Embrace the Chaos: Predictable Ecosystems May be More Fragile

MADISON, WI — When it comes to using our natural resources, human beings want to know what we’re going to get. We expect clean water every time we turn on the tap. We want beaches free of algae and bacteria on each visit. We want robust harvests of crops, fish and fuel year after year. As a result, we try to manage the use of our resources in a way that minimizes their variability. We seek a predictable “status quo.”

But a new study says that managing our environment for predictable outcomes is risky. In fact, more often than not, it backfires.

Steve Carpenter

Steve Carpenter

“By making things predictable in the short term, we make them unpredictable in the long term,” says Steve Carpenter, director of the Center for Limnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the report. While we may be trying to keep a system in a predictable state, he says, “we actively make things worse.”

The article was published October 5th in the online “Early Edition” of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. At the heart of the problem, says Carpenter, is the fact that, while we can cut down variability on short time frames, “variability doesn’t go away, it just goes somewhere else.” And, he warns, “it has to come back.”

Take, for example, our attempts at flood control on rivers. By installing levees, engineers are able to constrain flow and curb the fluctuations in water levels that once led to routine flooding of low-lying areas. These levees worked so well, that whole communities grew up in what were once floodplains. But, of course, the levees couldn’t remove all variability from the system. Sometimes a levee breaks. Sometimes a river reaches levels higher than what the levee was built to withstand. The end result is a flood that’s much more destructive than before.

“So you do get better predictability,” says Carpenter. “For many years the river stays in the levee and everything’s fine. It’s just that, every once in a while, it goes out and everything is worse.”

Carpenter and his colleagues ran a series of simple computer models looking at three human endeavors – controlling nutrient pollution in lakes, maintaining cattle production on rangelands invaded by shrubs, and sustaining harvest in a fishery.

In all cases, when they tried to control variance – by tightly controlling fish harvest or shrubs in grasslands, for example – unexpected outcomes occurred. Fish stocks collapsed at lower harvest levels. Grasslands were replaced by shrubs with even light pressure from cattle grazing.

The results are counter-intuitive. How can reduced pressure on a resource end up being bad for business? Part of the explanation, Carpenter says, is that, “the minute humans try to manage the system, they become part of the system.” And our involvement may help explain some of these unintended outcomes.

“Living systems need a certain amount of stress,” Carpenter says, noting that, as they evolved “they continually got calibrated against variability.” Just as our immune systems rely on exposure to bacteria and viruses to sharpen their skills at responding to disease, natural systems also need that kind of stimulation.

Obviously, none of this means that we shouldn’t try to responsibly and sustainably manage our natural resources. It just means that we may need to redefine acceptable levels of variability. Carpenter says that this philosophy is the hallmark of an approach called “adaptive management.” Adaptive management allows for greater natural variability in a system and encourages a diverse set of management approaches. Of course, not all of these approaches will pan out but, by exploring what does and doesn’t work in a system, resource managers can better learn how to sustain ecosystems as they change over time.

Whether the practice becomes the standard approach to managing our resources remains to be seen. But, says Carpenter, his paper should at least help people see that there’s no alternative to living with variability. “By allowing variability, learning from it, and trying alternatives that seem sensible and safe, we can navigate change” he says. “When we make complex systems too predictable, we set the stage for collapse.”

MEDIA CONTACT: hinterthuer@wisc.edu, 608.262.3014


Will New Maps Bring Higher-Resolution to Great Lakes Restoration Efforts?

The CFL’s Pete McIntyre is involved in a new Great Lakes mapping effort that may help guide future restoration projects. Details below:

ANN ARBOR—University of Michigan researchers and their colleagues have created exceptionally detailed maps of five Great Lakes recreational activities and say the information can be used to help prioritize restoration projects.

Combinations of recreational use and cumulative stress for Great Lakes counties. Images courtesy: Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping (GLEAM) project

Combinations of recreational use and cumulative stress for Great Lakes counties. Images courtesy: Great Lakes Environmental Assessment and Mapping (GLEAM) project

They mapped places used for sport fishing, recreational boating, birding, beach use and park visits for all five Great Lakes and included sites in both the United States and Canada. The recreational sites were then compared to the research team’s previously published “threat maps,” which show the location of 34 Great Lakes environmental stressors.

Taken together, the maps showing intensity of recreational use as well as environmental stress provide federal and regional officials with an unprecedented scientific foundation upon which to sustainably manage the Great Lakes, where current restoration efforts exceed $1.5 billion, the researchers conclude.

