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Onondaga Lake Bioblitz: More Than 400 Species in 24 Hours

ESF, Onondaga Lake Conservation Corp Find Lake Full of Life

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Scientists and citizen volunteers who fanned out across Onondaga Lake and its shoreline Sept. 12 and 13 found some 450 species of plants and animals in 24 hours.

Among the discoveries during the bioblitz, which was conducted by the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in partnership with the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps, was a patch of rare American ginseng found near the lake, a naturally reproducing population of brown trout in Onondaga Creek, and a lush moss community on the roofs of park pavilions.

"I found most interesting the sheer interest people show about what's in their backyard," said Dr. James Gibbs, a professor of conservation biology who helped plan the event. "A lot of people came out on a very dismal day. They came from all walks of life. Nature observation is fundamentally inclusive. There are few things that are better at bringing people together because wonder at nature is universal. That was what impressed me the most - the community that built around the event."

The bioblitz was part of the celebration surrounding the inauguration of ESF's fourth president, Dr. Quentin Wheeler.

"The Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps is working with the SUNY-ESF faculty, experiencing lake habitat, and counting the organisms," said John McAuliffe, Honeywell's Syracuse program director. "SUNY-ESF has been an integral partner in the Onondaga Lake cleanup and at the forefront of a national and local team designing for, and monitoring, biodiversity in and around the lake. The bioblitz showcases their excitement for increasing the lake's biodiversity and restoring native habitats."

Fish in the lake

Between 3 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12, and the same time the following day, scientists and volunteers working in the waters of Onondaga Lake identified 25 species of fish using an electroshocker boat, trap nets, gill nets and seines. Dr. Neil Ringler, a fisheries biologist and vice provost for research at ESF, said it was surprising that in just 24 hours, the inventory tallied 41 percent of the species that have been identified since 1986.

Fish in the tributaries

Drs. Karin Limburg and John Farrell, who led an inventory of fish in the lake's tributaries, reported finding 16 species of fish in those streams, including a naturally reproducing population of brown trout in Geddes Brook. But in Onondaga Creek and Nine Mile Creek, they also found the invasive round goby, a minnow-sized fish native to Eastern Europe that arrived via the St. Lawrence Seaway in the ballast water of transoceanic ships. They are known to displace native benthic (bottom-dwelling) species. Limburg said the goby has replaced the native mottled sculpin at the mouth of Onondaga Creek. Several native species, including bluegill sunfish, yellow perch and smallmouth, largemouth and rock bass were also found in tributaries.


Searching for the smaller organisms that live in the lake, Dr. Kim Schulz, a biological limnologist, reported finding 58 species: 26 phytoplankton species, 22 zooplankton species, five macrophyte species and five benthic (bottom-dwelling) invertebrates.

She said some of the findings indicate the lake is recovering: "There are two groups of phytoplankton that were common in Onondaga Lake before human disturbance began in the late 19th and early 20th century. After that point they had not been observed in the lake during many long-term monitoring programs; we only know they were common from studies of fossils and resting stages in the lake sediments that were dated to reconstruct past biological conditions. We found four species in these groups, and they were pretty common, which is an encouraging sign of the lakes' progress toward recovery."

But Schulz also said there are many invasive species that enter from the Seneca River and arrive with boaters who don't dry and clean their boats between lakes. "Since Onondaga Lake is infested with these organisms, it is important as people start using the lake that they are sure to wash their gear and boats so we don't spread these often disruptive organisms to other local lakes," she said.


The team that went out looking for insects reported finding about 150 species. There were more flies than anything else, followed by bees, ants and wasps; then bugs; moths; and finally, beetles. "The most interesting insects we found were a cool case-bearing caterpillar (Lepidoptera) and a large thread-legged bug (Hemiptera)," said Dr. Melissa Fierke, an entomologist. "The most fun to be had was looking for insects with President Wheeler - he exudes an incredible passion for insects and diversity."


Dr. Rebecca Rundell, whose research focuses on evolution and conservation of biodiversity, reported finding 19 species of snails and 25 species of meiofauna, microscopic invertebrate animals and single-celled organisms that live between sand grains, for example, at the shore of the lake.

"Snails are everywhere," Rundell said. "The most indigenous/native species are in the forest, but there are also tiny species that live in the lawn; they are so tiny you would not find them unless you went looking. One of the species in the forest has beautiful ridges and sculpture on its shell and is the shape of a miniature cinnamon bun."

She said continuing restoration work at the lake could lead to a greater variety of meiofauna in the sediment: "These microscopic organisms are important for keeping beaches clean and keeping the lake healthy. They provide food for other animals in the lake."

Vascular plants

The plant community contributed hundreds of findings to the bioblitz. Dr. Martin Dovciak, whose research focuses on how global climate change affects plant communities and ecosystems, said there was both good news and bad news regarding the plant community. He said about 28 percent of the species were non-native, including some species of concern in New York state such as European buckthorn, tree of heaven, oriental bittersweet, purple loosestrife and garlic mustard in the terrestrial ecosystem, and Eurasian water-milfoil and water chestnut in the aquatic ecosystem.

