“Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck”
A few years back Andy Rooney did one of his TV essays on the fact that nobody picks pennies up anymore because they aren’t worth anything. Apparently there is also a movement afoot to stop producing the penny altogether. It is worth less than it costs to make. Whatever that says about me, I still pick them up, silently intoning the little poem my mother taught me. The thrill is in thinking about my mother, not in the penny.
There is another kind of penny. Not the kind that “drops”. It’s a water penny and you’re darn lucky if you find one. The larvae of a terrestrial beetle, the water penny egg is laid on the underside of a rock or similar surface. The water is fast-moving and the little egg sticks there with all its might. Developing into a flatish-round, copper-brown larvae with a segmented body and gills it literally hangs on for dear life. It spends its time in the water, scraping algal growth and diatoms off the undersides of rocks. Their look is reminiscent of a tiny penny.
Some can take up to two years to develop into an adult beetle, and even then they don’t wander far. Their turf is the riparian area near their natal stream. In every sense of the word they are clingy. It’s kind of neat that although they live as adults on the ground, their metamorphosis takes place under water.
So, why did I jump up and down and wave my arms around when I found several on rocks in our stream at Hill-Stead? I wasn’t just trying to amuse the kids in our “Summer Art & Nature Adventure” program. Water pennies, along with stoneflies, mayflies, dobson flies and mussels are bethnic indicators of water quality. They’re the Felix Unger of water bugs, telling of a high oxygen content, a fast-running aquatic environment and nice, clean water.
Tolerant bugs, but less so than the water penny, are dragonflies, damselflies, and caddisflies. They don’t care if some of their aquatic friends leave a few socks on the floor, figuratively speaking. Their water need only be “mostly” clean. And who is the Oscar Madison in the mix? Midges, mosquito larvae, pouch snails, worms and leeches are the true aquatic slobs. They’ll live in anything. Needing little oxygen or cleanliness, they are found in nutrient-rich environments, which sounds like a good thing but isn’t. “Nutrient-rich” is a way of saying not-enough-water-too-many-plants. It means that the body of water is eutrophied, or too shallow, so that light gets right to the bottom and makes a population explosion of plants which quickly eat up all the available oxygen. Few aquatic animals can make it there, save the leeches and their friends.
Our pond at Hill-Stead has this problem, due to siltation built up over years of debris washing downstream and landing in its waters. There is a desperate need for remediation to insure its ultimate survival, but the good news is that the water is clean before it empties into the pond. A few tweaks (costing a few of the financial kind of pennies) and a siltation fence would do the job. So I hollered with pleasure to find those water pennies. I hadn’t seen them in quite some time, though I always look.
My daughter learned a poem at school, “Penny, penny easily spent, copper brown and worth one cent!”
The value of clean water, of course, is beyond measure.
See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist