Daphnia are small, planktonic crustaceans, between 0.2 and 5 mm in length. Daphnia are members of the order Cladocera, and are one of the several small aquatic crustaceans commonly called water fleas because of their saltatory swimming style (although fleas are insects and thus only very distantly related). They live in various aquatic environments ranging from acidic swamps to freshwater lakes, ponds, streams and rivers.
Appearance and characteristics
The division of the body into segments is nearly invisible. The head is fused, and is generally bent down towards the body with a visible notch separating the two. In most species the rest of the body is covered by a carapace, with a ventral gap in which the five or six pairs of legs lie. The most prominent features are the compound eyes, the second antennae, and a pair of abdominal setae. In many species, the carapace is translucent or nearly so and as a result they make excellent subjects for the microscope as one can observe the beating heart.
Even under relatively low power microscopy, the feeding mechanism can be observed, with immature young moving in the brood-pouch; moreover, the eye being moved by the ciliary muscles can be seen, as well as blood corpuscles being pumped around the circulatory system by the simple heart. The heart is at the top of the back, just behind the head, and the average heart rate is approximately 180 bpm under normal conditions. Daphnia, like many animals, are prone to alcohol intoxication, and make excellent subjects for studying the effects of the depressant on the nervous system – due to the translucent exoskeleton, and the visibly altered heart rate. They are tolerant of being observed live under a cover slip and appear to suffer no harm when returned to open water. This experiment can also be done using caffeine, nicotine or adrenaline and observing an increase in heart rate.
Systematics and evolution
Daphnia is a large genus comprising about 150 species, belonging to the cladoceran family Daphniidae. It is subdivided into several subgenera (Daphnia, Hyalodaphnia, Ctenodaphnia), but the division has been controversial and is still in developmental phase. Each subgenus has been further divided into a number of species complexes. The understanding of species boundaries has been hindered by phenotypic plasticity, hybridization, intercontinental introductions and poor taxonomic descriptions.
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