Invertebrate Investigators

by Jon Markovich

In the previous Healthy Waters blog, my colleague Micka Peck wrote about the stream sampling we did for benthic macroinvertebrates. Pulling on a pair of waders and kicking around in the stream sampling was only half the fun.  After the outdoor fieldwork, I changed wardrobe from field gear to lab coat. Ok, I didn’t really wear a lab coat, but I was in a lab processing the preserved macroinvertebrates for later identification.

It’s been established that macroinvertebrates are good indicators of water quality conditions. Identifying which macroinvertebrates are present in a stream sample provides a link to determining whether a stream has good water quality and supports a healthy aquatic community.

One sample collected from a stream can have hundreds, even thousands, of macroinvertebrates. Thankfully, my target was to process a small sub-sample – around 200 individuals. This involves spreading the entire sample onto a gridded pan, randomly selecting a grid and removing all materials within it, and “picking” through the leaves, dirt, gravel, and other debris to separate out macroinvertebrates. At times, it felt as though I was playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” In this case, “Waldo” could have no tails, two tails, or three tails, gills or no gills, or a whole number of different features. Sorting through these samples is no joke – it takes serious skill to quickly pick out bugs from non-bug debris. But after they’ve been picked from the sub-samples, the macroinvertebrates are identified under a microscope.

Looking under the scope, I marveled at these creatures. The different features and shapes of each bug were jaw-dropping. One bug, a burrowing mayfly in the family Ephemeridae, has protruding tusks on the side of its mouth like an elephant. The tusks help this family of mayfly to burrow into soft sediment to feed. Another bug, a dragonfly in the family Aeshnidae, had a hinged-mouth that extended to be nearly half the length of its body! Dragonfly larvae are predatory and this super-extendable mouthpart allows them to quickly snap up prey. These kinds of distinguishing features and characteristics are what scientists look at under the microscope for macroinvertebrate identification.

Although they look way cooler under a microscope, you don’t need one to see macroinvertebrates. If you have the chance, go check out your local stream, flip over rocks and search the stream bottom. You too could become an invertebrate investigator!

 

About the Author: Jon Markovich joined EPA’s Water Protection Division in 2014 and works in the impaired waters and Total Maximum Daily Load programs. In his spare time, Jon enjoys hiking, kayaking and camping in the Mid-Atlantic Region’s many great state parks.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Stream Critters Reveal Much About Water Quality

by Micka Peck

I was never a huge ‘bug person’ as a kid. It wasn’t that I bolted in terror at the sight of anything crawling my direction, but I didn’t greet a dangling spider with much enthusiasm either. My little brother, on the other hand, loved running through fields of tall grass in search of massive grasshoppers and butterflies. So, it may have come as a surprise to my family when a colleague and I eagerly set off to West Virginia in search of benthic macroinvertebrates, or the bottom-dwelling stream critters that lack backbones and are visible to the naked eye. Think insects, crayfish, worms, mussels, etc.

A couple of things piqued my interest about these creatures. I had learned that benthic macroinvertebrates are a crucial indicator for understanding water quality. While a single “grab sample” from a stream can tell you something about its water quality at that moment, macroinvertebrates are exposed to a range of conditions throughout their life stages in water. Therefore, they more accurately represent long-term conditions of water quality. Some macroinvertebrates are very sensitive to pollutants and as the water quality worsens, are less prevalent. All of our Region 3 states rely on macroinvertebrates to assess whether a waterbody is supporting aquatic life, so I thought I should go see what all the fuss was about.

We arrived at the stream bank in waders toting buckets, scrub brushes, and a large net. After surveying the stream, we chose a few spots with fast moving water and a variety of rocks and cobble, which are popular habitats due to their shelter from predators. With the net placed on the streambed facing upstream, I grabbed the scrub brush, brushed the rocks and let any attached macroinvertebrates float into the net. Next, I kicked the rocks in front of the net to stir up any macroinvertebrates hiding underneath and let the water guide them into the net. At times, it looked like I was dancing the twist in the middle of the stream. Then, I dumped the contents in the net into a bucket and marveled at the bounty. It was teeming with crayfish, scuds, larvae of mayflies, stoneflies, dragonflies, and so much more. And now, rather than feeling ambivalent, I’m filled with a sense of childish wonder at the many surprises a stream may hold.

Stay tuned for Part 2 – in the lab!

 

About the Author: Micka Peck is a physical scientist in EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region working on improving impaired waters through total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), or water quality improvement plans.

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Puerto Rico Water Quality Monitoring Day

Volunteers collect macroinvertebrates from streams in Puerto Rico.

Volunteers collect macroinvertebrates from streams in Puerto Rico.

By Rachael Graham

On April 9, 2016 more than 1,200 volunteers participated in Puerto Rico Water Quality Monitoring Day to measure…..you got it – water quality!

Over 150 sites throughout the island were sampled by volunteers from 30 municipalities as part of a worldwide effort to gather data using citizen science efforts. The data they collect will be uploaded and become part of a global data set for the World Water Monitoring Challenge.

This was the eighth year of the program coordinated by the San Juan Bay Estuary Program (SJBEP). Prior governmental and NGO sponsors for this event included EPA Region 2 Caribbean Environmental Protection Division (CEPD), Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (PREQB), the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and the Puerto Rico Water and Environment Association (PRWEA). For 2016, EPA Region 2’s Division of Environmental Science & Assessment partnered with SJBEP and CEPD and sent two biologists to provide technical assistance and training on additional water quality parameters for citizen science.

For the Water Monitoring Challenge, group leaders were trained to use a standardized water quality kit to measure dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature and turbidity in weeks prior to the event and then pass this training on to their individual team participants. In 2016, EPA added two other important water quality parameters as a pilot – E.coli and benthic macroinvertebrates.

Approximately 20 volunteers collected samples from 21 locations throughout the San Juan Bay Estuary watershed for analysis for Escherichia coli (E. coli), a common fecal bacteria found in sewage and animal waste. Each participant set up a test to measure E.coli that does not require any equipment and can be incubated at room temperature, called a Compartment Bag Test (CBT), which has everything required to measure E.coli in one small kit. EPA and SJBEP personnel took split samples of the volunteer samples and measured a more rigorous test for E. coli to compare results. The objective was to test the CBT method to see if it can differentiate between low, moderate and high levels of E.coli. Since rapid tests, like the CBT, are simple to conduct and require no laboratory equipment, they allow citizen scientists to screen their drinking water and ambient water for relative levels of fecal bacteria more readily. If successful, the CBT may be turned into a kit and provided on a wider scale for next year’s monitoring event.

Macroinvertebrates are indicators of water quality.

Macroinvertebrates are indicators of water quality.

Approximately 90 citizen scientists collected macroinvertebrates from streams in three different areas of the island – Rio Piedras, Rio Mameyes, and a tributary of the Rio Grande de Arecibo. Aquatic macroinvertebrates are creatures that lack a vertebrate, an internal skeleton like mammals. Macroinvertebrates in streams and rivers include insects (caddisflies, beetles, dragonflies), crustaceans (shrimp, crayfish, crabs), mollusks (snails, mussels, clams), and worms. Volunteers were trained on invertebrate ecology, general habitat and water quality requirements, taxa identification, and use of macroinvertebrates as indicators of healthy and poor water quality. The volunteers used the SJBEP field protocol to collect macroinvertebrates and make a determination of the water quality at the stream site. Additional samples were collected with kick nets to compile a taxa list of macroinvertebrates observed. PREQB was present for the demonstrations and would like to incorporate benthic macroinvertebrate data as a way to determine stream health.

To learn more about citizen science projects in EPA Region 2, visit: https://www3.epa.gov/region02/citizenscience/.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Citizen Science, Environmental Outreach and Water Quality

By Ibrahim Goodwin

Spring is here, the eaglets in the Anacostia River Basin have hatched and so has another opportunity to make a visible difference in our nation’s watersheds.

Earth Conservation Corps prepare and discuss their next event where they work with EPA and a group of youth scientist on testing water quality parameters like pH, temperature, phosphates, salinity etc..Here in DC’s Anacostia watershed, EPA and the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) are working together as part of the Anacostia Watershed Outreach and Education Initiative. We’re encouraging citizen science field research with ECC members, students and others. We test for water quality parameters like pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, phosphates, nitrates, salinity, and we’re analyzing samples for aquatic macroinvertebrates (water bugs you can see with the naked eye that are important indicators of water quality).

At the ECC Pumphouse, EPA is helping to make this urbanEarth Conservation Corps (ECC) are working together as part of the Anacostia Watershed Outreach and Education Initiative to educate students . river a classroom. We recently sponsored “Protecting the Anacostia Watershed – A Workshop on Water Quality Standards.” This activity, held on World Water Monitoring Day, also highlighted the Urban Waters Federal Partnership between EPA, ECC, the U.S. Forest Service, National Geographic and DC Water.

The interactive water quality workshop and hands-on water sample collection and analysis program offered over 75 students and citizen scientists an intimate look at how everyday pollution affects our local environment. We also discussed simple solutions to curbing complicated pollution problems. The young citizen scientists from St. Augustine Catholic School in Northwest Washington, DC were captivated by activities like the owl encounter, water quality monitoring, macroinvertebrate identification and National Geographic’s FieldScope GIS and data system.

This workshop can be modified to fit any watershed.  Our workshop, ‘’Watersheds and Water Monitoring,” is being held on the largest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States. The river is home to all sorts of wildlife, including over 300 species of birds.

The author tests water samples.Working with young citizen scientists in a hands-on setting reminds me how important my daily work at the EPA is in protecting the environment and educating the next generation of environmental stewards.

About the Author: Bryan “Ibrahim” Goodwin has worked in the Office of Water as an Environmental Scientist since 1987.   Mr. Goodwin has helped to train thousands of environmental professionals in the Water Quality Standards Academy and is currently working on initiatives to engage citizen scientists.   He received a B. S. in Geology from Howard University and is an avid gardener.

 

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Mussels in the Blue

By Craig Thompson

For the last four years I have been sampling wadeable streams throughout the metropolitan Kansas City area.  I am part of the water monitoring team within the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch (EAMB) at EPA Region 7.  I grew up in Mission, Kansas.  I was always outdoors exploring the woods behind my parents house and wading the waters of Turkey creek and other creeks in my neighborhood.  Now, I am responsible for collecting water and biological samples from some of these same creeks.  My particular area of expertise is macroinvertebrate sampling (freshwater mussels and aquatic insects).  I am fascinated with the mussel community information that has been collected from several sample sites on the Blue River (Figure 1).

BlueRiver

Figure 1

During the 1991-2011 sampling seasons, qualitative mussel surveys were conducted on the Blue River by Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) and by EPA Region 7.  The upper Blue River supports a diverse community of mussels compared to the lower Blue River.  The Blue River at 159th Street and Kenneth Road has one of the most diverse mussel communities of any urban stream site in the metropolitan area (Table 1).

table1

 

There are approximately 45 species of mussels found in Kansas.  Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) lists 6 endangered and 5 threatened species.  In addition, they have a category called “species in need of conservation”, or SINC species.  There are at least 17 species of mussels found in the Blue River. The site at 159th has one endangered and four SINC mussel species.  The Mucket is an endangered mussel found typically in the Marias des Cygnes river basin (several miles south of 159th).  This rare mussel is outside its normal range, but it may have occurred in the Blue River (Missouri River Basin) historically.  The Creeper, Fatmucket, Wabash pigtoe and Yellow sandshell have interesting names and are SINC species.  Creeper (formerly called Squawfoot) is a rare find for this river and only one shell was collected at 159th.

Fatmucket is an unusual name for a mussel.  The “fat” part of this mussel’s name probably came from describing the swollen shape of the shell of this species.  This characteristic is very common in older individuals and in females.  This mussel is doing fair at 159th with a few weathered shells found at other sample sites along the river.  Wabash pigtoe and other freshwater mussels are recognized by the shape of their shell.  They have either animal hoof or foot characteristics.  Names like Fawnsfoot, Round pigtoe, Deertoe, Elktoe and Rabbitsfoot are some of the species in this group.  Wabash pigtoe is also doing fair at 159th with some recent and weathered shells found at other sample sites.  The Yellow sandshell is a beautiful mussel.   The outer layer of the shell (called periostracum) is a distinct yellow and the nacre (the iridescent, inner layer) is silvery-white (Figure 2).  The Yellow sandshell is doing well at 159th with some recent shells (unweathered shells) found in 2011.  Also, a few recent shells have been collected at other downstream sites.

Yellow sandshell (Lampsilis teres)

The other rare mussels identified in the survey may possibly be extirpated (locally extinct) from the Blue River basin.  The Pimpleback is common in other streams in the state but is rare in the Blue.  It has numerous raised structures on the outer part of its shell called pustules.  I have not observed this species for a long time and the last time shells were collected was in 2005.  The Pistolgrip is an easy mussel to identify (general shape of a pistolgrip).  It is a thick-shelled mussel that is elongate with distinct knobby ridges and pustules. The last time it was discovered at 159th was in 1993.  The Plain pocketbook shell is oval and large.  It is usually present at 159th and other sites along the Blue but not in high numbers.  And, the shell condition is usually weathered or relict.  Finally, the Lilliput is a mussel that is hard to find because of its bean-shaped size.  Some shells measure around an inch in length and only a few have been collected at 159th.

Next week, I will discuss the relative abundance of species found in the Blue as well as some of  the main water quality problems facing mussels in the Blue.

Craig Thompson lives near the mussel-less (except for Asian clams) Brush Creek, a tributary of the Blue River.  He is a Life Scientist with the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch (EAMB).  Craig joined EPA in 2009 after spending thirteen years with Kansas Department of Health and Environment.  He assists EAMB staff with water quality and biological sampling surveys throughout the Region 7 area.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.