Aquatic Habitats

Richard W. Merritt

Michigan State University

J. Bruce Wallace

University of Georgia

Less than 3% of the world's total water occurs on land, and most of this is frozen in polar ice caps. Streams and rivers are one of the more conspicuous features of the landscape; however, their total area is about 0.1% of the land surface, whereas lakes represent about 1.8% of total land surface. Some authors have questioned whether insects have been successful in water because aquatic species represent only a small portion of the total hexapod fauna. However, 13 orders of insects contain species with aquatic or semiaquatic stages, and in five of these (Ephemeroptera, Odonata, Plecoptera, Megaloptera, and Trichoptera) all species are aquatic with few exceptions (Table I). Few aquatic insects spend all of their life in water; generally any insect that lives in water during a portion of its development is considered to be "aquatic." Usually, but not always, for most "aquatic" species, it is the larval stage that develops in aquatic habitats, and the adults are terrestrial (Table I). The pupae of some taxa undergoing complete metamorphosis (i.e., holometabolous) remain within the aquatic habitat; in others the last larval instar moves onto land to pupate, providing the transition stage from the aquatic larva to the terrestrial adult.

The success of insects in freshwater environments is demonstrated by their diversity and abundance, broad distribution, and their ability to exploit most types of aquatic habitat. Some species have adapted to very restricted habitats and often have life cycles, morphological, and physiological adaptations that allow them to cope with the challenges presented by aquatic habitats. One aquatic environment in which insects have not been very successful is saltwater habitats, although some 14 orders and 1400 species of insects occur in brackish and marine habitats; only one group occurs in the open ocean. One of the most widely accepted attempts to explain why more insects do not live in marine environments is that successful resident marine invertebrates evolved long before aquatic insects and occupy many of the same niches inhabited by freshwater insects. Thus, marine invertebrates, such as crustaceans, have barred many insects from

TABLE I Occurrence of Life Stages in Major Habitat Types for Aquatic and Semiaquatic Representatives of Insect Orders (A, adult; L, larvae; P, pupae)





A, L

A, L


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