What Are Indicator Species? - Examples around the World

By Alice Tapiol Breeze, AnimalWised Editor. Updated: June 14, 2017
What Are Indicator Species? - Examples around the World

If you are into biology or ecology, you may have heard about the term Indicator species. This term is used to define certain species, no matter if they are mineral, plant or animal; in order to determine the overall health of a certain ecosystem. To give you an image: Do you remember how miners in the XXth century used canaries to tell if there were any toxic gases around before it actually affected people? In this example, canaries would be an indicator species.

However, this is a very general definition, which is why at AnimalWised we want to explore this subject in depth, to learn some examples and get a perspective of the importance of indicator species. Keep on reading if you're wondering: What are indicator species?

Definition of Indicator species

As mentioned above, indicator species are carefully chosen to be a barometer to assess how a specific ecosystem is doing and how human activity is impacting on the area. An indicator species has a response to stress or any disturbance that can be measured; as it is not as harsh that the indicator species disappears too soon, or it doesn't affect it enough so that the disturbance goes unnoticed.

The disturbances mentioned are mostly attributed to mankind, though there are also natural stressors in some cases such as freezes and droughts. Although there are other ways of measuring the impact of humans on nature, defining indicator species has proven highly effective in multiple studies.

But what makes a good indicator species? As we have mentioned, these species have to be sensitive to foreign disturbances more than others and have to be strong enough to survive it. In order to measure changes to the indicator species' response (which should affect the whole community or population of the species), scientists measure the degree in which the following change:

  • Energy resources: The amount of food and light an indicator species will have will vary proportionally.
  • Biotic interactions: Their behavior will change, especially regarding predation and competition.
  • Physical changes: Their general speed, shape ...
  • Chemical changes: Especially when it comes to fungi and algae

Due to this, lichens and moss are highly effective as indicator species, as they can survive yet are the first to notice changes in the ecosystem, thanks to their constant connection to soil. But as we're on AnimalWised, we're going to focus on animals that are examples of indicator species and the cases in which they have been monitored.


Insects are highly valued when it comes to indicator species. This is because of their high interaction with the environment, making them very useful when it comes to assessing water pollution levels, air pollution, soil quality and overall ecosystem health.

For example, many invertebrate insects such as mayflies or stoneflies are indicator species that can assess the amount of oxygen in rivers, which means they are a useful indicator to control river pollution.

On the other hand, pollinator insects such as butterflies and bees can accurately determine the health of plants in ca certain environment.

What Are Indicator Species? - Examples around the World - Insects


Fish are another species that are highly useful to detect the health of aquatic ecosystems. They have previously been used, for example in Koh Tao, Thailand, to assess the impact of the tourism industry on the ocean's reef. Some of the fish that served as indicator species are, Sweetlips, Surgeonfish, Rays, Rabbitfish, butterfly fish, etc. In the case of the great barrier reef, coral and coral bleaching is the most striking indicator, though other common fish used as indicators such as Parrotfish and Surgeonfish are also used.

Salmon as an indicator species

Salmon has commonly is an indicator species in many ecosystems around the world, especially in north America. For example, salmon has been determined as an indicator species by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine the health of the greater Pacific Rim, which has been affected by human action through deforestation, creation of dams and pollution among other reasons. It is also an indicator species for the Greater Vancouver wetland ecosystem. In both cases, salmon is a great indicator that alerts scientists of the state of the water.


You may not think that mammals make good indicator species, but the fact is that in many ecosystems, they can be highly useful to ensure balance in ecosystems. a study at Aarhus University shows how small mammals can be the best indicators to determine the health of plant diversity in the Peruvian Mediterranean climate ecosystem. In this case, colonies of Pikas, Rabbits, and pocket gophers are useful to study how these interact with plants by digging, grazing and trampling them to study how the herbaceous plant community has been affected by water retention and change in soil nutrients.

Another small animal is the only mammal out of the 7 indicator species of New Zealand: the Short tailed bat. This endemic species is now endangered and are threatened by introduced predators, which is why the Kiwi department of conservation gives significant importance to the monitoring of their indicator species.