“Restoration priorities are typically based on the evidence for environmental degradation without explicitly accounting for the benefits people receive from ecosystems, which include recreational opportunities,” said lead researcher David Allan, professor emeritus of aquatic sciences at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment. Keep reading –>

Science on Tap: Jonathan Patz to Discuss Climate Change and Global Health

MINOCQUA, WI – On Wednesday, October 7th at 6:30pm, guests at the Minocqua Brewing Company will be able to raise a pint and raise their hands to ask a Nobel Prize-winning scientist about one of the biggest issues of our time.

Jonathan Patz. Courtesy: UW-Madison, Global Health Institute

Jonathan Patz. Courtesy: UW-Madison, Global Health Institute

Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be at the brewery for the monthly “Science on Tap-Minocqua” series, a science cafe that brings UW researchers to Wisconsin’s Northwoods and lets attendees start a conversation on everything from fisheries, to loons, to Vitamin D.

Patz’s talk, titled “Human Health and a Changing Climate” will start an important discussion on how a warmer world means more than melting ice caps and rising seas.

“Climate Change poses serious harms to our health,” says Patz. “Climate change actions, however, offer enormous health benefits. I’d go so far as to say that achieving a clean energy society may be the greatest public health opportunity we’ve had in more than a century.”

Patz, who spent 15 years as the lead author for the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), will touch on these topics, as well as field questions from the audience — an interaction that makes Science on Tap-Minocqua such an important extension of the Wisconsin Idea, says Susan Knight, interim director of Trout Lake Station.

“Science on Tap brings experts out of the lecture halls of academia to a setting where they can have a conversation with the public,” Knight says. “It helps the audience think beyond what is common knowledge and expand their understanding of a complex issue.”

While climate change news is so often in the news, Patz’s talk will offer a different perspective. “We’ve had presentations on the ecological aspects of climate change, but Dr. Patz will [speak about] the costs of climate change on people’s health. He’s the global expert on this topic,” she says.

In addition to bringing a world-renowned scientist to the Northwoods to talk about one of the biggest stories of our time, next Wednesday’s talk will also be a preview of Patz’s new Massive Online Open Course, or “MOOC,” entitled “Climate Change Policy and Public Health.” The MOOC is a series of online videos, discussion forums and learning activities offered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Patz hopes it will help engage and inform policy makers, practitioners and the general public about the crucial public  health aspect of climate change.

The MOOC begins November 9th and is free and open to anyone with an Internet connection. Register here. 

Anyone unable to make it to Minocqua on October 7th is encouraged to join in the discussion online – simply go here to watch the video stream and ask questions.

Science on Tap is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison through the Center for Limnology’s Trout Lake Station,  and the College of Agricultural and Life Science’s Kemp Natural Resources Station, as well as the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s Lakeland Badger chapter, the Minocqua Public Library and, of course, our host, the Minocqua Brewing Company.


Science on Tap organizers:

Adam Hinterthuer – hinterthuer@wisc.edu, 608-630-5737

Jonathan Patz Media Contact:

Ann Grauvogl – agrauvogl@wisc.edu, 608-265-9592

“Fishes of Wisconsin” Challenge: “Shooting Docks” for Crappie

Fish Fry Day is when we put fish on our blog and the state of Wisconsin puts them on the menu. This week we continue our “Fishes of Wisconsin” journey. 8 down, only 175 to go! 

This week’s species is the delectable crappie, a member of the sunfish (Centrarchidae) family with two species (white and black) representing its genus (Pomoxis). 


Crappie are a beloved sport fish. Seriously. The fish has not one, not two, but three entire websites dedicated to it, is the subject of countless YouTube tutorials, and has thousands upon thousands of loyal followers on Twitter.

In Wisconsin, it may rank behind bluegill and perch as a preferred panfish but in the lakes (okay, reservoirs) or more southern states, it’s often the most sought after table fish.

A mess of black crappie from Lake Mendota. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

A mess of black crappie from Lake Mendota. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

One reason for crappie’s popularity may be that they eat just about anything, from plankton, to aquatic invertebrates, to minnows, to their own predators (well, smaller, younger walleye, pike and muskies, at least!). This means that all sorts of lures and bait can catch a crappie, as long as light tackle is used – they’re often called “papermouths” because of the tender membrane that can easily lose a hook.

Both species of crappie are widely distributed, native to drainages throughout the entire eastern half of the U.S. and introduced just about everywhere else – which may also explain their popularity with anglers.

In the pursuit of other exciting facts about this week’s “FIsh of Wisconsin,” I instead stumbled down a YouTube rabbit hole as I became enthralled by a fishing technique I’d never before encountered. It’s called “shooting docks” and it looks like a lot of fun, as long as you keep your fingers out of the way of the hook! To quote our trusty guide from the video below – “If you can get it under there, you’re doin’ somethin’ – ooh whee!”




