Caddisflies are found in freshwaters across Europe, with their larvae well-known for their remarkable ability to build cases from organic materials such as vegetation, sand and silt (which can take on beautiful creative forms). In Britain alone, there are around 200 different caddisfly species, making them one of the most diverse groups of pond animals.
New research by a team of ecologists from the UK, Germany and Malaysia has shown how caddisflies are not only resourceful ‘house builders’, but also productive ‘gardeners’ of their habitats. Writing in Freshwater Biology, the researchers, led by Nicola Ings, describe how caddisflies actively encourage food growth in their local environment, through ‘weeding’ and ‘fertilisation’.
The organic cases that caddisfly larvae build are known as galleries, held together with silk and fixed to a stream or lake bed. The team of researchers used samples of galleries built by a common caddisfly species, Tinodes waeneri, from five lakes in the Lake District. Their aim was to study whether gallery biofilms contained algae communities distinct from the biofilm on the surrounding lake bed (known as the epilithon), and if so, whether these algae ‘gardens’ were found across a range of lakes with different ecological productivity.
The researchers found that across all five studied lakes, caddisfly larva galleries had a greater content of diatom pigments, including fucoxanthin, as well as a distinct assemblage of diatoms. This abundance of diatoms – a rich food source for caddisfly larvae – on the galleries is the result of active ‘gardening’ by the larvae of their micro-habitat.
Caddisfly larvae live in their galleries (which can reach several centimetres in length), and graze algae around the gallery mouth. This ‘weeding’ helps prevent the gallery from becoming overgrown with filamentous green algae which can inhibit the growth of diatom-rich biofilm. The rear end of the gallery casing (where the biofilm fertilised by nutrient-rich excretions often grows) is gradually ingested by the larva, and the structure slowly extended forward with fresh silk and particles at the front.
This active modification of the caddisfly larva’s immediate environment has a number of benefits for the organism. The new silken material added to the front of the gallery casings creates new surfaces on which biofilm (on which they graze) can grow. At the same time, the older parts of the galleries are typically covered in biofilm rich in diatoms are harvested. In effect, the caddisfly larvae galleries undergo a slow migration across a lake or stream bed, creating new micro-habitats for algae growth at their head, which will be eventually harvested at the rear.
‘Gardening’ gives a key advantage to caddisfly larvae by widening the range of potential habitat conditions in which they can survive. The researchers speculate that nutrients will be more tightly retained in lake beds dominated by such sedentary, gardening insect larvae, compared with those dominated by more mobile collector grazers. As a result, the nutrients retained by ‘gardened’ larvae galleries may then be exported to the land when the adult caddisflies emerge.
The study gives a fascinating insight into the ability of microorganisms to actively modify their immediate environment to improve their life chances. It would be fair to say that caddisfly larvae may well be the smallest (and most resourceful) of all the water gardeners.