Framework for Traits-based Assessment in Ecotoxicology

M.N. Rubach, R. Ashauer, D.B. Buchwalter, H.J. de Lange, M. Hamer, T.G. Preuss, K. Töpke, S.J. Maund

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

104 Citations (Scopus)


A key challenge in ecotoxicology is to assess the potential risks of chemicals to the wide range of species in the environment on the basis of laboratory toxicity data derived from a limited number of species. These species are then assumed to be suitable surrogates for a wider class of related taxa. For example, Daphnia spp. are used as the indicator species for freshwater aquatic invertebrates. Extrapolation from these datasets to natural communities poses a challenge because the extent to which test species are representative of their various taxonomic groups is often largely unknown, and different taxonomic groups and chemicals are variously represented in the available datasets. Moreover, it has been recognized that physiological and ecological factors can each be powerful determinants of vulnerability to chemical stress, thus differentially influencing toxicant effects at the population and community level. Recently it was proposed that detailed study of species traits might eventually permit better understanding, and thus prediction, of the potential for adverse effects of chemicals to a wider range of organisms than those amenable for study in the laboratory. This line of inquiry stems in part from the ecology literature, in which species traits are being used for improved understanding of how communities are constructed, as well as how communities might respond to, and recover from, disturbance (see other articles in this issue). In the present work, we develop a framework for the application of traits-based assessment. The framework is based on the population vulnerability conceptual model of Van Straalen in which vulnerability is determined by traits that can be grouped into 3 major categories, i.e., external exposure, intrinsic sensitivity, and population sustainability. Within each of these major categories, we evaluate specific traits as well as how they could contribute to the assessment of the potential effects of a toxicant on an organism. We then develop an example considering bioavailability to explore how traits could be used mechanistically to estimate vulnerability. A preliminary inventory of traits for use in ecotoxicology is included; this also identifies the availability of data to quantify those traits, in addition to an indication of the strength of linkage between the trait and the affected process. Finally, we propose a way forward for the further development of traits-based approaches in ecotoxicology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)172-186
JournalIntegrated Environmental Assessment and Management
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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