A quantitative study of day–night changes in the spatial distribution of insects in a stony stream


J.M. Elliott, Freshwater Biological Association, The Ferry House, Far Sawrey, Ambleside, Cumbria LA22 0LP, UK. E-mail: jmel@ceh.ac.uk


  • 1As many invertebrates are nocturnal, their spatial distribution may change from day to night. This behavioural aspect of their population dynamics has been ignored, but is now examined for the first time by testing the hypotheses: (i) a power function was a suitable model for the spatial distribution of common species of Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera and Trichoptera in a stony stream; (ii) the spatial distribution varied between species but was similar within species for larvae greater and smaller than half-size; (iii) diurnal and nocturnal spatial distributions were significantly different for each species. To ensure that the conclusions were consistent, large samples (n = 30) were taken near midday and midnight in April, June and November over 4 years.
  • 2Twenty–one species were taken in sufficient numbers for the analyses; seven species were too sparse to be included. The first hypothesis was supported. A power function, relating spatial variance (s2) to mean (m), was an excellent fit in all the analyses (P < 0·001, r2 > 0·95), i.e. the spatial variance was density–dependent. The power b, often used as an ‘index of aggregation’, varied in the range 0·88–2·50.
  • 3Most analyses supported the second hypothesis. For four species, the difference between the two size groups was just significant (P < 0·05), but was due to inadequate data for three species. Large larvae of the fourth species, the caddis Odontocerum albicorne, were less aggregated than small larvae at night, and were the only group with a b-value less than one.
  • 4The third hypothesis was partially supported. The distribution did not change significantly (P > 0·05) for nine species; five burrowers in gravel, moss or mud, two highly mobile predators, one sedentary, case–building, Trichoptera species, and one net–spinning Trichoptera species. Aggregation was reduced significantly (P < 0·001) at night for four species, all case–building Trichoptera larvae. Aggregation increased significantly (P < 0·001) at night, except at low densities, for the remaining eight species, one being a nocturnal predator and the others being herbivorous species; all occurred frequently in night samples of invertebrate drift. Day–night changes in spatial distribution were therefore an essential part of the behavioural dynamics of 12 of the 21 species, and should be investigated in other species, including terrestrial species.