New hi-tech tool helps identify what’s in your stream


Identifying creepy crawlies in your local stream just got a whole lot easier and faster, thanks to a new 3D identification system developed by a NIWA researcher.

The NIWA Stream Health Monitoring and Assessment Kit, known as SHMAK, is a tool that enables community groups, schools, iwi and anyone interested to monitor the condition of their local stream or river.

It has been used to assess the effects of upstream activities and to guide and monitor restoration projects.

Check out NIWA’s 3D SHMAK tool

The new SHMAK invertebrate identification guide was developed by freshwater technician Aslan Wright-Stow and is being used by a range of groups around the country.

Demand for the kit has steadily increased in the past 18 months, a reflection, Mr Wright-Stow says, of increasing interest in freshwater quality generally and awareness of the importance of keeping an eye on local ecosystems and pressures affecting them.  

Stream Health Monitoring - how it works

SHMAK works by groups selecting a 10m-long monitoring site and recording a set of water quality and biological measurements and observations at regular intervals through time, or upstream and downstream of a point of interest to determine change.  

A scoring system is applied to the information collected and then the totals can be plotted on a graph to show how healthy the stream is and how it is changing over time. However, Mr Wright-Stow said what people often found the most difficult aspect to grasp was correctly identifying the aquatic insects from their monitoring site.

“It occurred to me that we could develop a tool to make it easier for people. Identifying invertebrates (insects, shrimps, snails etc) correctly is a key component of the monitoring kit. We know about what these little guys can tolerate, so with accurate identification, can use them as indicators of overall stream condition.”

Adding an identification tool 

That’s why SHMAK now includes a multi-media tool to aid identification of freshwater invertebrates. It’s a three-part assessment process. A “road map” guides users through a series of yes/no questions based on features such as whether the invertebrate has legs, how it moves, and what it looks like.

The user is then able to view a real, resin embedded specimen in 3D that provides a true sense of scale and actual size. Live video analysis of characteristic movements also provides another dimension to help identify specimens correctly.

Mr Wright-Stow said the on-line 3D fly-through adds a fun element that will appeal to citizen scientists and school pupils as well as providing significantly more information and photographs than the hard-copy guides. “What we’re really trying to do is to help people work out what is living in their stream, what that means for stream health and how that changes if a stream is degraded or restored.”

Purpose of the tool

While largely aimed at increasing communities’ abilities to assess the condition of their stream, Mr Wright-Stow said the next phase of SHMAK may include a central database system for people to record monitoring information, therefore contributing to a better snapshot of stream health across the country and how it is changing.

“There is quite a buzz around citizen science at the moment. We hope to build on that and create more awareness about the importance and responses of invertebrates to environmental pressures in your streams,” Mr Wright-Stow said.


The SHMAK Freshwater Invertebrate Identification Guide.