Bioindicators: A review of their use in the environmental literature 1970–2005

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A wide range of scientists, managers, governmental agencies, and the public are interested in assessing the health and well-being of species, populations, and ecosystems. This has resulted in increased studies of the usefulness of different indicators as a measure of stressors and contaminants. This paper presents a review of bioindicators since 1970 by using four journals: Science of the Total Environment, Environmental Science and Technology, Environmental Pollution, and Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. The overall objective was to examine temporal trends in publications on bioindicators, the species used as bioindicators, the contaminants of concern, and what they indicated (e.g., pollution or air quality). Overall, there has been a steady rise in the publication of papers about indicators since 1970, with nearly 35% of the indicator papers published in the last 5 years. Most papers that use the term indicator or bioindicator deal with some form of pollution, environmental quality, or human health. The greatest percent of indicator papers dealt with metal pollution and other chemical pollution, and the least dealt with oil. Despite the recent attention the developed countries have given to radioactive radiation and nuclear waste storage, only 5% of the papers were describing bioindicators of radiation. Plants accounted for over 40% of the indicator papers, followed by invertebrates and then fish. Of the total indicator papers, less than 2% each were attributable to sediments, reptiles, amphibians, and ecosystems. These data indicate that indicators have not been developed equally for different contaminants or with the use of different species. Mammals and birds, which often represent top-trophic levels, are clearly underrepresented. Although the choice of journals examined clearly affected the results, these data indicate a disproportionate emphasis on plants, overall pollution, and metals. To design an adequate biomonitoring plan, managers and public policy makers require more information on a suite of species from the same location. Only with such information can the best accumulators for particular contaminants be selected. Many people contributed to various aspects of my research and thinking about bioindicators over the years, and I thank them now: M. Gochfeld, E.J. Zillioux, M. Greenberg, B.D. Goldstein, C.W. Powers, K. Cooper, I.L. Brisbin Jr, R. Ramos, C. Dixon, C. Jeitner, K.F. Gaines, R.A. Kennamer, C. Lord, C. Safina, T. Shukla, and S. Shukla. The research reported herein was conducted under approved Rutgers University protocols and was funded by NIMH, NIEHS (ESO 5022), EPA, US Fish & Wildlife Service, National Wildlife Foundation, NJ Endangered and NonGame Species Program, Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP) through the Department of Energy (AI #DE-FC01-95EW55084), and the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. The views expressed in this paper are solely the responsibility of the author, and do not represent those of the funding agencies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)136-144
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Bioindicators
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


  • Bioindicator
  • Contaminant
  • Environmental
  • Metals
  • Plants
  • Radionuclides
  • Species groups


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