• surrogates;
  • reserve selection;
  • biodiversity;
  • rare species;
  • environmental diversity;
  • site selection;
  • indicators


Limited by the availability of data, conservation planners must use surrogates for biodiversity when selecting conservation areas. Although several methods have been proposed for selecting surrogates, no clear set of species attributes have been described that allow for the efficient a priori selection of surrogate groups. We used a database of 1449 species in two regions of the United States to (1) examine the consistency in the performance of simple taxonomic-based surrogates of biodiversity and (2) test five hypotheses proposed to explain surrogate performance. First, we compared the ability of sites selected to protect members of seven surrogate groups to protect non-surrogate species in the north-western United States and in the Middle-Atlantic region of the eastern United States. Then, in a separate analysis, we tested whether surrogate performance could be explained by (1) taxonomic diversity; (2) nested species distributions; (3) hotspots of biodiversity; (4) species range sizes; (5) environmental diversity. Our first analysis revealed little consistency in the performance of surrogates in the two different study regions. For example, butterflies provided protection for 76% of all other species in the north-western United States but only 56% of all other species in the eastern United States. Our second analysis revealed only weak associations between species characteristics and surrogate performance. Furthermore, these associations proved inadequate for selecting successful surrogates across study regions. Overall, our results suggest that in lieu of searching for optimal surrogate groups, research efforts will be better spent by developing alternative methods for assessing conservation value in areas where data on species distributions are limited.