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sunset aboard the EPA's Lake Guardian

Research at the Great Lakes Center focuses on the ecology and ecosystems of the Great Lakes and their tributaries. GLC research scientists, affiliates at Buffalo State, and collaborators from other institutions bring diverse areas of expertise to the Great Lakes. Such expertise enables scientists to provide policymakers with information, which in turn promotes more informed decisions about ways to protect water quality, support the survival of native species, manage nuisance invasive species, monitor carcinogens in the food web, and many more. Research also contributes to scientific understanding of the complex interactions that occur in aquatic ecosystems around the world.

Much of the research done by GLC scientists is carried out from the Field Station and focuses on aquatic ecology and ecosystems. This includes large multi-agency studies of Lake Erie as well as graduate and undergraduate research projects.

Some of our research focuses on conservation of threatened freshwater species. Sasha Karatayev and Lyubov Burlakova are working on projects aimed at identifying threatened populations of native freshwater mussels in Texas and the Great Lakes and locating possible refuges. We are also working on a project aimed at understanding the habitat use and feeding ecology of the lake sturgeon in the Lower Niagara River.

The Great Lakes Center conducts research to study the effects of species that have already invaded the Great Lakes and their tributaries, as well as to identify species which have the potential to invade. Species of interest include zebra and quagga mussels and their parasites, round gobies, alewives, and Hemimysis anomala.

The Great Lakes Center has several monitoring efforts ranging from a continuously monitoring buoy, to a biweekly lower trophic level sample in Lake Erie, to an intensive benthic sampling trip that spans all five Great Lakes.

Monitoring of benthic invertebrates in the Great Lakes


Susie and Annie (Cornell) wash the mud out of a sample on the back deck of the Lake GuardianThe EPA Monitoring Program is designed to provide managers access to biological data on zooplankton and benthos to support decision-making.

In collaboration with Cornell University, this project will collect benthos (Buffalo State), zooplankton, and chlorophyll data (Cornell University) across the five Great Lakes from 2013 to 2017, analyze this data and make it available to environmental and fisheries managers.

Additional research projects include evaluation of early detection system for invasives, and evaluation of biotic indices of ecosystem health. The project will be conducted in association with the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative years in each of the Great Lakes.

We have already identified benthic samples collected in 2012 and 2013, and in August 2014 collected over 200 benthic samples from all Great Lakes onboard of EPA R/V Lake Guardian. Based on these data we already made six presentations at various meetings and conferences, including the 58th Annual Conference of the International Association for Great Lakes Research in Burlington Vermont (May 2015), and American Society of Limnology and Oceanography Aquatic Sciences Meeting in Spain (February 2015).

Also, check out this video of a nighttime ponar grab, taken during August 2013 while our researchers were aboard the R/V Lake Guardian. (Video credit: US EPA.)

Changes in Lake Erie benthos over the last 50 years: historical perspectives, current status, and main drivers


GLC staff and students pose with the staff of the Lake Guardian in front of the 180 foot research vessel

During the last 50 years the ecosystem of Lake Erie has experienced major environmental changes, from anthropogenic eutrophication in 1930-1960s, to nutrient and pollution abatement in the 1970s, and then the introduction of exotic dreissenids in the 1980s. Currently the lake-wide benthic community is dominated by dreissenids. The number of exotic species found in benthic surveys increased every decade, from one in 1963 to ten in 2009-2012, and the majority of the invaders were molluscs. Whereas the role of benthic invaders in community diversity is still low, their impact has had enormous consequences for the whole ecosystem.

In the summer of 2014 within a project “Lake Erie & Lake Michigan Benthos: Cooperative Science & Monitoring Initiative,” we conducted a lake-wide survey of benthic community using traditional (Ponar grabs, SCUBA) and modern (underwater video) methods and are currently working on species identification. In 2015, we replicated the study in Lake Michigan.

Long-term changes in Dreissena spp. populations in Lake Erie.


