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Implications of Liebig's law of the minimum for the use of ecological indicators based on abundance

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Many ecological responses to environmental variables or anthropogenic agents are difficult and expensive to measure. Therefore it is attractive to describe such responses in terms of indicators that are easier to measure. In ecosystem management, indicators can be used to monitor spatial and temporal changes in an environmental feature. The aim of this paper is to show that it is important to take Liebig's law of the minimum into consideration to understand when it is appropriate or inappropriate to use ecological indicators based on abundance. When developing indicators that relate the abundance of an organism to an environmental factor, it is likely that this relationship will be polygonal rather than a simple linear relationship. The upper boundary of the distribution describes how abundance is limited by this factor, while the variation below the upper boundary is explained by situations when factors other than the factor of interest limit abundance. The variation below the upper boundary of the distribution means that the use of indicators to examine spatial patterns in the response of abundance to an environmental factor can be problematic. Thus, while abundance-based indicators can identify sites that are in a good condition, they are less useful to detect those affected by environmental degradation. In contrast, abundance-based ecological indicators may enable temporal monitoring of the impact of environmental factors, as it is expected that limiting factors are less variable in time than in space. In conclusion, when multiple factors are limiting, a significant correlation between an indicator and a variable is not enough to validate the status of a factor as an indicator.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2005

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