Research output

On the myths of indicator species: Issues and further consideration in the use of static concepts for ecological applications

Research output: Contribution to journalA1: Web of Science-article


  • Michael L. Zettler
  • C. Edward Proffitt
  • Alexander Darr
  • Steven Degraer
  • Lisa Devriese
  • Clare Greathead
  • Jone Kotta
  • Paolo Magni
  • Georg Martin
  • Henning Reiss
  • Davide Tagliapietra
  • Gert Van Hoey
  • Tom Ysebaert

External Organisations

  • Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research, Warnemünde, Rostock, Germany


Original languageEnglish
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number10
Pages (from-to)e78219
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 2013


The use of static indicator species, in which species are expected to have a similar sensitivity or tolerance to either natural or human-induced stressors, does not account for possible shifts in tolerance along natural environmental gradients and between biogeographic regions. Their indicative value may therefore be considered at least questionable. In this paper we demonstrate how species responses (i.e. abundance) to changes in sediment grain size and organic matter (OM) alter along a salinity gradient and conclude with a plea for prudency when interpreting static indicator-based quality indices. Six model species (three polychaetes, one amphipod and two bivalves) from the North Sea, Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea region were selected. Our study demonstrated that there were no generic relationships between environment and biota and half of the studied species showed different responses in different seas. Consequently, the following points have to be carefully considered when applying static indicator-based quality indices: (1) species tolerances and preferences may change along environmental gradients and between different biogeographic regions, (2) as environment modifies species autecology, there is a need to adjust indicator species lists along major environmental gradients and (3) there is a risk of including sibling or cryptic species in calculating the index value of a species.

EWI Biomedical sciences

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