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What do insects tell us about the health of our rivers?

Nowadays, concern about the health of inland waters (rivers, lakes, etc.) is growing, mainly due to increased use (and abuse) of these for human consumption. A few years ago, an expansion of the use of biotic indices took place, which allow us to determine the health of aquatic ecosystems; these indices usually use data such as presence, absence or/and abundance of different organisms known as ‘bioindicators’, that is, species that can be used to monitor the health of an environment or ecosystem. Among these organisms, there are a lot of arthropods.

Along this article, I will briefly explain what bioindicators are, the main role of arthropods as bioindicators and also introduce some of the most used bioindication indices to monitor the quality of riverine ecosystems in the Iberian Peninsula.

What is a bioindicator?

The term ‘bioindicator’ is used to refer to those biological processes, species or/and communities of organisms which can be used to assess the quality of an ecosystem and also how this ecosystem evolves over time, which is especially useful when changes take place due to anthropogenic disturbances, such as pollution.

Thus, in accordance with the above, a bioindicator can be:

  • A particular species, whose presence/absence or abundance rate informs us of the state of health of a studied ecosystem, or
  • A population or a community composed of various organisms which varies functionally or structurally according to the conditions of  environment.

Example: Lecanora conizaeoides lichen is highly resistant to pollution. Its presence on the studied ecosystem, coupled with the disappearance of another lichens, is indicative of high air pollution.

Lecanora conizaeoides (Picture by James Lindsey).

What do we consider a ‘good bioindicator’?

Do all the organisms have the necessary traits to become bioindicator subjects? The answer is no. Even though there is not a bioindicator prototype (because all depends on the studied ecosystem), we can resume here some of the traits that scientists take into account to select good bioindicator organisms:

  • They have to respond to disturbances that take place on their ecosystem to a greater or lesser degree. This response should be comparable to that emitted by the rest of the organisms of the same species, and this response also has to be well correlated with the studied environment disturbances.
  • Their response have to be representative of all the community or population.
  • They must be native of the studied ecosystem and also be ubiquitous (that is, to be present in almost all ecosystems of the same or similar characteristics).
  • They have to be abundant (rare species aren’t optimum subjects).
  • They must be relatively stable to moderate climate changes (i.e. a storm or a natural temperature change does not affect them more than normal).
  • They should be easy to detect and, as possible, they have to be sedentary.
  • They have to be well studied, both from an ecological point of view as taxonomic (to know, therefore, their tolerance to environmental disturbances).
  • Finally, they should be easy to manipulate and monitor in the laboratory.

The use of bioindicators will be optimized if we use entire communities or populations instead of using a single or a couple species, because this allows us to cover a wide interval of environmental tolerances: from organisms with a narrow tolerance range (that is, stenotopic) and sensitive to pollution, to very tolerant organisms that can survive in very polluted environments.

Thus, we will be able to know if an ecosystem is highly altered if we find only a very tolerant species and none of the considered sensitive species.

Bioindicator animals from inland waters

Nowadays, scientists use a lot of animals as bioindicators: from microorganism and microinvertebrates to terrestrial and aquatic vertebrates (micromammals, birds, fishes, etc.). In inland waters, and especially in the context of studies of riverine water quality, scientists mostly use aquatic macroinvertebrates to assess the quality of these ecosystems. Next, let’s see what a macroinvertebrate is.

What are macroinvertebrates?

The term ‘macroinvertebrate’ does not correspond to any taxonomic classification, but with an artificial concept that includes different aquatic invertebrate organisms.

Generally, is said that macroinvertebrates are organisms that can be trapped by a net with holes about 250μm.

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Collecting macroinvertebrates by using a kick seine (Picture by USFWS/Southeast , Creative Commons).

Macroinvertebrates are mainly benthic, that is, animals that inhabit the substrate of aquatic ecosystems at least during some stage of their life cycle (although there are some that swim freely in water column or on its surface).

We can find a lot of macroinvertebrate groups in rivers and lakes, which can be classified in two main groups:

Picture sources: (1) Luis Silva Margareto ©, (2) DPDx Image Library, (3) Oakley Originals, Creative Commons, (4) Ryan Hodnett, Creative Commons, (5) Will Thomas, Creative Commons, (6) Duncan Hull, Creative Commons.