“Fishes of Wisconsin” Challenge: A Tale of Two Sunfishes

It’s week 4 of the “Fishes of Wisconsin” challenge and we’ve got some drama unfolding right on the poster as, juxtaposed side-by-side are two species of sunfish with nearly polar-opposite trajectories.

Sunfish on Fishes of Wisconsin Poster. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

Sunfish on Fishes of Wisconsin Poster. Photo: Adam Hinterthuer

The first is also the first threatened species we’ve encountered on this Quixotic tilt at cataloging the state’s fish species. It is called the longear sunfish, or Lepomis megalotis. While they have a relatively wide range in the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds, preferring clear, shallow streams, the longear sunfish is a state-listed species here in Wisconsin.

In fact, throughout the 20th century, numbers of this tiny member of the sunfish family declined, as the longear doesn’t tolerate cloudy water and, well, what with all of the converting prairies and forests to cities and farms, we got pretty good at muddying the waters. Today in the Dairy State, longear sunfish are only found in fewer than two dozen counties. Continue reading

Fish Fry Day: Stickleback Evolution Marks Week 3 of “Fishes of Wisconsin” Challenge

Happy Fish Fry Day! This is the third week since we embarked on a crusade to share a little bit about ALL 183 species on the amazing “Fishes of Wisconsin” poster. We’ve gotten to know the suckermouth minnow a bit better, we learned how largemouth bass have been good research colleagues, and, today, we’ll get to know something cool about sticklebacks.


The three species of stickleback found in Wisconsin.

We could lead with an infographic on the far-flung home ranges of the brook stickleback (Culaea inconstans). We could tell you that, while some male fishes build nests for their mates, the male ninespine stickleback (pungitius pungitius) takes it to the next level and literally builds a tunnel of love. In fact, we were going to tell you all of this – but then we came across a fascinating video on how sticklebacks are a present-day example of evolution in action.

So, without further ado, we give you this amazing video about a the last Ice Age and the threespine stickleback’s transformation from an ocean dwelling fish, to one at home in freshwater inland lakes. UW-Madison’s own Sean Carroll takes us on the journey below. Enjoy!

(And, yes, we’re aware that we’re cheating by tackling three species at once – but were you truly hoping for three straight weeks of sticklebacks?)


Guest Post: Adventures with Bowfin, North America’s Underdog(fish)

The folks at the Nature Conservancy’s “Cool Green Science” blog have invited our postdoc, Solomon David, to write about primitive fishes for them – here’s his latest post:

It’s a fish that lived alongside dinosaurs, and held its own: A slimy and voracious creature with a mouth full of sharp teeth.


And you don’t have to wait for Jurassic Park to see one: the bowfin is still among us. It has proven tougher than T. rex. But is it tough enough to survive humanity?

I recall well my first encounter: pulling that bizarre fish with the long dorsal fin into a boat, as part of fish surveys I was conducting on Michigan’s Muskegon River. I’d read about these fish before in class, but had never seen one alive.

I just had to get a better look at this fish. And that was the beginning of my fascination with this incredible, but often under appreciated, animal.

Mudfish, dogfish, grinnel, swamp-muskie: the names alone suggest why bowfin (Amia calva) are generally not the most highly-revered among fishes.

With their prehistoric appearance and tenacious attitude, one may say they deserve their poor reputation. But the bowfin is in reality a fascinating, resilient, and even beneficial species. Keep reading over at “Cool Green Science” –>

Fish Fry Day: “Fishes of Wisconsin” Challenge – Largemouth Bass

Happy Fish Fry Day! For those of you just tuning in, last week we embarked on a crusade to share a little bit about ALL 183 species on the amazing “Fishes of Wisconsin” poster.

Panorama is a must for a poster this epic. Kandis Elliot's "Fishes of Wisconsin" poster.

Panorama is a must for a poster this epic. Kandis Elliot’s “Fishes of Wisconsin” poster.

Fish #1 was the suckermouth minnow, and we learned all sorts of fun stuff, like the fact that not all small fish are  minnows and not all minnows are small. But now on to a new species: Today, we introduce the beast lurking beneath the suckermouth minnow (on the poster at least) – the largemouth bass.

Largemouth Bass on the Fishes of Wisconsin poster.

Largemouth Bass on the Fishes of Wisconsin poster.

Micropterus salmoides, or the largemouth bass, is a top predator in many freshwater ecosystems. In fact, it’s so good at its role in the food web that it is one of the most successful fish across the globe. In other words, either occurring naturally in an ecosystem or being introduced by humans, the largemouth bass has no problem being king of the hill.

