resources, our biologists have had to make some tough choices over the years. Some species have been the focus of conservation efforts due to their dwindling numbers, while others have been chosen because they could provide a good insight into the workings of their habitats. Simply put, different people see things differently, and this is very evident in both the ecosystem and the indicator species management styles.

The surrogate species model is a reshaping of the two styles into one, more manageable, program. The proper management of a surrogate species, (also termed “umbrella” or “focal” species) will have a positive ripple effect on both its habitat, and the other species that share the habitat. This model not only sets clearly defined goals for a desired conservation effect, but also provides a unique learning environment for the biologists by providing solid data they can use for future conservation efforts. The car full of biologists now have an exact point where they will be driving to, as well as a list of possible routes to get there. Within the loose definition of the surrogate species concept there are more tightly defined terms which can help explain the main goal including keystone, flagship and umbrella species.

A keystone species is one whose impacts on other species are extremely vital to the ecosystem that they inhabit. As the name implies, a keystone is the very center stone of an arch which holds the entire structure together. Should that keystone be removed, the entire arch will collapse. One of the best examples of a keystone species is the sea otter and its role in protecting kelp forests. Sea otters are predators that consume (among other things) sea urchins. Sea urchins are herbivores that feed on the “roots” and other structures of kelp. Kelp forests provide structure and food resources for an incredible amount of fish and other marine animals and are considered one of the most productive systems in the world. When sea otter numbers were reduced due to fur harvest, kelp forests were decimated by the overpopulation and resulting over-grazing of the sea urchin (Estes et al 1978). Maintaining healthy populations of sea otters preserves and balances the kelp forest system and positively affects a multitude of species.

Flagship species are species that the general public could easily rally behind in support of their habitat and are usually a large, fuzzy vertebrate such as the polar bear. Although the loss of one of these species isn’t always detrimental to their ecosystem, they are still very important to help people recognize the need for conservation. The clown fish, popularized by Pixar’s Finding Nemo is a good example of a flagship species whose loss of habitat is directly related to climate change (Dell'Amore, C. 2009). Umbrella species are species that indirectly provide for conservation of multiple species, usually because umbrella species are typically wide ranging and use large habitat areas.
Three ways to identify an umbrella species are: Co-occurrence of species, degree of ubiquity, and sensitivity to human disturbance (Fleishman, Murphy, & Blair, 2001).

Firstly, and most critically, biologists must determine if there is co-occurrence of species, in other words how many other species are found in the same area used by the proposed umbrella species. This can help predict not only the area of land that will benefit from surrogate species management, but also the degree to which the entire habitat will benefit.

Secondly, they must determine how common the umbrella species is. If a species is too common then it won’t be possible to protect all areas it occurs, and if it is too rare it is not likely to include many other species.

Lastly, by determining the species sensitivity to human disturbance, biologists can evaluate if it will provide a protective umbrella to the other species that are equally or less sensitive to human activities.

Keystone, flagship and umbrella as well as other terms help to shape what will likely be selected as surrogate species. Much like the ecosystem management model, the surrogate species system will bolster the natural development of the land to be host to indigenous wildlife and healthy habitats, yet will focus on clearly defined goals. Also, by monitoring in this way biologists will have a bigger picture of the landscape. Altogether, this approach will save the Service, and by extension the American public, a lot of time and money while furthering our understanding of our natural resources.“Our task must be to free ourselves... by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.” – Albert Einstein

References Dell'Amore, Christine. "Ten Climate Change "Flagship" Species Named." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 14 Dec. 2009. Web. 29 Oct. 2012. . Estes, James E.; Norman S. Smith, John F. Palmisano (1978). "Sea otter predation and community organization in the Western Aleutian Islands, Alaska". Ecology (Ecology, Vol. 59, No. 4) 59 (4): 822–833. doi:10.2307/1938786. JSTOR 1938786Fleshman, E., Murphy, D., & Blair, R. (2001). Selecting Effective Umbrella Species. Conservation Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 2.

Contact Info: Jason Holm, 503-231-2264, jason_holm@fws.gov