On a positive note, he said, "The good part of the story is that the most of the species that we observed were native, including some threatened, rare or otherwise unique species in New York state, especially in the saltmarshes on the southeastern end of the lake, northern lake shore and the area surrounding Long Branch Park and Willow Bay on the northwestern end of the lake."

The scientists found salt-meadow grass, which is considered endangered in New York. Several other threatened species with fewer than 20 documented occurrences in the state were also observed: eastern mosquito-fern, coast-blite goosefoot, saltmarsh bulrush and eastern annual saltmarsh aster. Relatively more abundant but still rare species in New York included exploitatively threatened American ginseng and rare wiry panic grass.


Dr. Robin Kimmerer led a group that found 66 species of mosses. Kimmerer, a Distinguished Teaching Professor, said the total is a fraction of the species that are probably present.

"Because mosses are so small we covered just a small territory in sampling. Most of the species we found were fairly typical of disturbed habitats, the species of mature habitats were largely missing," she said. "Mosses are excellent colonizing species, so they were playing an important role in healing the landscape. One of the most lush moss communities we encountered was on the roofs of the park pavilions, just showing that biodiversity is all around us, not just in remote 'wild' places, but very close at hand."


A group that included about 15 undergraduates, some graduate students and members of the general public identified between 60 and 70 species of fungus despite the time-consuming process of identifying some look-alike species. Dr. Alexander Weir, a mycologist, said the interesting discoveries included a species called Marasmiellus nigripes ("typically a southern species in the U.S. and not recorded before from this far north") and Pluteus longistriatus ("an uncommonly collected wood-inhabiting species in the Syracuse area").

Reptiles and amphibians

The search for reptiles and amphibians turned up three species of each: northern leopard frog, wood frog, green frog, snapping turtle, painted turtle and musk turtle. Undergraduate Peter Iacono, who helped in the search, said the painted turtles were a "great find." "We caught many of them in a pond off Interstate 690 East, three females and six males," he said. "That indicates that there could be a breeding population inhabiting the area."


The team looking for dragonflies and damsel flies, led by Dr. Barbara Hager of Cazenovia College and Dr. William Shields of ESF, turned up 12 species. Hager said two - the powdered dancer and vesper bluet - were new to Onondaga Lake.


ESF graduate student Mike Fishman led the bat team's late-night shift and detected acoustic evidence of four species: the hoary, eastern red, silver-haired and little brown bats. Fishman said he was pleased to find evidence of the little brown bat, once the most common bat species in the Northeast and now virtually undetectable as white-nose syndrome destroys bat populations.

"The unusual find was the little brown bat. Little brown bat populations have been decimated throughout the Northeast by White-Nose Syndrome, a fungal infection that has killed more than 7 million bats, and has dropped the populations of some bat species in New York by 90 to 99 percent," he said. "I have been surveying for bats in New York, on Long Island, and in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts all summer, and we have detected very few, if any little brown bats, so it was both surprising and a relief to see that there are still some in this area."


The mammal team, headed by Ronald Giegerich, curator of ESF's Roosevelt Wildlife Collection, set scores of small-mammal traps and ended with a list that included 10 species: white-footed mice, two types of squirrels (southern flying and eastern gray), eastern chipmunks, a short-tailed shrew, white-tailed deer, raccoons, woodchucks, muskrats and beaver.


Birds accounted for 99 species. Among the finds were a pie-billed grebe, a small, water-loving species that is on the N.Y. Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) state threated list. The bird team also found 13 species that are on the DEC list of Species of Greatest Conservation Need: bald eagle, black-crowned night heron, bobolink, Canada warbler, Cape May warbler, Caspian tern, common loon, Cooper's hawk, greater yellowlegs, osprey, prairie warbler, ruddy turnstone and wood thrush.

"We were pleasantly surprised by this tally, as this is not an optimal time of year for detecting birds. Most birds have finished breeding, so finding birds who are busy vocalizing to attract mates and defend territories is not as likely at this time of year," said Dr. Shannon Farrell, an ornithologist. "And it is early for seeing migrant passing through just yet, as most migratory species are more likely to be in their staging phase, quietly preparing for migration, by forming groups and focusing on eating to stock fat reserves for migration."

She also said she was pleased to see several birds of prey, including the bald eagle, several species of hawks, American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon.

"These species tend to be more impacted by environmental contaminants, bioaccumulating toxins from their prey items, and can suffer due to other deleterious factors in the environment that may reduce prey availability," she said. "So we were glad to see some number of these predators present and using the areas at and around the lake."

Scientists say the snapshot of species found during the bioblitz will help them learn more about how to continue restoring the landscape. The effort was done in partnership with the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps, a growing organization of community volunteers who contribute to restoration projects that create or improve wildlife habitat in the Onondaga Lake watershed. Founding partners of the Corps include Montezuma Audubon Center, Onondaga Audubon Society, Parsons, O'Brien & Gere and Honeywell.