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Selecting indicators for ecosystem risk assessments

Scientists develop a guide for selecting indicators for ecosystem risk assessments.

Seeking to inform how to best monitor and manage ecosystems, ecologists and managers measure the change in variables that reflect key aspects of an ecosystem (known as indicators) and undertake risk assessments for different types of ecosystems. These risk assessments allow regions or parts of ecosystems that are most at risk of degradation or collapse to be identified.

Risk assessments are applied widely around the world. Yet there is little guidance on selecting and using indicators in a consistent, and transparent way to ensure assessments are reliable and repeatable.


A group of researchers has created a guide outlining the main steps to choosing suitable indicators. To understand the strengths and shortcomings in the selection and use of indicators, the group reviewed ecological studies and risk assessments applied by the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems (RLE) in marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

They found that the process of selecting indicators was rarely reported, and using indicators representing all three indicator types of area, and biotic (such as the abundance of key native species or invasive species) and abiotic features (such as annual temperature or precipitation) was not standard practice. There was a larger focus on indicators signifying functionality in marine ecosystems, whereas measures of change in the area were more commonly used in terrestrial ecosystems. Multiple indicators were assessed simultaneously in ecological studies through indices or multivariate analyses. Most ecological studies and risk assessments used time-series data that spanned at least 30 years.

Overall, the researchers highlighted several key ways to improve risk assessments. Reliable and repeatable risk assessments require assessors to clearly outline how and why indicators were selected, guarantee the source and quality of the data used, and use indicators with a wide-ranging set of indicators that capture different types of ecosystem change. Assessors should also be careful when assessing multiple indicators simultaneously through indices and multivariate analyses until clear guidelines are outlined for their use. Without undertaking these steps, the chance of inaccurate results in risk assessments increases.

Consistency among risk assessments and transparency in process and decision-making are key for judging their reliability. This guide aims to help ecologists and managers conduct risk assessments that can be relied upon for supporting effective ecosystem management.   

The paper “Selecting and applying indicators of ecosystem collapse for risk assessments” was published as an Accepted Article on 12 March 2018 in Conservation Biology.


Written by: Jessica Rowland

Style and Format: Clara Gómez




Provita Apr 26, 2018


IUCN Red List of Ecosystems


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