Wyoming’s Only Endangered Insect Discovered in Higher Streams | Open spaces


Christine Peterson, WyoFile.com

Clinging to rocks and other substrates and munching on algae beneath Wyoming’s glaciers are tiny insects no larger than 5 millimeters. A handful of sandfly species inhabit these high mountain waterways in Wyoming, but this one in particular, the western glacier sandfly, has the unfortunate distinction of being the only government-listed threatened insect. federal in Wyoming.

Researchers once believed it lived exclusively in a few select streams in the Absaroka and Beartooth Wilderness and Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks.

But a team of Western scientists recently discovered the endangered glacier sandfly in not one but eight new streams in the Wind River, Absaroka and Beartooth ranges.

“We thought it was something that only existed in certain places,” said Lusha Tronstad, an invertebrate zoologist at the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, who led the study. “But that’s the problem with invertebrates, they’re really hard to study.”

It’s unclear whether or not the news changes the species’ threatened status, but what researchers do know is that biodiversity, even for tiny insects in freezing waterways, matters.

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“An ecosystem is a highly connected network, and because a species is affected, you can’t know how the impact will ripple through the system,” said Scott Hotaling, assistant professor at Utah State University. , who studied stone flies and other alpine aquatic species. insects for years.

Where fieldwork and technology meet

Few people outside of the niche scientific community have likely heard of the Western Glacier Sandfly, officially known as the Zapada Glacier. As larvae, the insects are 2-5mm long and live in waterways as cold as 34 degrees Fahrenheit and as warm as 43 degrees.

Few creatures much larger than a sandfly live in these creeks where water rushes or flows from the bottom of sheet or rocky glaciers, Tronstad said. In late summer, stone flies emerge from streams as adults, fly furiously to mate for a week or two, lay eggs in those same streams, and then die.

Although their lineup is isolated, Tronstad wondered if it could be a bit more extensive than previously thought. So she applied for and got a grant from the US Forest Service to find out. She and a team have studied streams in most of Wyoming’s largest mountain ranges, from the Snowy Range and Bighorns to the Beartooths and Wind Rivers.

Unlike counting deer or elk from the air, or estimating grizzly bear populations based on sightings and hair samples, finding an endangered larva can be a more refined art.

The western glacier sandfly looks like five or six other species to the naked eye, says Hotaling.

So to find them, researchers use a specialized net to filter each living thing through sections of water, then collect the sandfly larvae samples and take them back to a lab for DNA analysis. Part of their mitochondrial genome is used for barcoding individual species.

“It’s cool because it requires old-fashioned fieldwork in hard-to-reach places where these stoneflies might be occurring with new-school genetic conservation techniques to really understand what we’re looking at,” Hotaling said.

Small bug, big importance

The western glacier fly was placed on the endangered species list in 2019 due to their exceptionally small range which is shrinking in response to the loss of glaciers due to climate change. News of additional populations found in other waterways may or may not change the threatened status, said Jim Boyd, listing and recovery biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Scientists always learn more about a species once it is listed and reassess its status every five years.

An expanded range “increases species redundancy in the landscape, which reduces the species’ risk of a catastrophic event,” Boyd said. “That’s the good part.”

The downside is that the creatures are still threatened by melting glaciers.

In a world where scientists say species extinctions are increasing at an “alarming rate”, it’s easy to wonder if a 5mm sandfly existing in just a few streams and indistinguishable from other 5mm sandflies matters. really.

They do this, says Hotaling, for several reasons.

The first is the intrinsic value of a variety of species. The second is that humans don’t really know what role these stoneflies play in larger high mountain dynamics. Maybe none, or maybe a fairly large one.

“If you lose enough biodiversity, you will eventually run out of species to fulfill this role, and the crops we eat and the air we breathe depend on functioning systems,” Hotaling said. “Messing up those connections can only go so far, and we don’t know what that tipping point is. »

Pink finches, for example, are the highest breeding birds in North America and a favorite of bird watchers. They feed on aquatic insects that emerge from streams. The western glacier sandfly could be a crucial food source for pink finches and their young at a critical time of year.

Researchers don’t yet know the answers to such questions as they rush to document what still exists.

“With biodiversity upstream, the more we search, the more we find, which is a little scary when you think about climate impacts on biodiversity,” Hotaling said. “If we don’t know what lives in these areas, we can’t know what we’re going to lose.”

WyoFile is an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on the people, places, and politics of Wyoming.


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