, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 1-11,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 08 Jul 2010

Behavioural ecotoxicology, an “early warning” signal to assess environmental quality



In this review, the position of behavioural ecotoxicology within the available means to assess the status of marine environments is described as filling the gap for the needed “early warning” signals. A few examples of studies performed since the 1960s are discussed to highlight the sensitivity of these approaches in investigating the effects of chemicals, including priority pollutants and emerging contaminants, relative to conventional toxicity tests measuring survival.


The advantage of the behavioural response is due to the integration of biochemical and physiological processes that reflect changes at higher levels of organisation with ecological relevance. Avoidance often represents a behavioural symptom easily detected in many animals exposed to contaminants and would be a useful test to explore more widely. This rapid response would reflect a defence mechanism protective against further exposure and the potential development of more pronounced deleterious effects, whilst in some cases, escape could lead to the relocation of a species with negative consequences. An investigation of the avoidance behaviour of mud shrimp, Corophium volutator, along with the chemical analyses of sediments and amphipods to assess the quality of harbour sediments is summarised. The body burden of the amphipods was 1,000 times lower than the one associated with narcosis, emphasizing the sensitivity of this endpoint. The application of this acute toxicity test is briefly compared to additional work that involved intertidal mussels collected in the field.


Recent research undertaken with mud snails, Ilyanassa obsoleta, and harbour sediments confirmed the usefulness of the escape behaviour as an assessment tool. However, the limits of the state of knowledge regarding the fate of contaminants in species with the ability to metabolise contaminants is further discussed along with directions to be pursued to address questions arising from the reviewed literature.

Reponsible editor: Thomas Braunbeck