Conservation Vocab

When studying wildlife a few words or phrases might continue to pop up on different sites or videos.

If you aren’t used to hearing or seeing these phrases that get thrown around by people in the Natural Resources industry, all they might do is go over your head. It’s not uncommon for me to get on a topic of conservation with friends or family and have to reel it back when I see the blank stares I get from the captive audience just to remember that I do need to take some time to explain some of the things I’m used to saying.

I also understand that feeling from the other end too. Last year my roommates were studying Engineering, Math and Computer Science (Our household name was STEM privilege). Any conversation about studies went entirely over my head. In one conversation I asked one of my roommates, “What is a byte and what do they measure?”, and “what is math beyond algebra, and why is it devil worship?”

So I wanted to make a post about some of the common words or phrases that conservationist say that might not be that well understood by the general public. Back in the first post on this blog, I said that I would keep this blog from feeling like I’m talking over anyone’s head but giving people information to understand the concepts here. The absolute best way I can think of doing that is to give it my usual flare of memes, gifs, random asides and the occasional scientific name.

Before we get started, just a few notes on this post.

Because there are an absolute ton of words that are used by conservationists, we’re only going to go over four that have been on my mind a lot lately and are really interesting. The words I chose for this post all deal with general conservation efforts and choosing what species to focus on for saving species or ecosystems. Also these are pretty commonly thrown around and fun topics to talk about.

If you all enjoy this type of post, let me know by liking or commenting. I really enjoyed making this and would love to make more if you’re interested in reading them to learn more conservation lingo. Maybe making this into a side category of posts that are easier for me to write and can come out a bit more reliably to sit in between larger, more themed posts.

Without further adieu, Conservation Vocab!

Lets get started!

umbrella Species

Let’s kick this off with the one I would call the most interesting an yet least talked about! An umbrella species is one that is used to simplify the protection of other species because of a large territory size, large migratory routes or the necessity of different habitats to survive. Because they require large tracts of land in order to survive, the protections that are set to preserve their habitat would also help those with overlapping ranges.

When trying to protect the highest number of species or habitats possible, that’s when an umbrella species comes in handy. Take the Atlantic Goliath Grouper for example!

They can be found in tidal pools and mangroves as juveniles, shallower reefs as adolescents and deeper reefs and more open water as adults. This variety in habitats means that if protections are put up to protect the grouper and it’s home, then a wide range of habitats and species will benefit from those protections. Grouper protections make it so there aren’t just islands of protected areas for wildlife, but corridors for animals to move through and increase the number of plant and animal diversity in all the ecosystems protected.

Another awesome example of an umbrella species is the Monarch Butterfly!

Monarchs have such a large range that protecting their stopping, breeding and roosting sites means that lots of habitats are protected. In the United States alone, there are around 750 species of butterflies found in the US and while they don’t all live in the same habitat as the Monarch moves through, according to the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s page on Monarch conservation, ” When you create habitat for Monarchs, you are also creating habitat for hundreds of pollinator species, including bees, flies, moths and butterflies.” These habitats also help out native plants, birds, reptiles and everyone else in the system!

Keystone Species

Of the four we’re going to cover, this is most likely going to be the one you covered in a science class. The definition I think sums them up best is that a keystone species has a disproportionately large impact on their environment. So large that if they were removed, many factors of the ecosystem would drastically change. Keystone species may not have a direct impact on their habitat, but their removal could cause the ultimate downfall of the system.

All species in an environment apply a top-down pressure on their environment. Using the figure above, the toad is kept in check not only by the snakes and hawk above it, but also by the bird and rat that are it’s competitors for food or other resources. It can keep the insects below it in check as they keep the producers (plants) in check. This is a (VERY) basic model how ecosystems work and keep themselves balanced. Even the top predator is kept in check by other hawks, and the availability of all the species beneath it.

Let’s say both of the snakes were removed from the system. This seemingly minor shift would cause the hawk population to decrease dramatically because the things it eats no longer exist and it’s main support was availability of prey. Once the three main predators were either removed or declined, the populations for the animals in the yellow section would grow almost exponentially. Without enough predators to keep their numbers in check, they can grow, eat and breed as much as possible. The only pressure they have are competition and availability of food. While the yellow animals grow in numbers, the animals in blue don’t have the same opportunity and are quickly fed on by the now growing number of predators.

As they go away, their impact shows in what plants can grow in the system. Mice spread the seeds of grasses and flowering plants and without them the plants that make this habitat have a harder time spreading out and growing successfully. Moths, butterflies and bees pollinate flowers and without them, flowering plants can no longer reproduce. At this point, the animals in yellow now are in a steep decline and are forced either to starve, move or find new sources of food because they ate themselves out of options. This set of changes dooms not just the things we can see but now that plants are in decline, the ecosystem fundamentally changes. Soil and water aren’t held in place by plant roots and the entire landscape begins to decay until something changes.

An entire complex system reduced to rubble by a simple action.

We only directly impacted two animals. They had no direct lines to soil, flowers, grass or bees. But the fact that the entire ecosystem came tumbling down with their removal shows that -at least in this situation- the snakes were keystone for this system. It should also be noted that while every animal is important for it’s home, not all are keystone. If we had removed the toad, grasshopper or even hawk, the ecosystem might have become unbalanced for a short period, then returned to a new normal without messing up the entire pyramid.

The environmental chaos that ensued after the snakes were removed, is called an Ecological Cascade effect. That’s when a large number of species go extinct in an area because of the keystone’s removal. These cascades can be huge and even change entire landscapes!

Click the image to learn about a few other famous keystone species and how they manage their habitats

The sad part is it’s usually hard to tell who the keystone species is until the damage has already been done. The changes from the removal of a keystone species won’t normally appear within days or a year of removal, but normally are slower and can show after decades without their respective keystone.

