Daphnia pulex

Geographic Range

Daphnia pulex is the most common species of the water flea, an organism which can be found in almost every permanent, eutrophic (nutrient-rich) water body. A few species are marine, but generally Daphnia, including Daphnia pulex, are freshwater organisms.


Daphnia can be found in almost any permanent body of water, even in rain-filled tire ruts or several meters from the ground, growing in tree moss in a rainforest. They are mainly freshwater and the highest concentrations of Daphnia populations are found in the vegetation in most lakes and ponds. They are often the most abundant organism in a body of water. They live as plankton in the open water of lakes, or live either attached to vegetation or near the bottom of the body of water.

While very prolific in most freshwater bodies, Daphnia are too small and weak to live in a strong current, which they are unable to swim against. They live in a water column and are light enough to stay suspended by using their legs and antennae for movement. They live mainly in the upper portion of this water column near the algae-rich surface of the water, but they will often move up or down the column depending on seasons or predators in a process called diel vertical migration. They are often forced to expend a large amount of energy moving towards a lower depth during the day in order to avoid predators and coming towards the surface to eat at night. Their location is also controlled by seasonal variation in their phytoplankton food supply.

Physical Description

Daphnia pulex is the most common species of the group of organisms known as water fleas. Their common name was given because of their general appearance and jerky swimming motions which resembles that of the land flea. They are, in reality, a type of small crustacean and are generally 0.2-3.0 mm long. Their bodies are not distinctly segmented, but an important feature of their anatomy is the carapace, a folded shell-like structure which covers the animal and opens both ventrally and posteriorly. Studying the anatomy of this organism is made easier by the fact that most of its outer covering is clear, showing most of the internal organs at work, including the heart. The head of the organism contains both a darkly colored compound eye and numerous antennae used for feeling and swimming. Many Daphnia, including D. pulex and D. magna have a specialized light-sensing organ similiar to a tiny eye called an ocellus. Located posteriorly at the junction of the head are small, hard to see mouthparts. They mainly consist of the mandibles which are in constant motion and used by the organism to crush and grind its food. In a live specimen food particles can be seen passing through the intestine which terminates at the anus located on the postabdomen. The postabdomen is the most posterior part of the body and terminates itself in two hooklike cuticular claws used by the organism to clear debris out of the carapace. The fine teeth located on these claws are often used for species identification. The central portion of the body is the thorax and contains four to six pairs of flattened legs covered in setae. Daphnia males are generally smaller than females but have longer antennules and a modified postabdomen. Daphnia females posses a brood chamber located between the body wall and dorsal surface of the carapace used to carry their eggs.


Daphnia pulex reproduces both sexually and asexually in a process called parthenogenesis, where male gametes are unnecessary. Parthenogenesis occurs mainly in the summer, so that during summer an entire population of Daphnia pulex will consist almost completely of females. This process begins in the female, which then molt the carapace to increase their size and develope anywhere from two to twenty eggs in their brood chamber. Even without fertilization from a male, these eggs will develope into immature females which are released after the next molting stage. The young that are produced in this way are more precocial or well-developed than in the process of producing altricial fertilized eggs. This stage of reproduction is most used for a rapid increase in Daphnia growth but requires more favorable conditions.

The sexual stage of Daphnia reproduction occurs mainly in the winter during less favorable conditions caused by overcrowding, accumulation of wastes, lower food availability, and lower temperatures. First, some of the eggs that were produced by parthenogenesis hatch into males instead of females. These males then copulate with the females to form fertilized eggs which are then kept in the female's brood chamber. After the female's next molt she releases these eggs which have the ability to overwinter. They can resist freezing and drying while encased in a purselike ephippium that protects the egg as it rests in the sediment at the bottom of the water body until spring. These eggs remain in this stage of arrested developement, lasting up to twenty years, until the conditions become more favorable for hatching.

Daphnia usually live about ten to thirty days and can live up to one hundred days if their environment is free of predators. An individual will generally have ten to twenty instars, or periods of growth, during their lifetime.


Despite the fact that Daphnia is a small crustacean, it has received the common name of the water flea because of its close resemblance to that of the terrestial flea. This similarity stems both from their general body structure, which is flattened like that of a flea, and their way of moving through the water by their antennae in a jerky, hopping motion. Many types, however, spend the majority of their time creeping along the bottom of a pond or lake, looking for food particles in the mud.

