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What is an "umbrella species," and how does the Andean bear earn the title?

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Andean bears are an emblem of South American wildlife. Living in five countries along the Andes Mountain Range and occupying varied habitat types from cloud forest to mountain grassland, these bears share their home with 35,000 other species, some well-known and loved but many lacking the familiarity or charisma to be prioritized in conservation initiatives. Fortunately, the Andean bear is pulling some of the weight for these species.

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When protecting one species supports the protection of others that share its ecosystem, this species may be referred to as an “umbrella species.” It’s a bit more complex than that, however – all species share their home with others, right? To be an umbrella species, there are several criteria to consider. Most importantly, the species must occupy a large geographic range and possess specialized habitat requirements. These species often migrate between multiple areas throughout the year, increasing their co-occurrence, or overlap with many other species. Once a species earns its “umbrella” title, scientists can analyze its habitat range to identify priority areas for protection based on biodiversity and conservation threats.

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The Andean bear checks all the necessary boxes, and as the only remaining bear in South America, the last of the short-faced bears, and a significant cultural icon, it is an exemplary candidate for the title of umbrella species. Its habitat is also globally important – the Tropical Andes ecosystem is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.

Your Zoo is a leader in Andean bear conservation, having founded the Andean Bear Conservation Alliance in 2011 to monitor and better protect the species and its habitat. This spring, Zoo and Zoo Society teams collaborated with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art on a special project focused on Andean bears, challenging illustration students to visually interpret the umbrella species concept to help communicate and raise awareness for Andean bear conservation. It was no easy task, but the results were impressive.

Take a look at a few of the favorites:

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Andean bear photos in the wild courtesy of Sebastian Dido

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