Stoneflies Consume Methane as Energy

Stoneflies Consume Methane as Energy

Stoneflies, (Order: Plecoptera), are among the largest insects in any river community, and are of significant importance to fresh water fly fisherman wanting to target the big trout that prefer to eat them. However, some species of stoneflies present a biological contradiction, in that the larval forms of these typically abundant insects mature under the stony beds of river systems that offer little in the way of food sources. This paucity of resource is an environmental condition known as Oligotrophy, and is seen in many lakes, especially at high latitudes. The $64,000 question of groundwater ecologists for decades has been, "How are these insects thriving in this kind of environment?".

Researchers from the University of Montana, working in cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, CO have recently published stunning new data that sheds light on fundamental organic processes in rivers, with potential implications for broader ecological policy. The summary finding  conducted by UM Ph.D. researchers Amanda DelVecchia and Jack Stanford, along with Xiaomei Xu from the University of California at Irvine  was hosted by the open access online journal Nature Communications. In it, the scientists have come to the conclusion that the majority of the organic carbon in the bodies of these stoneflies comes from an unusual and almost alien source: Methane.

Suspecting that an alternative basis for organic processes was in play with stonefly biology, the scientists used carbon dating techniques to identify the source of the carbon -- a fundamental building block for life as we know it -- that was being utilized and incorporated at a molecular level in the tissues of the insects. What they found was surprising, to say the least. Methane (with a molecular designation of CH4), present in the margins of the river bottoms, was being broken down by bacteria and the stoneflies were likely consuming this bacteria, thus ingesting the carbon that came from the methane. This was determined by radiocarbon dating of the carbon isotopes bound in the methane present in the ambient environment of the river bottom and comparing it to overall carbon in the bodies of the stoneflies. They matched.

Rocky Mountain Bio Lab Conducting Research on Stoneflies


As reported in followup coverage by UMT.edu, "The millennial-aged methane carbon could have come from organic matter deposited during the retreat of the last glaciation 7,000-10,000 years ago, or the ancient carbon could have come from a shale methane source, as the Kishenehn shale formation underlies the floodplain. Either methane source was likely consumed by bacteria first before being directly or indirectly consumed by the stoneflies themselves."


In my work reporting for Fly Fisherman, I am frequently challenged in understanding and interpreting scientific advances that are germane to our sport. The concept that the UM research presents is no exception, and is sufficiently big enough that I needed assistance to get my head wrapped around it. I caught up with DelVeccia by email after first making contact with her doing field sampling on the East River near Crested Butte, CO, not far from RMBL's base of operations. I asked if she could help clarify my thinking.


"The dated carbon is whatever carbon is in the sample - it includes everything. So for the methane samples, it is the carbon in the methane. For the stoneflies, it is all the carbon in their bodies BUT the majority of the carbon in their bodies is coming from methane and we know that because we measured carbon isotopes. So to express the bottom line to your readers, the stoneflies are getting millennial aged carbon from methane that has millennial aged carbon and we used a combination of radiocarbon dating and stable isotopes to figure that out."

What this means is that stoneflies, given no optional sources, have evolved to take advantage of what would probably be considered in accepted science as a completely alternative energy source for a nutrient base. Nature does provide other examples of life prospering in inhospitable environments, as in the case of deep sea dwelling and cave fish, or organisms flourishing near undersea volcanic vents, and the UM finding may help to shed light on these apparent biological contradictions.

Researching Methane in Stoneflies


As with all good science, the research raises more questions than it answers. If bacteria that are capable of converting methane resources to available carbon that can drive rich ecologies are susceptible to being affected by environmental pollutants, are agents like heavy metals or pesticides putting fundamental life webs at risk? This presents crucial information that needs to be considered at the policy level in the impacts of industrial activity.

The future health of our outdoor resources will depend on understanding the complex interactions of nature and mans impact on it. Readers should please consider supporting the work of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in it's ongoing and groundbreaking research.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

Recommended for You

The fly fishing communities in the U.S. and Belize are mourning after twin slayings that occurred on what appeared to be a routine guide trip on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in a shallow lagoon near San Pedro, Brazil. Industry

Fly Fishing Community Stunned by Twin Slayings on Belize Saltwater Flat

Fly Fisherman Online Staff - June 27, 2019

The fly fishing communities in the U.S. and Belize are mourning after twin slayings that...

American Rivers today released its annual list of America's Most Endangered Rivers, identifying ten rivers facing imminent threats. News

2019 Most Endangered Rivers

Fly Fisherman - April 16, 2019

American Rivers today released its annual list of America's Most Endangered Rivers,...

The Kamikaze Sculpin is easy to tie, versatile, and smartly designed to get the job done. Fly Tying

Tying the Kamikaze Sculpin

Charlie Craven

The Kamikaze Sculpin is easy to tie, versatile, and smartly designed to get the job done.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Bahamas - Bonefish

Bahamas - Bonefish

Conway casts for his personal best bonefish while fishing the Grand Bahama islands.

Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Fly Fishing for Taimen in Mongolia

Finding giant Mongolia taimen and a state of enlightenment.

Black Beauty

Black Beauty

Master fly tier Charlie Craven discuss the tools and materials needed to tie the Black Beauty.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Read about Colorado's backcountry fly fishing in United States

Indian Peaks Wilderness Area Colorado

Steven B. Schweitzer - May 03, 2016

Read about Colorado's backcountry fly fishing in " Indian Peaks Wilderness Area Colorado."

George Daniels offers his advice on which types of fly-fishing leaders are best for the most common applications you'll encounter on the water. How-To

Picking the Perfect Fly-Fishing Leader

George Daniel - January 22, 2018

George Daniels offers his advice on which types of fly-fishing leaders are best for the most...

The fly fishing communities in the U.S. and Belize are mourning after twin slayings that occurred on what appeared to be a routine guide trip on Sunday, June 23, 2019 in a shallow lagoon near San Pedro, Brazil. Industry

Fly Fishing Community Stunned by Twin Slayings on Belize Saltwater Flat

Fly Fisherman Online Staff - June 27, 2019

The fly fishing communities in the U.S. and Belize are mourning after twin slayings that...

See More Stories

More Industry

Yakutia Airlines has recently announced it will not operate its Anchorage-to-Petropavlovsk route in 2019. Industry

Update on Travel to Kamchatka

Ross Purnell - December 05, 2018

Yakutia Airlines has recently announced it will not operate its Anchorage-to-Petropavlovsk...

Flymen Fishing Co. is continuing their tradition of innovation with the release of several next-generation flies and fly tying materials. Industry

Flymen Introduces Innovative Flies and Tying Materials

Fly Fisherman - October 14, 2019

Flymen Fishing Co. is continuing their tradition of innovation with the release of several...

It began with love of a river that he fished as a boy with his father, and a passion for the sport that still endures today. Industry

Abe's Fly Shop Turns 60

Jay Walden - February 22, 2019

It began with love of a river that he fished as a boy with his father, and a passion for the...

See More Industry

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×