This summer a Great Lakes Aquarium educator had the rare opportunity to research Lake Superior in an up close and personal way.
Samantha Smingler joined a team of scientists and educators on board the Lake Guardian, a research vessel that focuses its studies on the Great Lakes of North America. Smingler offered insight into their research, how it will impact her work at the Aquarium and what it was like to live for a week on a 180-foot boat with a team of 15 other educators. “The end result is being able to bring how we study Lake Superior to more teachers, which means it gets brought to more students, which means our next generation of scientists and engineers will be interested, intrigued and have a better understanding of Lake Superior. I want to be able to inspire people to care about their local place,” said Smingler.
Q: What were you researching specifically on the research vessel?
The team I was on was Team Diporeia. Diporeia are small shrimp-like zooplankton that provide a vital source of food to many commercially important fish species. They live in the top layer of sediment at the bottom of the lake and are a huge part of benthic-pelagic coupling. That is just a really big phrase for saying mixing the nutrients from the sediment and the water column. Diporeia are a big part of the food chain for smaller fish at the bottom of the lake. They eat algae and nutrients that sink down from the surface, as well as things that are washing in from the shore. There is this proposed magic zone called the “ring of fire” where you have nutrients that come from land washing down. Prior research had shown that this is where we would find the most diporeia. Our efforts were to fill in the blanks for areas depth-wise that researchers didn’t have data from and to see if in fact this “ring of fire” (the depth between 30 meter and 200 meters) is where you do find the highest densities of this base food for fish.
Q: What was the process of finding Diporeia like?
We used PONAR. PONAR is essentially a two-sided shovel that when hitting the bottom of the lake, collapses and scoops up the first few inches of sediment. That gets brought back up to the boat where we wash it. The rinsing process, called elutriation, requires you to mix the mud with water to get the critters to float to the top. Then we pour the water through a filter. Next comes several hours of picking the diporeia out of the small sediment under a microscope to get a final count. The most exciting sample we took was at 300 meters. This depth had not been studied before. We were excited to see just as many Diporeia as we had found at 200 meters. This showed that they don’t just disappear at great depths.
Q: Why were you so interested in Diporeia?
Diporeia are a glacial relic. There used to be Diporeia in all if the Great Lakes but now you can hardly find them in the other four Great Lakes. Understanding what the Lake Superior food chain is can help predict and understand the effects of aquatic invasive species. It also helps us understand if there is enough food for the dish that we like to eat. The only way to know if the food chain is changing is to have a historical record of it.
Q: How does your research affect your work at Great Lakes Aquarium?
One of the reasons that I was really excited to go on this professional development for myself is because my role here at the aquarium is developing and facilitating professional development for local teachers. My hope is to help teachers get local science and local issues into their classrooms. It’s really important to me that I stay current on science and current research practices. This was a chance for me to get my hands dirty and be entrenched in what is going on research-wise with Lake Superior. My hope is to be able to take this into what I already do here by incorporating that nature of science and the nature of field work. It was incredible to spend 15 hours getting a single data point!
Q: What was the biggest thing you took back from doing this research?
When you are reading a research paper and wondering to yourself why they didn’t get more information, it’s because things like the weather and time consuming data collection can change your plans. In field work, there is a lot of flexibility, a lot of creativity and with every question comes more questions. To really experience that was a highlight.
Q: As far as living on the boat for a week, did you enjoy that experience?
It’s definitely tight quarters but we were really spoiled on the R/V Lake Guardian. Even though we had small spaces they were definitely bigger than any other boat doing similar research. I was on a top bunk in a room with two other people and in order to get out of my top bunk I had to climb onto our sink and then onto stairs and then crawl down. Another thing that I had never thought about before the trip is that essentially one third of the crew is always working. One third of the crew is always sleeping. There are a lot of spaces where you have to be quiet so that people who are sleeping actually get sleep.
Q: Would you recommend going out and researching to others if they got the chance?
It is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I would highly recommend it. I’m hoping to be able to take what I have learned and give other teachers that same experience. I am hoping I can get more teachers on the water.
All photos taken by Team Diporeia.
Story by Caroline Bowen, Blog/Writing intern at Great Lakes Aquarium