Thousands of species teeter on the edge of extinction, and neither governments nor philanthropists are giving remotely enough funding to save them all. However, the frantic pace of the sixth great mass extinction in Earth's history could be slowed substantially if we focus on so-called umbrella species, whose preservation will save many others. A new study has found that, while the idea of umbrella species has been around for a while, we haven't identified them well. A new method could change that and prove the salvation of many endangered plants and animals in the process.
To save an animal in the wild, it is necessary to remove the threats, be they loss of habitat, poaching, or introduced competitors. Often, the same things menace others sharing the same territory, who benefit from the same projects. The most famous umbrella species is the panda. Though apparently often bent on their own demise, the enormous funding these adorable floofballs attract has protected the other inhabitants of the same bamboo forests.
According to University of Queensland PhD student Michelle Ward, potential umbrella species status is one of the factors that was considered when Australia chose 73 from its 1,828 identified threatened species for conservation priority. Unfortunately, “many umbrella species are chosen based on their public appeal, rather than their efficiency for protecting other species,” Ward said in a statement.
Ward is part of a team that looked at which Australian species could serve as umbrellas for each other – a feature that requires common threats as well as shared habitat. The study's senior author Professor Hugh Possingham explained to IFLScience that if the major threat to one species is an introduced predator, while another in the same territory was most affected by fire, umbrella status would not apply. Although the results are specific to Australia, the pioneering methodology could be useful worldwide. Their findings are published in Conservation Biology.
The paper suggests that the relatively low-profile Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) is Australia's umbrella champion. The team project that protecting the bittern would bring another 15 creatures – mostly fellow birds – into the modern ark. The bittern is already on the conservation priority list, but four of the next six are not. Astonishingly, this includes Australia's panda counterpart in slothfulness and fussy eating, the koala. Stemming the threat to koalas, which has escalated dramatically with so many killed in the current bushfires, could save another 10 species without any extra costs.
Ward and Possingham created an algorithm to calculate how many species they could save by picking the most cost-effective umbrellas. For the same cost as it would take to protect the existing 73 priorities, they estimate we could save 816 plant and animal species – 46 percent of Australia's threatened or endangered list. All figures are based either on estimates of conservation program needs created by the teams working on those animals or the authors' extrapolations to similar conditions where such estimates aren't available.
Unfortunately, Possingham acknowledged, protection of the 73 existing priorities is far from fully funded, so there is not an adequate pool of money waiting to be redirected. “The biggest problem is we have an order of magnitude too little money,” he told IFLScience.
Nevertheless, the method described in the paper could have widespread applications – at least in countries where information on species distribution and costs is good – and help pull hundreds or thousands of unique lifeforms back from the brink.