Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea...

GLOBAL AND REGIONAL ECOLOGY | Lead Editor: Carolyn Malmstrom

By: Emily A. Holt (Department of Watershed Sciences, Utah State University) & Scott W. Miller (Department of Watershed Sciences, Utah State University) © 2011 Nature Education Citation: Holt, E. A. & Miller, S. W. (2011) Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts. Nature Education Knowledge 2(2):8

How do we assess the impacts of human activities on natural ecosystems? What can the biota tell us about the environment and its response to natural stress?

What can the canary in the coal mine tell us? Historically, canaries accompanied coal miners deep underground. Their small lung capacity and unidirectional lung ventilation system made them more vulnerable to small concentrations of carbon monoxide and methane gas than their human companions. As late as 1986, the acute sensitivity of these birds served as a biological indicator of unsafe conditions in underground coal mines in the United Kingdom. Since human health concerns continue to drive the development and application of bioindicators, the loss of ecosystem services (e.g., clean air, drinking water, plant pollinators) has increasingly focused our attention on the health of natural ecosystems. All species (or species assemblages) tolerate a limited range of chemical, physical, and biological conditions, which we can use to evaluate environmental quality. Despite many technological advances, we find ourselves turning to the biota of natural ecosystems to tell us the story of our world.

What Is a Bioindicator?
Bioindicators include biological processes, species, or communities and are used to assess the quality of the environment and how it changes over time. Changes in the environment are often attributed to anthropogenic disturbances (e.g., pollution, land use changes) or natural stressors (e.g., drought, late spring freeze), although anthropogenic stressors form the primary focus of bioindicator research. The widespread development and application of bioindicators has occurred primarily since the 1960s. Over the years, we have expanded our repertoire of bioindicators to assist us in studying all types of environments (i.e., aquatic and terrestrial), using all major taxonomic groups.

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burning. however. Physical. Outside an individual's environmental optima. or communities can serve as successful bioindicators. Specifically. ubiquitous species (or species assemblages) with very broad tolerances are less sensitive to environmental changes which otherwise disturb the rest of the community. light availability. and logging are examples of human-related disturbances that can increase water temperature in these streams and be detected by cutthroat trout at various biological scales (Figure 2). reducing its overall fitness (Figure 1). heat shock protein (hsp) synthesis increases to protect vital cellular functions from thermal stress. its physiology and/or behavior may be negatively affected. or community. If thermal stress persists. http://www. is not just restricted to a single species with a limited environmental tolerance. Bioindicators possess a moderate tolerance to environmental variability.g.e.. to reflect the general biotic response. or too infrequently encountered. This tolerance affords them sensitivity to indicate environmental change. has fitness or abundance greater than zero. or tolerance range. species. cutthroat trout inhabit coldwater streams of the western United States. fitness) within a specific range of environmental factors. large and persistent thermal alterations can reduce population numbers and even lead to local extinctions. We can quantify hsp levels to measure thermal stress in cutthroat trout and assess how the environment has been altered. populations evolve strategies to maximize growth and reproduction (i.nature. In the most extreme instances. thus... not all biological processes. For example. Livestock grazing. light. chemical. their temperature sensitivity can be used as a bioindicator of water temperature. encompassing a broad range of environmental tolerances. causing compositional shifts to warmwater fisheries. 2 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM . and biological factors (e. Bioindicator species effectively indicate the condition of the environment because of their moderate tolerance to environmental variability (Figure 1). nitrogen levels) where an individual. competition) vary among environments. The dashed line represents the peak performance along this particular environmental gradient.. Figure 1: Comparison of environmental tolerances of (a) bioindicators. can serve as bioindicators and represent multiple sources of data to assess environmental condition in a "biotic index" or "multimetric" However. Most individuals have an upper thermal tolerance of 20°–25°C. Likewise. rare species (or species assemblages) with narrow tolerances are often too sensitive to environmental change. such physiological changes are generally tractable at the individual level through behavioral changes and subsequent reductions in growth and development. substrate. Over time. The use of bioindicators. yet endurance to withstand some variability and reflect the general biotic response. © 2010 Nature Education All rights reserved. while yellow boxes include the optimum range or tolerance.Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea. however. Furthermore. An immediate response of cutthroat to thermal pollution occurs at the cellular level. Reduced fitness can subsequently disrupt population dynamics and alter the community as a whole (Figure 2). biological processes within an individual can act as bioindicators. (b) rare species. Entire communities. species. In contrast... compared to rare and ubiquitous species. temperature.g. and (c) ubiquitous species Red areas represent portions of an environmental gradient (e.

