Background: The potential for abrupt transitions in ecosystem processes may increase as climate change continues to accelerate1,2. While this trend is of great concern, our understanding of how to identify when and why abrupt transitions occur has been informed almost exclusively by theory. In order to enhance the prediction and management of these changes for different ecosystems, Bestelmeyer et al.3 developed a systematic approach for identifying the occurrence of transitions, the leading indicators, and the underlying mechanisms. Their analyses revealed that the choice of the leading indicator (the biological response used to detect the transitions, e.g. the abundance of a particular species) generates many limitations. For example, using species abundance may restrict our ability to detect non-linear ecosystem transitions.