But don't be mistaken, big mammals can also be considered indicator species too. For example Grizzly Bears are considered an indicator species to assess both health and diversity of species in Alaska. Moreover, the prairie dog is also an indicator species of the American grassland ecosystem.

On the other side of the world we can find other examples of big-sized mammals as indicator species. Uttar Pradesh is one of the states that the Indian department of conservation needs to pay a closest eye on, due to the many human disturbances that have occurred during the past years. Open grasslands and savannas as well as forests need chitals (also known as spotted deer) nilgais (also known as blue bull) and cattle to conserve the biodiversity of the region according to the JRNL scientific journal.

What Are Indicator Species? - Examples around the World - Mammals

Birds as indicator species

Though you may think that birds are only good indicator species for air pollution, their interaction with the rest of the ecosystem makes them excellent to monitor the overall quality of certain habitats. Let's take a look a the different problems that birds can determine:


In North America, the spotted owl and the red-cockaded woodpecker are two of the main indicator species to determine the quality and quantity of old-growth forests, which are threatened by deforestation and pollution. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are very picky when it comes to nesting, as they need bigger and thus older trees to create nests, which is why monitoring this species can tell scientists a lot about the health of these forests and their ecosystem.


Certain birds' eggs can also give clues on the health of soil, as they are commonly analyzed to find pesticides on them. High levels of DDT will also make eggs lose thickness, creating a lower survival rate which can determine the amount of mercury found in soil.

Moreover, we can also see a good indicator species in vultures, for example in the case of pollution in China. It was their decline in numbers which alerted of the high levels of diclofenac that were being administered to livestock in the country, thus poisoning vultures that ate them in turn.

Ecosystem health

Fantails and kiwis are two birds out of the 7 indicator species of New Zealand that determine the health of the country wildlife's habitat. There are many reasons why Kiwis are endangered, and many can also apply to the rest of Zealandia's ecosystem, which is gravely menaced by human action.

Another case in which birds are a good indicator species for the whole ecosystem is in the everglades. The endemic wading birds that nest in the Everglades depend on the ability of other predators. With the decline in their ability, the number of wading birds that nested was the first warning in the 1950s that action to maintain the Everglades' ecosystem needed to be taken.

What Are Indicator Species? - Examples around the World - Birds as indicator species

Frogs as indicator species

There are many questions on whether frogs are indicator species at all, though many amphibians can be a great indicator species due to their versatility when it comes to their relation with the ecosystem for obvious reasons.

The truth is that tadpoles can successfully indicate the quality of water and, once they grow, their moist skin allows for pollutants to enter their system, thus helping detect problems with environmental health almost worldwide. Moreover, according to a study by Malcolm McCallum from Texas University, there are 30% of the species close to extinction only in the US. This may be the reason why they are questioned as an indicator species, as there are many factors that can be affecting extinction of this species and therefore the cause of their reduction cannot be pinpointed on one sole factor, as they are too vulnerable.

What Are Indicator Species? - Examples around the World - Frogs as indicator species

Non animal organisms

Now that you know about animal indicator species, we'd like to give you a little insight on other non-animal species that are also considered indicators.

It is mainly lichens, moss and liveworts that can monitor pollution and overall environmental health. For example, the concentration of metal found in moss tissue can indicate overland transport is altering the environment that surrounds haul roads.

If you want to read similar articles to What Are Indicator Species? - Examples around the World, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

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Administrador AnimalWised

We are fairly certain it is an earwig, but it is a very small picture, so it is hard to be sure.
this website is so useful for me it really helped me, thatnk you so much for this info.
Administrador AnimalWised
Hi Sara
We are always happy to help!
Ambrose Paye,
Thank you very for this useful information. I work in an iron ore mine in Liberia, West Africa as environmental superintendent. I want to do biological monitoring as part of our environmental management system. Can I get information on biological indicator for bio-monitoring in iron ore mining?

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