water velocity. predation. and the physical (e.. Phaedoactylum diatom). The outermost colored ring represents individual organisms (cutthroat trout. the middle colored ring represents populations of those organisms. competition. consequently impacting the size and productivity of the population and interactions with other species in the community. These environmental changes may increase or decrease growth and reproduction of an organism. biotic interactions (e. uses for refugia.. lays eggs).Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea. http://www. or the community as a whole. the terms "biomonitoring" and "bioindication" are Bioindicators qualitatively assesses biotic responses to environmental stress (e.g.. substrate upon which an organism attaches. Figure 2: Diagram of the hierarchical levels of an ecosystem that respond to anthropogenic disturbances or natural stress The white ring of environmental variables includes factors that may be directly altered by disturbance or stress.g. presence of the lichen.. herbivory). or chemical (e....g. light). All rights reserved.. populations. but in the scientific community these terms have more specific meanings. © 2010 Nature Education Illustrations by Summers Scholl. These alterations may subsequently affect individual organisms.g. Disturbance and stress may positively or negatively affect energy resources (e. Isn't it Called Biomonitoring? In common usage. Pteronarcys Salmonfly. food.g. nutrients) environment.. 3 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM . and the innermost colored ring represents the community in which all three species coexist.

Hereafter. the world's largest producer of zinc (Zn). Hasselbach and her colleagues examined whether this overland transport was affecting the surrounding terrestrial biota. All rights 2005. As an example. Lead. and acquire all their nutrients from direct exposure to the atmosphere. physical and/or chemical changes). http://www. Here. Within this framework.. ecological. Heavy metal content within moss tissue was compared at varying distances from the road (Figure 3). Aluminum. 2. and biodiversity indicators can be found in many different organisms inhabiting many different environments. demonstrating a marked impact of overland transport of mined ore on the biota.g. Zinc. Cadmium). Examples of environmental. to monitor ecological processes.e. green... Lichens and bryophytes serve as effective bioindicators of air quality because they have no roots.. © 2010 Nature Education Modified from Hasselbach et al. and/or cyanobacteria) and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) are often used to assess air pollution.Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea. mineral ore is mined from Red Dog Mine. or 3. Their high surface area to volume ratio further encourages the interception and accumulation of contaminants from the air. Metal concentrations in moss tissue were greatest adjacent to the haul road and 4 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM . yellow. indicates poor air quality) while biomonitors quantitatively determine a response (e. to monitor the environment (i. Hasselbach et al.nature. the term "bioindicator" is used as a collective term to refer to all terms relating to the detection of biotic responses to environmental stress. reductions in lichen chlorophyll content or diversity indicates the presence and severity of air pollution).. blue. Lichens (a symbiosis among fungi. The greatest concentration of each element occurred close to the road and declined with distance from the road. no cuticle. and is trucked along a solitary road (~75 km in length) to storage facilities on the Chukchi Sea. USA Each element is represented by a different set of colored dots (red. Lecanora conizaeoides. Figure 3: Relationship of elemental concentration within moss tissue (inset is Hylocomium splendens) to distance from the road in Alaska. algae. there are three main functions of bioindicators: 1. (2005) used the moss Hylocomium splendens as an environmental indicator of heavy metals in the remote tundra ecosystem of northwestern Alaska.. to monitor biodiversity.

