Glacier Retreat Threatens Insect with Extinction

Posted by on May 5, 2015

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As glaciers retreat, a species of glacier-dependent stonefly faces extinction.

In 2010, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for Zapada glacier, a western glacier stonefly only found in alpine streams of Glacier National Park, Montana, to be listed as endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This species – one of more than 3500 species of stonefly –  is highly restricted to cold, glacial meltwater with limited dispersal ability.

stonefly

Zapada glacier adult female from the Grinnell Glacier Basin in Glacier National Park (approximate length is 12 mm) (Source: Giersch et al./Freshwater Science).

Now, in an effort to save this endangered stonefly, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address the urgency of protecting this stonefly. The insect could potentially be taken to other clean cold streams outside its established range, perhaps further north or at higher elevation where it might survive – but time is running out.

Species evolve to survive in specific temperature ranges; however, when the environmental conditions have exceeded the range, species are unable to adapt to new conditions immediately. Climate change has put many species in danger, but this is the first time that an insect species has been threatened with extinction by glacier retreat.

“Protection can’t come soon enough for this stonefly,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Glacier National Park will have no glaciers in 15 years if we don’t take action to curb climate change.”

Stoneflies are a particularly ancient order of insects that spend most of their lives in water. They are considered the most sensitive indicators of water quality in streams as they require fresh, clean water and don’t tolerate pollution. The insects have a one to two-year life cycle starting in the nymph stage in fresh meltwater. They usually emerge from the water in late spring when the stream is uncovered by melting snow. Z. glacier has a narrow temperature preference around 3.3 degrees Celsius. It is this narrow temperature preference that makes this insect especially susceptible to climate change.

Between 1960 to 2012, the average summer temperature in Glacier National Park has risen by approximately 1 degree Celsius. Additionally, since 1850, 125 of the 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park have melted away while the remaining 25 are predicted to disappear by 2030. The loss of glaciers as well as restricted suitable environmental conditions and limited dispersal ability of the stonefly threaten the species’ ability to survive.

Many Glacier in GNP (Source: Esther Lee/Flickr).

Glaciers in Glacier National Park (Source: Esther Lee/Flickr).

Few studies have investigated the impacts of climate change on alpine species distributions. To compensate for this knowledge gap, J. Joseph Giersch from US Geological Survey and other researchers looked at the current status and distribution of Z. glacier. Their results were published in Freshwater Science.

Giersch et al. sampled 6 alpine streams, where Z. glacier was historically known to live, to examine the relationship between species occurrence and environmental variations of temperature and glacial extent. In order to identify the current geographic distribution and distinguish Z. glacier from the other 6 Zapada species in Glacier National Park, the researchers used morphological characteristics, the outward appearance of adults and the DNA of nymphs.

Giersch et al. identified 28 suitable alpine locations in Glacier National Park as potential habitats for Z. glacier. From this study, Z. glacier was only found in 1 of the 6 historically occupied streams – the outlet of Upper Grinnell Lake. The results suggest increased temperature and glacier retreat have already caused local extinction of Z. glacier from several historical locations.

Upper Grinnell Lake in Glacier National Park, where Zapada glacier can be found (Source: GlacierNPS/Flickr).

Upper Grinnell Lake in Glacier National Park, where Zapada glacier can be found (Source: GlacierNPS/Flickr).

The stonefly was also detected in 2 new high-elevation locations in Glacier National Park. Therefore, only 3 out of the 28 potential habitats have Z. glacier. The results indicate that the historical distribution of this stonefly in Glacier National Park was already restricted and its distribution will be further reduced in the future due to increased stream temperatures and habitat loss.

“The plight of the glacier stonefly is a wakeup call that unless the United States takes major action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, this special insect and more than one-third of all plants and animals on Earth could go extinct by 2050,” said Curry.

For more stories on invertebrates near glaciers, read here and here.

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