Benthic Fauna of Streams

  • Robert G. Wetzel
  • Gene E. Likens


Stream invertebrates are well adapted to the running water environment. The dominant taxa in headwater streams include the immature stages of the insect orders Ephemeroptera (mayflies), Plecoptera (stoneflies), Trichoptera (caddisflies), Megaloptera, Coleoptera (beetles), and certain Diptera. Many other types of invertebrates, attached and planktonic algae, rooted vascular plants, and various vertebrates also are common in streams of higher order. All of these organisms have certain traits that enable them to maintain their position and survive in rapidly flowing waters. Some mayflies (e.g., Heptageniidae) have become dorsoven-trally flattened. Although they inhabit very rapid water, these mayflies live close to the substrate where the water velocity is nearly zero (Fig. 5.3). Many caddisflies (e.g., Limnephilidae) build elaborate cases that not only protect them from predators but also serve as ballast against the current or as attachment points on rocks. Others (Hydropsychidae) build intricate nets on submersed rocks and logs to catch food particles that are being transported downstream. Certain dipteran larvae (e.g., Blepharoceridae) have specialized suckers that are used to attach to the substrate. The common black fly larvae (Simuliidae) spin silk pads and attach themselves to rock surfaces by this means. [See Hynes (1970) for extensive treatment of this subject.]

The wide variety of microhabitats available to stream organisms will become apparent as you investigate stream ecosystems. Rock surfaces, plant surfaces, leaf debris, logs, backwaters, silty or sandy sediments, crevices in gravel, organic debris dams, and other spaces in

the stream all provide special habitats for different organisms. The patchy distribution and abundance of organisms in a given stretch of stream is partially dependent on the availability of these microhabitats. Thus, any sampling of the benthic fauna must take this spatial heterogeneity into account. This patchiness adds both to the fascination as well as to the difficulty of research on streams.

Stream insects play a role in the processing of organic matter [see Cummins (1974) and Cummins et al. (1984)]. Streams in forested regions depend on allochthonous inputs of organic matter for much of the consumer productivity [see Fisher and Likens (1973)]. Many of the insects mentioned above are well adapted to utilize terrestrial organic matter as food. Ingested detrital particles are either assimilated by the organisms or egested and utilized as a food source by other consumers. Bacterial colonization of these organic particles may increase the food value of the detritus by increasing the nitrogen content. Many of the invertebrates themselves become sources of food for other carnivorous invertebrates or vertebrates.

Macroinvertebrates include invertebrate fauna retained by a 500-μm pore sieve or net. Because many of the early life stages important to life histories and production analyses are smaller than this size demarcation, collection methods often employ finer-meshed devices (e.g., 125–250μm). Meiofauna are benthic animals that pass through a 500-μm pore sieve but are retained on a 40-μm pore sieve. Their composition is dominated by rotifers, copepods, ostracods, nematodes, and young stages of chironomid dipterans and oligochaete worms, as well as other animals such as gastrotrichs, tardi-grades, and turbellarians. Because of their small size, the meiofauna has been studied rarely, even though these benthic animal communities dominate in terms of numbers and species diversity, and likely often are more important to ecosystem energetics than are the macroinvertebrates.

Meiofauna, like most macroinvertebrates, occur in all types of standing and running waters, and live on surfaces, including plants, debris, and sediments, as well as within the interstitial spaces of sediments and grains of sand. Because the availability of dissolved oxygen is important to the distribution of meiofauna within the interstitial water of sediments, meiofauna tend to be more abundant within the hyporheic zone of running waters than in organic dominated sediments of lakes.

The types and distributions of benthic macroinvertebrates also have been used widely as indicators quality. The distribution of certain macroinvertebrates and microorganisms can be quite specific because many organisms often have narrow physiological tolerance ranges [e.g., Sladecek, (1973)]. Colonization of many different artificial substrata has been used in comparative analyses of water quality among and within water bodies [e.g., Rosenberg and Resh (1982), Flannagan and Rosenberg (1982), and Lamberti and Resh (1985)].

This exercise briefly introduces some of the sampling equipment and problems of obtaining quantitative estimates of the distribution and abundance of stream invertebrates.