Among these groups, there are both tolerant organisms to environment distrubances (i.e. leeches) and sensitive organisms (i.e. a lot of larvae insects).

Most inland aquatic macroinvertebrates (≃80%) are arthropods (of which I will discuss in the next section), among which there are many insects and, especially, their larvae (which are generally benthic), whose study and observation play an essential role on calculating indices of water quality.

Importance of insects in bioindication

As I’ve said above, about 80% of macroinvertebrates of inland waters are arthropods and, mostly, different orders of insects in its larval or nymphal form. Let’s see some of the most common groups we can find in rivers and lakes:

Trichoptera (or caddisflies)

They are insects closely related to the Lepidoptera order (butterflies and moths). Their aquatic nymphs can build a shelter around their bodies made of substrate materials. We can distinguish them from other aquatic insect larvae because they have a couple of anal filaments provided with strong hoofs. They usually inhabit clear and clean waters with a lot of currents.

Trichoptera nymph (inside its shelter, left) and adult (right). Picture of the nymph by Matt Reinbold (Creative Commons) and picture of the adult by Donald Hobern (Creative Commons).

Ephemeroptera (or mayflies)

One of the most ancient orders of flying insects. Their aquatic nymphs, which usually inhabit rivers, are characterized for having three long anal filaments. Adults, which fly over the water surface, are very fragile and have a short life cycle in comparison with nymphs (the name Ephemeroptera is derived from Greek ‘ephemera’ meaning sort-lived, and ‘ptera’ meaning wings).

Ephemeroptera nymph (left) and adult (right). Picture of the nymph by Keisotyo (Creative Commons) and picture of the adult by Mick Talbot (Creative Commons).

Plecoptera (or stoneflies)

Flying insects very similar to Ephemeroptera order. Like these, they have anal filaments, but they differentiate from them because they have two apical hooks in each leg. They usually inhabit lakes and streams.

Plecoptera nymph (left) and adult (right). Picture of the nymph by Böhringer (Creative Commons) and picture of the adult by gailhampshire (Creative Commons).

Other groups of insects with aquatic larvae or nymphs

Among the most common insects inhabiting rivers and lakes we can also find species of Odonata order (dragonflies and damselflies), Coleoptera (beetles), Diptera (mosquitoes and flies), etc.

Among all the organisms mentioned above, there are very tolerant species to pollution (i.e. some Diptera larvae; this is the case of some species of Chironomidae family, which are very tolerant to organic and inorganic pollution due to the presence of heavy metals in their environment) and also very sensitive species (i.e. some species of Trichoptera order).

Depending on their tolerance to environment disturbances, scientists group these organisms (plus the rest of macroinvertebrates) into different categories that are assigned a value. This values, at the end, allow us to calculate water quality indices.

Biotic indices for riverine waters

The different pollution tolerance degrees among macroinvertebrates of a community allow us to classify them and to assign them a qualitative value (the bigger the number is, more sensitive are organisms to pollution). Thanks to these values, we can calculate different biotic indices, which are no more than qualitative values assigned to a community in order to classify it according to its quality: the greater the value is, better is the water quality.

One of the most used indices on the assessment of ecological state of rivers from the Iberian Peninsula is the IBMWP index (Iberian Bio-Monitoring Working Party), an adaptation by Alba Tercedor (1988) of the British index BMWP. In rough outlines, the greater the value is, better is the water quality. On this website you will find more details about this index, and also the pre-established values assigned to each macroinvertebrate (available in Spanish only).

In additions, there is also used the IASPT index, a complementary index which is the result of divide the IBMWP value by the number of identified taxa. This index give us information about the dominant community in the studied location. You can see more details on this website (available in Spanish only).

.      .      .

As you probably have seen while reading of this article, macroinvertebrates, and insects especially, play an important role in the study of inland water quality. Furthermore, their presence or absence is extremely important for the rest of the organisms of their ecosystem, because of what we must become aware of the problems deriving from the reduction of their number or diversity.

REFERENCES

Head photography by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region.

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