Aquatic invaders come in small packages, too Bay View Compass (5/1) Of the roughly 200 non-native animal and plant species that have established themselves in the Great Lakes since the 1800s, the ones that most grab our attention are often relatively large. But small, less visible non-native species also invade the Great Lakes.
The spiny water flea (Bythotrephes cederstroemi), or "B.C.," is not an insect at all, but a tiny (less than half an inch long) crustacean with a long, sharp, barbed tail spine. A native of Great Britain and northern Europe east to the Caspian Sea, the animal was first found in Lake Huron in 1984--probably imported in the ballast water of a trans-oceanic freighter. Since then, populations have exploded and the animal can now be found throughout the Great Lakes and in some inland lakes.
No one is really sure what effect spiny water fleas will have on the ecosystems of the Great Lakes region. But resource managers are worried, because the animals may compete directly with young perch and other small fish for food, such as "Daphnia" zooplankton.
Spiny water fleas also reproduce rapidly. During warm summer conditions each female can produce up to 10 offspring every two weeks. As temperatures drop in the fall, eggs are produced that can lie dormant all winter.
High numbers would not pose a problem if spiny water fleas were heavily consumed by predators. But its sharp spine makes it extremely hard for small fish to eat, leaving only some large fish to feed on them. As a result, spiny water flea populations remain high while populations of plankton, which they eat, have declined.
Likely means of spread: Spiny water flea eggs and adults may wind up unseen in bilge water, bait buckets, and livewells. Also, fishing lines and downriggers will often be coated with both eggs and adults.
Photo credits: Single Bythotrephes specimen, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Spiny Water Flea on downrigger cable; Jeff Gunderson, Minnesota Sea Grant.