Use of experimental ecosystems in regulatory decision making

Thomas W. La Point, James A. Perry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Tiered testing for the effects of chemicals on aquatic ecosystems has begun to include tests at the ecosystem level as a component in pesticide regristration. Because such tests are expensive, regulators and industry need to know what additional information they can gain from such tests relative to the costs of the simpler single-species toxicity bioassays. Requirements for ecosystem-level testing have developed because resource managers have not fully understood the implications of potential damage to resources without having evaluations of the predicted impacts under field conditions. We review approaches taken in the use of experimental ecosystems, discuss benefits and limitations of small- and large-scale ecosystem tests, and point to correlative approaches between laboratory and field toxicity testing. Laboratory experimental ecosystems (microcosms) have been successfully used to measure contaminant bioavailability, to determine routes of uptake in moderately complex aquatic systems, and to isolate factors modifying contaminant uptake into the biota. Such factors cannot be as readily studied in outdoor experimental ecosystems because direct cause-and-effect relations are often confounded and difficult to isolate. However, laboratory tests can be designed to quantify the relations among three variables: known concentrations of Stressors; specific sublethal behavioral, biochemical, and physiological effects displayed by organisms; and responses that have been observed in ecosystem-level analyses. For regulatory purposes, the specificity of test results determines how widely they can be applied. Ecotoxicological research should be directed at attempts to identify instances where single-species testing would be the appropriate level of analysis for identifying critical ecological endpoints and for clarifying relationships between ecosystem structure and function, and where it would be inadequate for a given level of analysis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)539-544
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental management
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 1989


  • Experimental ecosystems
  • Field validation
  • Mesocosms
  • Regulatory testing


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