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Another spectacular Laguna Negra

20 Jan 2017


The mountain above Laguna Negra near the town of Mongua. If you zoom in on the ridgeline you will see our paramo indicator species, Espeletia. There was clearly a different species of it growing around this lake, with smaller composite flowers arranged in clusters.


“Black Lakes” in Colombia appear to be about as common as “Mud Lakes” in Minnesota. This was the second Laguna Negra that we have visited, and it was located about an hour and a half drive northeast from Sogamoso.

Today, we were accompanied by Felipe Velasco again, although this time instead of driving south toward Lake Tota we headed northeast toward the town of Mongua.  We are extremely grateful for the time that Felipe has devoted to our efforts, as we would have had a difficult time finding these sites without him and it was reassuring to have a local person along. Our goal today was to explore and hopefully collect a core from Laguna Negra, a lake located in a different sort of paramo ecosystem. The drive was quite different than previous days, because we were able to see a much more industrial area of Boyaca. Between the cement factories and the steel mill, the pollution levels were quite high; in fact, much of the drive to Mongua smelled of a fragrant mixture of burning coal and diesel, and when we ascended the mountain above Mongua we observed a thick layer of smog in the valley. However, it was fascinating to see a fully functional steel mill, as gave me an appreciation of what Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania must have been like when it was operational. We observed many small family-owned coal mines along the road near Mongua, as this is the primary economic activity in this region.


Laguna Negra, with abundant Azolla (mosquito fern) growing in the littoral zone along with a diverse array of submerged aquatic plants.

Laguna Negra and the surrounding landscape was spectacular, and pictures really can’t convey the natural beauty of this place. While Jason and Jaime took measurements of the depth profile of the lake, I had the opportunity to hike around the lake margin. Unlike other lakes that we have visited, the lake margin was not peatland. Hypericum (St. John’s Wort) was common along the lake edge, along with a  number of Carex species, and bright red Azolla grew in the littoral zone along with submerged aquatic plants like Myriophyllum. Inflow into the lake comes in the form of a spectacular waterfall, with abundant mosses and ferns growing adjacent to the waterfall in the perpetually humid environment.


Myriophyllum growing in littoral zone of Laguna Negra.


Hypericum growing along the edge of Laguna Negra.

The lake was about 9 meters deep with at least 3 meters of sediment, so we inflated a second boat, set our anchors, and commenced sediment coring. Mark Brenner and Felipe Velasco observed from shore, taking pictures of the coring process.  We obtained several meters of mud, and once again we carefully kept the upper drive containing the mud-water interface upright on the trip back to Finca SanPedro.


Jaime Escobar, Jason Curtis, and myself collecting a sediment core from Leguna Negra.


Inside of the church in Topaga. Beautiful gold-plated structures and artwork decorate the interior.

On our way home we stopped in Mongua for some delicious empanadas and then went further down the road to Tópaga to take a look at the church on the main square. The Tópaga church is over 400 years old, and the inside is ornately decorated in gold. Colombia has abundant gold; in fact the yellow in the Colombian flag symbolizes the tremendous gold resources. This church in Tópaga is also probably one of the few churches that not only has artwork incorporating Jesus, the disciples, and other typical biblical representations, but also the devil. Yes, Lucifer himself is on a beam in the ceiling near the front of the church, directly center.


The devil decorates the main beam on the ceiling of this church in Topaga.

Our fieldwork is now complete. Tomorrow we will ship samples and cores from Sogamoso and then drive down to Bogota to pick up samples from our work in Manizales and prepare to depart on Sunday.  This trip has been an amazing experience, and I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to explore this fascinating country and see its amazing natural beauty. I am excited about this new collaboration, and the potential to develop long-term perspectives on water availability and ecology of the critically important paramo regions.

I sincerely thank Jaime Escobar for making this all happen.  And I especially thank him for the doing all the driving!


Lake Tota and more paramo

17 Jan 2017


Finca SanPedro Hostel on the outskirts of Sogamoso.

It was dark when we arrived last night, so we didn’t have a chance to really see the beautiful Finca SanPedro Hostel. The house has a number of nice rooms for guests and the grounds were beautifully planted and maintained.  Chickens, peacocks, vegetable gardens, a yoga studio, and four friendly dogs all added to the charm.

