Blog Archives

Another spectacular Laguna Negra

20 Jan 2017

20170119_100720

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.

img_1218

“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.

20170119_105539

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.

img_1231

Myriophyllum growing in littoral zone of Laguna Negra.

20170119_105814

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.

dscn2199

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

img_1274

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.

img_1276

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!

Coring Lake Aquitania

18 January 2017

20170118_142307

Panoramic view of Aquitania Lake. Notice the blooming Espeletia.

img_1204

After we finished coring, our PVC and wood was taken away by a man and his horse (and his dog). I’m sure it will be put to good use.

We traveled back up to Aquitania Lake today, managing to navigate back to it without the help of Felipe. We spent the day successfully collecting the full sediment record from the lake, over 7 meters of mud.  While Mark, Jason, and Jaime did the coring, I collected plenty of surface samples from the surrounding peatland. Part way through the coring, we had a Colombian visitor who came to the lake on his horse to ask us what we were up to. He seemed amused by our activities. Not wanting to strap all the PVC and wood back onto the car, we offered it to him.  He was thrilled to take it, and we gave him rope so that he could strap it all together and then tie it to his horse.  I was really impressed with his rope tying ability, and although the horse did not seem particularly happy about the situation, it carried all the pipe and wood away.

Anyone know what kind of bird is in the video below?  A sandpiper of some sort?

A collage of some of the interesting plants observed around the margin of the lake:

After a quick dinner in Sogamoso, we returned to Finca SanPedro where Mark Brenner gave a public talk highlighting the paleoclimate work that he has conducted with Jaime, Jason, and others in Latin America.  Impressively, Mark gave the talk in both English and Spanish! I’m really going to have to learn some Spanish before my next trip to Colombia.

p1430410-1

Mark Brenner gives a public talk at the Finca SanPedro.

Lake Tota and more paramo

17 Jan 2017

20170117_080341

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.”

img_1016

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

dscn2027

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.

img_1124

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.

img_1121

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.

dscn2032

Lake Aquitania.

img_1059

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.

dscn2062

Jaime and Jason on Lake Aquitania.

img_1102

Surface sediment core from the lake.

img_1106

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.

img_1114

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

The paramo

15 Jan 2017

img_0845

Raul Trejos of the Universidad of Caldas sinks into the peat with a smile. The water temperature was about 9 degrees C (~50 degrees F).

After breakfast at the hotel, which included fresh fruit, eggs, rice, and soup, we loaded up into two cars and drove up the winding road from Manizales toward the paramo to a site located just below Nevado del Ruiz National Park. Several other scientists, including Natalia Hoyos of the Universidad del Norte, and Felipe Vallejo, Raul Trejos, and Andres Pardo of the Universidad of Caldas, joined us. We ascended over 1000 meters in about an hour, and the driving experience was just as thrilling as it was in Bogota. Cars and motorcycles would pass other vehicles even on the very windy sections of this road. Even a public bus passed around a blind curve! The double yellow line on the road is clearly just a suggestion, and taken no more seriously than the posted speed limit is in much of the US.

As we ascended, the views of the rainforest and mountains were breathtaking, with the forest vegetation clearly changing as we progressed higher. Somewhere over about 3000 meters the trees disappeared and were replaced with tussock grasses and frailejón (pronounced fry-lay-hon-nez), which are some of the most characteristic plants of the paramo. Frailejón (Espeletia sp.) is in the Asteraceae family, which includes species with composite flowers like sunflowers, daises, and dandelions. However, other than the recognizable composite flower on the plant it is quite unique, with a thick trunk, hairy leaves, and old dead leaves that remain attached to the plant, presumably to protect it from the cold. The roots don’t apparently penetrate very deep in the soil, because it was not uncommon to see individuals toppled over.

dscn1943

Frailejon (Espeletia sp.) growing in the paramo near Nevada del Ruiz National Park.

dscn1755

Triunfo peatland.

Our goal for the day was to visit and collect surface samples from a peatland that was previously cored by Jaime and others.  At Lehigh University we are currently analyzing testate amoebae in this core. Testate amoebae are a subgroup of amoeba that produce a decay-resistant and morphologically distinct shell. These organisms have been used estimate past changes in the hydrology of peatlands, because different species are found in dry versus wet habitats. A major goal of this new collaboration will be to assess the potential of using testate amoebae along with other indicators to reconstruct past hydrological and ecological changes within the paramo. However, currently nothing is known about the ecology of testate amoebae in peatlands of the paramo, so we are collecting surface samples to better understand the distribution of testate amoebae today, and we will use this  information to interpret the changes that we are document in the peat core.

dscn1734

Ash cloud from Nevada del Ruiz volcano.