using the quantitative measurement of metal concentrations within individual lichens.. nutrients. (2007). Accordingly. and hydrologic alterations. USA. non-insects).. For example. Disturbance-intolerant EPT taxa markedly decline following an 85% reduction of stream flow (far right bar). Oregon. aquatic macroinvertebrates possess many of the hallmark traits of good bioindicators (Table 1). This taxonomic and functional diversity can capture the myriad responses to different stressors and disturbances. EPT or Ephemeroptera-Plecoptera-Trichoptera). and biodiversity indicators. Currently. disturbance-adapted non-insects thrive and increase under stressed conditions. Accordingly. http://www. metals. which significantly reduces along an intensively managed 36-km section of the Umatilla River.. © 2010 Nature Education Modified from Miller et al. All rights reserved. Line represents water discharge (Q) at each site. (2007) quantified aquatic macroinvertebrates to identify a threshold separating irrigation water withdrawals. In this example. An unimpaired stream or river commonly contains more than 40 identifiable taxa. lichens were used as Similar to lichens and bryophytes. due to their speciose nature.Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea. ecological. thus validating the hypothesis that overland transport was indeed altering the surrounding environment. Miller et al. The most common application of macroinvertebrates as bioindicators. representing a range of habitat preferences and life history strategies. Figure 4: Aquatic macroinvertebrates document a shift in community composition related to human-induced water withdrawals. macroinvertebrate communities have been frequently used as environmental.. from withdrawal levels that did not 5 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM . including the presence of fine sediment. Bars represent the relative abundance of disturbance-intolerant taxa (green. decreased with distance. is at the community scale. all 50 states of the United States use aquatic macroinvertebrates to assess the biological health of streams and rivers. which adversely affected the biota of river systems. and disturbance-adapted taxa (blue.nature.

no matter how small. pollutants. at a prohibitive cost. First. Water withdrawals exceeding 85% of ambient levels. past.. bioindicators add a temporal component corresponding to the life span or residence time of an organism in a particular system. http://www.nature. consequently shifting the community toward more disturbance-adapted species (Figure 4). Alternatively. the tolerance range of bioindicators provides a picture of biologically meaningful levels of pollutants. whereas the use of bioindicators uses the biota to assess the cumulative impacts of both chemical pollutants and habitat alterations over time. In contrast. ambient temperature. are required to detect such low concentrations. the use of bioindicators is fundamentally different from classic measures of environmental quality and offers numerous advantages. combined with elevated water temperatures. to indicate the mechanism(s) of environmental degradation (e. Once identified. contaminants can occur in exceedingly low concentrations. good bioindicators often share several characteristics. reduced the proportion of disturbance-intolerant taxa. available light and gas levels).. influence the community. many chemical and physical measurements only characterize conditions at the time of sampling. Another benefit of the use of bioindicators is their ability to indicate indirect biotic effects of pollutants when many physical or chemical measurements cannot. when such links are largely unknown.g. increased temperature or fine sediment levels) by which water withdrawals adversely impact aquatic ecosystems. nutrients.Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea.. including distribution within area of question Relatively stable despite moderate climatic and environmental variability Ecology and life history well understood Well-studied Taxonomically well documented and stable Easy and cheap to survey Economically/commercially important Species already being harvested for other purposes Public interest in or awareness of the speces Table 1: Regardless of the geographic region. or organism. or future environmental conditions.. while also using the responses of individual taxa. Phosphorous 6 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM . allowing the integration of current. Resource managers can use the integrated response of the entire macroinvertebrate community to relate how much water can be taken for irrigation before negative biological responses are seen.g. scientists must link any potential biological hazard with these trace amounts of contaminants. Why Are Bioindicators Better Than Traditional Methods? Scientists have traditionally conducted chemical assays and directly measured physical parameters of the environment (e. salinity.. type of disturbance. a pipe dumping phosphorus-rich sewage into a lake will adversely impact the ecosystem. environment.. Consequently. Tedious analyses with highly sensitive technologies. Thus macroinvertebrate populations can be used as biodiversity and ecological indicators at the community scale and environmental indicators at the population scale. In addition. or groups of taxa. increasing the probability of missing sporadic pulses of pollutants. Provide measurable response (sensitive to the disturbance or stress but does not experience mortality or accummulate pollutants directly from their environment) Good indicator ability Response reflects the whole population/community /ecosystem response Respond in proportion to the degree of contamination or degradation Adequate local population density (rare species are not optimal) Abundant and common Common.