Felipe Velasco, director of the Foundation Montecito, graciously agreed to take us to a small lake in the paramo above Lake Tota.  Our goal was to assess the potential of the lake for sediment coring, and potentially collect more surface samples from the associated wetlands.  However, before embarking on our trip we needed to purchase a few more supplies from a local hardware store in Sogamoso, including some PVC pipe and some wooden boards to secure our inflatable boats together for a coring platform.  The folks at the hardware store were fantastic, providing supplies and assistance as we mounted the pipe and boards on top of our car.  Furthermore, about half way through the process, they provided us with free coffee and delicious empanadas. And they gave us free hats and windbreakers with their logo!  As Jason commented, “it is strange that the best empanadas I’ve had were from a hardware store.”


Jaime Escobar, Mark Brenner, and Jason Curtis securing the PVC and wood to the top of the car.


Lake Tota, the largest lake in Colombia. According to legend, there is a large monster known as diablo ballena (“devil whale”) that lives in the lake.


Onions growing in the Lake Tota watershed.

The drive to the paramo took about an hour and half, but along the way we got see Lake Tota and the town of Aquitania. Lake Tota is the largest natural lake in Colombia and lies at an elevation of about 10,000 feet.  As we crossed into the lake’s watershed, we were immediately hit by the smell of onions.  Most of the area around the lake and the surrounding hillslope is covered in onions; in fact, according to Felipe, the area produces more than 90% of the onions consumed in Colombia. The lake is also used for fish aquaculture, and along with fertilizer runoff from the onion farms, environmental degradation of the lake is of considerable concern. Apparently for every ton of chicken poop that comes in by truck, a ton of onions goes out.


Church in Aquitania, with the “surfing” Jesus.

Furthermore, the introduction of rainbow trout into Lake Tota likely led to considerable changes in food-web structure, and the extinction of a species of catfish, known as greasefish (Rhizosomichthys totae) that was endemic to the lake. An all to common story: invasive species + human impacts like eutrophication = extinction.

The town of Aquitania borders the lake, and we had to weave our way through it to reach a steep dirt road that led up into the paramo. A small town with obvious economic hardship, the central square of Aquitania is dominated by the church like in many of the small Colombian towns that we have seen.  On top of the church is a large statue of Jesus standing on a boat, although because the boat is small it looks like Jesus is surfing.  The road up into the paramo was in bad shape so we went slow, but we eventually arrived at the small lake that we hoped to reach.


Lake Aquitania.


Jaime sinks through the floating peat as they try to get the boat onto the lake. He is very good at finding the soft spots on paramo peatlands.


Jaime and Jason on Lake Aquitania.


Surface sediment core from the lake.


As we were packing up our gear, we had two visitors that we very interested in what we were up to.

Lake Aquitania, as we called it, was beautiful. Surrounded by paramo, including lots of frailejón (Espeletia sp.), the lake is bordered by extensive wetland in places. Several nearby depressions also contain wetlands. After inflating a boat, Jason and Jaime used a sonar depth finder to quickly determine the depth of the lake.  Although the lake is relatively shallow throughout (~40 cm), there was over 7 meters of sediment!  Mark, Jaime, and Jason spent a few hours collecting a surface core to carefully capture the mud-water interface, and I spent the time collecting surface samples from the adjacent wetlands. We then returned back to Sogamoso while Mark held the core upright, partially sticking out of the car window, and upon returning we extruded the core centimeter by centimeter into bags. Tomorrow we will return to collect the full sediment core, as well as additional surface samples from wetlands surrounding the lake.


The crew at the lake. From left to right: Mark Brenner, myself, Jaime Escobar, and Jason Curtis.

This land is not an inheritance from our parents; we are borrowing it from our children.

15 Jan 2017


Sign along the trail toward Laguna Negra. Approximate english translation is “This land is not an inheritance from our parents we are borrowing it from our children.”


Wetland along the edge of Laguna Negra.

Today we visited the Tacurrumby – Laguna Negra Nature Reserve, which was located very close to the peatland we sampled yesterday. Felipe Vallejo of the Unversidad of Caldas accompanied us, and he was nice enough to secure permission for us to sample within the reserve. Felipe may also analyze diatoms (a group of algae with cell walls made of silica) in the surface samples that we are collecting, as just like testate amoebae they have been little studied in paramo ecosystems.


