Sentinel sensors: revolutionising our understanding and management of the estuarine environment

Project Number:



CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Hobart

Principal Investigator:

John McCulloch

Project Status:


FRDC Expenditure:



Communities, Environment, Industry


Our current understanding of environmental and anthropogenic impacts on marine life, whether farmed or wild, is limited by a lack of technology to directly measure the perception and responses of the animals themselves. Molluscs have been used as “biological early warning systems” because their swift behavioural response to environmental stressors is predictive of impending effects on other organisms in the ecosystem. Despite this potential, a lack of appropriate technology has prevented measurements of real-time data from animals in parallel with environmental monitoring. This project will demonstrate the utility of using sentinel animals with novel biosensors to provide early warning information on the health and status of the marine environment. Human health monitoring relies on ‘vital signs’, this project will measure the vital signs of heart rate and behaviour in sentinel animals, as they respond to multiple and interacting changes in the environment. Such complex monitoring is not possible with infrequent water sample analysis, and the lack of real-time sensors for all potential stressors creates the need for a world-first rapid biological response system. The “animal-eye” view provided will allow direct measurements of how animals perceive and respond to their changing environment, thus removing the guesswork in trying to predict ecosystem health based solely on environmental monitoring data. This project aligns with, and adds value to, existing environmental and ecosystem monitoring and modelling research, and provides the crucial missing piece in the puzzle – the biological response to environmental change. The project will demonstrate the utility of using sentinel animals to develop more meaningful predictions and decision support systems for all users of the ecosystem. The research will link physiological and behavioural responses of bio-filtering molluscs to more traditional water quality measurements, to produce a more complete picture of environmental changes and ecosystem health.


1. Demonstrate an operational network of sentinel molluscs providing real-time streaming of physiological and behavioural data providing a biological perspective of the environment.

2. Improve the local economy’s capacity to install, operate and maintain real-time, telemetered, environmental sensing systems by demonstrating the commercial operation of telemetered water quality sensor system over an extended 12 month period by a commercial operator.

3. Demonstrate that aspects of the ecosystem can be represented in real-time using sentinel animal data.

4. Provide an educational outreach program to encourage a generation of people interested in the marine environment and marine science.