Friday, April 17, 2015

Aquatic insect your pocket

Science teachers are always on the lookout for the next idea to immerse students in hands-on science.  Collecting, identifying, and analyzing macroinvertebrate communities in streams may well be one of the most accessible and fun ways to literally immerse students in science.  Streams are ubiquitous habitats and students are often surprised to see the fascinating organisms that can be see by just picking up a rock or two.  And who doesn't enjoy cooling their feet in stream water on a hot day?

Figure 1.  Screen shot from Iphone app.         
Simply sorting invertebrates into ice-cube trays by type and quickly estimating the number of species is an easy way to get started.  Number of species is the first component of diversity.  Comparing the number of species found in two streams provides an excellent ecological lesson or could be the basis for a science fair project.    Saint Michael's College Biology students in my Community Ecology class take it several steps farther than that.  And of course they should take it farther; they are in an upper-level biology course.

Many students are interested in identifying the organisms they collect and professional taxonomic keys are readily available.  Comprehensive family-level keys designed for the mid west can be downloaded for free and work reasonably well for fauna of the north east.

Vermont EPSCoR has made an even easier tool to help with identification. Most streams and ponds host only a small subset of the organisms found in the comprehensive keys.  Using comprehensive keys requires long hours of reading detailed descriptions of arcane morphological descriptions to eliminate the large majority of organsism found in the key....but absent in your specific samples. The new tool focuses only on the organisms previously found in specific streams.  This means that a high school student collecting macroinvertebrates for the first time can identify them more accurately and in a fraction of the time it would take using traditional keys.

Figure 2.  An organism found in Brewster River.
We started by making web sites tailored to the few streams and ponds where we and our collaborating high schools sampled.  The list of streams and ponds has since expanded to include 78 sites in Vermont, New York, and Puerto Rico.  Each web site contains roughly 10 to 20 organisms making it possible to identify 95% of the organisms found at a particular site.  

Computer Science students at the University of Vermont have taken the tool one step further by developing an Iphone app.  The app can be synchronized before field work to load images from the web directly onto an Iphone.  The app can then be used at remote fields sites with or without a cellphone signal.

Students can collect an organism from Brewster River in Jeffersonville Vermont for example, pull out their cell phones or Ipads, and compare the catch of the day to a gallery of photographs of organisms found at that site (Figure 1).  A quick click on an organism's photograph reveals it's name and identification tips (Figure 2).

The web pages and Iphone app are based on a series of 138 mini web pages called templates that represent 138 different organisms that we have found in our stream and pond study sites.  The templates are like Lego bricks that can be used and reused in different stream and pond web sites.  At this point the bulk of the work has been done and it takes little time to create a new web page for a freshly sampled stream.  We can also rapidly add organisms to existing stream sites.  All new information is passed onto Iphones by synchronizing with the web sites.

I hope that this new tool can lower the taxonomic barriers a little bit and make working with macroinvertebrates in aquatic habitats a little easier for a tech-savvy generation.