Are All Species Important for Preserving Biodiversity?

December 12, 2019
The way in which species are used to preserve biodiversity has been the subject of great debate over the years. In this article, we want to give you a brief overview of this complicated topic.

For many years now, conservationists have selected and protected certain species in the hope of preserving biodiversity. However, the effectiveness of this strategy is often called into question by environmental experts. The question is: why? And aren’t all species equally important for preserving the biodiversity of our planet?

Preserving biodiversity: species classification

Umbrella species

Umbrella species are some of the most heavily-protected animals in the world. Conservationists believe that protecting them will, in turn, help to protect many other species that share their habitat. According to biologist Martha Groom, an umbrella species is a “large, wide-ranging species whose needs include those of many other species”. They can also be used to help choose the locations of future wildlife reserves.

The term was first used by Bruce Wilcox back in 1984, and has been the subject of heated debate ever since. Some experts believe that umbrella species are extremely useful in preserving biodiversity, while others believe that protecting a variety of smaller creatures (such as invertebrates) could be more effective.

Most umbrella species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list of endangered species, meaning they are threatened or at risk of extinction. As such, their protection also extends to the conservation of their habitat.

In Spain, for example, one of the main umbrella species is the brown bear. It has a wide range of ecological needs, and its conservation helps to protect all the species around it.

A brown bear.

Preserving biodiversity: iconic or flagship species

Flagship species are those considered charismatic enough to act as a symbol for environmental protection. Conservationists choose these particular animals to capture the attention of the public and government alike. This makes it easier to obtain funds to protect that species and the other, less “attractive” species with which they share their habitat.

The most common flagship species are large mammals. They are often the best-known and most striking animals, and help to generate greater empathy from people.

Preserving biodiversity.

These animals may represent an entire ecosystem or a specific environmental issue. One example is the use of sea turtles to help highlight the danger of plastic for our oceans.

Some of these species even represent global organizations dedicated to conservation, such as the famous WWF panda. 

Indicator species

Indicator species are those which researchers can use to monitor the biological state of a particular area. Their presence reflects a specific environmental condition. Researchers can also use them to define a particular region. For example, by studying a species which lives exclusively in desert regions, you can pinpoint where a desert begins and ends.

In terms of conservation, however, their most valuable usage is in determining the health of an ecosystem. In this case, indicator species are those which are most sensitive to changes in environmental conditions, and can be used as an early warning sign for pollution and climate change. For example, lichens are a good indicator of air quality.

Some lichen.

Indicator species can help us to understand the state of the environment, determine ecological regions, discover outbreaks of disease, and control climate change. 

Preserving biodiversity: keystone species

Keystone species are those whose abundance has a disproportionate impact on their ecosystem, as their presence affects the rest of the organisms who live there. As such, the absence of these species could cause the entire ecosystem to collapse.

The best example of this is the predator-prey relationship. The presence of a specific predator prevents the abundant herbivore population from destroying the flora in that ecosystem.

“Ecosystem engineers” are another example. These are animals which significantly modify their habitat. Elephants are a prime example, destroying trees and making way for grazing species. Without them, the African savanna would turn back into forest, and would cease to exist.

Keystone species are important for preserving biodiversity.

How using these species can have a negative impact on conservation

However, the use of these species as tools for conservation can actually skew environmental protection efforts in their favor. Focusing solely on them takes the spotlight away from the less “charismatic” animals that are facing extinction.

For example, protecting the green frog in an effort to preserve semi-permanent wetlands. The green frog doesn’t capture the imagination of the public. When it comes to devising a way to preserve this habitat, conservationists must look for more “attractive” species.

Conservationists often choose flagship species over umbrella species in an attempt to awaken public interest, not just for the animal itself, but for the entire ecosystem.

The capercaillie.

In Europe, there are two animals which are both flagship and umbrella species: the brown bear and the capercaillie. Both are protected, and are greatly admired by the public. However, conservation efforts have often been linked to illegal activities which have little to do with preserving biodiversity.

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