Beaver Creek  
Conserving Water Through the Ages Home | Contacts | Search | Index | Help

Educational Programs | Workshops

     The Study of Insects.

Teaching Resources :
        If you would like a printable copy, click this link and
        download the document.

Return to Previous Page


Aquatic Invertebrates (Biology)

Pre-Lesson One
River Continuum Concept

Student Outcomes:
Students will:
. Understand the properties of a natural system
. Break down a river system into its primary components
. Discuss the importance of feedback loops and dynamic equilibrium

. To develop the concept of systems as a way to analyze and understand the form, function, and interconnectedness of nature.
. To examine a river as a system balanced by interactions among its main components

. White boards and dry-erase markers

Background information:
Our planet consists of many complex, large-scale, interacting systems. A system is a network of relationships among a group of parts, elements, or components that interact with and influence one another through the exchange of energy, matter, and/or information. A system receives input (energy, matter, info), processes or interact with this input and responds with an output. This exchange drives a feedback loop, or circular process whereby a system's output serves as input to that same system. The components in a system interact with each other within feedback loops. In a negative feedback loop, the output acts as an input that moves the system in the opposite direction. This compensation stabilizes the system. For example, when your brain processes an input that you are too warm, its output is too get cooler by removing a jacket or turning on the air conditioner. As you get cooler, you brain processes this new input and outputs a response to turn off the air conditioner. As a result of this opposite input vs. output, or negative feedback loop, your body system stays at a stable temperature. This alternating give-and-take cycle, or dynamic equilibrium, functions to keep a system within a healthy range. Processes in the system move in opposite directions at equivalent rates so their effects balance out. The progression of dynamic equilibrium acts to stabilize a system when it is disturbed by external forces. In a positive feedback loop, the output acts as an input that moves the system further in the same direction as the initial input. This magnification of effects destabilizes the system. For example, a desert environment can act as a system. The system's components in this case are the living organisms. If there are no predators in this desert, such as coyotes and mountain lions, then jackrabbits can reproduce and there is no stopping their increase in population. The input to the desert system is more jackrabbits. Each new generation of jackrabbits can then reproduce again, increasing the overall population because the desert system void of predators responds to the new generation by allowing even more jackrabbits to survive. As a result, the number of jackrabbits will increase until another component of the desert system breaks down, such as rabbit food sources, preventing other animals to eat and survive, at which time the desert system is destabilized. The predator component had been altered in this desert system leading to a breakdown of the system as a whole. Predominantly, natural systems experience a positive feedback loop due to human impacts, including over-hunting of predator species.

It is important to note that humans define system boundaries for simplicity and understanding. In reality, there are no boundaries defining systems; all systems serve as components in another larger system. In our case, we will look at the Beaver Creek watershed as a system, however we must keep in mind that inputs from outside the watershed such as precipitation and solar radiation affect the components of the system.

The River Continuum Concept was developed by Robin Vannote et al. in 1980. The concept was revolutionary in aquatic ecology because it was the first time biologists stepped back from studying a tiny portion of a river or creek and looked at rivers as a watershed-scale system. This new perspective allowed Vannote and his fellow researchers to see new patterns and connections between the various components of a river system. These components include the chemical, biological, and physical or geologic/geomorphic elements of a watershed. In the past, each of these components was studied independently. Now, studying the interactions among these components reveals properties of watersheds that were previously unknown. Such properties, referred to as emergent properties, are evident at the system level, but remain elusive when investigating individual components of a system. Today, scientists are discovering emergent properties that explain how aquatic organisms respond to changes in the physical and chemical components of a watershed. These discoveries answer questions about how and why aquatic organisms disperse themselves in creeks and rivers.
The main functions of a river system include transporting sediment, dissolved solids and gasses (e.g. Mg, Ca, Na, O2, CO2), organic matter, and nutrients. Sediment weathers out of the watershed geology. Dissolved solids come from the watershed geology, groundwater, and human activities. Dissolved gasses are produced by aquatic photosynthesis (O2) and respiration (CO2). Organic matter is created within a river by photosynthetic organisms (e.g. algae, water lilies) and enters from outside the river (e.g. fallen leaves). Nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, are contained within organic matter and dissolved in the water. A river's biological community adjusts to changes in form (primarily controlled by sediment transport) and function of the river system in order to effectively use the energy (organic matter/nutrients) provided by the watershed. Organisms process the organic matter, utilizing a certain amount and passing the remainder downstream where other organisms repeat the cycle. Thus, the biological component adapts to changes in the chemical and physical components to maintain a dynamic equilibrium within a river system. For example, if a large flood travels through a watershed, river channels may change shape and orientation as sediment is eroded from some areas and deposited in others. In addition, organic matter and dissolved nutrients will be carried to various locations downstream. As a result, aquatic organisms will move to new habitats that have formed in the modified river channel in order to fulfill their niches - an organism's functional role in a system. In this way, changes in the physical and chemical components of the river caused by the flood lead to adjustments by the biological component, preserving the equilibrium of the river system.

