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Last Updated: January 15, 2023

What are Marine Indicator Species?

Did you know that the ocean holds secrets to its health and well-being? Nature has a way of giving us clues about the ocean's well-being, and indicator species are a perfect example of that. 

Indicator species include manatees, dolphins, coral reefs, oysters, sea turtles, kelp forests, and whales. These special animals are chosen for their sensitivity to changes in the environment, making them natural barometers of the marine ecosystem's health.

In addition to providing insight into the overall health of the ocean, indicator species play a vital role in monitoring and managing marine protected areas. They act as a barometer for changes in the ecosystem, providing valuable insights that aid in ensuring that conservation efforts are effective and critical habitats and species are protected.

kelp forest - World Atlas

Kelp forests are important marine ecosystems

Why are healthy Marine Ecosystems so important? 

Marine ecosystems are a complex system of interactions between living organisms and their physical environment in the ocean, including coastal areas and estuaries.

They include a wide range of habitats such as coral reefs, kelp forests, seagrass meadows, mangroves, and deep-sea hydrothermal vents, as well as the animals and microorganisms that live within them.

Marine ecosystems are characterized by their diverse and complex food webs, which are driven by the flow of energy from the sun and the cycling of nutrients through the water. They play a critical role in the Earth's climate, weather patterns, and overall biodiversity.

Human activities such as pollution, overfishing, and climate change can have a significant impact on marine ecosystems, which is why protecting and preserving these ecosystems is essential for the health of the planet and the well-being of humanity.

Monitoring the Health of Indicator Species in Protected Marine Areas

Indicator species play an important role in monitoring and management of marine protected areas.

These areas are established to conserve biodiversity and protect critical habitats, but it can be challenging to determine if they are effectively achieving their goals. Indicator species can provide valuable insights into the health of these protected areas by serving as a barometer for changes in the ecosystem.

For example, changes in the population size or behavior of indicator species such as coral reefs, sea turtles, or seabirds can indicate changes in the health of the protected area and inform management decisions. The use of indicator species in monitoring and management of marine protected areas can help ensure that conservation efforts are effective and that critical habitats and species are being protected for future generations.

Coral Reef

Interdependence of indicator species and other species within marine ecosystems

The ecosystem is a delicate balance of various species, and the loss of one species can have cascading effects on the entire ecosystem. Indicator species play a crucial role in this balance, as they are often at the forefront of changes in the ecosystem.

These special creatures, such as manatees, dolphins, coral reefs, oysters, sea turtles, kelp forests, and whales, are chosen for their sensitivity to changes in the environment.

What is interesting is how the loss of one species can affect other species in the ecosystem, including indicator species. For example, the loss of a keystone species, such as oysters, can lead to a decline in water quality, which in turn can affect the population of indicator species like manatees.

Similarly, the loss of coral reefs can affect the populations of sea turtles and other species that rely on them for habitat. This interdependence of species in the ecosystem highlights the importance of preserving all species, not just indicator species, to maintain the balance and health of the ecosystem.

Coral Reefs

Coral Reef in storm

Coral reefs are truly unique and important indicators of the health of our oceans. They are incredibly sensitive to changes in water temperature, pollution and acidity and can act as a warning system for potential problems in the ecosystem.

Coral reefs are not only home to a wide range of marine species, but also play a vital role in protecting coastlines from erosion and storms, as well as providing food and livelihoods for millions of people. They're also considered as the rainforest of the sea, due to the biodiversity they harbor.

When coral reefs are healthy and thriving, it's a good sign that the overall ecosystem is in good shape. However, when they start to decline, it's a clear indication that something is not right and that actions need to be taken to protect and restore the ecosystem. 

Sea Turtles

Sea Turtle in Sea Grass

Sea turtles have been swimming around our oceans for more than 100 million years. Sea turtles, ancient creatures that have been around for over 100 million years, are also considered indicator species. They have long lifespans and wide range of habitat preferences and are sensitive to pollution, overfishing and climate change. Changes in their population can indicate changes in the overall health of the ocean.

Sea turtles play a critical role in marine ecosystems. They are important predators and help to control the populations of jellyfish and other invertebrates. They are also important for maintaining the health of seagrass beds and coral reefs, as they help to disperse seeds and control the growth of algae.

Sea turtles are also sensitive to pollution, which can cause problems with their reproductive systems. Overfishing is also a major threat to sea turtles, as they are often accidentally caught in fishing gear. 

Sea Birds

Fairy Penguins

Seabirds such as albatross, petrels, and penguins are fascinating creatures that play a critical role in monitoring the health of our oceans. These birds are great indicators of the health of marine ecosystems because they feed on a wide variety of prey and often travel long distances, so changes in their population and breeding success can indicate changes in the health of the ocean.