Lake Erie has the longest history of colonization by both Dreissena polymorpha and D. rostriformis bugensis in North America, and is therefore optimal for the study of long-term dynamics of dreissenid species. Distribution of dreissenid species in Lake Erie varied depending on the time since the initial invasion, depth, and lake basin. During 2014, quagga mussels were found at various depths and in all basins, while zebra mussels were common in the western basin only, and were limited in the central and eastern basins to a very few spots in shallow depths, resulting in almost complete replacement of D. polymorpha with D. r. bugensis. In the shallowest western basin of Lake Erie, zebra mussels distributed as widely as quagga mussels, but represented <15% of the combined dreissenids density and wet biomass. In addition, to further elucidate the relationship between hypoxia and dreissenid abundance, an exploratory dreissenid abundance/habitat mapping approach was conducted with both underwater cameras mounted on a Ponar grab and on a benthic sled towed by U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office R/V Lake Guardian. Preliminary video footage analysis verified by Ponar grab samples revealed that Dreissena spp. avoid the central basin hypoxic zone and that monitoring dreissenid distribution and size structure can be an effective tool in mapping of the extent and frequency of hypoxia in a large waterbody.

Round goby impacts on tributary stream leaf litter decomposition


Steve Tentiger wading in Ellicott Creek to check traps

The round goby has been implicated in the alteration of both macroinvertebrate and fish communities in tributary streams to the Great Lakes. This project assessed whether this invasive invertivorous, benthic fish impacted crayfish foraging, leading to a change in leaf litter decomposition. We used a field mesocosm manipulation to assess whether round gobies or crayfish had different impacts on the benthic macroinvertebrate community and then, indirectly, on leaf mass loss. Graduate student Stephen Tentinger is quantifying the results for his Master’s thesis in Biology.


Steve Tentiger checking traps in Ellicott Creek.

Stream restoration effects on fish and macroinvertebrate communities


This project compared fish and macroinvertebrate communities in Elton Creek before and after an in-stream and riparian zone restoration project. The original restoration work was intended to improve trout habitat along a 1 km reach. We sampled fish and invertebrates several months prior to the project onset, and six and 12 months post-project. Sculpins did not respond to the restoration, but trout numbers in the restoration section improved slightly. Macroinvertebrate community response is still being assessed.

Investigating Lake Sturgeon habitat use, feeding ecology and benthic resource availability in the Lower Niagara River


A young lake sturgeon is held above a live wellGreat Lakes Center researchers have been awarded a grant for $835,829 by the Niagara Greenway Ecological Fund to investigate lake sturgeon habitat use, feeding ecology and benthic resource availability in the Lower Niagara River for 2014-2017 (principal investigators Alexander Karatayev, Lyubov Burlakova from Buffalo State, and Dimitry Gorsky from USFWS).

The lower Niagara River provides habitat to one of the few remnant populations of lake sturgeon in the lower Great Lakes. Evidence shows that this population may be in recovery (Buffalo News), but information about diet and habitat use in this unique system is lacking. We will study the diversity, distribution and density of benthic forage resources and the biology and ecology of lake sturgeon in the lower Niagara River. Using bathymetric and habitat data on the lower Niagara River we will develop benthic habitat maps, and use these maps to identify and prioritize habitats of importance as feeding grounds for lake sturgeon and other valuable fish species. The data on species composition, density and biomass of macrozoobenthos will also be used to employ existing and develop new benthic community biological indices for assessment of pollution and habitat alteration. We will determine lake sturgeon habitat use, movement patterns, and diet in the lower Niagara River and relate it to our benthic habitat analysis to determine substrate and habitat preferences and to predict a carrying capacity for lake sturgeon in the lower Niagara River. Our study will produce an assessment of food availability and habitat preferences of lake sturgeon in relation to restoration of the local population. This information will help researchers and managers develop measures to protect and enhance habitat to advance lake sturgeon recovery in the lower Niagara River.

Two new GLC researchers have just started working on this project: Research Scientist Dr. Knut Mehler, and Erik Bruestle, MA graduate student in Great Lakes Ecosystem Science master’s program. Knut will collect and analyze benthic samples, and will develop benthic habitat maps for the Lower Niagara River. Eric will study the habitat use and diet of lake sturgeon. Gut content analysis, benthic habitat maps and habitat use will be combined in order to identify habitats of importance for this population of lake sturgeon.

