An environmental “canary” is an animal that is especially susceptible to pollution in an ecosystem. When scientists see this animal sicken or die in large numbers, they can tell that there’s pollution in the environment that needs to be stopped before it gets to the point where it harms other creatures in the ecosystem. Lichens are among the first to die as a result of air pollution, for example, and seagulls are affected strongly by oil pollution in marine environments.
As you might already know, the reason they’re called “canaries” is because of a questionable practice miners once used. Mines can be home to dangerous toxic gasses, so when exploring a new part of a mine the miners would bring a canary in a small cage. Being much smaller, the canary would die from poison gasses faster than a human would. If the canary died, the miners knew the air wasn’t safe to breathe and went elsewhere.
Non-animals have been referred to as environmental canaries as well. Any indicator of environmental change or detriment can be an environmental canary. For example, the Arctic was described by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute as the environmental canary for climate change. Observing it’s ever quickening melting rate is an indicator that the global temperature is rising.
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