Waterbug training TAS John

The Waterbug app - don't judge a bug by its cover

04 December 2019

Bugs – they're not for everyone, especially those hardcore arachnophobes who generally jump and run at the mere sight of one. Or so I've heard.


Waterbugs in tray - stonefly dragonfly freshwater shrimp

But although many of us would rather not come face to face with them, bugs and insects – or invertebrates – are all around us and, ironically, they're the backbone of the living world. 


They pollinate a huge range of plants, including many that humans rely on for food. They also fertilise soil, provide a food source for birds and other animals, provide products like silk and wax, and are vital to the decomposition of waste.


Essentially, bugs and insects hold the food chain together and are crucial to ecosystems. Without them, life on Earth would face catastrophe.


There's something in the water

This vital role extends to waterways, where insect communities occur in virtually all stream and river types throughout the world.


Erskine River - Lorne VIC

They are essential to the ecology of stream ecosystems, and are responsible for much of the transfer of organic matter from various sources inside or outside the stream through the stream food web.


Not only that, but the types of insects and invertebrates living in waterways can tell us a lot about the level of pollution in the water.


That's where the Waterbug App comes in. Waterbugs, or freshwater macroinvertebrates, are small invertebrates that can be seen without the aid of a microscope.


Each type of waterbug has a sensitivity to pollution or water quality changes, meaning the type and number of bugs can show how healthy a waterway is.


The Waterbug App uses Agreed Level Taxonomy, meaning it can identify these critters to the lowest level of classification that's readily observable by a lay person. It allows people to log macroinvertebrates in their location, along with how many they've observed.


Pretty fly for a lay guy

The app was developed for use in the National Waterbug Blitz, which encourages Australians to become 'citizen scientists' and help evaluate how healthy their local waterways and wetlands are by exploring and identifying which waterbugs live in them.


Tasmania launch

The idea is to get anyone interested in waterway biodiversity involved, whether they're professional scientists, farmers, community groups or students.


And, while it's lay person-friendly, operators need to be registered in order to log the data and must submit a photo to log the identification, allowing the waterbug team to verify it. This ensures integrity with the data collected.


Users are assigned a level of confidence in their identifications and can move up a level once they've been verified to a certain level of quality. It's a bit like rising up the belt ranks in karate as one's expertise grows.


They also have the option to enter habitat data, such as silt and riffle, with different options depending on the type of water body selected, be it a river, lake or wetland.


Up until now, the Waterbug App has been unavailable in Tasmania, with some of our more unusual critters like stonefly and mountain shrimp not included in the taxonomic keys.


You can bug me anytime

But, with the support of Hydro Tasmania, the app has now been rolled out across the state, allowing Tasmanians to become 'citizen scientists' and contribute to healthier waterways.


As Australia's largest water manager, we know how important it is to look after this precious resource.


And the Waterbug App will allow us to collect basic habitat information from our lakes and rivers over time, as well as data on when and where people are accessing our waterways, and the macroinvertebrates they observe there – data we've been unable to collect until now.


Dragonfly nymph - Telephlebiidae

The information will be more objective than that collected through other methods such as surveys, and will help us to better manage our waterways as well, including our popular angling waters.


For example, the data can be used to assess ecological change through fish habitat improvement projects; so if bug communities improve, there's an increased likelihood that fish populations will do the same.


The Waterbug App will also enhance our education program, giving students an opportunity to learn more about STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – especially subjects like ecology, taxonomy and environmental monitoring.


So, if you're not the type to run a mile at the thought of tiny critters, download the Waterbug App and help us make the most of our waterways.


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