The use of umbrella and flagship species as surrogates for regional biota whose spatial distributions are poorly known is a popular conservation strategy. Yet many assumptions underlying the choice of surrogate species remain untested. By using biodiversity databases containing spatial incidence data for species of concern for (i) the southern California coastal sage scrub habitat, (ii) the Columbia Plateau ecoregion, and (iii) the continental United States, we evaluate the potential effectiveness of a range of conservation surrogate schemes (e.g., big carnivores, charismatic species, keystone species, wide-ranging species), asking how many species potentially are protected by each scheme and at what cost in each habitat area. For all three databases, we find that none of the surrogate schemes we evaluated performs significantly better than do a comparable number of species randomly selected from the database. Although some surrogate species may have considerable publicity value, based on the databases we analyzed, representing diverse taxa on three different geographic scales, we find that the utility of umbrella and flagship species as surrogates for regional biodiversity may be limited.