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.
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.
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 and genetic diversity of native freshwater mussels in Texas. We also completed 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 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, we collect benthos (Buffalo State), zooplankton, and chlorophyll data (Cornell University) across the five Great Lakes from 2012 to 2022, analyze this data, and make it available to environmental and fisheries managers.
Additional research projects include impact of dreissenids on the lower food web, and development of remote sensing methods. The project will be conducted in association with the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) years in each of the Great Lakes.
Benthic data collected in 2012-2019 have been submitted and approved by the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. These data are the basis for individual lake reports as well as reports for the State of the Great Lakes. Seventeen years of GLNPO Biology Monitoring Program benthic data were recently analyzed by Burlakova et al. (Burlakova et al., 2018) to reveal temporal and spatial trends in benthic community structure across the lakes. In 2018, we published a Special Issue containing 18 papers in the Journal of Great Lake Research (“U.S. EPA GLNPO Long-Term Monitoring of the Laurentian Great Lakes: Approaches, achievements and lessons learned,” Eds. Burlakova, L., A. Karatayev, L. Rudstam, and E. Hinchey). Together with our Cornell collaborators, we have published over 45 papers, presented over 120 talks at regional and international meetings, wrote 6 reports and organized 22 special scientific sessions on Great Lakes monitoring at national and international meetings. Some of the publications and reports of the 2014-2016 CSMI benthic surveys are available on the Publications page.
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.)
The Great Lakes Monitoring Program by Great Lakes National Program Office includes both collection of samples from 57 long-term stations sampled every year and a much more detailed survey conducted on each lake every 5 years within Coordinated Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI). We participated in these surveys in 2014 (Lake Erie), 2015 (Lake Michigan), 2016 (Lake Superior), 2017 (Lake Huron), 2018 (Lake Ontario), and 2019 (Lake Erie). The Lake Michigan survey was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. Both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior CSMI surveys are planned for July and September 2021.
Read the report on the Publications page.
In 2018, we conducted one of the largest benthic-oriented surveys in the last decade. During September 2018, we visited 52 stations lake-wide and collected 138 Ponar benthic samples and Ponar video, 52 samples for benthic algae and primary productivity (Leon Katona, Wright State University), and 17 samples for little-studied benthic copepods Harpacticoida (Joseph Connolly, Cornell University). Janet Nestlerode (U.S. EPA, NHEERL Gulf Ecology Division) applied the Sediment Profile Imaging system (SPI) at 51 stations to explore sedimentary and biogenic features and possible relationships between these measures across known stress gradients (e.g., organic enrichment, eutrophication) for development of a SPI-based Freshwater Index of Benthic Habitat Quality. Finally, for Dreissena monitoring, we collected video data from 56 500 m-long transects and from an additional 34 nearshore stations using a drop-down camera (collaboration with Molly Wick, U.S. EPA Mid-Continent Ecological Division). This extensive survey was documented by Yola Monakhov Stockton (Art and Design Department, Buffalo State) and displayed as a photo exhibition and a poster at the 2019 IAGLR meeting. Based on the results of this survey, we prepared a report and several manuscripts for a Special Issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research.
The benthos of Lake Ontario has been studied intensively in the last six decades and can provide insights into the impact of environmental changes over time. We used the long-term data and results of our intensive CSMI 2018 benthic survey to examine temporal changes in community composition over the last 54 years and to assess the major drivers of long-term changes in benthos. The paper describing this study was recently published in the Special Issue of the Journal of Great Lakes Research (Burlakova et al., 2021). We found that the benthic community of Lake Ontario underwent significant transformations that correspond with three major periods. The first period, termed the pre/early Dreissena period (1964–1990), was characterized by high densities of Diporeia, Sphaeriidae, and Tubificidae. During the next period in the 1990s, defined by zebra mussel dominance, the same groups were still prevalent, but at altered densities. In the most recent period (2000s to present), characterized by the dominance of quagga mussels, the community has changed dramatically: Diporeia almost completely disappeared, Sphaeriidae have greatly declined, and densities of quagga mussels, Oligochaeta, and Chironomidae have increased. Therefore, introduction of invasive dreissenids has changed the Lake Ontario benthic community, historically dominated by Diporeia, Oligochaeta and Sphaeriidae, to a community dominated by quagga mussels and Oligochaeta. Dreissenids, especially the quagga mussel, were the major drivers of these changes over the last half century.
Image caption: Knut Mehler and Alexander Karatayev working aboard the R/V Lake Guardian, September 2018.
