Connecting people with nature in Ontario's Mississippi Valley

A Stitch in Time: Monitoring Indicator Species to Diagnose Ecosystem Vitality

Press Release

Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists

by Pauline Donaldson

A stitch in time: Monitoring indicator species, such as the Whip-poor-will, to diagnose ecosystem vitality

With spring just around the corner, I wonder how many of us will be startled again by the sudden haunting cry of the Whip-poor-will on a warm evening. As the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists (MVFN) Big Picture Conservation lecture series continues, the focus will be on indicator species—birds including the Whip-poor-will, and other diverse species—whose health is a touchstone for the health of entire communities of living things. For this lecture MVFN is pleased to welcome back Dr. William Crins, Senior Conservation Ecologist with the Parks & Protected Areas Policy Branch at OMNR, Peterborough. In 2006 Crins made a tremendous impression on MVFN members who continue to be inspired by his closing slide listing the “7 Things We Can Do” (for the natural world).

Bill Crins has devoted his career to the study of living things, specializing in the evolution and ecology of important grasses and sedges. In the early 70’s Dr. Crins worked as interpretive naturalist at Algonquin Park and later conducted biological inventories and assessments to develop the park’s Nature Reserve Zone system. As Senior Conservation Ecologist, he now applies his knowledge of conservation and biodiversity to projects such as Ontario’s Ecological Land Classification system, the development of old growth forest policy, and the inventory of Ontario’s habitat resources including Species at Risk habitat mapping guidelines.

What can we learn about entire ecosystems just by looking at select individual species? Interestingly, the answer is quite a lot, but the reasons are as complex as the physiology and lifecycles of the species themselves. For example, species such as frogs might be considered ‘indicator’ species because they are particularly sensitive to the quality of the water they are in, absorbing oxygen and pollutants through their skin. So monitoring their health provides us with an indication of the health of the entire aquatic ecosystem and this allows us to identify and solve problems before they become more serious. Also, certain ‘keystone’ species may be useful as indicator species because they play a pivotal role in the functioning of entire ecosystems—their absence would have major impacts on a broad range of species. The beaver is an example of a keystone species as is sugar maple. Species with special habitat requirements may also be good indicators of an ecosystem’s condition. Birds are particularly noted as indicators of overall environmental health. Aerial insect foragers, such as the Whip-poor-will, are in serious trouble in some areas.

Dr. Crins will explore what determines ecosystem vitality and how indicator species are used. Ideally a suite of indicator species would include species from different organism groups and could be used to measure vitality at different scales such as a woodlot, Algonquin Park, the Algonquin to Adirondack corridor, or even the entire deciduous forest region of North America. Examples of potentially good indicator species (e.g. Whip-poor-will, Lake Sturgeon) or guilds of species (e.g. pollinators) for eastern Ontario, i.e. that are easy to survey, are not too common or too rare, and which have particular life history features, will be presented.

To learn more about indicator species, what they reveal about the health of our ecosystems, and what we can do, attend MVFN’s March lecture. Dr. Crins’ presentation, “A Stitch in Time: Monitoring Indicator Species to Diagnose Ecosystem Vitality” will take place Thursday March 18, at 7:30 p.m., Almonte United Church, 106 Elgin St., Almonte. For further details, please contact Cathy Keddy at 613-257-3089, or visit

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