Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Marsupial water slaters

ResearchBlogging.org Water slaters or water-lice, Asellus aquaticus, scurry about the leaf litter of my indoor pond. They are fascinating pond inhabitants, always active, sometimes three individuals walking in a line across the tank walls. Most of the water slaters had broken antennae when I collected them, but they have now grown back, the new segments were still thin and transparent a few weeks ago (above), but have now fully developed. Unlike insects, which have very limited regeneration abilities, crustaceans can regenerate lost or broken appendages - as even when adults they carry on molting, and in each molt, they regenerate a bit more of the missing leg or antenna.

Water slaters tolerate a wide range of ecological conditions and are distributed across much of temperate Europe, Russia and North America. They are often abundant in polluted water and live in lakes, rivers, springs and even caves - where albino subspecies with smaller eyes have evolved. Being scavengers, they just need some detritus and fallen leaves and organic material to subsist.

In the last few days, a female has laid eggs into her brood pouch or marsupium. While she climbed over the leaves beside the tank wall, I took a photo where her yellow eggs are visible through the transparent brood pouch.

The marsupium is made of overlapping flat blades coming out of the female's anterior four pair of legs, and allows the mother to hold the brood under her body. This structure is a common feature of all Isopods - which include also terrestrial woodlice. The female not only carries the eggs but also the developing larvae. The larvae will emerge as miniature versions of the adults (see the figure below).

Fig. I. Marsupial stages of Asellus aquaticus. Top plate: A, stage A showing two membranes (arrows). B, stage B showing one membrane (arrow) and cleft yolk mass. C, stage B shedding membrane to reveal lateral outgrowth (arrow). D. stage C with its comma shape surrounded by a membrane (arrow). Bottom plate: A, stage C shedding membrane (arrow) to reveal stage D with free appendages. B, stage D with lateral outgrowth (arrow) and appendages covered i n a closely-fitting membrane. C, stage E showing setose body and appendages (arrows). It is at this stage that the juvenile leaves the marsupium to become free-living (from Holdich & Tolba 1981)

Occasionally females expel some larvae from the pouch - possibly due to physical limitations of how many she can carry as they grow - and larvae can also develop normally outside the marsupium from developmental stage B. Probably they need the ventilation and extra oxygen produced by the mother in the initial stage. Carrying the eggs and larvae is also bound to offer them some protection from predators, so it probably evolved as a form of maternal care.

Although water slaters normally stop reproducing during the coldest months of the year, my indoor pond is warmer than outside, and this might have triggered the start of reproduction; a situation that also occurs in wild populations downstream thermal power stations where water is warm all year round. 

More information

Vitagliano, G., Fano, E., Marchetti, E., Colangelo, M., & Vitagliano, E. (1991). Importance of longevity, growth, and diapause in the evolution of Asellus aquaticus Bolletino di zoologia, 58 (2), 113-117 DOI: 10.1080/11250009109355740

Holdich, D., & Tolba, M. (1981). The effect of temperature and water quality on the in vitro development and survival of Asellus aquaticus (Crustacea: Isopoda) eggs Hydrobiologia, 78 (3), 227-236 DOI: 10.1007/BF00008519


Neil said...

Interesting stuff. I was reading about water slaters and the plates that form the pouch just yesterday

Blackbird said...

Thank you Neil! They are truly fascinating.

SnailMan said...

Hi I have been looking for these critters everywhere. Is there any way I can pay you to ship me some in Los Angeles, California? I have been wanting to breed these in an outside aquarium that I have.