Ecological Monitoring


Ecological monitoring aims at inferring causes of ecosystem changes, by measuring ecosystem state variables in space and time. This is required for management, when different actions are possible and their consequences need to be assessed and compared, and for science, which aims at establishing the causes of observed patterns. The success of an ecological monitoring programme will heavily depend on having well‐articulated questions and objectives, formulated using a simple conceptual model. Future challenges lie in integrating monitoring programmes through questions and models that include both global and local scales, and adding the human dimension in order to achieve social‐ecological monitoring.

Key Concepts:

  • Many ecological monitoring programmes have been inefficient and passive.

  • Ecological monitoring should start with simple model(s) and questions.

  • The model(s) and questions should be frequently confronted with data, and changed if necessary.

  • Developments in statistics and other fields are crucial for accurate estimation of state variables.

  • Long‐term ecological research (LTER) sites are examples of successful monitoring, with major results.

  • More work is needed to integrate monitoring programmes in order to achieve local and global objectives.

  • Social and economic aspects, such as ecosystem services, need to be added to monitoring programmes.

Keywords: ecosystem model; state variables; sampling; resilience; LTER; social‐ecological system

Figure 1.

Riparian habitats in Arctic tundra can be found along a continuum of states, from a state dominated by large willow shrub patches (a) to a state without such shrub cover (b). These states have different structure – species dependent on willow shrubs such as willow grouse disappear in state (b) – as well as different functions – for example, increasing shrub cover will decrease albedo ((c) contrast the dark shrubs and the white snow cover) and therefore will affect climate. Climate change represents an important driver of a transition from (b) to (a) – warmer temperatures favour shrub growth – but herbivores, and in particular reindeer, may slow down or even reverse shrub cover increase ((a)–(b)). Furthermore, climate change may negatively influence small mammalian herbivores, such as lemmings ((d) dead Norwegian lemming on hard snow), with consequences for emblematic, predatory species (Snowy owl; (c)). Ecological Monitoring starts with a simple model of the interactions between climate, shrub cover, herbivores and their predators, and incorporates the human dimension, particularly reindeer herding and indigenous people. Because Arctic terrestrial ecosystems cover huge areas, with large variation in present state, history (e.g. presence of ice during the last Glacial Maximum), diversity, climate regime, socio‐economic condition and governance, monitoring needs to integrate local (‘context’) and global components. Reproduced from Nigel Yoccoz (a) and Rolf A Ims ((b)–(d)).



Albert CH, Yoccoz NG, Edwards TC et al. (2010) Sampling in ecology and evolution – bridging the gap between theory and practice. Ecography 33: 1028–1037.

Anderson CB, Likens GE, Rozzi R et al. (2008) Integrating science and society through long‐term socio‐ecological research. Environmental Ethics 30: 295–312.

Bowman WD and Seastedt TR (eds) (2001) Structure and Function of an Alpine Ecosystem. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Box GEP, Hunter JS and Hunter WG (2005) Statistics for Experimenters. Design, Innovation, and Discovery. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Wiley‐Interscience.

Carpenter SR, Cole JJ, Pace ML et al. (2011) Early warnings of regime shifts: a whole‐ecosystem experiment. Science 332: 1079–1082.

Carpenter SR, Westley F and Turner MG (2005) Surrogates for resilience of social‐ecological systems. Ecosystems 8: 941–944.

Chapin FS (2009) Managing ecosystems sustainably: the key role of resilience. In: Chapin FS, Kofinas GP and Folke C (eds) Principles of Ecosystem Stewardship, pp. 29–53. New York: Springer.

Chapin FS, Sturm M, Serreze MC et al. (2005) Role of land‐surface changes in Arctic summer warming. Science 310: 657–660.

Clark JS and Gelfand AE (eds) (2006) Hierarchical Modelling for the Environmental Sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Couvet D, Devictor V, Jiguet F and Julliard R (2011) Scientific contributions of extensive biodiversity monitoring. Comptes Rendus Biologies 334: 370–377.

Estes JA, Terborgh J, Brashares JS et al. (2011) Trophic downgrading of planet Earth. Science 333: 301–306.

Gosz JR, Waide RB and Magnuson JJ (2010) Twenty‐eight years of the US‐LTER program: experience, results, and research questions. In: Müller F, Baessler C, Schubert H and Klotz S (eds) Long‐term Ecological Research, pp. 59–74. Netherlands: Springer.

Gregory RD and van Strien A (2010) Wild bird indicators: using composite population trends of birds as measures of environmental health. Ornithological Science 9: 3–22.

Hobbie JE, Deegan LA, Peterson BJ et al. (1995) Long‐term measurements at the Arctic LTER site. In: Powell TM and Steele JH (eds) Ecological Time Series, pp. 391–409. New York: Chapman and Hall.

Ives AR, Abbott KC and Ziebarth NL (2010) Analysis of ecological time series with ARMA(p,q) models. Ecology 91: 858–871.

Jones JPG (2011) Monitoring species abundance and distribution at the landscape scale. Journal of Applied Ecology 48: 9–13.

Karl TR, Derr VE, Easterling DR et al. (1995) Critical issues for long‐term climate monitoring. Climatic Change 31: 185–221.

Lavorel S, Grigulis K, Lamarque P et al. (2011) Using plant functional traits to understand the landscape distribution of multiple ecosystem services. Journal of Ecology 99: 135–147.

Legg CJ and Nagy L (2006) Why most conservation monitoring is, but need not be, a waste of time. Journal of Environmental Management 78: 194–199.

