Macroinvertabrates: Just as Fun as Our Fuzzier Friends


by SCA Member Alyssa Stegmaier

This post was written for Open Spaces, the official blog of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s part of a monthly series featuring SCA interns writing about their experiences working to promote, protect and study wildlife on public lands all over the United States.
It’s our great pride and pleasure to partner with USFWS, as well as the other great federal land management agencies, to connect young people from all backgrounds with life-changing, career-making conservation service opportunities.

Above: A somewhat fuzzy, perhaps adorable stonefly caught by Alyssa’s students.

Here at Bear River, I have had the opportunity to connect with even the smallest types of wildlife. One of the coolest things I have gotten to do during my time here as a “Park Ranger/Environmental Education Specialist” is run the Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Station for the Mountain Wild to Wetland Wonders program, MWWW, for short. Aquatic Macroinvertebrates are creatures living in and around water with no backbone that you can see with the naked eye, and MWWW, a partnership between Bear River and Hardware Ranch Wildlife Management Area, immerses area fourth-graders in hands-on nature experiences, like finding macroinvertebrates, through a series of field trips.

Alyssa demonstrates proper kicknet deployment technique for her students.

At the Aquatic Macroinvertebrate Station, students  pull on an impressive pair of waterproof boots and get right into the water. Using a kick net, which is a screen between two poles, they collect macroinvertebrates, and then identify them with the help of a cool graphical resource called a dichotomous key, basically a flow chart for identification.

While most kids were excited to put on boots and kick around in the water, almost no one was too thrilled to actually touch the macroinvertebrates. It became my goal to get the kids as excited about these tiny water dwelling creatures as they audibly were about the wildlife they saw on their way up the canyon. Macroinvertebrates play important roles in the environment – as the main food source for many species of fish, as an indicator of water quality and more. For instance, we couldn’t have healthy trout populations in Bear River without healthy macroinvertebrate populations.

It was fantastic to see kids learn about such animals as caddis flies and in the end find them just as interesting as fuzzier fauna, like deer and marmots.

Another cool aspect of my internship is its setting. Utah is definitely different than the Flint Hills of Kansas where I grew up. The mountainous horizon is a constant reminder that no, I am not in Kansas anymore. Weekend trips to hike around the Wellesville and Bear Ranges have been a highlight of my time here.

That’s not to say I don’t love flat-as-a-pancake Kansas! I take great pride in the fact that growing up, I could truly call the prairie my backyard. My passion for conservation began with this fact, and went on to be fostered by great environmental educators both formal and informal. My latest inspiration is Bear River Visitor Services Manager Kathi Stopher, winner of the Service’s 2014 National Sense of Wonder Award and someone I am privileged enough to currently call my co-worker!

Alyssa’s Dichotomous Key for macroinvertabrate identification.

Now that I am practicing environmental education myself, I feel that it is a perfect fit for me. My greatest enjoyment comes from teaching young kids about the wonders of our natural world big or small, and seeing their faces light up with wonder after learning something new, even something as simple as the fact that stoneflies are an important food source for many fish. It’s quite an honor to think that I am teaching the next generation of biologists, wildlife enthusiasts, park rangers, and, of course, macroinvertebrate specialists! I intend to continue pursuing environmental education as a career, and hope to one day be an environmental educator at the type of place that makes a perfect outdoor classroom, like a zoo, or a national park or, of course, a wildlife refuge!

Below: 1. Alyssa helps students use a dichotomous key to ID macroinvertabrates. 2. A caddis fly case Alyssa found attached to a rock in the river.