In these cases. complicating our picture of the causal mechanisms of change. 1986. Like the canaries in the coal mine. disease. and chemical components of our world that manifest themselves as changes in individual fitness. we may not recognize the impact of our disturbances before it is too late to do anything to prevent them. we rely upon the sensitivity of some bioindicators to function as early-warning signals.7 million species that currently documented on Earth. a clear bioindication signal can be obscured by an excessive number of divergent species' responses (e. physical. we must be conscious of its flaws. parasitism. therefore. Furthermore. the overall objective of bioindicators is to use a single species... to evaluate the health of a particular ecosystem. causing metal concentrations to amplify through food webs. a large vertebrate indicator (e. December 12. However. What Makes a Good Bioindicator? Considering the 1. Accordingly. From a management perspective.g. from the cellular to the ecosystem level. appropriate bioindicator species or groups of species need to be selected. but this can represent a gross oversimplification of a complex system. For example.g. 7 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM . and the canary in the coal mine. Metals. This narrowed approach makes monitoring more biologically relevant and cost-effective. populations of indicator species may be influenced by factors other than the disturbance or stress (e." BBC News. some species may increase while others decrease).g. In some instances. Indirect contaminant effects are especially difficult to glean from chemical or physical measurements in the case of bioaccumulation. the cutthroat in the mountain stream. Like all management tools. predation). They bring together information from the biological. An average tropical rainforest may contain approximately 300 tree species per hectare and enumerating the response of each individual species to a disturbance is clearly unrealistic. a fish) may fail to indicate the biodiversity of the local insect community. Ecologists have established a broad set of criteria that species must exhibit to be considered good bioindicators (see Table 1). accumulate in biological organisms. or a small group of species.. Without the moss in the tundra. among other contaminants. bioindicators inform our actions as to what is and is not biologically sustainable. Chemical measurements. thus limiting the applicability of bioindicators in heterogeneous environments. Finally. commonly limits primary production in freshwater ecosystems. given the thousands of substances and factors to monitor.nature.. Benefits and Disadvantages of Bioindicators The numerous benefits of bioindicators have spurred legislative mandates for their use in countries around the world and their inclusion in several international accords. problems can arise in especially speciose habitats. the species present. competition. and ecosystem processes. http://www. References and Recommended Reading "1986: Coal mine canaries made redundant. contaminant levels at higher trophic levels may be underrepresented by physical or chemical measurements. scientists now understand that the biota itself is the best predictor of how ecosystems respond to disturbance or the presence of a stressor. Depending upon the specific environment. bioindicator species invariably have differing habitat requirements than other species in their ecosystem. how do we chose just one as a bioindicator? The answer is simple: No single species can adequately indicate every type of disturbance or stress in all environments. a common problem with chemical and physical measurements is that they simplify a complicated response inherent in these species-rich habitats. however. may not accurately reflect a reduction in species diversity or how the growth and reproduction of other species may decline due to competitive exclusion. community composition. Moreover. we cannot discriminate natural variability from changes due to human impacts. and local disturbances. Managing an ecosystem according to the habitat requirements of a particular bioindicator may fail to protect rare species with different requirements. Bioindicators rely upon the complicated intricacies of ecosystems and use a representative or aggregated response to convey a dynamic picture of the condition of the environment. Yet bioindicators are not without their problems. we may predict that elevated phosphorus concentrations will increase the growth and reproduction of some species. While the use of whole communities (and all species' responses within them) can be informative. population density. to integrate all the direct and indirect effects of a disturbance scientists focus only on a subset of the biota or single species to tell the story..Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea. A second criticism of the use of bioindicators is that their indicator ability is scale-dependent. to assess the quality of an environment and how it changes over time. Bioindicators can be employed at a range of scales. the limitations of bioindicators are clearly overshadowed by their benefits. Thus. Third...

