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Week of April 18, 2011

Research

Invasive mussels bring massive ecological changes to Great Lakes

The ongoing spread of non-native mussels in the Great Lakes has caused “massive, ecosystemwide changes” throughout lakes Michigan and Huron, two of the planet’s largest freshwater lakes, according to a new U-M-led study.

 

The blitzkrieg advance of two closely related species of mussels — the zebra and quagga — is stripping the lakes of their life-supporting algae, resulting in a remarkable ecological transformation and threatening the multibillion-dollar U.S. commercial and recreational Great Lakes fisheries.

Previous studies have linked the mussels to far-reaching changes in Lake Michigan’s southern basin. Now a paper by two U-M ecologists and a colleague shows that the same dramatic changes are occurring in northern Lake Michigan and throughout Lake Huron, as well.

“These are astounding changes, a tremendous shifting of the very base of the food web in those lakes into a state that has not been seen in the recorded history of the lakes,” says Mary Anne Evans, lead author of a paper published in the April 15 edition of the journal Environmental Science & Technology. “We’re talking about massive, ecosystemwide changes.”

Evans is a research fellow at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. The other authors are Donald Scavia, director of the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, and Gary Fahnenstiel, senior ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Because the changes are so profound and are happening so rapidly, the authors recommend that Great Lakes management agencies review and perhaps revise their policies so they can respond more quickly.

“New strategies for managing the lakes are urgently needed. Ecological changes that formerly occurred over decades are now happening in just a few years, so we need to adapt our management policies to this new reality,” Scavia says.

This recommendation is especially relevant in the context of the current review of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement by the International Joint Commission, Scavia says. Through the IJC, the United States and Canada jointly manage the Great Lakes.

Though the zebra mussel is better known to the public, over the past decade it has largely been overshadowed by the quagga mussel, which can thrive far from shore in deep, mud-bottomed waters. Each of the fingernail-size quagga mussels filter about a quart of water a day, and billions of them now blanket the bottoms of lakes Michigan and Huron down to depths of nearly 400 feet.

They feed on algae, including single-celled plants called diatoms that are encased in glass-like shells made of silica, which the diatoms extract from lake water. Until recently, the diatoms “bloomed” each spring in the Great Lakes, and the level of silica in upper lake waters dropped as diatoms built their protective shells, then sank to the lake bottom, taking the silica with them.

The drop in silica levels due to the spring diatom bloom, known as the seasonal drawdown, has long been used as an indicator of overall algal production in the Great Lakes.

Reviewing records of silica levels in lakes Michigan and Huron collected over the past 30 years by the Environmental Protection Agency, Evans and her colleagues found that algal production throughout the two lakes was about 80 percent lower in 2008 than it had been in the 1980s.

By filtering out the algae, the mussels are robbing other organisms of the food they need to survive. Of particular concern is the plight of Diporeia, a tiny shrimplike creature that was one of the pillars supporting the base of the Great Lakes food web.

 

STAFF SPOTLIGHT

Kim Smith, clinical nurse II, East Ann Arbor Health and Geriatric Center, on installing rain collecting systems: “The expression on people’s faces when you are giving them the gift of water … has been priceless.”

EVENTS

“Crystalloid Columns” from Life in Ceramics: Five Contemporary Korean Artists, presented through June 13 in the Taubman Health Center North Lobby, Floor 1, by Gifts of Art.

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