Stable isotopes identify dispersal patterns of stonefly populations living along stream corridors


Kate H. Macneale, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, 2725 Montlake Blvd. East Seattle, WA 98112, U.S.A. E-mail:


1. Populations in different locations can exchange individuals depending on the distribution and connectivity of suitable habitat, and the dispersal capabilities and behaviour of the organisms. We used an isotopic tracer, 15N, to label stoneflies (Leuctra ferruginea) to determine the extent of adult flight along stream corridors and between streams where their larvae live.

2. In four mass, mark-capture experiments we added 15NH4Cl continuously for several weeks to label specific regions of streams within the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, NH, U.S.A. We collected adult stoneflies along the labelled streams (up to 1.5 km of stream length), on transects through the forest away from labelled sections (up to 500 m), and along an 800-m reach of adjacent tributary that flows into a labelled stream.

3. Of 966 individual adult stoneflies collected and analysed for 15N, 20% were labelled. Most labelled stoneflies were captured along stream corridors and had flown upstream a mean distance of 211 m; the net movement of the population (upstream + downstream) estimated from the midpoint of the labelled sections was 126 m upstream. The furthest male and female travelled approximately 730 m and approximately 663 m upstream, respectively. We also captured labelled mature females along an unlabelled tributary and along a forest transect 500 m from the labelled stream, thus demonstrating cross-watershed dispersal.

4. We conclude that the adjacent forest was not a barrier to dispersal between catchments, and adult dispersal linked stonefly populations among streams across a landscape within one generation. Our data on the extent of adult dispersal provide a basis for a conceptual model identifying the boundaries of these populations, whose larvae are restricted to stream channels, and whose females must return to streams to oviposit.