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Sentinel species

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Domestic canary, historically used to detect gas in coal mines

Sentinel species are organisms, often animals, used to detect risks to humans by providing advance warning of a danger. The terms primarily apply in the context of environmental hazards rather than those from other sources. Some animals can act as sentinels because they may be more susceptible or have greater exposure to a particular hazard than humans in the same environment.[1] People have long observed animals for signs of impending hazards or evidence of environmental threats. Plants and other living organisms have also been used for these purposes.

Historical examples[edit]

Depiction of a miner with a canary in a cage
Miner with a canary in a cage

Many observations of animals point to toxicity in food, water or air that would or could harm humans.


The classic example is the "canary in the coal mine". The idea of placing a warm-blooded animal in a mine to detect carbon monoxide was first proposed by John Scott Haldane in 1895,[2] and canaries were used as early as 1896.[3][4][5][6] Countries such as Britain, the United States, and Canada used canaries as a sentinel species.[7] Well into the 20th century, coal miners brought canaries into coal mines as an early-warning signal for toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide.[8] The birds, being more sensitive, would become sick before the miners, who would then have a chance to escape or put on protective respirators. In some cases, the canaries were kept in cages with dedicated oxygen tanks so the birds could survive after their illness provided a warning.[9] "Canary in the coal mine" is now used as an idiom for a person or thing that warns people of danger.[10][11]


In Minamata Bay, Japan, cats developed "dancing cat fever" before humans were affected due to eating mercury-contaminated fish.[12]


Dogs were recognized as early as 1939 to be more susceptible to tonsil cancer if they were kept in crowded urban environments.[12] Studies similarly found higher disease rates in animals exposed to tobacco smoke.[12]


Yushō disease was discovered when poultry began dying at alarming rates due to polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) poisoning, although not before approximately 14,000 people were affected.


Rose bushes are often planted at the ends of vine rows in vineyards. One hypothesized reason is that roses are highly susceptible to powdery mildew, which can also afflict grape vines. Finding mildew on the roses is therefore sometimes taken as an early warning sign to take preventive measures to protect the adjacent vines. However the effectiveness of this practice is debated, since roses and vines are affected by different species of mildew (although both species occur under similar weather conditions).[13]


Animal sentinels must have measurable responses to the hazard in question, whether that is due to the animal's death, disappearance, or some other determinable aspect.[1]: 34  Many of these species are ideally unendangered and easy to handle. It is important that the species' range overlap with the range being studied.[14] Often the ideal species is determined by the characteristics of the hazard.

For example, honey bees are susceptible to air pollution.[1]: 35  Similarly both bats and swallows have been used to monitor pesticide contamination due to their diet of insects that may have been affected by the chemicals.[1]: 35  By the same token, aquatic animals, or their direct predators, are used as sentinel species to monitor water pollution.[15]

Some species may show effects of a contaminant before humans due to their size, their reproductive rate, or their increased exposure to the contaminant.[14]

Specific applications[edit]

Toxic gases[edit]

Mining foreman R. Thornburg shows a small cage with a canary used for testing carbon monoxide gas in 1928.

Canaries were iconically used in coal mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. The bird's rapid breathing rate, small size, and high metabolism, compared to the miners, led birds in dangerous mines to succumb before the miners, thereby giving the miners time to take action.

Air and water pollution[edit]

A number of animals have been used to measure varying kinds of air pollution. These include honey bees for air pollution, bivalve molluscs[16] for online water-quality survey and pigeons for atmospheric lead.[1]: 35  Bats and swallows have been used to monitor pesticide contamination due to their diet of insects that may have been affected by the chemicals.[1]: 35 

Aquatic DDT pollution has been quantitatively measured in California fish. PCB has been measured through the analysis of fish livers.[1]: 82  Toxaphene concentrations were discovered far from the area of its use through analysis of trout in the Great Lakes.[1]: 85  The evidence of atmospheric transport of the substance influenced the subsequent prohibition of its widespread use. Alligators may have been used to warn of hazardous contamination in Centreville, Mississippi retention ponds.[17]

Scientists also monitor crayfish in the wild in natural bodies of water to study the levels of pollutants there.[18][19][20]

The Protivin brewery in the Czech Republic uses crayfish outfitted with sensors to detect any changes in their bodies or pulse activity in order to monitor the purity of the water used in their product. The creatures are kept in a fish tank that is fed with the same local natural source water used in their brewing. If three or more of the crayfish have changes to their pulses, employees know there is a change in the water and examine the parameters.[18]

Infectious diseases[edit]

The discovery of West Nile virus in the Western Hemisphere was heralded by an outbreak of disease in crows and other wild birds. Other emerging diseases have demonstrated linkages between animal health events and human risk, including monkeypox, SARS, and avian influenza. In outbreaks of bubonic plague, rats begin dying out before humans. [citation needed]