Conservation of native freshwater mussel refuges in Great Lakes coastal zones


Since the introduction of dreissenid mussels into the Laurentian Great Lakes in the late 1980s, the diverse native mussel communities of the region have declined sharply. However, there have been several locales identified as refuges in coastal and nearshore areas. During the last three years within this large collaborative project funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service we surveyed over a total of 198 sites at 88 locations in bays, coastal wetlands, and drowned river mouths in the lower Great Lakes region and collected 4,329 individual unionids of 26 species. This information will help managers develop conservation strategies to sustain existing populations in these refuges. This expansive project also trained multiple undergraduate and graduate students, creating a cadre of future scientists and managers who will work to protect this imperiled resource, including graduate student Isabel Hannes (University at Buffalo) studying the phylogenetic relationship between Lampsilis radiata and L. siliquoidea, the levels of intermixing, and gene flow at different spatial scales. While species assemblages in the lakes have shown major shifts, these findings are especially encouraging given that surveys shortly after the dreissenid invasion pointed toward total extirpation of the unionid fauna. The number and weight of dreissenids attached to unionid shells was found to be tenfold fewer than in the early stages of invasion, indicating that the adverse impact of dreissenids on unionids has declined. We also found that the rate of infestation depends on the dominant Dreissena species in the lake: zebra mussels infested unionids much more often and in greater numbers. Consequently, the proportion of infested unionids, as well as the number and weight of attached dreissenids were lower in waterbodies dominated by quagga mussels. This was the first large-scale systematic study that revealed how minor differences between two taxonomically and functionally related invaders may have large consequences for native communities they invade (Burlakova et al. 2014 Results of the study were published in seven papers and presented at multiple meetings in the US and abroad. For more information please check the project webpage (

Long-term changes in the distribution range and population size of endangered Rio Grande endemic mollusc Popenaias popeii


A group of researchers snorkeling in the Rio Grande river to find Texas Hornshell mussels.

The Texas Hornshell (Popenaias popeii) is listed as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Texas and New Mexico, as Endangered in both states, and is a candidate for listing in both states under the federal Endangered Species Act. Using an opportunity provided by U.S. FWS for bilateral species conservation effort in New Mexico and Texas, we studied the current distribution and population densities of the unionid Popenaias popeii endemic to the Rio Grande in Texas, and developed a method to reconstruct the historical range and population size of species to evaluate changes in the population’s size and distribution range over the last 100 years. Sampling over 250 sites in four rivers, constituting the entire historical range of P. popeii, we found that the species has been extirpated from two rivers, a 76% decrease in the combined total length of the rivers populated by the mussel, and an 85% overall decline in the population size of P. popeii. The results of this project are published in one paper and presented at national and international scientific meetings.

Invasion Risk Assessment for Ponto-Caspian Fishes to the Great Lakes


Wendy Paterson sampling for novel invasive species in Oswego Harbor.

A majority of invasive species discovered in the Great Lakes since 1994 are native to the Ponto-Caspian region, including species that have had strong negative impacts in the Great Lakes (for example, dreissenid mussels and the round goby). The rich biota of the Ponto-Caspian region coupled with a high volume of commercial shipping traffic strongly suggests that this region will continue to be a major source of invasive species to the Great Lakes. To assess invasion risk in Ponto-Caspian fishes that had not been included in previous studies, we reviewed English-language publications and untranslated European literature (published primarily in Russian), and used discriminant analysis to identify five additional fish species that have a high probability of becoming established, spreading, and having significant negative impacts in the Great Lakes. In a continuation of the study, within the project “Enhanced Early Detection of Invasive Ponto-Caspian Fishes in the Great Lakes” we use a variety of sources of information (primarily European literature available in English and Russian) to more accurately assess fine-scale geographic distributions and “propagule pressure” in European shipping ports associated with high-risk Ponto-Caspian fishes to identify spatial and seasonal “hot spots” in and around Great Lakes ports that should be the focus of future surveillance and early detection efforts. This project will provide surveillance and early response teams with more accurate information for their monitoring and control activities.

Emerald Shiners of the Upper Niagara River


Great Lakes Center researchers have been awarded a grant for $766,488 by the Niagara Greenway Ecological Fund to study emerald shiner ecology in the upper Niagara River for the next three years. Dr. Alicia Pérez-Fuentetaja, Mark Clapsadl, and Dr. Randal Snyder are PIs on this project, although other GLC staff will be involved. Emerald shiners (Notropis atherinoides) are small fish that constitute the base of the food web that supports many sport fish and fishing birds in the river. They are particularly important in the diet of the common tern, a threatened species in this area, and contribute significantly to their chick-rearing success.

