Home Previous TOC Next Bookshelf


Of the whole earth's surface the freshwaters form a very small fraction, about a hundredth, but they make up for their smallness by their variety. We think of deep lake and shallow pond, of the great river and the purling brook, of lagoon and swamp, and more besides. There is a striking resemblance in the animal population of widely separated freshwater basins: and this is partly because birds carry many small creatures on their muddy feet from one water-shed to another; partly because some of the freshwater animals are descended from types which make their way from the sea and the seashore through estuaries and marshes, and only certain kinds of constitution could survive the migration; and partly because some lakes are landlocked dwindling relics of ancient seas, and similar forms again would survive the change.

A typical assemblage of freshwater animals would include many Protozoa, like Amœbæ and the Bell-Animalcules, a representative of one family of sponges (Spongillidæ), the common Hydra, many unsegmented worms (notably Planarians and Nematodes), many Annelids related to the earthworms, many crustaceans, insects, and mites, many bivalves and snails, various fishes, a newt or two, perhaps a little mud-turtle or in warm countries a huge Crocodilian, various interesting birds like the water-ouzel or dipper, and mammals like the water-vole and the water-shrew.

Freshwater animals have to face certain difficulties, the greatest of which are drought, frost, and being washed away in times of flood. There is no more interesting study in the world than an inquiry into the adaptations by which freshwater animals overcome the difficulties of the situation. We cannot give more than a few illustrations.

(1) Drought is circumvented by the capacity that many freshwater animals have of lying low and saying nothing. Thus the African mudfish may spend half the year encased in the mud, and many minute crustaceans can survive being dried up for years. (2) Escape from the danger of being frozen hard in the pool is largely due to the almost unique property of water that it expands as it approaches the freezing-point. Thus the colder water rises to the surface and forms or adds to the protecting blanket of ice. The warmer water remains unfrozen at the bottom, and the animals live on. (3) The risk of being washed away, e.g. to the sea, is lessened by all sorts of gripping, grappling, and anchoring structures, and by shortening the juvenile stages when the risks are greatest.