Key characteristics of systems:
. Systems consist of interacting components.
. Synergies among system components create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts (emergent properties) - a key reason the river continuum concept was revolutionary.
. System boundaries are artificial: systems are components of another larger system.
. Systems have inputs, processes/interactions, outputs, and feedback loops.

Write down an example of a negative and a positive feedback loop system.
- What are the components?
- What is the output?
- What is the outcome of the loop?

Create a flow chart: Make a chart based on the example of a natural system with a feedback loop:
Feedback systems in science. Choose one of the following to draw a flowchart on a poster board or come up with your own negative feedback system in science. Be prepared to explain the benefits of having negative feedback systems.
o Feeling of hunger or thirst
o Human body temperature
o The regulation of glucose in our bodies (Diabetes is a disease in which part of the feedback loop doesn't function properly due to a lack of the hormone insulin.)

1. Mr. Carter is a butcher. He has sliced off the end of his finger. As blood poured out of the finger, his blood pressure dropped. His heart pumped faster to restore normal blood pressure. What effect would this response have on Mr. Carter's stability? How would this be an example of a negative feedback loop?

2. At a town meeting in Alaska, a biologist explained the population growth of wolves as follows: "Like all species, the population growth of wolves is regulated by positive and negative feedback loops. When the wolves were re-introduced, a positive feedback loop was present. Over time, the population stabilized due to a negative feedback loop." What is this biologist talking about? In addition to the wolves' population, think about changes in the populations of their prey.

Pre-Lesson Two
Ecosystem niches (functional feeding groups)

Student Outcomes:
Students will:
. Understand the various functional feeding groups of aquatic invertebrates
. Identify the importance of a system-level perspective to understanding the distribution of aquatic invertebrates
. Explore the importance of aquatic and riparian ecosystems and the niches these corridors harbor

. To determine how and why aquatic invertebrates develop a continuum of niches along a river system in response to changing physical and chemical conditions

. List of aquatic invertebrates living in Beaver Creek (Beaver Creek website:
. Field guide to aquatic invertebrates (primarily aquatic insects)

Background information:
As you have learned, organic matter and nutrients travel downstream through a watershed from upstream sources. The creeks, streams, and rivers within the watershed contain different amounts of these essential resources based on their location in the watershed. Consequently, living organisms will move along these wet corridors, called riparian areas, to places that provide the habitat and food resources they need for survival. By analyzing data collected in river systems, researchers have discovered that the distribution of aquatic organisms follow specific patterns controlled by the physical and chemical components of such systems. These organisms distribute themselves based on the role they play within the community of species they live with. This role, or niche, includes how and what these organisms eat as well as interactions they have with other organisms. Ecologists have arranged the niches that aquatic invertebrates fill into functional feeding groups. These groups describe the eating habits of invertebrates with a focus on the effects specific eating habits have on the entire river continuum.

