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Indicator species

An indicator species is any biological species that defines a trait or characteristic of the environment. For an example, a species may delineate an ecoregion or indicate an environmental condition such as a disease outbreak, pollution, species competition or climate change. Indicator species can be among the most sensitive species in a region, and sometimes act as an early warning to monitoring biologists.

Animal species have been used for indicators for decades to collect information about the many regions. Vertebrate are used as population trends and habitat for other species.[1] Species identification is very important for the conservation of biodiversity. Approximately 1.9 million species have been identified, but there are 3 to 100 million species. Some of them haven’t been studied. There are new species every year that are unknown and are still being discovered each year.[2] Indicator species serve as measured environmental conditions. The reason for these species of plant is to determine how well other species may grow in the same place.

See also: bioindicator and biosurvey

Indicator species are also known as sentinel organisms, i.e. organisms which are ideal for biomonitoring. Organisms such as oysters and mussels have been extensively used as biomonitors in marine and estuarine environments. For example, the Mussel Watch Programme is a world-wide project using mussels to assess environmental impacts on coastal waters. Their well-documented feeding habits, stationary condition and their role as integral parts of the food chain are some of the main reasons why oysters and mussels are widely used biomonitors. A considerable amount of contaminant concentrations are found in the surficial sediments (i.e. the finer-grained particulate matter, usually muds, silts or clays) of marine and estuarine environments. A major physical process governing the transport of fine particulate material and associated particle-bound contaminants in estuarine environments is resuspension. Strong winds create surface waves, which, in shallow water (<5m), project energy to the water-sediment interface resulting in resuspension of fine sediment from the upper layers of the estuary floor. Once in suspension, fine material may be transported by tidal currents to other parts of the estuary and possibly to the ocean during multiple reworking phases. Mussels and oysters are filter feeders and therefore uptake is by ingestion of particulates in the water column. Sediment resuspension is thus very important in the bioaccumulation process which aids the evaluation of possible adverse biological effects of sedimentary contaminants in marine and estuarine environments.


  • Stoneflies: indicate high oxygen water
Stoneflies spend the majority of their live as nymphs. Many species require a high concentration of dissolved oxygen and are found in clean swift streams with gravel or stone bottom.
  • Mosses: indicate acidic soil[3]
Greasewood grows on dry, sunny flat valley bottoms on ephemeral stream channels. It is one of the dominant plants throughout Great Basin and Mojave Desert.[4] In high saline areas, greasewood grows in nearly pure stands.[5]
  • Lichens: some species indicate low air pollution
Lichens as a group have a worldwide distribution and grow almost on any surface, for example soil, bark, roof tiles or stone. Because lichens get all their nutrients from the air, many species are very sensitive to air pollution.
  • Mollusca: numerous bivalve molluscs indicate water pollution status
Mollusca, and quite often bivalve molluscs are used as bioindicators to monitor the health of an aquatic environment, either fresh- or seawater. Their population status or structure, physiology, behaviour or their content of certain elements or compounds can reveal the contamination status of any aquatic ecosystem. They are extremelly useful as they are sessile - which means they are closely representative of the environment where they are sampled or placed (caging) -, and they are breathing water all along the day, exposing their gills and internal tissues: bioaccumulation. One of the most famous project in that field is the Mussel Watch Programme but today they are used worldwide for that purpose (Ecotoxicology).


Lindenmayer et al.[6] suggest 7 alternative definitions of indicator species:

  1. a species whose presence indicates the presence of a set of other species and whose absence indicates the lack of that entire set of species;
  2. a keystone species, which is a species whose addition to or loss from an ecosystem leads to major changes in abundance or occurrence of at least one other species
  3. a species whose presence indicates human-created abiotic conditions such as air or water pollution (often called a pollution indicator species)
  4. a dominant species that provides much of the biomass or number of individuals in an area
  5. a species that indicates particular environmental conditions such as certain soil or rock types
  6. a species thought to be sensitive to and therefore to serve as an early warning indicator of environmental changes such as global warming or modified fire regimes (sometimes called a bioindicator species)
  7. a management indicator species, which is a species that reflects the effects of a disturbance regime or the efficacy of efforts to mitigate disturbance effects.

Type 1, 2, and 4 have been proposed as indicators of biological diversity and types 3, 5, 6, and 7 as indicators of abiotic conditions and/or changes in ecological processes.

See also


  • Farr, Daniel (2002). Indicator Species. in Encyclopedia of Environmetrics (eds. A H El-Sharaawi and W W Piegorsch), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. ISBN 978-0-471-89997-6. 
  • Noss, Reed (1990). "Indicators for monitoring biodiversity. A hierarchical approach" (PDF). Conservation Biology 4 (4): 355–364. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.1990.tb00309.x. Retrieved 2009-09-14. 
  • Shrivastava, Rahul (2007). Indicator Species. in Encyclopedia of Environment and Society (ed. Paul Robins), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. ISBN 1-4129-2761-7. 
  • Mermillod, F and Lemoine, D.G (2010). Ecosystem engineering by tubificid worms stimulates macrophyte growth in poorly oxygenated wetland sediments. Functional Ecology. 
  • Xiaodong. (, 2010. Web. 6 Sept. 2011). Umami Taste Receptor. McGraw-Hill Education.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  • Friddle, J. and Dartnall, H. J. G (1978). The biology of an Antarctic aquatic moss community. Freshwater Biology. 
  1. ^ Landres, P.B, Verner (1988). Ecological Uses of Vertebrate Indicator Species. Thomas J.W. 
  2. ^ "indicator species". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2013. Web. 11 Jun. 2013.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  3. ^
  4. ^ Anderson, Berniece A. Desert Plants of Utah. Logan, UT: Utah State University Extension Service. p. 146. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Lindenmayer, David B.; C.R. Margules, D.B. Botkin (2000). "Indicators of Biodiversity for Ecologically Sustainable Forest Management" (PDF). Conservation Biology 14 (4): 941–950. doi:10.1046/j.1523-1739.2000.98533.x. Retrieved 2009-09-14. 

External links

  • "indicator species". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2013. Web. 11 Jun. 2013.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)