Likens GE (2010) The role of science in decision making: does evidence‐based science drive environmental policy? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8: E1–E9.

Lindenmayer DB and Likens GE (2009) Adaptive monitoring: a new paradigm for long‐term research and monitoring. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 482–486.

Lindenmayer DB and Likens GE (2010a) Effective Ecological Monitoring. Collingwood, Vic., Australia: CSIRO Publishing.

Lindenmayer DB and Likens GE (2010b) The science and application of ecological monitoring. Biological Conservation 143: 1317–1328.

Lindenmayer DB, Likens GE, Krebs CJ and Hobbs RJ (2010) Improved probability of detection of ecological ‘surprises’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 107: 21957–21962.

Lovett GM, Burns DA, Driscoll CT et al. (2007) Who needs environmental monitoring? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 5: 253–260.

MacKenzie DI, Nichols JD, Royle JA et al. (2006) Occupancy Estimation and Modeling. Amsterdam: Academic Press.

Magurran AE (2004) Measuring Biological Diversity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Morellet N, Gaillard JM, Hewison AJM et al. (2007) Indicators of ecological change: new tools for managing populations of large herbivores. Journal of Applied Ecology 44: 634–643.

Müller F, Baessler C, Schubert H and Klotz S (eds) (2010) Long‐term Ecological Research. Netherlands: Springer.

Nichols JD, Koneff MD, Heglund PJ et al. (2011) Climate change, uncertainty, and natural resource management. Journal of Wildlife Management 75: 6–18.

Ohl C and Swinton SM (2010) Integrating social sciences into long‐term ecological research. In: Müller F, Baessler C, Schubert H and Klotz S (eds) Long‐term Ecological Research, pp. 399–410. Netherlands: Springer.

Olsen AR, Sedransk J, Edwards D et al. (1999) Statistical issues for monitoring ecological and natural resources in the United States. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 54: 1–45.

van der Oost R, Beyer J and Vermeulen NPE (2003) Fish bioaccumulation and biomarkers in environmental risk assessment: a review. Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology 13: 57–149.

Pace ML, Hampton SE, Limburg KE et al. (2010) Communicating with the public: opportunities and rewards for individual ecologists. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8: 292–298.

Pauly D, Christensen V, Dalsgaard J, Froese R and Torres F (1998) Fishing down marine food webs. Science 279: 860–863.

Pennisi E (2010) A groundbreaking observatory to monitor the environment. Science 328: 418–420.

Shadish WR, Cook TD and Campbell DT (2002) Experimental and Quasi‐experimental Designs for Generalized Causal Inference. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Silvertown J, Poulton P, Johnston E et al. (2006) The Park Grass experiment 1856–2006: its contribution to ecology. Journal of Ecology 94: 801–814.

Stenseth NC, Viljugrein H, Saitoh T et al. (2003) Seasonality, density dependence, and population cycles in Hokkaido voles. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 100: 11478–11483.

Thuiller W, Lavergne S, Roquet C et al. (2011) Consequences of climate change on the tree of life in Europe. Nature 470: 531–534.

UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) The UK National Ecosystem Assessment: Synthesis of the Key Findings. Cambridge, UK: UNEP‐WCMC.

Vittoz P, Bayfield N, Brooker R et al. (2010) Reproducibility of species lists, visual cover estimates and frequency methods for recording high‐mountain vegetation. Journal of Vegetation Science 21: 1035–1047.

Walters CJ (2007) Is adaptive management helping to solve fisheries problems? AMBIO 36: 304–307

Wardle DA, Bardgett RD, Callaway RM and Van der Putten WH (2011) Terrestrial ecosystem responses to species gains and losses. Science 332: 1273–1277.

Whitlock MC (2011) Data archiving in ecology and evolution: best practices. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 26: 61–65.

Wiens JA (2009) Is ‘monitoring’ a dirty word? Bulletin of the British Ecological Society 40: 39–40.

Wintle BA, Runge MC and Bekessy SA (2010) Allocating monitoring effort in the face of unknown unknowns. Ecology Letters 13: 1325–1337.

Yoccoz NG, Nichols JD and Boulinier T (2001) Monitoring of biological diversity in space and time. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16: 446–453.

Further Reading

Balmford A, Green RE and Jenkins M (2003) Measuring the changing state of nature. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 18: 326–330.

Buckland ST, Magurran AE, Green RE and Fewster RM (2005) Monitoring change in biodiversity through composite indices. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B‐Biological Sciences 360: 243–254.

Conroy MJ, Runge MC, Nichols JD, Stodola KW and Cooper RJ (2011) Conservation in the face of climate change: the roles of alternative models, monitoring, and adaptation in confronting and reducing uncertainty. Biological Conservation 144: 1204–1213.

Jones JPG, Collen B, Atkinson G et al. (2011) The Why, What, and How of Global Biodiversity Indicators Beyond the 2010 Target. Conservation Biology 25: 450–457.

Likens GE and Lindenmayer DB (2011) A strategic plan for an Australian Long‐term Environmental Monitoring Network. Austral Ecology 36: 1–8.

Lindenmayer DB and Likens GE (2011) Effective monitoring of agriculture. Journal of Environmental Monitoring 13: 1559–1563.

Nichols JD and Williams BK (2006) Monitoring for conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 21: 668–673.

Tulloch A, Possingham HP and Wilson K (2011) Wise selection of an indicator for monitoring the success of management actions. Biological Conservation 144: 141–154.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Yoccoz, Nigel Gilles(May 2012) Ecological Monitoring. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023571]