Household toxins[edit]

Dogs may provide early warning of lead poisoning hazards in a home, and certain cancers in dogs and cats have been linked to household exposures to pesticides, cigarette smoke, and other carcinogens. [citation needed]

Cultural references[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h National Research Council (U.S.). Committee on Animals as Monitors of Environmental Hazards, "Animals as Sentinels of Environmental Health Hazards: Committee on Animals as Monitors of Environmental Hazards," National Academy Press: 1991, ISBN 0309040469.
  2. ^ Haldane, John Scott (1895). "The Action of Carbonic Oxide on Man". The Journal of Physiology. XVIII (5–6): 448. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1895.sp000578. PMC 1514663. PMID 16992272.
  3. ^ Haldane, John Scott (1896). "The Detection and Estimation of Carbonic Oxide in Air". The Journal of Physiology. XX (6): 521–522. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1896.sp000635. PMC 1512612. PMID 16992351.
  4. ^ Acott, C. (1999). "JS Haldane, JBS Haldane, L Hill, and A Siebe: A brief resume of their lives". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal. 29 (3). ISSN 0813-1988. OCLC 16986801. Archived from the original on July 27, 2011. Retrieved 2008-07-12.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  5. ^ Boycott, A. E.; Damant, G. C. C.; Haldane, J. S. (1908). "Prevention of compressed air illness". J. Hygiene. 8 (3): 342–443. doi:10.1017/S0022172400003399. PMC 2167126. PMID 20474365. Archived from the original on September 17, 2008. Retrieved 2013-09-05.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  6. ^ Hellemans, Alexander; Bunch, Bryan (1988). The Timetables of Science. Simon & Schuster. p. 411. ISBN 0671621300.
  7. ^ Magazine, Smithsonian; Eschner, Kat. "The Story of the Real Canary in the Coal Mine". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 2022-10-17.
  8. ^ David A. Bengston, Diane S. Henshel, "Environmental Toxicology and Risk Assessment: Biomarkers and Risk Assessment", ASTM International, 1996, ISBN 0803120311, p 220.
  9. ^ Pollard, Lewis (2018-03-27). "The canary resuscitator". Science and Industry Museum blog. Retrieved 2021-10-13.
  10. ^ ShareAmerica (2014-11-12). "Idiom in the news: Canary in the coal mine". ShareAmerica. Retrieved 2022-10-17.
  11. ^ Forsaith, Carly (2022-09-22). "'Canary in a Coal Mine': Definition, Meaning, and Examples". Writing Tips. Retrieved 2022-10-17.
  12. ^ a b c Stephen J. Withrow, David M. Vail, Withrow and MacEwen's Small Animal Clinical Oncology, Elsevier: 2007, ISBN 0721605583, p. 73-4.
  13. ^ "Roses and vineyards- friends or foe? - Napa Master Gardener Column - ANR Blogs". web.archive.org. 2023-02-08. Retrieved 2024-06-09.
  14. ^ a b Arthur D. Bloom, Frederick de Serres, Ecotoxicity and Human Health: A Biological Approach to Environmental Remediation, CRC Press: 1995, ISBN 1566701414, page 76.
  15. ^ "Sentinel Species - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics". www.sciencedirect.com. Retrieved 2023-05-13.
  16. ^ "Molluscan eye". Archived from the original on 2016-11-13. Retrieved 2014-01-25.
  17. ^ Eugene Love Fair Jr. (May 28, 2013), "Christmas v. Exxon Mobil", Mississippi Court of Appeals, retrieved January 3, 2014
  18. ^ a b Hanrahan, Mark (27 September 2017). "Crayfish staff help Czech brewery keep its water as pure as can be". Reuters TV. Archived from the original on 25 October 2019. Retrieved 1 November 2019.
  19. ^ "Clean Water". Missouri Conservationist Magazine. Vol. 69, no. 11. Missouri Department of Conservation. November 2008. Retrieved 1 November 2019.
  20. ^ Schilderman, P. A. E. L.; Moonen, E. J. C.; Maas, L. M.; Welle, I.; Kleinjans, J. C. S. (1999). "Use of Crayfish in Biomonitoring Studies of Environmental Pollution of the River Meuse". Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. 44 (3): 241–252. doi:10.1006/eesa.1999.1827. ISSN 0147-6513. PMID 10581118.
  21. ^ Interview "Physicist, Purge Thyself" in the Chicago Tribune Magazine (22 June 1969)
  22. ^ "Christmas Day lost and found: Police's 'Canary in a Coalmine'". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved 2022-10-17.

Further reading[edit]

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