Florida A&M University (FAMU) professor and Fulbright Scholar R. Wills Flowers, Ph.D., recently traveled to Ecuador to do field research when he came across a particularly “beautiful” group of mayflies.
After checking the species’ characteristics against others in FAMU’s research collection, Flowers discovered that he uncovered a new species of mayfly, Thraulodes quevedoensis, in Quevedo, Ecuador.
The Thraulodes were found in a moderately polluted river running through a highly altered agricultural and urban landscape in Western Ecuador.
Mayflies belong to a group that is generally intolerant of pollution, yet this new species was found in a polluted stream. According to Flowers, mayflies and other aquatic insects are used as indicators of water quality, a method called biomonitoring. The more sensitive organisms – principally mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies – present in a sample, the better the water quality.
Incidentally, the State of Florida is a world leader in biomonitoring and according to Flowers, the William L. Peters Museum Collection of Aquatic Insects, housed in the FAMU College of Engineering Sciences, Technology and Agriculture, is the largest collection of mayfly research in the world.
There is also a keen interest in tropical countries in developing similar protocols in regards to biomonitoring.
However, it needed to be determined whether mayflies in the tropics are really as intolerant of contamination as they are in the temperate world. This is where studies like Flowers’ made a contribution.
United States protocols assume mayflies collectively are indicators of high water quality, but the Thraulodes quevedoensis signals that the assumption might not be entirely true in the lowland tropics of South America.
Flowers offered his theory on why this species of mayflies is able to tolerate the polluted conditions of the river, which gets sewage directly from the city and agricultural pollutants from farms upstream.
“During the wet season, the river gets torrential rains from the Andes Mountains,” he said. “During the dry season there are shallow spots in the river and algae grows. This can act as a purification system, and I believe this can keep the pollutants below critical level.”
According to Flowers, very little is known about insects in the tropics.
“Majority of researchers travel to the Amazon basin, but very few researchers venture into Western Ecuador,” he said. “I believe there is much more to be discovered.”