A lot of that has to do with its namesake mouth – which, unlike smallmouth bass, extends beyond the back of its eye. That mouth is useful for pursuing all sorts of prey – from crayfish, to bluegill, to the occasional, unlucky mouse! (Note to mice: stay out of the water!) It also has a lot to do with the fish’s “personality.” Largemouth bass are aggressive, energetic fish and fight hard on a fishing line, making them one of the nation’s most popular sport fish.

We could go on and on with fun facts about largemouth bass, but, well, we don’t have all day. So here are three morsels to chew on: Continue reading

“Farm Tech Days” Exhibit Will Focus on Phosphorus Problems and Solutions

by Jenny Seifert

Why is phosphorus in the lakes a long-term problem, why do we care and how could we fix it?



The UW-Madison’s Water Sustainability and Climate Project (WSC) and Center for Limnology will address these questions at their exhibit at the upcoming Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, which will take place Tuesday, August 25 through Thursday, August 27th at Statz Brothers, Inc. Farm in Sun Prairie, WI.

Entitled “Wisconsin’s phosphorus legacy and the long road ahead,” the exhibit will be part of the Education Station Tent and will allow attendees to explore the science behind phosphorus pollution, which degrades water quality in many of Wisconsin’s lakes.

A mid-October algae (or phytoplankton) bloom shows up on the Lake Mendota shoreline. Photo: Sam Oliver

A mid-October algae (or phytoplankton) bloom shows up on the Lake Mendota shoreline. Photo: Sam Oliver

The exhibit will include participatory elements, such as interactive computer graphics explaining challenges to improving water quality in Wisconsin’s lakes and an opportunity to offer your ideas for how to create a future with clean lakes, vibrant cities and thriving farmland.

Several faculty members from the WSC project and the Center for Limnology will also be on hand for “office hours” to chat with folks about the lakes and how our practices on land affect them. Their schedule is as follows:

Tuesday, August 25th

10:00-1:00pm – Chris Kucharik, a professor of agronomy and environmental studies, will be available to chat about the impacts of climate change, weather variability and land management decision-making.

1:00pm-2:00pm – Monica Turner, a professor of ecology, will be available to chat about the ecological effects of land-use change, nature’s benefits and land-water interactions.

Wednesday, August 26th

10:00am-12:00pm – Paul Hanson, a professor from the Center for Limnology, will be available to chat about water quality, lake modeling and sensor networks.

12:00pm-2:00pm – Stephen Carpenter, the director of the Center for Limnology, will be available to chat about phosphorus and lakes.

Thursday, August 27th

12:00pm-1:00pm – Steven Loheide, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, will be available to chat about groundwater effects on corn yields.

1:00pm-2:00pm – Adena Rissman, an associate professor of environmental policy and management, will be available to chat about natural resource policy, land management and land conservation.

Visit us at the Education Station Tent to learn the science behind this important issue affecting the health of our lakes and communities.

Fish Fry Day Embarks on “Fishes of Wisconsin” Poster Challenge

It’s Fish Fry Day – the day when Wisconsin puts fish on the menu and we serve up a fish o’ the day on our blog. But  today, we’re launching an epic challenge – a quest to bring you tidbits of knowledge for each and every species of fish in Wisconsin.

Panorama is a must for a poster this epic. Kandis Elliot's "Fishes of Wisconsin" poster.

Panorama is a must for a poster this epic. Kandis Elliot’s “Fishes of Wisconsin” poster in our hallway.

Perhaps you missed the news (or our incessant social media bragging on the subject) but there is an AMAZING new poster hanging in our halls ( you, too, can buy a copy and support the UW-Madison Zoological Museum) featuring 183 species of Wisconsin fishes. Even more amazing is that they’re all drawn to scale (sorry) – their average adult size, to be exact.

In an article posted on the UW-Madison website, artist emeritus, Kandis Elliot, from the Department of Botany, explains why she chose to switch from things with leaves to creatures with fins:

“The idea behind the posters is to create a splash,” Elliot deadpans. “There is a wow factor. We want people, especially kids, to have an awareness of all our fishes, not just hook-and-line species.”

We couldn’t agree more, Mrs. Elliot!

The humble suckermouth minnow launches our "Fishes of Wisconsin" crusade.

The humble suckermouth minnow launches our “Fishes of Wisconsin” crusade.

So, in honor of your fine achievement, we are embarking upon our own crusade. Each Friday, working from the top left corner of the Fishes of Wisconsin poster, down to the bottom right (which is more than 13 feet away!), we’ll bring you a morsel or two of information regarding a fish. On the poster in our hallway, at least, that means the humble suckermouth minnow is first up – sitting in pole position at the top left corner, barely longer than the head of the bass lurking below it. Continue reading

The Study, Science & Stories of Our Inland Waters