Despite their abundance and importance in the food web, we know very little about the movements of the emerald shiners in and out of the river into Lake Erie. However, observational accounts report that while the adults move into the river in the spawning season, juveniles and larvae swim upstream back into Lake Erie. Unfortunately, the river shoreline has suffered multiple transformations; riprap and bulkheads dominate most of the areas that in a natural river would have slower currents. The concern is that the emerald shiners, and especially their juveniles, may have a difficult time completing their annual migration cycles. A collapse in this species would have negative repercussions to their predators, sport fish and birds that depend on this resource. The impact would be felt by the public as well: sport fishermen and bird-watchers, naturelovers and river users.

To address the complexity of this project, we are collaborating with scientists from the NYS DEC, US Army Corps of Engineers, and Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. The grant will also support three graduate students and three or four undergraduate technicians. This summer, GLC staff did some preliminary work on the Niagara River to scout out potential sampling and launch sites. This project will be one of the first projects on the Niagara River for the GLC in many years. “I’m really very excited to finally have this opportunity to work on the Niagara River,” said Field Station manager and research associate Mark Clapsadl. “It is such an important and dynamic body of water and I feel that the work we are going to conduct will really help move us towards protecting and improving the overall health of the river.” Planning is already underway to determine the final roster of sampling sites and to develop a sampling protocol. In the spring, sampling will begin to track the movement of adult and juvenile emerald shiners in the Upper Niagara River.

Visit the project website for new updates and links to social media.

electrofishing for emerald shiners

Grant: Emerald shiner habitat conservation and restoration study in the upper Niagara River: importance for sport fish, common terns and public education.

Research Team: A. Pérez-Fuentetaja (PI), M. Clapsadl (co-PI), R. Snyder (co-PI), D. Potts, K. Hastings (SUNY-Buffalo State), T. DePriest, M. Wilkinson, D. Einhouse (NYSDEC), A. Hannes (USACE), R. Kraft (Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper), S. Delavan (UB). 2014-2016.

Lower trophic level monitoring on Lake Erie


Katie Hastings collecting a temperature profile on Lake ErieSince 2008, the Great Lakes Center has monitored two sites in eastern Lake Erie for the Lower Trophic Level Assessment, a multiagency effort begun in 1999 by the Forage Task Group of the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission. This long-term project coordinates the efforts of state and federal agencies at sampling stations throughout Lake Erie to build a database of biotic and abiotic information and describe annual trophic conditions. From May through October we collect physical limnology data, water samples, and plankton samples biweekly, and take benthic samples three times a year.

A poster from this project was presented at the 13th Annual Faculty/Staff Research and Creativity Fall Forum in Fall 2012.

Implementation of the Great Lakes Observing System


yellow GLOS buoy in Lake ErieIn summer of 2011 and 2012 we deployed an automatic buoy provided by GLOS (Great Lakes Observation System) to Buffalo State College. The buoy is maintained and run through the Great Lakes Center as a part of a regionally distributed network of 19 fixed monitoring buoys that are located throughout the five Great Lakes. The buoy is one of six new standard GLOS buoys and the only one located in the Eastern basin of Lake Erie.

The GLOS buoy is deployed in Eastern Lake Erie, 5 miles NNW of Dunkirk in 30 meters of water. The buoy is 16 feet in length, 4 feet in diameter and weighs a little over 650lbs. It collects meteorological information including solar radiation, barometric pressure, wind speed and direction, and relative humidity, as well as wave height, direction and period information. The buoy also measures water temperature from the surface to 20m in depth, and dissolved oxygen and conductivity at 20m. Data collected are logged and transmitted via a cellular link back to the Great Lakes Center. The information collected from this buoy and from the whole GLOS system can be used for climate modeling, lake current and energy budget modeling, as well as being useful for the study of nutrient dynamics and fisheries. The system is also useful for commercial and recreational navigation by providing real time information regarding wind and wave conditions.

In the summer of 2012, buoy evidence was used to help explain a fish kill.

Environmental Toxicology

At the Great Lakes Center's Environmental Toxicology Laboratory, scientists study the mechanism by which various environmental pollutants present in the Great Lakes induce adverse effects on human health and the health of other species to assess the risk associated with these chemicals. They also explore preventive measures for minimizing or eradicating various adverse health effects associated with human exposure to these contaminants.

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Great Lakes Center

Buffalo State •  1300 Elmwood Ave  •  Science and Mathematics Complex 319
Buffalo, NY 14222  •  Phone: (716) 878-4329 •  Fax: (716) 878-6644