Aquatic Macroinvertebrates


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    Aquatic Macroinvertebrates


    "Aquatic" means water, "macro" means big (or big enough for us to see without using a microscope) and "invertebrate" means without a backbone, so an aquatic macroinvertebrate is a water bug that we can see with our naked eye.

    Some aquatic macroinvertebrates spend their entire lives living in water, although many just live in the water when they are immature. As they reach maturity, larvae metamorphose and leave the water, spending their adult life on land. In many cases, the insects are adults for a very short time. For example, many mayflies live in streams for months to years but last on land for just a few days. During this time they mate and lay their eggs in or near water so the cycle can continue.

    dragonfly larvaDragonfly Larva

    dragonfly adultDragonfly Adult

    The larval and adult forms do not look alike as can be seen with these dragonfly images. However,in some ways they're quite similar. For example, dragonfly larvae and adults are skilled predators


    Aquatic macroinvertebrates live in many different types of aquatic habitats. Some live in fast moving streams, consuming leaves, twigs and other plant material that fall into the water.  Others live in wider, sunnier rivers or shallow ponds, scraping algae off rocks or on the surfaces of large aquatic plants. Many are predators, or prey upon other macroinvertebrates Some live within the soft sediments at the bottom of lakes and ponds and others capture food that is drifting along the current.  In all these settings, they provide an important food to fish and other predators. 


    Because different types of macroinvertebrates tolerate different stream conditions and levels of pollution, their  presence or absence are used to indicate clean or polluted water.  For example, most larvae of caddisflies, mayflies, and stoneflies cannot survive in polluted water so streams with these bugs are assumed to have good water quality.  The absence of these organisms in a water body, however, does not necessarily indicate that the water quality is poor.  Other natural factors, such as temperature and flow also come into play.


    mayflySeasons- life histories of invertebrates are tied to food availability. For example, macroinvertebrates that eat algae are most abundant in the summer when algae production is at its highest.

    Dissolved Oxygen- macroinvertebates breathe oxygen that is dissolved in the water. In the immature stage, many species require high levels of dissolved oxygen in order to survive.

    Substrate- what the bottom of the stream is comprised of will affect the types of macroinvertebrates. For example, macroinvertebrates that eat tiny food particles prefer sandy or muddy substrate.

    Nutrient enrichment- added nutrients from human sewage, fertilizer or manure can accelerate the growth of algae and other plants. When these plants die decomposition by microorganisms can use up dissolved oxygen in the water.

    pH- Dumping of industrial pollutants and runoff from mining activities can lower pH (making water more acidic). Low pH can weaken shells and exoskeletons and kill macroinvertebrates.

    Removal of riparian vegetation- this takes away macroinvertebrates' food source and important breeding grounds. 

    Learn more about limiting human impacts: Protect Your Water.


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