Study Finds Life Under Lake Ice Complex, Surprisingly Active

A new study asked for data on life under ice from around the world and found that there’s more going ont han we thought. Several CFL folks were co-authors (Emily Stanley, Noah Lottig, Corinna Gries, Jordan Read) and a lot of NTL-LTER data was used.

By Eric Sorensen, science writer, Washington State University

PULLMAN, Wash. – As long as ecologists have studied temperate lakes, the winter has been their off-season. It’s difficult, even dangerous, to look under the ice, and they figured plants, animals and algae weren’t doing much in the dark and cold anyway.

NTL-Long Term Ecological Research technicians, Ted Bier and Kirsten Rhude, conduct winter monitoring on a frozen Lake Waubesa south of Madison, WI. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

NTL-Long Term Ecological Research technicians, Ted Bier and Kirsten Rhude, conduct winter monitoring on a frozen Lake Waubesa south of Madison, WI. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

But an international team of 62 scientists looking at more than 100 lakes has concluded that life under the ice is vibrant, complex and surprisingly active. Their findings stand to complicate the understanding of freshwater systems just as climate change is warming lakes around the planet.

“As ice seasons are getting shorter around the world, we are losing ice without a deep understanding of what we are losing,” said Stephanie Hampton, a Washington State University professor and lead author of a study published in the journal Ecology Letters. “Food for fish, the chemical processes that affect their oxygen and greenhouse gas emissions will shift as ice recedes.”

“A lake doesn’t go to sleep when it’s covered with a blanket of ice and snow,” said Liz Blood, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. “While winter’s lower temperatures and light levels may force lake life into a slower mode, algae and zooplankton are still abundant.

“What will happen if lake ice cover decreases in warming temperatures?” she said. “These results are a significant step in understanding what may be far-reaching changes for lake ecosystems.”

Continue reading

When Will Our Lakes Freeze? Time for Annual CFL “Ice On” Challenge

Statue of Liberty replica on frozen Lake Mendota © UW-Madison News Photo by:  Jeff Miller, 1996

Statue of Liberty replica on frozen Lake Mendota
© UW-Madison News
Photo by: Jeff Miller, 1996

The forecast calls for highs in the 50s (Fahrenheit) tomorrow and the ten-day outlook shows a whole bunch of temps above freezing, which means it’s the time of year when we try to do the impossible at the CFL – predict when Lake Mendota will freeze. The CFL “ice-on pool” is, essentially, our limnological version of college basketball’s “March Madness.” Last year’s winner, John Rodstrom, guessed the date closest to when ice covered Lake Mendota from Picnic Point to Maple Bluff (January 11th) and celebrated by bringing in a gigantic Rice Krispie treat in the shape of our iconic lake. Needless to say, we all hope he wins again this year. While we wait, here are some thoughts on what we’ve seen from previous “ice-on” seasons.

John Rodstrom's amazing Rice Krispie treat concoction at the CFL staff meeting.

John Rodstrom’s amazing Rice Krispie treat concoction at the CFL staff meeting.

First, let’s all admit, that we humans are terrible about remembering weather. I took the dog on a walk this rather warm weekend and found the site of fishermen out on their boats jarring. “It’s so weird to see people out on the water,” I thought. Except I was wrong. it’s not all that unusual and, in fact, it’s probably something I say almost every year (for reference, here’s a 2012 blog post!).

Lake Mendota, January 2012. Still waiting on ice cover. Photo; A. Hinterthuer

Lake Mendota, January 2012. Still waiting on ice cover. Photo; A. Hinterthuer

With such currently balmy weather, no one is likely to submit a date earlier than December 20th, which is Mendota’s median “ice on” date. But it’s difficult to pin November temperatures on freeze dates for our lakes. For example (and a big thank you to the state climatology office) in 2013, Lake Mendota froze on December 16th, well before the median date and, indeed, remarkably cold temperatures in November preceded that freeze (remember the “Polar Vortex?”). While the very next year saw another cold November, a sudden spike in early December temps kept the ice away until January 2nd.

Here’s a list of recent freeze dates, linked to our blog posts about them: Continue reading

Happy Thanksgiving from the CFL!

This turkey day, we’re all about the “power of positive thinking” recommendation in our last post. So here’s a meditation on aquatic gratitude via LTEArts. Happy Thanksgiving!


Let us bless the humility of water,
Always willing to take the shape
Of whatever otherness holds it. – John O’Donahue

That this water has emerged from this ground
to bring forth these lives –
the bluegill, the loon
the mussel, the lily
the otter, the dragonfly –
is a grace I surely don’t deserve
but which I am doing all I know
to embrace.

