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For Understanding and Protecting Natural Systems

Vital Indicators

John A. Wiens, PhD

Seabirds like this Rhinoceros Auklet tell us about increasing extremes in the California Current marine ecosystem. Photo by Annie Schmidt (PRBO).
For centuries, miners used canaries as sentinels of dangerous levels of gasses in mines: when the canary died, they knew it was high time to get out. Thence the phrase, “canary in the coal mine,” to indicate that something is amiss.

Birds have long been used as indicators of environmental health. The question is, “Indicators of what?” What the canary was indicating was clear enough, but what should we make of such things as seabirds’ varied breeding success, sandpipers redistributing themselves in San Francisco Bay, or songbirds increasing in body size, all documented by PRBO scientists? Indicators are of little value if we don’t know what they’re indicating.

This is where the combination of natural history, personal experience, monitoring, and science comes in-a combination that’s become emblematic of PRBO Conservation Science.

Familiarity with the species we study lets us know how to interpret what the data tell us. Long-term monitoring shows us what’s happening to populations, alerting us to meaningful changes. And science-rigorous data analyses or sophisticated computer models-can help us pin down the factors responsible for past changes or project future changes, as we’ve done now for 200 species —and for the consequences of climate change or sea-level rise.

PRBO’s understanding of indicator species-immensely valuable for local management-has a global reach. By publishing our results in peer-reviewed journals, PRBO ecologists add to worldwide knowledge of what vital indicators tell us about our environment. Online tools such as PRBO’s California Avian Data Center provide universal access to our data.

The species we study can be sensitive indicators of the health of a rapidly changing environment-if we know what they’re telling us. That’s what PRBO science is all about.