There are many streams in Canada, where I live. So of course, growing up, I spent a lot of time playing in them. I would try to catch fish, frogs, butterflies living on the surrounding plants, and sometimes even end the day running home with a leech stuck on my skin – it goes without saying, an accidental catch. (Although it’s always fun to try to detach a leech stuck on your skin. My personal favourite technique is to use a lighter –- the proximity of heat scares them away.)
Streams were one of my favourite playgrounds, which I felt I knew inside out. So a few years ago, when I started my PhD researching the various ways freshwater ecosystems contribute to human wellbeing, I was surprised to discover that there was a whole other world of life hiding at the bottom of streams I didn’t know about. They are the living things that are small, but visible to the naked eye. They are miniature, but they produce essential food for many other species, like fish. They are tiny, but exquisite. They are benthic aquatic invertebrates!
These itsy bitsy little bugs live on rocks and in the soil found at the bottom of streams. There are hundreds of different species, found all around the world, each with its unique quirks. One of my personal favourite families is Helicophsychidae, because they build circular sheaths out of tiny rocks that they hide in and use for protection.
Another family I really like is the Hydropsychidae. They build themselves little homes out of plants and mineral fragments on the side of rocks. At the edge of their homes, just like caterpillars, they spin a net out of silk they produce to catch algae and other invertebrates that they then feed on. Apparently, they sometimes get separated from their homes because of the current in streams, at which point they’ll try to steal another home from one of their kin by engaging in fights. I like to imagine these insect battles.
Over the past few months, I’ve spent more than 200 hours at the macro-microscope looking at samples I collected from the bottom of streams around the province of Quebec, in Canada, identifying all the aquatic invertebrates that are found there.
I’m comparing streams that are in National Parks to streams that aren’t protected, because, in an age where National Parks are increasingly threatened by development, we need to know about every beautiful living thing found there, and what happens to them when we stop protecting our ecosystems.
Stay tuned to find out more!