The Jefferson Project at Lake George is a multi-faceted collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM, and the FUND for Lake George, aimed at developing better and new technology that will be used to understand lake ecosystems and freshwater ecology. Sensor data, better predictive models, and experimental data from researchers in the Relyea Lab at RPI will be used to understand how humans have affected, and are continuing to affect water quality in one of the most pristine lakes in North America. I am involved in the long-term monitoring efforts and experimental efforts to understand how lake ecosystems are being affected by human activities. This includes understanding how lake ecosystems are affected invasive species, road deicers, and climate change.
Invasive species that are established within an area are thought to negatively affect ecosystem function and disturb habitats, paving the way for new invasive species. This is especially true for invasive species that have complimentary functional traits, where one species facilitates the other. However, few experimental data are available showing how multiple invasive species interact with one another in a community. To understand if invasive species compete or facilitate one another, given their functional traits, I use functionally diverse invasive mollusks in experimental freshwater communities. In collaboration with Dr. Bill Hintz, we are also investigating how invasive species’ interactions are altered by anthropogenic factors such as road salt runoff and nutrient inputs. Our goal is to understand if we can make predictions about the effects that numerous invasive species will have in varying environmental conditions. Future research efforts will investigate ways that we can improve niche modeling for invasive species in freshwater systems, and how new opportunities for invasions are being facilitated by human activities.
The application of deicers like NaCl in the United States has increased from 1-2 million tons in 1950 to nearly 20 million tons in 2010. Observational studies and controlled laboratory toxicity tests have led to a growing concern about the potentially negative effects of road salts in aquatic environments. Additionally, the increased costs of NaCl, potentially negative effects on human health, and the degradation of roadside habitats has driven agencies to seek alternative deicers and organic additives that make NaCl more effective. Numerous alternatives and additives are being applied across North America, without any knowledge of their effects in aquatic ecosystems. Some commonly used additives include organic distillation byproducts and beet juice byproducts. Starting in 2015, I initiated the first ever experiments of road salt alternatives and additives on aquatic communities. These studies are extremely important for understanding how food webs, biodiversity, and species’ life-history traits are altered by deicers and deicer additives. I have found that alternative deicers and deicer additives alter food webs, change phosphorus cycles, increase microbial activity, and affect species life-history traits like timing of reproduction and emergence frequency. Future research will focus on the effects of these organic additives on microbial composition, and algal competition dynamics in freshwater systems.
Patterns and mechanisms of species diversity
Area, energy, and heterogeneity are often invoked as the primary drivers of species richness patterns. Yet, there are few tests of how these factors interact to affect patterns of species richness. I use experimental freshwater communities and a model zooplankton system to better understand the mechanisms by which environmental factors interact to affect species richness patterns.