Sign at the Tacurrumby – Laguna Negra Nature Reserve, showing a ruddy duck. However, the painting looks like the North American subspecies.

The painting on the trailhead sign at the nature reserve showed a ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis), although from what I can find there is a fair amount of taxonomic uncertainty with species and subspecies identification (see wikipedia). There appears to be at least two subspecies, and some regard these as different species, the North American ruddy duck (O. jamaicensis jamaicensis) and the Andean ruddy duck (O. jamaicensis ferruginea). Other than differences in geographic distribution, the Andean ruddy has a completely black head whereas the North American ruddy white has a white face.  Interestingly, the painting on the trailhead sign shows a white face, which seems to be consistent with the North American species.  However, according to some there may also be a Colombian subspecies (O. jamaicensis andina) with some black coloration on the white face; however, these individuals may also just represent hybrids between the North American and Andean subspecies.  And the painting on the sign doesn’t show any black coloration within the white face.  Regardless, the Colombia population of ruddy ducks (O. jamaicensis ferruginea/andina) has declined over the past several decades, and according to the sign they are likely headed toward extinction here.

As we walked along the trail to the lake, we observed signs identifying some of the dominant plant and bird species, as well as highlighting the ecological value of the lake and associated wetland. The plant diversity was impressive, with large grass tussocks and many shrub species.

Upon reaching the lake we immediately spotted the bright blue bill of the flagship ruddy duck as advertised on the trailhead sign! However, unlike the painting the male duck’s head was completely black, consistent with the Andean ruddy duck, as one would expect here. Shortly thereafter we spotted a female Andean ruddy duck and a duckling! Add one more to the population size in Colombia.


Male Andean ruddy duck (O. jamaicensis ferruginea) on Laguna Negra. Note the completely black face.


Female and baby Andean ruddy ducks (O. jamaicensis ferruginea) on Laguna Negra.

After collecting surface samples, we drove up into the Nevado del Ruiz National Park to look for potential future research sites. After this excursion, we sampled another peatland located at a bit lower elevation than Laguna Negra. Over 70 samples collected so far!


Felipe Vallejo, Jaime Escobar, Jason Curtis, and myself sampling a peatland in the paramo below Laguna Negra.

Adventure and Collaboration in Colombia

12 Jan 2017

As I write this, I am flying above the Florida Everglades at night. The contrast between the Miami-Fort Lauderdale region and the adjacent Florida Everglades is quite striking – lines and lines of bright lights to the east and nothing but darkness to the west. Although a century of degradation has led to the largest restoration effort ever attempted, you still have to admire the resistance of this large wetland to human pressure. Shortly, we will continue southward over the Atlantic on our way to South America…


Bogota, Colombia.

I am on my way to Bogota, Colombia to initiate and develop a new collaboration focused on better understanding the long-term hydrological and ecological history of high-elevation Andean ecosystems. My primary collaborator is Jaime Escobar of the Universidad del Norte in Barranquilla.  Our focus is on the paramo, an extremely biodiverse ecosystem (one of 25 global biodiversity hotspots) located above the tree line and below the permanent snowline in the Andes of tropical South America and the highlands of Costa Rica. Up to 60% of its plant species are endemic, which means they are found nowhere else in the world. Together with the surrounding Andean forest the region is home to 50% of the plant diversity found in mountain ecosystems. In addition to its high conservation value, the paramo and its watersheds store and supply critical water resources to major Andean rivers and cities. High-altitude tropical ecosystems such as the paramo are expected to experience very high rates of temperature change in the coming decades, with stronger and longer dry seasons, yet little is known about the how the hydrology and ecology of these ecosystems may respond to these anticipated changes.

This new collaboration will focus on understanding the ecological and hydrological sensitivity of paramo ecosystems and their watersheds through investigating the long-term environmental history of the region. Lakes and peatlands are scattered across the paramo, and they preserve records of past ecological and hydrological history in their sediments and deposits.  The long-term perspectives provided by these paleoenvironmental reconstructions will potentially help assess climate model projections, anticipate climate-induced ecological and hydrological impacts, and assist in risk assessment and adaptive management efforts.  For the next ten days we will explore the paramo, collecting ecological and paleoecological samples and discussing ideas to further develop our research and educational collaboration.  I’ll be posting updates and pictures as our adventure proceeds…


“I’m taking on water!” (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 2)

A few students have started using twitter to share photos from our fieldwork using the hashtag #PLEwetlands.  These will also be retweeted through @LehighEcology and some will be embedded into these daily summaries.

The Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology wetlands class at Morgan Swamp Preserve.

The Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology wetlands class at Morgan Swamp Preserve.

Can you see the chicks in the cattails?

Can you see the chicks in the cattails?

Morning lecture was focused on formal wetland classification systems, with a focus on those used in North America. Admittedly, formal wetland classification schemes are not that exciting, but everyone must have had enough coffee, or ate enough of made-to-order eggs at breakfast, to make it through. After an overview of Cowardin et al. classification system (used by the Fish and Wildlife Service), we took a much-needed walk to some wetlands right outside the classroom. There the students applied their knowledge by fully classifying two wetland areas. We were lucky enough to observe some red-winged blackbird chicks (Agelaius phoeniceus), although mom and dad were not at all pleased that we were nearby.

Morgan swamp preserve (photo: AS)

Morgan swamp preserve (photo: AS)

After a overview of wetland hydrology, we got our waders from the PLE stockroom and headed to Morgan Swamp in Ohio. There, Karen Adair gave us an overview of the preserve and the mission of the Nature Conservancy, and also provided some advice for students interested in conservation and environmental science careers. We then took a hike through a really spectacular mosaic of swamp and mesic forest, dominated by American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), and yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis). I had never done this hike before and it was very much worth it; a few of the beech trees were as large as some of the old growth trees I have seen. We also observed a large eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) along the trail.

Eastern rat snake along the trail.

Eastern rat snake along the trail.

Happy in the wetland.  This picture was before the depth of the water exceeded the height of the waders...

Happy in the wetland. This picture was before the depth of the water exceeded the height of the waders…

We then put on waders and entered the preserve from another location, where we examined a 14-year old mitigation wetland, a series of vernal pools, and a large marsh and shrub-swamp. Crossing the mitigation wetland proved to be challenging, and 7 out of 8 of us went deeper than our waders were designed for. Nothing says wetland ecology like a student hollering, “I’m taking on water!” while other students snap pictures. We observed a number of wetland plants, and added a few to the “must-know” list including Sphagnum, reed-canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), moneywort or creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), common spike-rush (Eleocharis palustris) and three-way sedge (Dulichium arundinaceum).

I’m looking forward to installing a few wells and camera traps tomorrow at Pymatuning Creek Marsh, and beginning our plant collections.

Wetland restoration, treatment wetlands, and some fun on the lake (PLE day 14)

The Pymatuning wetlanders discussed wetland restoration this morning, including an examination of the Florida Everglades Project, which is the largest wetland restoration ever attempted.  We discussed the history of environmental degradation in South Florida and how it altered the hydrology and biogeochemistry of this unique wetland complex. The students were happy to apply their knowledge of Phosphorus cycling toward understanding some of the problems and challenges that the restoration effort is attempting to fix.

Examining the wetlands adjacent to Pymatuning Lake.

Examining the wetlands adjacent to Pymatuning Lake.

My favorite field assistant joined us for the wetland exploration.

My favorite field assistant joined us for the wetland exploration.

We had a short break, during which the students finished mounting a few labels on their plant collections and collectively cleaned the wet lab of peat, mud, dead macroinvertebrates, and various other byproducts of our recent explorations. We then briefly discussed treatment wetlands, highlighting the use of these created wetlands to treat things like municipal wastewater, non-point source pollution, and acid mine drainage.  I then provided a brief overview of the course and its structure, highlighting what this hard-working group students has accomplished in only three weeks. Then we had one last bit of fun exploring some of the wetlands in the littoral zone of Pymatuning Reservoir via canoe. The students used the rest of the afternoon to study for tomorrow’s final exam.

A line in the muck…wetland delineation (PLE day 11)

Describing soils in the field. Is it hydric?

Describing soils in the field. Is it hydric?

