Three State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conferences have been held since 1996 to encourage the development of Great Lakes indicators of ecosystem health for use in reporting on progress in restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Great Lakes ecosystem. Here we report on the development of an indicator based on burrowing mayflies, Hexagenia (Ephemeroptera: Ephemeridae), using production and biomass as the indicator metrics. Burrowing mayflies were selected because they (1) were historically abundant in unpolluted, soft-bottomed mesotrophic habitats throughout the Great Lakes, (2) are intolerant of and were extirpated by pollution in most of those habitats during the 1940s to 1950s, (3) have shown the ability to recover in one of those habitats following pollution abatement, (4) are ecologically important as bioturbators of lakebed sediments and as trophic integrators that link detrital energy resources directly to fishes that feed preferentially on them, and (5) have highly visible mating flights, which carry the message directly to an informed public that the source water body is healthy. In addition, their annual production can be estimated from their mean annual biomass by the size-frequency method. Productivity and biomass can also be estimated with a 'cohort-direct' method, using the biomass of mature nymphs collected in May or early June from the cohort that is about to emerge as subimagos in late June or early July. Although both the size-frequency and cohort-direct methods provide reliable estimates of productivity and biomass, the latter method greatly reduces sample collection and processing effort and thus makes it feasible to use Hexagenia as an indicator of ecosystem health in surveys requiring the collection of large numbers of samples.
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Burrowing mayflies (Hexagenia) as indicators of ecosystem health