On a sunny fall day on the Jack’s Fork River, Chris Long flails around when he discovers a small leech on his ankle.
For scientists and conservationists, even the tiniest creatures provide hints about the water quality and how it’s affecting the river’s ecosystem.
“Leeches are actually a sign of poor water quality,” said Rebecca Landewe, who manages the Nature Conservancy’s Current River project. “In a healthy area, trout would eat the leeches and you wouldn’t find them,” she said.
But, the news isn’t all bad.
Looking into the horizon, you can see swarms of gnat-sized mayflies in the air and water. For Landewe, these tiny organisms are a clue that the water quality on that portion of the river is good.
The water is important to the insects because they lay their eggs in the river, where they feed during their larval stage.
Once they hatch, the mayflies only live for one day, said retired USDA entomologist Dennis Kopp. In that day, they mate, fly upriver, lay their eggs and die. “It’s a very big day for these mayflies,” he said.
In the scientific world, mayflies are known as ephemeroptera. “It’s like the word ephemeral,” said University of Missouri forestry professor Rose-Marie Muzika, “isn’t that so fitting?”