Abstract A simple earthworm biomarker, neutral-red retention by coelomocyte lysosomes, was measured concurrently with ecological parameters in order to link effects at different levels of biological organization in a laboratory study. Exposure of the earthworm Eisenia andreito an increasing range of soil copper concentrations in the laboratory indicated a threshold range for the neutral-red assay at soil copper concentrations between 40 and 80 mg Cu kg −1. This threshold coincided with the soil to worm copper bioconcentration factor decreasing from 1 to 0.3 and thus an apparent onset of a copper regulatory mechanism. Effects at the individual and population levels only occurred at soil copper concentrations beyond that of the biomarker threshold. Thus, it was possible to differentiate between exposure and toxicity. It was therefore possible to conclude that the neutral-red assay has great potential and relevance in earthworm ecotoxicity studies. The assay provides an early warning that can be linked directly to important physiological changes that were observed to precede adverse effects on individuals or populations in this laboratory study.