What is an ecological indicator? Definition and examples

An Ecological Indicator is an organism that gives us data about an ecosystem, such as its biodiversity. We use ecological indicators to gain information about ecosystems and our impact on those ecosystems. ‘Ecological indicator’ is a collective term for stressor indicators, habitat response, and exposure.

We might use the number of different types of beetle found in a field, for example, as an indicator of biodiversity.

Marine biologists often rely on the abundance and health of coral species as ecological indicators to assess the overall well-being of marine ecosystems.

Ecosystems are complex phenomena. It is simpler to describe them with ecological indicators. Subsequently, non-scientists can use the data that ecological indicators provide to make management decisions.

Encyclopedia.com has the following definition of the term:

“Any organism or group of organisms indicative of a particular environment or set of environmental conditions.”

“For example, lichens may be used as indicators of air pollution and fossil assemblages as indicators of past environments.”

Ecological Indicator
An ecological indicator can give us important information about our environment.

Ecological impact and load

Ecological indicators help us determine our ecological impact and ecological load.

Our ecological impact is the effect that human activity has on organisms and their non-living environment.

Our ecological load are the demands and stresses that we place on our ecosystem.

Ecological indicator types

Scientists have developed several different types of indicators. We can use them to reflect different aspects of ecosystems. They may reflect, for example, physical, chemical, and biological aspects.

Subsequently, selecting ecological indicators is a very complex process.

We use indicators because counting everything in an ecosystem would be too time-consuming and expensive.

Let’s suppose the government had just restored a wetland. It wants to find out whether the restoration was successful. Counting every animal, bird, and plant would be extremely expensive. It would also take a very long time.

Therefore, we monitor a few indicator species to determine whether the restoration was a success.

Examples of ecological indicators

Below are some example of ecological indicators that have helped ecologists, biologists, and other scientists in their studies:

  • Honey Bees

The health and behavior of honey bee populations are indicative of broader environmental conditions, especially since they are key pollinators. Declines can signal problems with pesticide use, disease prevalence, and habitat loss.

  • Coral Reefs

Coral bleaching events serve as indicators of ocean health, signaling changes in water temperature, salinity, and acidity.

  • Bird Populations

Changes in bird migration patterns and populations help scientists gauge the health of various ecosystems. If the population of a specific bird declines, for example, it might indicate habitat loss or the effects of climate change.

  • Phytoplankton

These microscopic organisms form the base of the aquatic food web. Their population fluctuations reflect changes in water quality.

  • Butterflies

Butterflies are sensitive to humidity and temperature. Scientists study butterflies to monitor and research the effects of climate change, habitat destruction, and the health of their ecosystems.

Environmental indicator vs. ecological indicator

The terms environmental indicator and ecological indicator are often used interchangeably. However, they do not have the same meaning.

Ecological indicators are a sub-set of environmental indicators, just like bananas are a sub-set of fruit.

Typically, an environmental indicator gives us data on pressures on the environment, societal responses, and environmental conditions.

An ecological indicator, on the other hand, refers to just ecological processes.

Ecological means related to ecology. Ecology is the study of how organisms interact with one another and also their environment.

Video – What are Ecological Indicators?

This video presentation, from our YouTube partner channel – Marketing Business Network, explains what ‘Ecological Indicators’ are using simple and easy-to-understand language and examples.