Functional feeding groups include:
1) shredders - eat big pieces of organic matter that has fallen into the water like leaves.
Ex: Amphipods-crustaceans, Berosus Chironomus Micrasema Pteronarcys Pycnopsyche

2) grazers - eat algae growing on the channel bed.
Ex: Gastropods-snails, Insecta-Baetis Caenis Brachycentrus Ectopria Ephemerella Helicopsyche Neophylax Optioservus Petrophila Psephenus Psychomyia Stenacron Stenelmis Stenonema

3) collectors - eat tiny pieces of organic matter that settles on the channel bed from upstream sources. Ex: Insecta-Ephmemoptera (mayflies) Coleoptera Trichoptera Hemiptera

4) filter feeders - eat organic matter that floats in the water column from upstream sources. Ex: Pelecypoda-bivalves, Insecta-Brachycentrus Cheumatopsyche Chimarra Ephemera Hydropsyche Isonychia Polycentropus Simulium

5) predators - eat 1 through 4.
Ex: Insecta-Coleoptera Ephemeroptera Odonata (dragonflies/damselflies) Trichoptera Diptera Megaloptera Plecoptera

The biological needs of each functional feeding group dictate the habit they must find in order to survive. Therefore, as physical and chemical conditions change in a river system, aquatic invertebrates must move to new areas to find the type of food they require. Depending where you look within a watershed, you can predict what aquatic invertebrates should inhabit the area based on the physical and chemical conditions. (Answers for procedure) For example, at headwater streams near the edge of the watershed you can expect to find shredders because most of the organic matter comes from fallen leaves and other riparian vegetation that falls into the stream. Further downstream, the stream widens, allowing more light for photosynthesis to reach the channel bed, and enough nutrients build up in water to provide habitat suitable for algae. As a result, grazers appear because their food source, algae, is available. Collectors are found throughout the river continuum, taking advantage of all the extra food resources that other feeding groups spilled downstream. Predators are also found everywhere since they feed on all the other groups.
Each of the functional feeding groups utilize a specific niche, playing a key role in a system that processes organic matter and nutrients for other organisms. On this scale, each functional feeding groups acts as a component in the system and as we have learned, if a component is lost or disrupted, the entire system can become destabilized. In Arizona, riparian areas are rare and serve as important components in ecosystems as a whole, providing food, water, and shelter for many terrestrial organisms. If riparian areas become weakened due to destabilization, the effects can ripple through the surrounding terrestrial ecosystem, effectively breaking it down. Therefore, riparian areas must be protected to prevent this level of system disruption.

. Place feeding groups into the reaches they most likely inhabit. Describe what conditions exist at each reach to provide ideal habitat.

High Elevation
Transition Zone
Transition Zone

Field Research
Invertebrate collection, identification, and characterization

Student Outcomes:
Students will:
. Generate hypotheses based on observations in the field
. Collect and identify different functional invertebrate groups
. Assign groups to habitat based on findings (pool, riffle, shaded, exposed, etc.)
. Identify trends in species diversity based on feeding type and sampled location

. Guided observations and questions
o What different habitats exist in the surveyed region? Identify and categorize.
. Hypothesize answers
o What feeder types will be found where? Why?
o Where does Beaver Creek fit in the river continuum based on the relative abundance of aquatic invertebrates?
. Test
o Sample organisms from different habitats and analyze trends

. Hester-Dendy sampler plates
. Fish tank nets
. Magnifying glasses
. Squirt bottle
. Spatula; to scrape plates
. Forceps
. Sample jar or Tupperware for sample sorting
. Invertebrate identification field guide

. Observe site and hypothesize answers to questions significant to the main research question
. Choose several diverse sampling sites (rocky, sandy, deep, shallow, turbulent, stagnant, shaded, exposed)
. Secure Hester-Dendy sampler into substrate. Allow 2 weeks for colonization.
. Collect samplers. Id samples in the field or store in sample jars or tupperware for id in the classroom/lab.
. If time does not permit Hester-Dendy sampling, use fish tank nets to collect invertebrates in the creek. Be sure to use consistent sampling time at each site.
. Id subjects
. Catalog findings for each habitat type in a table as follows Feeding group Identifiable taxa Total number
. Graph samples by feeding type and habitat and compare to the RCC graphs below
Northern Arizona University         Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research         Rocky Mountain Research Station         MAB