Missing Macroinvertebrates

    Missing Macroinvertebrates

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    To make inferences about the quality of freshwater using macroinvertebrate data collected from local water systems. To explain the factors that contribute to the presence or absence of a species.


    In this lesson, students will collect macroinvertebrates from a river or stream site then sort and identify them.  By noting which types are most abundant and which of the sensitive species are missing, we can learn a lot about present and past conditions of a stream.

    See discussion questions for additional information and leading questions to help guide classroom discussions.

    The lesson is designed in four parts:

    1. A classroom activity to familiarize students with the aquatic invertebrates they will be collecting; 
    2. field activityportion in which they will collect macroinvertebrates and observe them with the help of keys and photos (see tips on preparing for a water related activity to have a safe and meaningful experience);
    3.  follow up STEM activities
    4.  and watershed connections.

    Materials Needed:

    *Click here for information on purchasing equipment or supplies or creating your own equipment.  Contact USU Water Quality Extension (waterquality@usu.edu or 435-797-2580) for information on borrowing equipment.

    Classroom Activity:

    NOTE: If you have already done the activity Who Lives in the Water? you can review the classroom activity with the students, then skip to step 6 of the field activity.                                    

    activity1. Ask the students to identify the types of plants and animals that live in streams (or other aquatic systems such as wetlands or ponds). Tell them this activity will focus on the diversity of macroinvertebrates found in streams. (Make sure they know the definition of a macroinvertebrate.)

    2. Explain to the students they will collect a macroinvertebrate sample in a stream, identify the different types of organisms in their sample, and calculate a water quality index, which is a numeric way of rating the health of a stream. An index like this allows them to compare different sites in an objective way. 

    3.  Ask the students to think about what might affect the diversity of plants and animals they would find in this aquatic ecosystem (e.g., pollutants entering the water, changes in habitat, natural or human caused changes in temperature, flow, substrate, food abundance or quality, predators in the system).

    4. Review the common macroinvertebrates found in your area with the students. Have the students hypothesize what kinds of macroinvertebrates they expect to find.  Be sure they are familiar with the macroinvertebrate keys they will be using in the field.  Printable keys and online keys are available through USU Water Quality Extension. 

    5. Review sampling instructions with your students before they go into the field.  Click link below for step by step photos. 


    Prepare for Field Activity:

    Proper preparation, before entering the field, is important to class safety. Follow the links below for tips for thorough preparation.

    Field Activity:field activity

    1.  Set up stations for sampling macroinvertebrates. These areas should be easily accessible and, if possible, have a range of substrate, such as small pebble, larger cobble, or woody debris.


    --Each Station Should Include: 

    2.  Divide the students into groups. Group size should be six students or less to make sure that everyone gets to participate.  Provide each group with clipboards, pencils,and  macroinvertebrate sorting worksheet. Each group will sample at a different station.

    3.  Demonstrate to the group how to sample for macroinvertebrates, then have the students collect samples. Have the students follow the instructions on the macroinvertebrate sampling instructions.

    4.  If time allows, give students an opportunity to observe the various types of macroinvertebrates in their sample.

    5. The students must sort and count the types of organisms found in a subsample (~100 organisms). They will record this information on the macroinvertebrate sorting worksheet. Complete instructions on taking a subsample and sorting organisms are provided on the macroinvertebrate sampling instructions.

    NOTE:  The subsampling, sorting and counting can be done in the field or back in the classroom with preserved samples. 

    6.  Calculate the water quality index for each sample using the water quality index worksheet. Have the students follow the instructions on the water quality index instructions.  NOTE:  This step can be done in the classroom.

    7.  Have the students hypothesize the driving factors behind their water quality index. If they have a low water quality index (an absence of some species of macroinvertebrates), what is causing the populations to disappear?

    STEM Activity:


    Students can further their understanding of macroinvertebrates as an indicator of water quality by looking at their data in various ways or participating in a variety of research projects.  Some helpful ways to assist students in a better understanding are: 

    1.  Use your data to create graphs and comparisons. You can view examples of some graphed data here

    • Compare the diversity of macroinvertebrates and water quality index at:
      • each station sampled
      • at the same station on multiple days
      • at a river site and a pond site (see Wetland vs Stream Macroinvertebrates)
      • at a upstream location and a downstream location (e.g. above an urban area and below an urban area)

    2.  Discuss what the results mean.  (See discussion questions for this exercise). 

    • Research factors that would contribute to a decline in the diversity of macroinvertebrates.

    Watershed connections  

    Watersheds are natural outdoor laboratories. Use the map below to find the watershed you teach in. Use the watershed connections in the Stream Side Science lessons to learn how you can use specific stream locations, local data sources, local contact and other information in your area to make the Stream Side Science experience more relevant to your students.   

    What watershed do you live in?

    If you live in Utah, the map below shows all of the watersheds that either drain into or out of Utah.
    OR go to Surf Your Watershed to locate your watershed anywhere in the U.S.