The water moves in pilgrimage
always kneeling on lower ground
sinuous in its grace
every wave another lapped meaning
on its shores
coming again
in case we forget
where we began
what we are made of
where we are going.

– John Bates

Little RIpple, by Ann Singsaas

Little Ripple, by Ann Singsaas

This Thanksgiving Put More Science in Your Diet with Science on Tap “Shorts”

We here at the Center for Limnology want to wish all of our readers safe travels as they head toward the tables of friends and family this week. But we also want to make sure you’ve got a balanced diet. While you’re stuffing yourself with stuffing, don’t forget to feed your brain! Thankfully (see what we did there?) we’ve got a great line up of short science videos that should do the trick.

UW-Madison microbiologist, Trina McMahon, shares stories of "Miccrobes Around Us" at Science on Tap-MInocqua. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

UW-Madison microbiologist, Trina McMahon, shares stories of “Microbes Around Us” at Science on Tap – Minocqua. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

Science on Tap-Minocqua, our wildly popular science cafe series held on the first Wednesday of each month at the Minocqua Brewing Company, has full length videos of most of the conversations we’ve held with UW-Madison researchers and their often standing-room-only audiences. But if watching an hour and a half long video is biting off more than you can chew, we’re happy to offer “Science on Tap Shorts,” videos that run under ten minutes and give you the best morsels of information and Q & A. We’ll embed some of our favorites in this post, but for the full line up, check out the Science on Tap-Minocqua YouTube channel.

Below are some three highlights of three years (now in our fourth!) of bringing University of Wisconsin science out of the lab and to the brew pub, er, well, the public. Enjoy!

Science, Politics & The Great Divide

Got some family members you’re, well, not looking forward to sharing ideas with this holiday? Let Dominique Brossard walk you through the science of communicating politically charged research. It probably won’t help make Thanksgiving dinner conversation any easier, but at least you’ll understand a bit more about where everyone’s coming from!


The Wonderful World of Wisconsin Fishes

Ready for a cornucopia of aquatic finned friends? John Lyons, the Wisconsin DNR’s incomparable fish biologist, talks about some of the more remarkable fish in our waters.


Thriving at Any Age: Guidelines for Living a Healthy & Happy Life

Now that’s what I call topically appropriate! Watch Wisconsin’s “Positive Psychologist,” Dr. Robert McGrath, share the power of gratitude. What could be better as you sit and let everything digest post-Thanksgiving meal? Football? Not this year, Packer fans.


“Fishes of Wisconsin” Redux: Rainbow Smelt

Sorry to dig up old bog posts twice in a row, but this little fish popped up on our “Fishes of Wisconsin” Challenge and, well, here we are again – at the end of a long work week and looking forward to all things fried on Wisconsin menus. That’s right, it’s the day of our great state’s world-famous fish fries and that means it’s “Fish Fry Day” here on the blog.

Today’s special – rainbow smelt.

Rainbow smelt. Photo: Marilyn Larsen

Rainbow smelt. Photo: Marilyn Larsen

Alas, not all of the species on the “Fishes of Wisconsin” can be, how shall we put it, “uncomplicated.” This tasty invasive species has a long history in the state. So, how did these small, but voracious, fish get to Wisconsin? Well, like many invasive species, they started in the Great Lakes. In fact, according to the Minnesota Sea Grant, “it is generally accepted that the Great Lakes population of rainbow smelt resulted from their being stocked into Crystal Lake, Michigan, in 1912.” Why would people throw smelt into a lake, you may ask? Continue reading

Blog Redux: Fish Ears, “Tree” Rings and a Sectioning Saw

We thought we’d dig through the archives to see what we were up to in previous Novembers. Enjoy this look at “Limno in the Lab” from four years ago!

Aaron Koning uses a sectioning saw to cut a slice of otolith that will be mounted on a slide and polished, enabling him to see it clearly under a microscope.

Originally posted 11/13/12 – After the spring and summer field seasons, it’s time to return to the lab to work up all the specimens collected in the field. For many grad students at the Center for Limnology, this means days, if not weeks, hunched over a circular sectioning saw and buffing wheel.

What are they doing using equipment more appropriate for a jewelry store? Cutting and polishing fish ear stones, of course.

These ear stones, or otoliths, are small disks of calcium carbonate that grow on either side of a fish’s brain. Much like the inner ear in humans, otoliths help fish hear, sense vibrations, and maintain balance and orientation. While certainly an essential little piece of anatomy for the fish, otoliths are nearly as essential to fisheries researchers. Continue reading

Training Scientists to Be Better Science Communicators

IMG_2982The sun rises over the skyline. A boat speeds across the open water. Music by The Who blasts in the background as a young scientist looks through an iridescent green test tube.