On our short hike to the peatland we were lucky enough to observe the Nevado del Ruiz volcano venting gas and ash. Although I have seen lava flows in Hawaii, an eruption like this was a first for me. The Nevada del Ruiz has been experiencing small eruptions like this over the past several years. However, the last major eruption was in 1985 and it caused the deadliest mud and debris flows in recorded history, killing over 25,000 people and burying an entire town.

The peatland was spectacular, and we spent a productive day collecting surface samples. Jaime almost didn’t make it out, but with a little effort he managed to avoid becoming the first known bog body of the paramo.

img_0885

Jaime Escobar of the Universidad del Norte sinks into the peatland during our hike out.

Onward to Manizales

13 Jan 2017

After arriving in Bogota late last night, I awoke to sunshine and the sounds of traffic this morning. In addition to myself and Jaime Escobar, our crew includes Mark Brenner and Jason Curtis from the University Florida, who are here to collect lake-sediment cores from high-elevation lakes in the paramo. After a breakfast of eggs, fresh fruit, and good coffee we took a taxi across Bogota to a place where we could store the lake coring equipment, as we won’t need it until next week.

My first impression of Bogota was that driving in this city of 9 million people is a terrifying thrilling experience. Although lanes may or may not be marked, any lane delineation is clearly just a suggestion. Vehicles seem to drive wherever they please, weaving in and out of traffic while motorcycles (and there are a lot of them) drive between the cars and trucks. The roads twisted and turned and I felt like we were driving in circles at times, even when we weren’t navigating the traffic-merging madness of a roundabout. Jugglers and dancers performed at some of the stoplights, and I couldn’t help but admire them for their bravery, as pedestrians do not appear to have the right-of-way. The one piece of advice I received before coming to Colombia was not to drive, and this was definitely excellent advice.

In the early afternoon we flew from Bogota west to Manizales, which is a city of about 400,000 people. The view of the Colombian landscape was fantastic, with mountains covered in coffee and plantains.  Coffee is planted even on the very steep slopes. The flight was a bit bumpy as we dropped into Manizales, and I was glad that I only had a muffin for lunch.

20170113_153036

All made of bamboo.

Our hotel was just outside the city and was very nice with beautiful gardens, wetlands, and a fenced area with several ostriches and a deer. The hotel property backed up against a nature reserve, and the diversity of rain forest vegetation and birds was impressive. I wished I had been able to fit my binoculars into my luggage! It was fun to see a number of floating plants and floating-leaved plants that my EES-386 students will soon know, including abundant Azolla, Salvinia, water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), and water lilies (Nymphaea sp.). Some pictures of the hotel ground are below.

We then drove into Manizales to meet with scientists in the Departamento de Ciencias Geológicas at the University of Caldas. We had a tour of their labs and facilities, and discussed our plans for exploration of the paramo tomorrow. Several of the geologists will join us in the field.

20170113_164424

Entrance to University of Caldas. Security is paramount in Colombia.

State of the forest, 2016

General ecology (EES-152) students have finished resurveying a portion of the Lehigh Experimental Forest, with the goal of assessing changes in tree growth, mortality, and recruitment since 2013. A total of 690 trees were measured from across the forest, representing more than a 1/4 of all trees. In the three years since 2013, 70 of these 690 trees have died and only three new trees have established in the study area.  Data for the dominant tree species are shown in the plot below.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-3-48-51-pm

Tree abundance, mortality, recruitment, and growth rates in the Lehigh University Experimental Forest, 2013-2016. Relative frequency data are from 2013 (M. Spicer, MS thesis 2014) and indicate the percent of each species present (based on a total of 690 trees). Total mortality and recruitment across the time period are shown as percentages. The average increase in basal area of individuals of each species is shown, with the mean value for all species indicated with the vertical dashed line. Total change in basal area for each species, incorporating mortality losses and basal-area gains, is also shown.

We will use these data to discuss the processes controlling forest dynamics as the semester progresses.  However, for now, students should answer the following questions:

  1. The dbh measurements were converted into estimates of area, assuming that each tree was a perfect circle in cross-section. Why do you think basal area was used to compare growth rates among the different species? Why was this expressed as the average change in basal area per tree? What factors might have caused the observed differences in radial growth among species?
  2. What does the pattern of mortality and recruitment suggest about the future of the Lehigh Experimental Forest? What factors might have caused the differences in mortality among species during these two years? What factors might be contributing to the lack of new tree recruitment in the forest?
  3. Assuming the rates of total tree recruitment and mortality are representative of future years, when will there be no trees left in this forest?  In 2013, there were ~2000 trees in the forest. Show your work and describe how you arrived at your estimate.  Do you think it is likely that the trees will really be gone by this time?  Why or why not?
  4. Which species had both very high mortality and very low growth during this time period? Do some research on current threats to this particular species, and summarize your research in a short paragraph.

New invaders in the Lehigh Valley? Or just summer visitors?

img_0765

Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) growing in the Lehigh Canal. Most colonies in this picture are water hyacinth, although the light green colony in the middle is water lettuce. (RK Booth, 20 Sep 2016)

Back in June an alligator was found in the Lehigh Canal. Apparently it wasn’t the first one found in the broader Lehigh Valley.