Photo gallery: CSMI Lake Ontario 2018
In 2019, we collected benthic samples from 85 stations located in all three basins of Lake Erie. In addition, our collaborators collected samples to study benthic algae and primary productivity (Leon Katona, Wright State University), diversity of Harpacticoida (Joseph Connolly, Cornell University), and Sediment Profile images (Janet Nestlerode, U.S. EPA, NHEERL Gulf Ecology Division) to explore the effect of hypoxia on sedimentary and biogenic features. For Dreissena monitoring, we collected video data using a drop-down camera at 95 stations and video transects at 43 stations. Video data from the drop-down camera were used to test a new method of rapid assessment of Dreissena populations we are developing since all previous population assessment methods were based on bottom grab sampling that require several years to process. At the end of the survey, we produced a map of lake-wide Dreissena distribution in real time. Preliminary analysis revealed a strong decline in Dreissena populations in Lake Erie, especially in western basin, compared to the previous survey in 2014.
We classified benthic habitats based on analysis of the images for presence and relative abundance of benthic taxa, verified images against infauna data from Ponars, and compared results with water quality data collected at each station via the Sea-Bird profiler casts. We found four visually distinct habitat types and communities formed by different species assemblages. Benthic taxa abundant in identified habitat types differed in their tolerance to hypoxia, indicating that near-bottom oxygen availability structures Lake Erie benthoscapes.
This method for Dreissena rapid assessment will be applied for Lake Michigan in 2021 and other Great Lakes in the future as a valuable addition to conventional bottom grab monitoring.
Image caption: Research scientists aboard the R/V Lake Guardian. Paul Glyshaw (CILER), Elizabeth Hinchey Malloy (EPA), Lyuba Burlakova (GLC), and Natalia Mrozinska (GLC).
In 2017, we received U.S. EPA GLRI funding to create a DNA Barcode Reference Library for Mollusca, Annelida, and minor phyla. This project is one of three funded by the EPA Great Lake Program Office toward genetic barcoding of aquatic invertebrate species from the Great Lakes. Two additional projects target zooplankton and rotifers (PI M. Pfrender, Notre Dame University, and Cornell University), and benthic arthropods (PI D. Lodge, Cornell University). Barcode sequences for collected specimens are generated by the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, University of Guelph, Canada. The overall goal of the three collaborative projects is to advance the current state of genetic barcode library for invertebrates in the Great Lakes, which will improve our knowledge of Great Lakes diversity and help in early detection of nonnative and potentially invasive species to this important resource.
We submitted 13 plates with specimens of all the taxa. In total, 947 sequences were generated by Barcode of Life Data System (BOLD) based on 942 specimens submitted. Preliminary estimates show that approximately 44% of Annelida, 87% Mollusca, 63% of Platyhelminthes, 100% of Cnidarian, Nematomorpha and Nemertea, and 29% of Bryozoan species on the targeted list have been barcoded to date. Currently we are analyzing genetic results, verifying taxonomy, resolving taxonomic issues, and working with BOLD on creating a Barcode reference library that will include all records created during the funded projects and will also include all previously generated data for species in the Great Lakes watershed existing in BOLD. The results of the project were presented by Susan Daniel at IAGLR and other regional meetings and will be summarized in the 2021 final report.
A value-added product of this project will be a Great Lakes basin-wide species list for the taxonomic groups targeted in this project that we are preparing during the final year of the project.
Image caption: Knut Mehler and Leon Katona (Wright State University) collecting mollusks and annelids from the Genesee River in Rochester, NY, in September 2018.
Using the data and images from the EPA Long-term Biological Monitoring Program, CSMI, and DNA Barcode Reference Library project, we are creating a digital reference guide to the benthic species found in the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes Center, in collaboration with the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes Biology Monitoring Program and Office of Research and Development-Great Lakes Toxicology and Ecology Division, has developed a new method for rapid assessment of dreissenid mussel populations in lakes. The method uses a Benthic Imaging System (BIS) to estimate population size of these invaders in near-real time. The BIS consists of Go-Pro cameras and lights mounted to a steel frame that is lowered to the lakebed from a ship. The resulting bottom images are analyzed via imaging software to estimate mussel density and percent coverage. The new method substantially reduces the time required to map distributions of dreissenid mussels across large spatial scales compared to traditional sediment collection methods. This increase in spatial resolution and reporting times of monitoring is especially important considering that the quagga mussel is now the primary regulator of phosphorus cycling in the lower four Great Lakes and their tissues and shells now contain nearly as much phosphorus as the entire water columns of the impacted Great Lakes (Li et. al., 2021). The resulting research paper Rapid assessment of Dreissena population in Lake Erie using underwater videography is published online with @SpringerNature in Hydrobiologia. This method for Dreissena rapid assessment will be applied in Lake Michigan in 2021 and other Great Lakes in the future as a valuable addition to conventional bottom grab monitoring.
Over 110 lake-wide benthic surveys were conducted on the Laurentian Great Lakes since 1929. However, these studies often are not readily available, and have never been combined in one dataset to preserve historic data. According to our estimations, primary data for at least 20% of all surveys are incomplete or have already been lost. For over three years, the Great Lakes Center has been conducting inventory of benthic surveys for all Great Lakes to create a database with all the available information on species composition, distribution, density, and biomass of benthic invertebrates. Considering the rarity of long-term benthic studies in lake ecosystems, these data set could be useful to explore effects of different environmental factors and exotic species on community organization, for monitoring of water quality, biodiversity, exotic species introduction, fish food base assessment, and other ecosystem services provided by benthic community. Our first complete dataset on the Lake Ontario benthic community includes taxonomic data to the species level for 11 of the surveys and data to the group level for another two surveys covering the last 54 years, and was submitted as a data paper currently in review in Ecology.
The Western New York Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (WNY PRISM) works to address invasive species priorities using a coordinated partnership for which we provide leadership, technical assistance, and opportunities for collaboration. Our goal is to improve, restore, and protect local aquatic and terrestrial resources by improving the effectiveness of invasive species management. This partnership is supported by a NYS DEC Environmental Protection Award through December 2023.
This project is investigating the cues and pre-migratory behavior of round gobies in Lake Ontario and connecting waters. The activity budgets of fish from Lake Ontario (migratory population) and Ellicott Creek (non-migratory population) are being assessed for movement behavior, distances moved, and seasonal activity patterns to discern the influence of habitat context.
Researchers at the GLC are documenting the seasonal population density, size distribution, and nutrient content of round gobies in the nearshore of western Lake Ontario, as well as the lower Niagara River, to understand cues related to their offshore and inshore annual migration. The benthic invader departs the nearshore in later fall, moving off to deeper waters in excess of 100 m over a period of a few weeks, and returns in the spring over a longer period. The project is addressing the contribution of this offshore migration to the offshore nutrient budget by comparing the population density, size distribution, and nutrient mass in the migrating and returning goby population.
This project is a new collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which began Fall 2019. It will assess all historical records of sturgeon spawning habitat in tributaries to Lake Erie through investigations of NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and library archives. It will revisit those same locations and document any changes in land use condition or in-stream spawning habitats. Ultimately, these activities should allow an update of tributary habitat suitability values for lake sturgeon in the Lake Erie watershed.
We are investigating the possible community-level impacts of a new invasive plant in the region by comparing macroinvertebrates collected from plant stands with varying abundances of stonewort ranging from no stonewort to 100% stonewort coverage. We have selected 5 locations with infestation meeting these criteria for collections. Additionally, since plant detritus is such an important energy source for a wide range of macroinvertebrate consumers, we are investigating the use of stonewort as a food resource by measuring decomposition rates in natural settings.
Photo credit: Kylie Wirebach
News article: Newsletter #17: Starry happenings on Grand Island
This project will investigate the strength of direct and indirect interactions between benthic predators and their snail prey, and the resultant influence on detrital processing rates. Round gobies (an invasive benthic fish) and native crayfish are both snail predators, and snails are important in detritus breakdown in wetland habitats. We are using a mesocosm approach to investigate whether a reduction in snail foraging activity (due either to their avoidance of predators or being consumed) translates into slower leaf decomposition.
News article: Newsletter #17: Snails, Gobies, and Green Beans
We are collecting and analyzing samples of aquatic birds and their eggs to determine the prevalence of contaminants in the Niagara River’s wildlife, particularly those that contain halogenated compounds with a tendency to bioaccumulate. We are analyzing for flame retardants (PBDEs), PCBs and the legacy pesticide DDT, which cause impairments in fish and wildlife.
In this project, we are testing different approaches to improving the removal of pharmaceuticals and antibiotics from treated wastewater, using toxicological testing of the organisms exposed to the alternative water treatments. The testing includes LC50 and life history experiments in crustaceans (Daphnia) and behavioral and developmental responses of larval fish (fathead minnow, Pimephales promelas). The changes in biological endpoints and metabolic products (metabolomics) in these organisms will determine if additional treatment of effluents would be beneficial for wildlife.
In this project, we are looking into the effect of climate change (increased CO2 levels) and human activities in watersheds (logging, acid rain) on calcium levels in soft water. Many lakes in Canada and around the world are soft water lakes, i.e., they have low buffering capacity. One of the problems with declining calcium levels in these lakes is that aquatic organisms that need calcium for their exoskeletons or shells are not able to obtain it from the water and this deficiency may carry up the food web. We are testing, in an experimental setting, calcification in snails that are raised in a soft water medium resembling natural calcium concentrations and exposed to different levels of atmospheric CO2 and calcium.
Since the summer of 2011, we have deployed an automatic buoy provided by GLOS (Great Lakes Observation System) into Lake Erie. 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 standard GLOS buoys and the only one located in the Eastern basin of Lake Erie.
The GLOS buoy is deployed 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.
During 2019, we had over 19,000 visits to the buoy website, and in 2020, there were over 16,000 visits (reduction due to shortened deployment period as a result of COVID-19).
News article: Newsletter #17: Popular GLOS buoy receives an upgrade
Photo galleries: Great Lakes Observing System (GLOS) buoy
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