Paleoclimatic Change. 35–56 (1998). Ground beetles (Coleoptera: Carabidae) as bioindicators. Carignan. 45–61 (2002).Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea. New York. and Conservation 12. Freshwater and Hall.. V. Kyoto. 211–230 (2005). Outline | Keywords KEY CHALLENGES Global Change: An Overview Conservation of Biodiversity EARTH'S CLIMATE SYSTEM Introduction to the Basic Drivers of Climate Deep Atlantic Circulation During the Last Glacial Maximum and Deglaciation Geoengineering and Environmental Ethics Milankovitch Cycles. & Subramanian. & Resh. et Miller. Rosenberg. AND DIVERSIFICATION OF ORGANISMS Terrestrial Biomes The Geography and Ecology of Diversification in Neotropical Freshwaters Environmental Constraints to the Geographic Expansion of Plant and Animal Species Causes and Consequences of Dispersal in Plants and Animals 8 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM . J. K.. Villard. & M. and Hominin Evolution BIOGEOGRAPHY: DISTRIBUTION. et Hasselbach.nature. http://www. Spatial patterns of cadmium and lead deposition on and adjacent to National Park Service lands in the vicinity of Red Dog Mine. et al. J. Science of the Total Environment 348. A. Resistance and resilience of macroinvertebrates to irrigation water withdrawals. L. Selecting indicator species to monitor ecological integrity: A review. S. Biodiversity (2003). DISPERSAL. H. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 8. W. 2494–2510 (2007). Iwama. Rainio. Freshwater Biology 52. 2006. G. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 78. & Niemelä. D... al. M. S. Japan: Kyoto University Press. NY: Chapman Tanabe. 487–506 Biomonitoring and Benthic Macroinvertebrates. 1992. al. V. Bioindicators of POPs: Monitoring in Developing Countries. Heat shock protein expression in fish.-C.

and Models What Happens AFTER Global Warming? SCIENTIFIC PERSPECTIVES Principles of Landscape Ecology Spatial Ecology and Conservation Restoration Ecology ECOSYSTEM PROCESSES: ENERGY FLOWS AND BIOGEOCHEMICAL CYCLING Energy Economics in Ecosystems The Nitrogen Cycle: Processes. Microbes: Underwater Sinkholes in Lake Huron are Habitats for Ancient Microbial Life Submarine Fans and Canyon-Channel Systems: A Review of http://www. Products. Causes and Consequences of Biodiversity Declines Disease Ecology MISCELLANEOUS Abrupt Climate Change During the Last Ice Age Coastal Dunes: Geomorphology Coastal Processes and Beaches Drip Water Hydrology and Speleothems Earth's Earliest Climate El Nino's Grip on Climate Large-Scale Ecology Introduction Methane Hydrates and Contemporary Climate Change Modeling Sea Level Rise Ocean Acidification Rivers and Streams .. Players.Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea. and Human Impact Earth's Ferrous Wheel The Ecology of Fire Effects of Rising Atmospheric Concentrations of Carbon Dioxide on 9 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM .Water and Sediment in Motion Rock. Water..nature.

Plants METHODS IN RESEARCH AND MONITORING Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts 10 of 10 7/18/2012 1:39 PM .com/scitable/knowledge/library/bioindicators-using-o.. http://www.nature.Bioindicators: Using Organisms to Measure Environmental Impacts | Lea....