Tolerance of aquifer stoneflies to repeated hypoxia exposure and oxygen dynamics in an alluvial aquifer [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Rachel L. Malison, Amanda G. DelVecchia, H. Arthur Woods, Brian K. Hand, Gordon Luikart, and Jack A. Stanford

Aquatic insects cope with hypoxia and anoxia using a variety of behavioral and physiological responses. Most stoneflies (Plecoptera) occur in highly oxygenated surface waters, but some species live underground in alluvial aquifers containing heterogeneous oxygen concentrations. Aquifer stoneflies appear to be supported by methane-derived food resources, which they may exploit using anoxia-resistant behaviors. We documented dissolved oxygen dynamics and collected stoneflies over 5 years in floodplain wells of the Flathead River, Montana. Hypoxia regularly occurred in two wells, and nymphs of Paraperla frontalis were collected during hypoxic periods. We measured mass-specific metabolic rates (MSMRs) at different oxygen concentrations (12, 8, 6, 4, 2, 0.5 mg l–1, and during recovery) for 111 stonefly nymphs to determine whether aquifer and benthic taxa differed in hypoxia tolerance. Metabolic rates of aquifer taxa were similar across oxygen concentrations spanning 2 to 12 mg l–1 (P>0.437), but the MSMRs of benthic taxa dropped significantly with declining oxygen (P<0.0001; 2.9-times lower at 2 vs. 12 mg l–1). Aquifer taxa tolerated short-term repeated exposure to extreme hypoxia surprisingly well (100% survival), but repeated longer-term (>12 h) exposures resulted in lower survival (38–91%) and lower MSMRs during recovery. Our work suggests that aquifer stoneflies have evolved a remarkable set of behavioral and physiological adaptations that allow them to exploit the unique food resources available in hypoxic zones. These adaptations help to explain how large-bodied consumers might thrive in the underground aquifers of diverse and productive river floodplains.

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