Journal of Applied Phycology

, Volume 6, Issue 5–6, pp 509–526

Algae as indicators of environmental change

  • Paul V. McCormick
  • John CairnsJr

DOI: 10.1007/BF02182405

Cite this article as:
McCormick, P.V. & Cairns, J. J Appl Phycol (1994) 6: 509. doi:10.1007/BF02182405


Despite an increased awareness by governments and the general public of the need for protecting all types of aquatic habitats, human impacts continue to impair the services that these ecosystems provide. Increased monitoring activities that locus on all major biological compartments are needed to quantify the present condition of Earth's aquatic resources and to evaluate the effectiveness of regulations designed to rehabilitate damaged ecosystems. Algae are an ecologically important group in most aquatic ecosystems but are often ignored as indicators of aquatic ecosystem change. We attribute this situation both to an underappreciation of the utility of algal indicators among non-phycologists and to a lack of standardized methods for monitoring with algae.

Because of their nutritional needs and their position at the base of aquatic foodwebs, algal indicators provide relatively unique information concerning ecosystem condition compared with commonly used animal indicators. Algae respond rapidly and predictably to a wide range of pollutants and, thus, provide potentially useful early warning signals of deteriorating conditions and the possible causes. Algal assemblages provide one of the few benchmarks for establishing historical water quality conditions and for characterizing the minimally impacted biological condition of many disturbed ecosystems. Preliminary comparisons suggest that algal indicators are a cost-effective monitoring tool as well.

Based on available evidence from field studies, we recommend development of taxonomic indicators based on diatoms (Bacillariophyceae) as a standardized protocol for monitoring ecosystem change. Both population- and community-level indices have inherent strengths, and limitations and information from both levels of biological organization should be utilized in tandem. However, further information concerning species tolerances to a variety of anthropogenic stressors is needed if autecological indices are to be used routinely for monitoring purposes. While functional measures (e.g. productivity) may also prove useful as monitoring tools, further investigation is required to characterize the reliability of alternative methodologies and to assess the consistency of these indicators under varying field conditions.

Key words

environmental monitoring algal indicators environmental change indicator organisms pollution microbial ecology 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul V. McCormick
    • 1
  • John CairnsJr
    • 2
  1. 1.Everglades Systems Research DivisionWest Palm BeachUSA
  2. 2.University Center for Environmental and Hazardous Materials StudiesVirginia Polytechnic Institute and State UniversityBlacksburgUSA

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