Benthic Invertebrate Aquatic Insect Benthic Macroinvertebrates Benthic Fauna Stream Ecosystem 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Chutter, F.M. 1972. A reappraisal of Needham and Usinger’s data on the variability of a stream fauna when sampled with a Surber sampler. Limnol. Oceanogr. 17:139–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Coleman, M.J. and H.B.N. Hynes. 1970. The vertical distribution of the invertebrate fauna in the bed of a stream. Limnol. Oceanogr. 15:31–40.Google Scholar
  3. Cummins, K.W. 1962. An evaluation of some techniques for the collection and analysis of benthic samples with special emphasis on lotic waters. Amer. Midland Nat. 67:477–503.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cummins, K.W. 1974. Structure and function of stream ecosystems. BioScience 24:631–641.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cummins, K.W., R.W. Merritt, and T.M. Burton. 1984. The role of aquatic insects in the processing and cycling of nutrients, pp. 134–163. In: V.H. Resh and D.M. Rosenberg, Editors. The Ecology of Aquatic Insects. Prager, New York.Google Scholar
  6. Davies, I.J. 1984. Sampling aquatic insect emergence, pp. 161–227. In: J.A. Downing and EH. Rigler, Editors. A Manual on Methods for the Assessment of Secondary Productivity in Fresh Waters. 2nd Ed. Blackwell, Oxford.Google Scholar
  7. Dickson, K.L., J. Cairns and J.C. Arnold. 1971. An evaluation of the use of basket-type artificial substrate for sampling macroinvertebrate organisms. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 100:553–559.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Elliott, J.M. and P.A. Tullett. 1978. A bibliography of samplers for benthic invertebrates. Occas. Publ. Freshw. Biol. Assoc. U.K. 4. 61 pp.Google Scholar
  9. Fisher, S.G. and G.E. Likens. 1973. Energy flow in Bear Brook, New Hampshire: An integrative approach to stream ecosystem metabolism. Ecol. Monogr. 43:421–439.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Flannagan, J.F and D.M. Rosenberg. 1982. Types of artificial substrates used for sampling freshwater benthic macroinvertebrates, pp. 237–266. In: J. Cairns, Jr., Editor. Artificial Substrates. Ann Arbor Science Pubis. Inc., Ann Arbor.Google Scholar
  11. Frost, S., A. Huni, and WE. Kershaw. 1971. Evaluation of a kicking technique for sampling stream bottom fauna. Can. J. Zool. 49:167–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hall, R.J., G.E. Likens, S.B. Fiance, and G.R. Hendrey. 1980. Experimental acidification of a stream in the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, New Hampshire. Ecology 61:976–989.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hauer, F.R. and V.H. Resh. 1996. Benthic macroinvertebrates. pp. 339–369. In: FR. Hauer and G.A. Lamberti, Editors. Methods in Stream Ecology. Academic Press, San Diego.Google Scholar
  14. Hess, A.D. 1941. New limnological sampling equipment. Limnol. Soc. Amer. Spec. Publ. 5 5 pp.Google Scholar
  15. Hynes, H.B.N. 1970. The Ecology of Running Waters. Univ. of Toronto Press. 555 pp.Google Scholar
  16. Hynes, H.B.N. 1974. Further studies on the distribution of stream animals within the substratum. Limnol. Oceanogr. 19:92–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Ide, FP. 1940. Quantitative determination of the insect fauna of rapid water, Publ. Ontario Fish. Res. Lab. 59:1–20.Google Scholar
  18. Illies, J. 1971. Emergenz 1969 in Breitenbach. Schlitzer Produktions biologische Studien (1). Arch. Hydrobiol. 69:14–59.Google Scholar
  19. Lamberti, G.A. and V.H. Resh. 1985. Comparability of introduced tiles and natural substrates for sampling lotic bacteria, algae and macroinvertebrates. Freshwat. Biol. 15:21–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Macan, TT 1958. Methods of sampling the bottom fauna in stony streams. Mitt. Int. Ver. Limnol. 8. 21 pp.Google Scholar
  21. Mason, W.T., Jr., and P.P. Yevish. 1967. The use of phloxine B and rose bengal stains to facilitate sorting benthic samples. Trans. Amer. Microsc. Soc. 86:221–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Mason, W.T., Jr., C.I. Weber, P.A. Lewis, and E.C. Julian. 1973. Factors affecting the performance of basket and multiplate macroinvertebrate samplers. Freshwat. Biol. 3:409–436.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Merritt, R.W. and K.W. Cummins (Eds). 1996. An Introduction to the Aquatic Insects of North America. 3rd Ed. Kendall Hunt, Dubuque, IA.Google Scholar