But perhaps just as surprising are a couple of potentially new plant arrivals. Or are they just summer visitors?  Last week I noticed sizable populations of two aquatic plant species, water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), in the canal at Sand Island in Bethlehem. Both of these species float unattached on the water surface, like the more common duckweeds, and they often grow in dense mats that make fishing and boating difficult, crowd out other plant species, and alter water chemistry and light penetration. To my knowledge, neither species is confirmed to occur naturalized in Pennsylvania  but it is not uncommon to see them cultivated in backyard ponds (USDA Plants: water hyacinth, water lettuce).

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-3-42-22-pm

The Lehigh Canal at Sand Island, Bethlehem PA. In September 2016, water lettuce and water hyacinth occurred in scattered colonies along much of the canal length shown in this Google image.

The populations of water lettuce and water hyacinth in the Lehigh Canal consist of scattered colonies extending from about the Hill-to-Hill Bridge (Route 378) east past the New Street Bridge (Fahy Bridge), to about the point where the Sand Island Trail meets the towpath (D&L Trail). The total distance is about a half mile.  The water lettuce appears to cover a slightly greater distance than the water hyacinth, and the plants are generally smaller in height as you head east (downstream) from the Main Street Bridge.

Water lettuce and water hyacinth are tropical or subtropical in origin. The two species have dramatically expanded their range in warmer regions in recent years, where they have cause considerable ecological and recreational impacts. However, given that both species are sensitive to freezing temperatures, they have not not been regarded as major threats in the Northeast. However, some uncertainty about this assumption has emerged in the last several years. For example, a few years ago populations were found in the lower Great Lakes (Adebayo et al. 2010), and resurveys found both species in three subsequent years (Maclsaac et al. 2016), raising concerns about the potential for the establishment of persistent populations in more northerly locations.  Although freezing typically kills individuals of both species they can produce seeds that survive cold temperatures; in fact, water lettuce seeds can still be viable after a few weeks in solid ice (Pieterse et al. 1981).  Maclsaac et al. (2016) suggested that the two species likely persist in the lower Great Lakes due to annual reintroductions by humans (both species are sold for ponds/aquariums), but also noted that at least in the case of water hyacinth, seasonal regeneration from viable seeds may be occurring.

For background, the Lehigh Canal was built in 1827 to transport anthracite coal from the upper Lehigh Valley, and it remained in operation until the early 1940s. Heavy transportation and industrial activity along the canal and river corridor, as well the development of the surrounding Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton region led to numerous environmental problems, including pollution, habitat degradation, the spread of invasive species, and eutrophication of the canal. However, the towpath along the canal is now a natural-area corridor and the old towpath is a great place to bike, run, hike, fish, bird, and observe nature from within the urban and suburban matrix of the Lehigh Valley. Near Sand Island in Bethlehem, the canal itself gets pretty green by mid-summer, as the slow-moving water warms and algae proliferate.  Invasive eurasian water milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) and curly-leaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus) are common submerged plants within the canal, and provide a favorable substrate for filamentous algae.   The habitat is ideal for water lettuce and water hyacinth, except for the fact that it freezes in the winter.

Have these species been in the canal in previous summers? Are these populations persisting, or did this expansion occur just this year?  Perhaps the two species came into the canal with the pet alligator 🙂   Although this was the first time I noticed the two floating species, I don’t frequent this particular area of the towpath often.  Will they reemerge next summer?  Are they producing viable seed? Lots of questions, and certainly something to watch. The observations have been submitted to iMap Invasives, a database of invasive species.

Of course, floating plants are also very good at moving.  Maybe not as fast as an alligator, but fast enough for me to watch a cluster of water lettuce floating down the canal.  Perhaps on its way to Easton?

Literature Cited

Adebayo, A., E. Briski, O. Kalaci, M. Hernandez, S. Ghabooli, B. Beric, F. Chan, A. Zhan, E. Fifield, T. Leadley, and H. MacIsaac. 2011. Water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) and water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) in the Great Lakes: playing with fire? Aquatic Invasions 6: 91-96. DOI 10.3391/ai.2011.6.1.11.

MacIsaac, H.J., A.P. Eyraud, B. Beric, and S. Ghabooli. 2016. Can tropical macrophytes establish in the Laurentian Great Lakes? Hydrobiologia 767: 165-174. doi:10.1007/s10750-015-2491-y

Pieterse, A. H., L. Delange, and L. Verhagen. 1981. A study on certain aspects of seed germination and growth of Pistia stratiotes L., Acta Botanica Neerlandica 30: 47–57. doi:10.1111/j.1438-8677.1981.tb00386.x

Pictures from final wetlands lab: delineation exercise at Hellertown Marsh

%d bloggers like this: