Combining taxonomy and function in the study of stream macroinvertebrates

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Kenneth W. Cummins *
(*) Corresponding Author:
Kenneth W. Cummins |


Over the last fifty years, research on freshwater macroinvertebrates has been driven largely by the state of the taxonomy of these animals. In the great majority of studies conducted during the 2000s macroinvertebrates have been operationally defined by investigators as invertebrates retained by a 250 μ mesh in field sampling devices. Significant advances have been and continue to be made in developing ever more refined keys to macroinvertebrate groups. The analysis by function is a viable alternative when advances in macroinvertebrate ecological research is restricted by the level of detail in identifications. Focus on function, namely adaptations of macroinvertebrates to habitats and the utilization of food resources, has facilitated ecological evaluation of freshwater ecosystems (Functional feeding groups; FFG). As the great stream ecologist Noel Hynes observed, aquatic insects around the world exhibit similar morphologies and behaviors, even though they are in very different taxonomic groups. This is the basis for the FFG analysis that was initially developed in the early 1970s. FFG analysis applies taxonomy only to the level of detail that allows assignment to one of six FFG categories: scrapers adapted to feed on periphyton, detrital shredders adapted to feed on coarse (CPOM) riparian-derived plant litter that has been colonized by microbes, herbivore shredders that feed on live, rooted aquatic vascular plants, filtering collectors adapted to remove fine particle detritus (FPOM) from the water column, gathering collectors adapted to feed on FPOM where it is deposited on surfaces or in crevices in the sediments, and predators that capture live prey. The interacting roles of these FFGs in stream ecosystems were originally depicted in a conceptual model. Thus, there are a limited number of adaptations exhibited by stream macroinvertebrates that exploit these habitats and food resources. This accounts for the wide range of macroinvertebrate taxa in freshwater ecosystems found in different geographical settings that are represented by a much smaller number of FFGs. An example of the generality of the functional group concept is the presence of detrital shredders that are dependent upon riparian plant litter inputs being found in essentially all forested streams world-wide (e.g., across the USA and Canada, Chile, Brazil, West Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Thailand; Cummins, unpublished). Freshwater macroinvertebrate taxonomic determinations, especially at the species level, may be the best basis for developing specific indices of pollution (tolerance values in ecological tables). However, the FFG method appears to provide better indicators of overall freshwater ecosystem condition.

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