  24. Müller, K. 1974. Stream drift as a chronobiological phenomenon in running water ecosystems. Ann. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 5:309–323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Mundie, J.H. 1956. Emergence traps for aquatic insects. Mitt. Int. Ver. Limnol. 7. 13 pp.Google Scholar
  26. Needham, J.G. 1908. Report of the entomological field station conducted at Old Forge, NY., in the summer of 1905. Bull. N.Y. State Mus. 124:167–168.Google Scholar
  27. Palmer, M.A. and D.L. Strayer. 1996. Meiofauna. pp. 315–337. In: F.R. Hauer and G.A. Lamberti, Editors. Methods in Stream Ecology. Academic Press, San Diego.Google Scholar
  28. Peckarsky, B.L. 1984. Sampling the stream benthos, pp. 131–160. In: J.A. Downing and F.H. Rigler, Editors. A Manual on Methods for the Assessment of Secondary Productivity in Fresh Waters. 2nd Ed. Blackwell, Oxford.Google Scholar
  29. Radford, D.W. and R. Hartland-Rowe. 1971. Subsurface and surface sampling of benthic invertebrates in two streams. Limnol. Oceanogr. 16:114–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Rosenberg, D.M. and V.H. Resh. 1982. The use of artificial substrates in the study of freshwater benthic macroinvertebrates, pp. 175–235. In: J. Cairns, Jr., Editor. Artificial Substrates. Ann Arbor Science Pubis. Inc., Ann Arbor.Google Scholar
  31. Sládeček, V. 1973. System of water quality from the biological point of view. Ergebnisse Limnol. Arch. Hydrobiol. 7. 218 pp.Google Scholar
  32. Smock, L.A. 1996. Macroinvertebrate movements: Drift, colonization, and emergence, pp. 371–390. In: FR. Hauer and G.A. Lamberti, Editors. Methods in Stream Ecology. Academic Press, San Diego.Google Scholar
  33. Sprules, WM. 1947. An ecological investigation of stream insects in Algonquin Park, Ontario. Univ. Toronto Stud., Biol. Ser. No. 56, Publ. Ontario Fisheries Res. Lab., No. 69.Google Scholar
  34. Surber, E.W 1937. Rainbow trout and bottom fauna production in one mile of stream. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 66:193–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ulfstrand, S. 1967. Microdistribution of benthic species (Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, Tri-choptera, Diptera: Simuliidae) in Lapland streams. Oikos 18:293–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Usinger, R.L. (ed). 1956. Aquatic Insects of California. Univ. of California Press, Berkeley. 508 pp.Google Scholar
  37. Usinger, R.L. and PR. Needham. 1956. A drag-type riffle-bottom sampler. Prog. Fish-Cult. 18:42–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Waters, T.F. 1962. Diurnal periodicity in the drift of stream invertebrates. Ecology 43:316–320.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Waters, T.F. 1972. The drift of stream insects. Ann. Rev. Ent. 17:253–272.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Waters, T.F. and R.J. Knapp. 1961. An improved stream bottom fauna sampler. Trans. Amer. Fish. Soc. 90:225–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Wiley, M.T. and S.L. Köhler. 1984. Behavioral adaptations of aquatic insects, pp. 101–133. In: V.H. Resh and D.M. Rosenberg, Editors. The Ecology of Aquatic Insects. Prager, New York.Google Scholar
  42. Williams, C.B. 1964. Patterns in the Balance of Nature. Academic, New York. 324 pp.Google Scholar
  43. Williams, D.D. 1984. The hyporheic zone as a habitat for aquatic insects and associated arthropods, pp. 430–455. In: V.H. Resh and D.M. Rosenberg, Editors. The Ecology of Aquatic Insects. Praeger, New York.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert G. Wetzel
    • 1
  • Gene E. Likens
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Biology, College of Arts and SciencesUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  2. 2.Institute of Ecosystem Studies, Cary ArboretumThe New York Botanical GardenMillbrookUSA

Personalised recommendations