Indicating Change: The Role of Surrogates in Science

The Book: Indicators and Surrogates of Biodiversity and Environmental Change
The Editors: David Lindenmayer, Philip Barton & Jennifer Pierson

Look, ecology can be complicated… Ecosystems are composed of numerous organisms interacting with each other, as well as the natural and human-modified environment, over various scales in time and space. While these complexities are at the heart of what makes the natural world fascinating, they also tend to make it somewhat difficult for ecologists to understand and manage ecosystems sustainably. Indicators of Surrogates of Biodiversity and Environmental Change considers the broadly used approach of utilising specific species or biological parameters as surrogates of more complex systems to overcome the issue of complexity.

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Image: CSIRO Publishing

Managers and researchers have employed surrogates across a diverse range of ecological questions and ecosystems. For instance, when evaluating the success of habitat revegetation on restoring ecosystem health, it is usually infeasible for managers to measure every species present. Instead, managers often measure a few species known to be particularly sensitive, using them as surrogates of total ecosystem health. More broadly, surrogates have been utilised to ask a variety of ecological questions: from using coral cover to gauge the success of marine protected areas, to using species of lichen to track atmospheric changes.

Rather than provide a long exhaustive review of each field in which surrogates have been applied, the editors’ aim is to concisely package the book in such a way that it both highlights the diverse ways in which surrogates are utilised, whilst maintaining accessibility for a broad audience. To achieve this, each chapter follows a defined structure and is written by a different author (or authors) who is an expert in their chosen field.

Each author lists and briefly discusses 10 key issues concerning the use of surrogates in their field of research. Chapters vary from considering the use of particular groups of taxa as surrogates, such as invertebrates and birds, to considering the successes and failures of various surrogate techniques across types of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Importantly, the change of authors from chapter to chapter allows for multiple perspectives to be expressed and encourages cross-disciplinary learning. For instance, authors are able to showcase how research and management techniques can be improved through implementation of modern techniques, such as molecular genetics and isotope analysis. One fascinating chapter also focuses on what ecologists can learn from the use of surrogates in medical research.

Lichen is often used as a surrogate to track atmospheric changes.  Image: Evatt Chirgwin

Lichen is often used as a surrogate to track atmospheric changes. Image: Evatt Chirgwin

Despite the book certainly being an advocate for the use of surrogates, the editors and authors don’t shy away from the faults of the approach. Surrogates can and have been inappropriately used in the past in ways that have been both economically and ecologically costly. Further, the authors place a large emphasis on the need for surrogates to be more rigorously tested for the correlation to the ecological factor that they are meant to be acting as a surrogate for.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if… You are a manager and researcher wanting a guide on the application of surrogates, or just someone who is interested in the complexities.

Evatt Chirgwin

Evatt is an evolutionary ecologist whose research focuses on how natural populations can adapt to environmental change. He is currently undertaking his PhD at Monash University.

You can find him on Twitter @EvattChirgwin

Banner image courtesy of Evatt Chirgwin