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Aquatic bugs as stream indicators

When you think of the word “bug”, likely an image of an insect flying or crawling around your house comes to mind, maybe a mosquito or— gasp— a spider. The bugs I am referencing are secretive; they hide under rocks or form houses from pebbles. Shockingly, they accomplish this underwater.

Importantly, these bugs (or aquatic macroinvertebrates) can indicate stream environmental changes. Tracking these changes is tedious work, but the challenge is readily accepted by Kate Abbott, A PhD student working with Dr. Allison Roy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the Massachusetts Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Kate monitors changes following dam removal by sampling bugs pre and post-removal.

“Macroinvertebrates demonstrate such a wide range of sensitivity to pollution, habitat alteration, and water quality, so we can learn a lot about the river as a whole just by looking at which bugs we find. Dam removal returns a river from a man-made impoundment back to its free-flowing state, and we expect the bug communities to reflect that change,” explains Kate. 

The site we are visiting today is in the Shawsheen River (tributary to the Merrimack River) in Andover, MA. This visit marks 5 years of post-dam removal monitoring of the Balmoral Dam, one of two dams removed from the river. This removal ultimately increased connectivity between downstream and upstream river reaches and increased habitat area for diadromous fish, including river herring.

Today Kate’s team of interns, Callista Macpherson and Emily Chalfin–both undergraduates at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst–busily scrub rocks with their hands (a bit like cleaning dishes), dislodging bugs to capture in a net. They tediously pick these from the net, careful not to damage them for later identification under a microscope in the lab. By monitoring this bug community, Kate and her team can better understand the role bugs play as water quality and habitat indicators and how long it takes for streams to recover following a major restoration effort like dam removal.

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E. ajskorupa@gmail.com