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Pro­fessor of Biology David Houghton studied some of the insects that live in pristine glacial bodies of water. David Houghton | Courtesy

While slogging through a glacial lake in his one-person raft, Pro­fessor of Biology David Houghton spotted a tiny waterfall.

The water fell clear, har­boring just the kinds of insects for which Houghton had been looking. One of them, he thinks, was an undis­covered species.

“An untrained eye would say, ‘That’s a stick,’ or ‘That’s a bug’ or some­thing. I’m trained enough that I can look at it and say that’s Eccli­somyia; I think that’s a new species,” Houghton said. “But I have to get it under the micro­scope to really find out for sure.”

Houghton spent his summer researching rivers in Juneau, Alaska, studying aquatic insects to compare untouched envi­ron­ments with pol­luted ones. Aquatic insects, par­tic­u­larly cad­dis­flies — of which Houghton said he may have found a new species — are good indi­cators of water quality because they’re sen­sitive to pol­lution.

Studying insects pro­vides infor­mation about the health of the aquatic envi­ronment, which helps explain how to maintain its health.

“We want to be able to assess the envi­ronment because if you can assess it, then you can fix it,” Houghton said.

The day he dis­covered the waterfall, Houghton had been pad­dling around Mendenhall Lake for an hour, looking for clean water among the glacial silt, water so thick Houghton could see no more than three inches deep.

The waterfall cleared sed­iment from a little pool, which he found teeming with insects. At least 134 species of cad­disfly live in Alaska, and Houghton may have dis­covered one more.

Most of the iden­ti­fi­cation process is mor­pho­logical, com­paring the physical description of what he found to that of pre­vious species. Another form of analysis is more quan­ti­tative: By running samples through the biology department’s gene sequencer, he can compare its DNA sequences to other species and find the per­centage of dif­ference. But he said it’s hard to tell how big of a genetic dif­ference would dis­tin­guish it as a new species.

“It’s not as clear cut as non-sci­en­tists like to think,” he said.

If he deter­mines the type of cad­disfly to be a new species, he gets to name it. He’s thinking Eccli­somyia menden­halli, after the lake in which it was dis­covered and the Mendenhall Glacier that feeds it.

At Hillsdale, Houghton applies his field expe­rience through classes he teaches at the college’s G.H. Gordon Bio­logical Station in Luther, Michigan, where he intro­duces stu­dents to sci­en­tific study extending beyond the classroom.

“I’ve taken ecology with him up at the bio­station, and that was a great oppor­tunity because we got to spend a lot of time outside of the classroom, on the lake and in the woods doing reptile research,” senior Jon Coote said. “It was just really fun to apply classroom biology to field biology.”

For the past 10 years, Houghton has studied aquatic insects from pristine, unpol­luted habitats in Michigan, Min­nesota, and Wis­consin. During research in Min­nesota, Houghton built a pre­dictive model that cor­re­lated the number of species of cad­dis­flies with levels of habitat dis­tur­bance.

He’s been almost every­where in each of those three states, he said, so before his trip to Alaska he was “kind of running out of unique, cool places to study.”

He spent his sab­batical there last year, and he returned this summer to con­tinue his work.

“After one summer I felt that I still had more to do,” Houghton said.

In June he arrived at Juneau, a city of decent size that is also close to the wilderness. Some days he would grab his blue packraft — a 20-pound inflatable boat that can fold into a backpack — and find a trail, paddle through a river, find another trail, and con­tinue to wander until he found some­thing new.

“To me the cool part is: I’m in the capital city of Alaska in a lake viewed by hun­dreds of thou­sands of tourists a year, but I paddle for an hour and I found this oasis habitat that I don’t know if anyone’s ever looked at before, finding new species of critter,” Houghton said. “For someone like me who thinks he was born five gen­er­a­tions too late, it’s nice that there’s some of these places still left in the world.”