These lines don’t describe the opening credits to a hit crime drama on TV, they’re the opening paragraph of an article written by Center for Limnology (CFL) graduate student, Mike Spear, for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, about his research on using eDNA to track invasive species.

Spear’s article was the product of last fall’s Zoology 955 Limnology seminar, a course focused on science communication training co-taught by professor Jake Vander Zanden and the CFL’s outreach and communications specialist, Adam Hinterthuer (also the person currently typing the words for this blog post).

“In today’s society scientists need to be able to communicate to a non scientific audience,” says Vander Zanden. “It’s become increasingly clear that scientists can’t just be communicating our science to other scientists. It’s our obligation to bring it to the public, not only because the public often funds our research, but also because science is often what society uses to make important decisions.”

While it may have been okay to produce products only for other scientists in the past, Vander Zanden says, those days are over. There is a real need to reach broader audiences now and this class was a way of doing that at an earlier stage in their careers and getting students more comfortable at “cracking out of their traditional mode and connecting with other groups of people,” he says.

Throughout fall semester, graduate students from limnology, zoology and entomology worked on translating their research to a broader audience.The class worked on honing messages, eliminating jargon and fielding interviews. Panelists were brought in – from professional science writers and radio hosts, to non-profit lobbyists and a state senator – to talk about how and why science enters the mainstream. Continue reading

Is Lake Mendota’s Newest Invasive Species Poised to Explode?

This is what an invasion looks like.

Zebra mussels encrust sections of the UW Hoofers sailing pier pulled out of the water this fall. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

Zebra mussels encrust sections of the UW Hoofers sailing pier pulled out of Lake Mendota in early November, 2016. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

Last fall, students in a UW-Madison undergraduate limnology lab found invasive zebra mussels living in Lake Mendota for the first time. Later that year, when we pulled the Hasler Lab pier out of the water for the winter, we only found two, maybe three, mussels per leg of each pier section. While the mussels were undoubtedly in the lake, no one would refer to it as an “invasion.”

Just last fall, the discovery of a single zebra mussel on our pier was noteworthy. Now their numbers have dramatically risen. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

Just last fall, the discovery of a single zebra mussel on our pier was noteworthy. Now their numbers have dramatically risen. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

Even earlier this July, Center for Limnology graduate student, Mike Spear, wasn’t seeing a boom in the mussel population. Spear is leading research on an aquatic invasive species grant from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to understand population growth and document impacts of zebra mussels in Madison’s lakes,

The prime habitat for zebra mussels is medium-sized rocks with nooks and crannies that let them escape predation and that are sitting in one meter of water, or pretty much as shallow as it can be without freezing over and, “In July [of 2016],” Spear says, “densities of adult zebra mussels in those spots were about 10 to 20 individuals per square meter, which by standards of the Great Lakes region, is extremely low – about as low as you’ll find them in systems where they’re known to exist.”

That was four months ago. Now, Spear says, his team is finding zebra mussels everywhere and congregated in much larger numbers. “We saw a very strong recruitment event in mid August,” Spear says, “which boosted densities to upwards of 200 per square meter in some places. If any decent proportion of these young mussels are left by reproduction time next year, I think we will definitely be seeing continued exponential growth of the population.” Continue reading

Fish Fry Day: The Sad Demise and Hopeful Return of the Alligator Gar

Friday’s are when fish are on the menu both at Wisconsin restaurants and your trusty blog. Today, we’re taking a break from our “Fishes of Wisconsin” challenge and mixing things up with a more “southern-fried” piece on alligator gar via the World Fishing Network’s blog.

Fishes of Wisconsin, Halloween Edition: Pirate Perch

Happy Fish Fry Day! Once again fish is on the menu here in Wisconsin and on our mind at the CFL blog. We’ve been working our way through the 13-foot-long “Fishes of Wisconsin” poster to bring you interesting morsels of information for every species of fishes found in Wisconsin. Today’s spooky story is brought to you by the fascinating pirate perch! (Not to be confused with the pirate party poised to take power in Iceland!)

Pirate perch on the "Fishes of Wisconsin" poster. Photo: Marilyn Larsen

Pirate perch on the “Fishes of Wisconsin” poster. Photo: Marilyn Larsen

Here in Wisconsin, these fish (note: they’re not actually perch)  occur mostly in the southwestern part of the state in an around the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers (although some have been some inland waterways up north). Their main range is in Gulf Coast and Southeastern U.S. states.

But let’s just skip right to the scary parts, shall we? This nocturnal, solitary and secretive fish is the only member of its entire family (aphredoderidae), it got its name because in aquariums, it tends to simply eat all of the other fishes and that’s not all – it has some frightfully (sorry, couldn’t resist) interesting features. We’ll start with a fact that is not for the squeamish and then to a more terrifying tidbit. First up: Continue reading