Indicator Species: What They Are and Examples - Summary

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Did you know that there are indicator species of water, air and soil pollution? Used in the complex world of Ecology to evaluate environmental disturbances, the presence or absence of bioindicator species allows researchers to know if a study habitat has a greater or lesser risk of contamination. Indirectly, bioindicator plants and animals help to evaluate, regulate and even rectify those disturbances that humans cause in the planet's ecosystems.

In this interesting article by Ecologist Verde you will find all the information you need to learn more about what are indicator species and examples of these.

What are indicator species and what are they for?

Within the world of ecology, indicator species are those recognized for their characteristics and abilities to indicate sensitivity and disturbance to contaminants, being used as possible units for estimating the status of other species or environmental conditions that, as a general rule, are difficult (and even expensive) to measure directly. That is why the interest in the use of indicator species in ecological studies is of great relevance, facilitating both quantitative and qualitative analyzes, at regional, national and even international scales. When it comes to knowing how indicator species are classified, It is convenient to differentiate them into three large groups, according to the use that is given to them within the world of ecology:

Indicator species signaling environmental changes

They are strongly related to particular environmental conditions, so their presence indicates the existence of said condition, being useful, for example, to evaluate the presence of pollutants or toxic substances in the environment. Given their function, they are also known as indicator species of ecological health.

Population indicator species

Its function lies in detecting and interpreting changes in the population dynamics of other species with which they share natural habitat and with which they probably maintain some type of interspecific ecological relationship, such as predator-prey trophic relationships or symbiosis, among others. Here you can read about the trophic relationships of ecosystems: definition and examples and What is symbiosis in ecology with examples.

Indicator species of biodiversity

The latter type of indicator species facilitate understanding of the species richness that characterizes a given natural area. These species are characterized by a wide distribution, counting on specialist habitats, as well as the ease of being studied by ecologists to interpret the results of fauna and / or floristic richness of the species or groups of species with which they coexist.

In the next sections we will see concrete examples of these curious species so useful for the world of ecology and the understanding of the functioning of natural habitats.

Examples of indicator species of fauna

Between the indicator animals we find species that belong to the different groups of animals that exist on the planet, since both invertebrates and vertebrates may be capable of becoming bioindicators of great ecological relevance. Thus, among the main bioindicator species of fauna we find:


  • Escherichia coli (Bacterium). Indicator species of environmental changes.
  • Mayflies (Order Ephemeroptera, Aquatic Macroinvertebrates). Indicator species of environmental changes.
  • Starfish (Asteroidea Class). Population indicator species.
  • Monarch butterflies (Family Nymphalidae). Population indicator species.
  • Beetles (Order Coleoptera). Indicator species of biodiversity.


  • Spotted owlStrix occidentalis). Indicator species of environmental changes.
  • River otters (Lontra canadensis). Indicator species of environmental changes.
  • Salamanders (Salamandridae family). Indicator species of environmental changes.
  • Bats (Order Chiroptera). Population indicator species.
  • Swamp snails (Class Gasteropoda). Indicator species of environmental changes.

Examples of flora indicator species

Among the diverse and surprising functions that plants perform for the correct functioning of the different ecosystems of the planet, the role as biondicators that they play in both aquatic and terrestrial habitats stands out, without a doubt.

Now, while the bioindicator species of animals allow to indicate variations in environmental conditions, population and / or biodiversity, in the case of plants, these are characterized by being able to indicate environmental changes (generally pollution) and changes in floristic biodiversity associated with a specific ecosystem or region, defining, for example, the characteristic fauna of a specific desert or forest. Let's look at some concrete examples of indicator plants that we can find throughout the planet, as well as the type of bioindication attributed to it within the world of ecology:

  • Agave lechuguilla (Family Agavaceae). Indicator species of biodiversity.
  • Guatemalan magnolia (Magnolia guatemalensis). Indicator species of biodiversity.
  • Lichens (they are not plants themselves, they are symbiotic organisms made up of algae and fungi). Indicator species of contamination.
  • Mosses (Sub division Bryophyta). Indicator species of contamination.

Now that you know all this about indicator species, you may be interested in continuing to learn about this topic and read this other article about Environmental Bioindicators, their types, how they are used and more.

If you want to read more articles similar to Indicator species: what they are and examples, we recommend that you enter our Biology category.

  • Catalá, E. I. (2011). The concepts of indicator species, umbrellas, flags and keys: their use and abuse in conservation ecology. Inter Science Magazine, Volume 36 (1), pp: 30-35.
  • Cohn-Berger, G. & Quezada, M. (2016) Lichens as bioindicators of air pollution in the metropolitan corridor of Guatemala City. USAC Scientific Journal, Vol 26 (1), pp: 12-16.
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