Indicator Species

Also known as Bio-indicators, these organisms tell the scientists something about the health of the ecosystem. This could be soil composition and acidity, water quality, food availability or even just overall ecosystem stability and diversity. These species are most likely going to be looked at if a researcher is trying to study an ecosystem because they’re the environmental tattle-tales. When or if something in an ecosystem changes, they’re probably going to be impacted and will serve as the perfect pulse for scientists to watch.

What makes a good indicator species?

In some way, they must be specialized. It’s hard to use an animal (like a raccoon) as a bio-indicator because they can live, eat and reproduce in a wide range of habitats. Many indicators (like aquatic invertebrates and amphibians) are so specialized to certain environmental conditions that they simply cannot survive without specific water parameters and flow rates. This intense specialization means that the presence or absence of a species can tell you about the quality of the water in an ecosystem!

Eastern Screech Owl in cavity
Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio) In Fort Collins, Colorado

The Indicator species I got a chance to study and learn about is the Eastern Screech Owl. They were rated by the city of Fort Collins, CO as indicators for river health of the Cache le Poudre River that runs through town. With the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, the CSU Field Ornithology club set out on spring nights along the river to see if this small, elusive and beautiful owl was there to tell us about the health of the river.

They were listed as Indicators there, because of the specific habitat needs they had.

  • Tall dense woodlands near water
  • Large trees with big woodpecker (Normally Northern Flicker) holes to nest in
  • Healthy enough to support their diet of small animals (Birds, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans and mammals)

These three qualifications makes them specialized. Especially since some of their requirements are dependent on other indicators like crustaceans and amphibians for water quality. So finding a pair of nesting Eastern Screech Owls in Fort Collins, tells researchers that the river is healthy and the territory is biodiverse enough to have food to feed them and their young.

Connections associated with being an indicator species can be direct in the case of invertebrates or amphibians and water quality, Or indirect like the complex connection between the screech owl and river health in Fort Collins. Either way, they’re Important for researchers of environmental health. By looking at the health and success of indicators, entire ecosystems can be monitored relatively easily!

Flagship Species

Giant Pandas are arguably the biggest example of a Flagship Species in conservation now.

According to World Wildlife Fund, a flagship species is one that will, “act as an ambassador, icon or symbol for a defined habitat, issue, campaign or environmental cause.” This basically means that a species can be selected to be the poster child for some aspect of conservation work as a whole.

This practice has been used since the 1970’s and 80’s. It’s a great way to organize and gain funding for environmental causes. It’s similar to how the umbrella species works, but it doesn’t require a ecological impact, just a social or economic one.

An ad with the image of Bison may spur some people to donate to help conserve them, or just get people like me to spend money on a pin, sticker, hat or shirt with them on it. Either way, funding was given to this animal and their habitat’s conservation. Not only saving them, but also all the species that live with them. The Bison is an ambassador not just for its own species, but for the Great Plains as a whole.

Flagships are the important public faces of conservation. From Sea Turtles to symbolize the plastic free movement, Elephants and Rhinos to symbolize anti-poaching and Polar bears to symbolize the effects or impacts of Climate change. They are what gains public interest for the local environment or ecosystem they are ambassadors of and are placed on logos. flags, toys and stuffed animals to catch the eye of the public and be a focus for external efforts.

But there are a few problems that can arise from the use of Flagship species for conservation.

One issue is that the nature of the flagship is to gain public attention, so selection can be very arbitrary. The species selected as flagships don’t have to hold any of the titles we covered earlier, and simply have to be seen as cute or culturally significant to the general public. Lett’s touch back on the idea of Bison as a flagship for the Great Plains. Because they’re also keystone and umbrella species for that habitat, donations to help bison, would help other species. Yet that’s not always the case. Sometimes species picked to be flagships have no major impact on their environment or other species they share it with. In these situations, the millions (or US$2.6-6.9 billions in the case of the Giant Panda) of support dollars goes only to that one species with no good faith that the system will be helped equally.

The other issue with the use of flagship species is that they can completely lose any environmental impact if the focus is on captive efforts. If the focus of the ambassador is to have captive breeding, rearing and care for them, then the overall impacts the species might have on the environment is completely removed. the Prime example of this is the Koala in the Australian bush.

Large swaths of New South Wales in Australia is and has been burning for a while now. and these massive fires have displaced a lot of people, animals and ecosystems. During this there have been tons of donations to helping to replant, and rebuild these damaged ecosystems. Since the flagship for the forests are Koalas, a large sum (around $2 million) went directly to the captive breeding efforts for that cute umbrella species.

The problem with that comes with captive breeding not helping to actively make habitat or protecting the wide variety of other more endangered but less cute species affected by the fires.

This can be a real problem when the species selected as a flagship outshines others that need more help but don’t have the level of public backing and care that goes to flagships. This can spell doom for generally un-charismatic species like reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and fish that very rarely get to hold the spotlight as a flagship but might need even more attention than the lucky few that get the title.

Flagship species carry a bit of controversy in the realm of conservation because they’re important to getting the public to care and donate, yet when not done correctly, they can force conservation efforts to take a few steps back and make more problems than they set to solve. As with anything, there are pros and cons to every practice. The money raised from flagship campaigns can really help conserve not just that species, but also the communities of people, ecosystems and the species they share the land with. When donating to flagship projects, make sure that the work your dollar is going to helps the species in the wild, and is not just helping the flagship but preferably the ecosystem as a whole in as many ways as possible.


That was longer than I originally anticipated. I hope I didn’t bore any of you, but this topic really has been on my mind for a while and I’d love to do more in Conservation Vocab!

Have a Great day and Have a Happy New Year

Sean Washington!


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