Gerald J. Niemi & Michael
E. McDonald talk with ScienceWatch.com and answer
a few questions about this month's Fast Moving Front in the
field of Plant & Animal Science. The authors have
also sent along images of their work.
Article: Application of ecological
Journal: ANNU REV ECOL EVOL SYST, 35: 89-111 2004
Addresses: Univ Minnesota, Nat Resources Res Inst, Duluth,
MN 55811 USA.
Univ Minnesota, Nat Resources Res Inst, Duluth, MN 55811
Univ Minnesota, Dept Biol, Duluth, MN 55811 USA.
US EPA, Environm Monitoring & Assessment Program,
Reston, VA USA.
Why do you think your paper is highly
Michael E. McDonald
There is mounting concern about the state of our environment. Ecological
indicators, if measured in a consistent manner and over time, can tell us
whether the environment is improving, stable, or becoming further degraded.
The article reviews the current thinking about ecological indicators and,
to a lesser extent, design considerations for answering important questions
about the condition of the environment.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
Our paper was a synthesis of knowledge and it highlights what has been done
thus far and where we need to go in the future to improve this knowledge.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
The public demands that we understand and report on the condition of the
environment just like we do on the state of our economy. With the
increasing cost of collecting monitoring data, getting the best
indicator(s) for the questions of interest is crucial. The need for useful
and tested ecological indicators will continue to be necessary to establish
environmental conditions and to determine the effectiveness of management
programs and policies.
How did you become involved in this research and
were there any particular problems encountered along the way?
We have been involved in using ecological indicators to establish the
condition of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems for a long time. Niemi has
studied birds as indicators of environmental health for over 25 years and
he recently completed a major study on the health of the US Great Lakes
coastal region. McDonald has worked in aquatic ecosystems for over 25 years
and is the director of US EPA's Ecological Monitoring and Assessment
Ecological indicators provide a better and more direct measure of ecosystem
condition than the more traditional chemical measures. One of the problems
that we encountered is developing the appropriate metrics for the
ecological indicators needed to answer specific problems, and then ensuring
that these metrics will work consistently across varying spatial scales.
The linkage between potential cause-and-effect—or what do indicators
indicate—is a critical but difficult problem in real-world
Where do you see your research leading in the
Our research will lead to the use of better and more consistent indicators
and environmental monitoring designs. This will provide managers and policy
makers with the data necessary to make better informed decisions from the
local to the national levels. Overall, ecological indicators can guide
decisions toward healthier environmental conditions by identifying problems
before they lead to environmental degradation.
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
Ideally, science and the development of ecological indicators will be of
great benefit to society in the improved health of our natural ecosystems.
The solutions for improving environmental health, however, can be
controversial, especially if the cost for such solutions is high (e.g.,
climate change). This can obviously lead to some social controversy. As the
use of effective ecological indicators and monitoring designs increases and
these measures continue to be made through time, we will be able to
establish and demonstrate the effectiveness of environmental protection
programs and policies.
Gerald J. Niemi, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Biology
Senior Research Associate, Natural Resources Research Institute
University of Minnesota-Duluth
Duluth, MN, USA
Michael E. McDonald, Ph.D.
Director, Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program
National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory
Research Triangle Park, NC, USA