Ecology Freshwater Invertebrate Ecology
Matt R. Whiles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0132


The field of freshwater invertebrate ecology has developed for well over a century now. Ecologists studying freshwater invertebrates have made numerous significant contributions to both applied and theoretical facets of the field of ecology, as well as to other aspects of the biological sciences. Human interest in this particular group of organisms stems from their important roles in freshwater food webs, their link to the production of focal management groups such as fishes and waterfowl, and their roles in the transmission of some of the most important human diseases on the planet, such as Malaria and Schistosomiasis. Freshwater invertebrates are also increasingly used by resource managers for biological assessment of freshwater habitat integrity, and some, such as Daphnia (Cladocera: Daphniidae) and Chironomus tentans (Diptera: Chironomidae), are model organisms for toxicological studies. Along with their applied significance, freshwater invertebrate populations and communities can make excellent models for basic ecological studies because they are present in virtually every freshwater habitat on the planet and, in many cases, a given assemblage presents tremendous diversity in forms and functions. Currently, there is a great deal of interest among freshwater ecologists on the ecological roles of freshwater invertebrates, including how they influence ecosystem processes and functions such as decomposition, primary production, and nutrient cycling, and how those with amphibious life cycles can link aquatic and terrestrial habitats through energy and nutrient subsidies.

General Overviews

Hynes 1970a, a classic book on general stream ecology, moved the field of freshwater invertebrate ecology forward through careful synthesis of existing information and progressive thinking on research directions, particularly on the ecological roles of stream invertebrates. That same year, Hynes 1970b provided a synthesis of many aspects of freshwater invertebrate ecology in a now decades-old review that is still highly cited. Many of the concepts in both of Hynes’s classic works are evident in one of the most highly cited pieces of literature in freshwater ecology, the river continuum concept in Vannote, et al. 1980, which presents a conceptual model of stream continua, including how the relative importance of invertebrate functional feeding groups changes predictably from headwaters to large rivers. Resh and Rosenberg 1984, the classic edited book The Ecology of Aquatic Insects that is now out of print and hard to find, provides a synthesis of many aspects of freshwater invertebrate ecology and served as one of the primary resources on the topic for many years. More recent books, including Ward 1992 and Williams and Feltmate 1992, provide more updated summaries and syntheses, but are also becoming dated. Although brief, Cummins, et al. 2008 provides a relatively up-to-date overview of aquatic insect ecology. Many limnology and freshwater ecology textbooks provide general information on freshwater invertebrate ecology. Dodds and Whiles 2010, a textbook on freshwater ecology, includes numerous sections on freshwater invertebrates. Among the freshwater invertebrates, aquatic insects and planktonic crustaceans such as copepods and cladocerans are often the foci of ecological studies, and this bias is evident in the literature.

  • Cummins, Kenneth W., Richard W. Merritt, and Martin B. Berg. 2008. Ecology and distribution of aquatic insects. In An introduction to the aquatic insects of North America. 4th ed. By Kenneth W. Cummins, Richard W. Merritt, and Martin B. Berg, 105–122. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

    This book chapter provides a brief but very informative and up-to-date overview of aquatic insect ecology, with information summarized in easily interpreted tables and figures. Many other chapters in this edited book include information on various aspects of aquatic invertebrate ecology, but it is obviously focused on the insect groups.

  • Dodds, Walter K., and Matt R. Whiles. 2010. Freshwater ecology: Concepts and environmental applications of limnology. 2d ed. Amsterdam and Boston: Academic Press.

    An intermediate-level general freshwater ecology text, this book includes numerous chapters and sections covering various aspects of freshwater invertebrate ecology. Much of the information presented here is from the ecosystem perspective, including the roles of aquatic invertebrates in ecosystem processes.

  • Hynes, H. B. N. 1970a. The ecology of running waters. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

    A classic that helped define and guide the field of stream ecology, this book includes numerous chapters and sections focused on the ecology of invertebrates and other organisms that inhabit streams. Hynes’s progressive, holistic views are evident throughout. This is a must-have for anyone studying freshwater ecology.

  • Hynes, H. B. N.. 1970b. The ecology of stream insects. Annual Review of Entomology 15:25–42.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.en.15.010170.000325

    A classic in the field by one of the most influential freshwater ecologists, this review has both summarized the state of knowledge and moved the field forward because of the author’s progressive views of freshwater invertebrates and ecology in general. While the article is focused on insects, much of the information is relevant to other groups. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Resh, Vincent H., and David M. Rosenberg, eds. 1984. The ecology of aquatic insects. New York: Praeger.

    Although focused on insects, this edited book served for years as a foundation for anyone studying freshwater invertebrate ecology. Parts are now dated, but overall, the book still provides a wealth of information, with chapters by some of the most influential people in the field at the time. It is out of print and now becoming hard to find.

  • Vannote, Robin W., G. Wayne Minshall, Kenneth W. Cummins, James R. Sedell, and Colbert E. Cushing. 1980. The river continuum concept. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 37:130–137.

    DOI: 10.1139/f80-017

    One of the most influential, highly cited pieces of literature in freshwater ecology, this brief article lays out a conceptual model of stream ecosystem structure and function along longitudinal continua, from headwaters to large rivers. Ecological roles of invertebrate functional groups, and how they change along the continuum, are central. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ward, James V. 1992. Aquatic insect ecology. Vol. 1. Biology and habitat. New York: Wiley.

    This book, which provides a thorough and detailed overview of many aspects of aquatic insect ecology, is more focused on evolutionary ecology than many other works on the topic.

  • Williams, Dudley D., and Blair W. Feltmate. 1992. Aquatic insects. Wallingford, UK: CAB International.

    A book that provides a wealth of information on basic and applied aspects of aquatic insect ecology. Sections range from explorations of how studies of aquatic insects are increasingly used to address basic ecological concepts and theory, to use of aquatic invertebrates for biological assessment of freshwater habitats.

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