Like all crustaceans, Daphnia's shell, or carapace, cannot grow so they are forced to molt as the animal grows larger. The carapace is used for protection and so a new shell is usually grown under the old in order for the organism to be shielded at all times. The old carapace is discarded and the animal rapidly absorbs water into the new shell, producing a stage of very rapid growth called an instar. This is especially prominent in juveniles, which can double their size from one instar to the next. The absorbed water is later gradually replaced by tissue.

Daphnia are also able to avoid predators in a process called cyclomorphosis in which they change their size and shape in order to be a less suitable foodsource. Their size is often predator specific as they become larger or smaller to avoid consumption by the many types of fish which use Daphnia as their primary food. A decrease in size is most common when levels of adult fish population are high, making the Daphnia harder for the larger organisms to see; an increase in size is most common when the levels of juvenile fish are high, making the Daphnia more difficult for these smaller fish to eat. However, this speciality does come at a reproductive cost to the Daphnia.

Food Habits

Daphnia are oftened used to clear fish tanks of algae "bloom" because of their diet of bacteria, fine detritus, and very small algae particles. They are filter feeders meaning they do not usually actively seek food; they merely create a constant movement of water using their thoraic legs through their carapace where they are able to filter out any food particles with the setae and direct these towards the mouth. If a mass of food becomes entangled in the mandibles it is cleared by the spines located on the first legs and then kicked out of the carapace by the postabdomen. Not all algae is eaten by Daphnia, such as blue-green algae which has too tough of an outer cell wall and filamentous green algae which can be detrimental to the organism's health. While most species of Daphnia, including D. pulex, are herbivorous or detritivorous (feeding on phytoplankton), a few are carnivorous and prey on other water fleas.

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Although Daphnia are not used by humans as a food source directly, they are involved in many of the foodchains necessary to sustain fish that we consume or use commercially such as sticklebacks, minnows and young Sockeye salmon. They also are a primary food supply for those animals that trout and many other popular fish depend on. Also, almost any freshwater ecosystem is dependent on Daphnia's ability to convert phytoplankton and decaying matter into a more usable form.

Daphnia are also very frequently used by scientists for experimentation. They are small, cheap, and very easy to keep alive in a laboratory environment. Their almost transparent shell makes their internal functions easier to study and they are very susceptible to changes in temperature, food supplies, or dissolved oxygen content in their environment. Aquarium owners often use Daphnia both as a food source for their fish and to clear the water of debris.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

In general, Daphnia are beneficial to an aquatic environment, but they will occasionally limit the population size of other organisms as they compete for food and oxygen. Although they are often used in fish tanks to clear the water of algal bloom, fish are not able to be kept in the same tank with a high number of Daphnia because of a limit on the oxygen availability.

Conservation Status

Daphnia are extremely widespread and common throughout the world. However, they are often used as a food source for aquarium fish and although some of these are raised specifically for this purpose, many are harvested from lakes or ponds. While this practice is unlikely to erradicate all Daphnia species, it could damage some rare populations with a limited range.

  • IUCN Red List [Link]
    Not Evaluated

Other Comments

Genetic variation is often very hard to moniter in Daphnia due to their unusual reproductive method of parthenogenesis. Parthenogenic males are difficult to find at certain times, and hybrids will result in a problem as they are often unable to breed or create viable offspring. Daphnia, however, still have a very high degree of genetic variation even within a single population or species. They are able to change their size and shape in response to their environment and this ability makes it harder to classify these organisms into specific groups. Often there seems to be more variation within a species than between them.


Carrie Miller (author), Southwestern University, Stephanie Fabritius (editor), Southwestern University.



Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

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living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

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living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

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living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

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living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

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reproduction that is not sexual; that is, reproduction that does not include recombining the genotypes of two parents


Referring to an animal that lives on or near the bottom of a body of water. Also an aquatic biome consisting of the ocean bottom below the pelagic and coastal zones. Bottom habitats in the very deepest oceans (below 9000 m) are sometimes referred to as the abyssal zone. see also oceanic vent.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature


union of egg and spermatozoan

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.

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reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


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