A holy grail of conservation is to find simple but reliable measures of environmental change to guide management. For example, particular species or particular habitat attributes are often used as proxies for the abundance or diversity of a subset of other taxa. However, the efficacy of such kinds of species-based surrogates and habitat-based surrogates is rarely assessed, nor are different kinds of surrogates compared in terms of their relative effectiveness. We use 30-year datasets on arboreal marsupials and vegetation structure to quantify the effectiveness of: (1) the abundance of a particular species of arboreal marsupial as a species-based surrogate for other arboreal marsupial taxa, (2) hollow-bearing tree abundance as a habitat-based surrogate for arboreal marsupial abundance, and (3) a combination of species- and habitat-based surrogates. We also quantify the robustness of species-based and habitat-based surrogates over time. We then use the same approach to model overall species richness of arboreal marsupials. We show that a species-based surrogate can appear to be a valid surrogate until a habitat-based surrogate is co-examined, after which the effectiveness of the former is lost. The addition of a species-based surrogate to a habitat-based surrogate made little difference in explaining arboreal marsupial abundance, but altered the co-occurrence relationship between species. Hence, there was limited value in simultaneously using a combination of kinds of surrogates. The habitat-based surrogate also generally performed significantly better and was easier and less costly to gather than the species-based surrogate. We found that over 30 years of study, the relationships which underpinned the habitat-based surrogate generally remained positive but variable over time. Our work highlights why it is important to compare the effectiveness of different broad classes of surrogates and identify situations when either species- or habitat-based surrogates are likely to be superior.