The Pymatuning wetlanders began the last week of class this morning by thinking about peatland paleoenvironmental archives.  We covered the the range of things that get preserved in these environments, ranging from pollen to bog bodies, and looked at the ways that paleoenvironmental records are developed.  This was in preparation for our discussion of wetland development and our trip to Titus Bog tomorrow.

Yay plants!

Yay plants!

We then shifted gears and discussed wetland delineation procedures, including some of the indicators of wetland hydrology, the features of wetland soils, and the methods used to determine the presence of hydrophytic vegetation.  After a bit of “plant math,” Brian Pilarcik of the Crawford County Conservation District visited the class to lead them through an exercise in wetland delineation, and discuss some of the common techniques and general procedures. The students ended the day by working a bit on their wetland plant collections.

Conservation issues in Oregon (student guest post)

The natural beauty of Oregon. Manzanita from the viewpoint of Neahkahnie Mountain (Photo: JHK).

The natural beauty of Oregon. Manzanita from the viewpoint of Neahkahnie Mountain (Photo: JHK).

This month I am highlighting some entries from the journals of EES-28 students.  If students put together a particularly well-written and thoughtful entry, they are given the option of editing it and putting it here for others in the class (and the world) to see.

Given our recent focus on current conservation programs and ways people can get involved (in EES-028, Biodiversity & Conservation), I decided to look up news related to ecology and conservation in my home state, Oregon. I’ve always thought we were a fairly sustainably focused state, and other people I know share this opinion. We were one of the earliest states to implement recycling programs, and the first to pass a bottle recycling bill. Many people I know hike and spend a lot of time outdoors, and because of that many of us are invested in the environment around us. We tend to take a lot of pride in our abundance of evergreen trees, and are even fond of the drizzly rain. But I admit that I have not looked too deeply into the actual issues that concern my state, so I investigated what is happening right now. There were two recent stories that caught my eye, partly for their prominence and partly for their opposing tones.

A Marbled Murrelet. (Photo: wkipedia commons)

Selling a portion of the Elliot State Forest

Recently, a controversial decision was made by the state to sell a 788-acre parcel of land in the Elliot State Forest to a timber company. In the past, the state has used money from selling timber rights on the land to fund state programs such as K-12 schools. However, environmental lawsuits put an end to that logging, and so with a budget shortfall, officials decided to test the feasibility of selling and privatizing parcels of the large Elliot State Forest. Very recently, the winning bid to Seneca Jones Timber Company was announced, although the papers have yet to be signed. Already environmental groups have launched a lawsuit against the sale of the land, citing a 1957 law that protects land that was state forest in 1913. Two more parcels were also sold, but no lawsuit has been leveled against those. Aside from the general desire to preserve habitats from the vagaries of timber company clear cutting, there is a specific population at risk. The marbled murrelet is a globally endangered species of bird and the Elliott State Forest has been classified as a critical habitat for the species, so reducing the forest may have extremely harmful effects on its population.  Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, some of the groups opposing the land sale are hopeful that the results of this sale will discourage the State from selling more parcels. The recently sold parcels went for almost a fifth of their determined value, so perhaps state officials will not sell more land at such a poor price. But if looked at with a cynical eye, this sequence of actions could be interpreted as warning from the state land management that if environmentalist lawsuits make managing public land too expensive, the state will respond by selling it off to timber companies who likely have even less motivation for conservation.

Youth Ecology Corps

While the above story highlights struggles to protect the environment against degradation, this second news story focuses on some positive action being taken. As part of Portland’s 2013 parks and natural areas property tax levy, a new conservation initiative was begun in the form of a youth ecology corps. The main goal of this program is to get young people excited about nature and conservation. It especially focuses on underprivileged youth, with the assumption that poverty often prevents opportunities for activities like hiking and camping. Once accepted into the program, participants receive an education in botany, bird identification, wildlife tracking, salmon spawning, geology, and wilderness survival. Another facet of the program is that the students are also paid to participate in a youth conservation work crew, which is important because it gives the students the funds and freedom to participate. So not only does the program foster enhanced environmental education, it will also positively impact the environment through habitat restoration, trail maintenance, invasive species removal, and larger projects like side channel restoration to help spawning salmon.  I really hope this program succeeds, because I believe that fostering a love of nature at an early age is critical to a lifetime of  environmental awareness and engagement.


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