A study warns that invertebrates inhabiting the cool meltwater rivers of the European Alps face the potential loss of their habitat and even extinction due to the rapid melting of the mountain range’s glaciers caused by climate change. While these animals may often be overlooked, they play a crucial role in alpine ecosystems.

The research team focused on the Alps and analysed data from three decades of studies on glacier melt rates and their impact on river flows in the region. Their investigation specifically examined how past changes have affected the populations of 15 invertebrate species, including midges and stoneflies, that are specially adapted to live in these waters.

These specialised species of invertebrates, such as the mayflies sometimes referred to as blue-winged olive flies and the midges commonly mistaken for mosquitoes or lake flies, are capable of surviving in glacier-fed rivers, which typically have low species diversity due to the harsh environment.

Using the collected data, the researchers made predictions about the future prospects of these species until the year 2100. As global warming continues to cause significant reductions in glacier coverage in the Alps, the rivers will experience decreased water flow, often leading to complete drying up. The absence of melting ice will also result in warmer water temperatures, rendering the environment inhospitable to the invertebrates that have evolved to thrive in cold, nutrient-poor conditions. Professor Lee Brown, an aquatic science expert at the University of Leeds and one of the lead authors of the study, stated that the specialised species’ habitat is rapidly diminishing.

The study suggests that most of the species will experience population declines, while the stonefly species Rhabdiopteryx and three non-biting midge species face the risk of extinction in the Alps.

“These small animals represent unique biodiversity and genetic diversity,” said Dean Jacobsen, an associate professor of freshwater biology at the University of Copenhagen, who was not involved in the study. “They are often overlooked because they are small and not particularly charismatic. But they form part of food webs and conduct vital ecosystem processes like organic matter breakdown and transformation.” They are also food for fish, birds, and mammals in water and on land.

The broader ecological consequences of these species’ loss or replacement by other species are difficult to predict. The study does not account for potential changes in the environmental requirements of species or their ability to adapt to new conditions over time.

Although there are potential havens for these species in other locations, many of these areas are also susceptible to development or tourism and may disappear before the invertebrates have a chance to migrate there.

The models suggest that some species may be able to find refuge in areas where the climate is less hostile for them. “There might be little pockets of ice that remain in some of the really high parts of the Alps where the species can hang on,” Brown said.

Additionally, it remains uncertain whether these invertebrates possess the ability to effectively migrate to new environments. Previous research has shown that they are not adept at moving between rivers or undertaking long-distance flights.

Given these concerning findings, discussions have emerged regarding the possibility of collecting some of these invertebrates and relocating them to suitable areas where they can establish new populations. Such operations aim to safeguard these unique species and mitigate the risk of their extinction.

“It’s a bit more hands-on conservation work, we don’t tend to do it much for insects and other invertebrates,” said Brown. “But we do it for fish, and we did for some big carnivores like wolves and beavers. So maybe we should be doing it for insects.”



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