Seabirds are particularly sensitive to changes in food availability and pollution, as these factors can directly impact their breeding success. For example, a decline in seabird populations may indicate overfishing or pollution of their food sources. Similarly, an increase in seabird populations may indicate that food sources are abundant and the ecosystem is healthy.

Kelp Forests

Kelp Forest

Kelp forests, oh what a treasure! These underwater gardens are not only a beautiful sight to behold but also an important indicator of ocean health. They provide a home for a wide range of marine species, from fish to crustaceans to sea urchins. They are also sensitive to changes in water temperature and pollution, making them a reliable indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem.

When kelp forests are healthy and thriving, it's a good sign that the ocean is in good shape. However, when kelp populations start to decline, it's a clear indication that something is not right and that actions need to be taken to protect and restore the ecosystem.

Kelp forests play a vital role in maintaining ocean health, they are also known to help mitigate the effects of climate change, as they absorb large amounts of carbon and provide a natural barrier against coastal erosion. They are truly an important and unique indicator species, and we should all do our part in protecting them.

Manatees

Manatees

Manatees, also known as "sea cows", are gentle giants that play an important role in monitoring the health of our oceans and environment. Manatees are sensitive to changes in water temperature, pollution, and habitat loss. They are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature, as they are cold-blooded animals and require warm water to survive.

Manatees play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of their habitats. They are herbivores and help to control the growth of aquatic plants, preventing them from overrunning the ecosystem. Their natural behavior of creating channels and holes in the vegetation as they move around, provides much needed habitats for other aquatic species.

Pollution can also harm manatees by contaminating their food sources and causing health problems. Habitat loss is also a major threat to manatees, as they require large areas of shallow water to move and feed.

Changes in manatee population can indicate changes in the health of the ocean and the environment. The decline in manatee population could be a sign of poor water quality, overfishing, or habitat loss. 

Whales

Male humpback whale breaching

Whales are more than just majestic creatures to admire from afar. Because of their long life spans, they are also important indicators of the health of our oceans. With a wide range of habitat preferences and diverse feeding habits, changes in their population and behavior can provide valuable insights into the overall health of the ocean.

Whales are apex predators and help to control the populations of many prey species. They also assist in maintaining the health of the ocean by distributing nutrients through their feces and by providing important habitat for other marine species.

Whales are sensitive to changes in water temperature, pollution, and overfishing. They are particularly sensitive to changes in water temperature, as they are cold-blooded animals and require warm water to survive. Pollution can also harm whales by contaminating their food sources and causing health problems. Overfishing is also a major threat to whales, as they are often accidentally caught in fishing gear.

Oysters

Ostrea angasi reef - Oyster reef restoration

There are hundreds of different species of oysters that can be found in marine and freshwater ecosystems around the world. Some of the more well-known species include the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), the Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica), the European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis), and the Sydney rock oyster (Saccostrea glomerata) .

Oysters also come in different shapes, sizes and colors, and have unique habitat preferences and distribution ranges. They are important indicator species. They play a critical role in maintaining the health of marine and freshwater ecosystems by filtering large amounts of water, providing valuable ecosystem services and helping to maintain water quality.

They are often referred to as "ecosystem engineers".  Oysters are very efficient in removing pollutants and debris from the water, providing valuable ecosystem services. They also help to maintain water quality by controlling the growth of harmful algae and bacteria. Oysters also provide important habitat and food for many other marine species. Oysters also play an important role in coastal protection, due to their ability to reduce wave energy and erosion.

In conclusion

Indicator species play a crucial role in understanding the health and well-being of the marine ecosystem. These special marine creatures are chosen for their sensitivity to changes in the environment, making them natural indicators of the ocean's health.

By observing changes in their population sizes or behavior, we can gauge the overall health of the marine ecosystem and take necessary actions to preserve it. Indicator species also play a vital role in monitoring and management of marine protected areas, providing valuable insights that aid in ensuring that conservation efforts are effective and critical habitats and species are protected.

It's important to pay attention to these indicator species, as their well-being is crucial for maintaining the overall health of the ocean and its inhabitants.

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About the Author

Sharon McKenzie

Sharon loves to be near the water and has been spending time at the beach as a child. She spends most of her spare time doing water sports, such as snorkeling, paddle boarding, and Scuba Diving. Her next goal is to travel around Australia visiting the best swimming spots.

Author Web Link

Sharon McKenzie - Stand Up Paddle Boarding, Snorkeling

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