We investigate previously unreported phenomena that have a potentially significant impact on the design of surveillance monitoring programs for ecological systems. Ecological monitoring practitioners have long recognized that different species are differentially informative of a system's dynamics, as codified in the well-known concepts of indicator or keystone species. Using a novel combination of analysis techniques from nonlinear dynamics, we describe marked variation among spatial sites in information content with respect to system dynamics in the entire region. We first observed these phenomena in a spatially extended predator–prey model, but we observed strikingly similar features in verified water-level data from a NOAA/NOS Great Lakes monitoring program. We suggest that these features may be widespread and the design of surveillance monitoring programs should reflect knowledge of their existence.