Last September, two invasive aquatic plants, water lettuce (Pistia stratiotes) and water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), were discovered in the Lehigh Canal in Bethlehem PA. Both species are floating plants, like duckweeds but much larger, and they often grow in dense mats in tropical and subtropical regions. Although this was the first confirmed occurrence in natural habitat within Pennsylvania, both species are sensitive to freezing temperatures so they have not not been regarded as major threats in the Northeast. A description of the discovery of these populations and some background on the species, including a discussion of recent work suggesting that the overwintering potential may be greater than previously thought, can be found in my post from last year (New invaders in the Lehigh Valley? Or Just Summer Visitors?).
The discovery last year prompted several questions. In particular, are these populations really persisting from year-to-year and therefore surviving freezing temperatures? I suspected that they were introduced last summer from someone’s pond and that they would not survive the winter. However, the winter was mild and the recent discovery of some overwintering populations in the lower Great Lakes gave me pause. I road my bike along the canal towpath last week to have a look.
I was wrong. Both species have overwintered. A harbinger of things to come? Below are some pictures, and I’ll update this post with more later in the summer.
20 Jan 2017
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
18 January 2017
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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
Students in general ecology (EES-152) resurveyed a portion of the Lehigh Experimental Forest, to assess changes in tree growth, mortality, and recruitment since 2013. No new trees greater than 1.4 m high were documented, and both growth and mortality varied considerably among species. Over 500 trees were measured, and the plot above shows data for the dominant trees (those with >15 individuals included in the survey).
We will use these data as a springboard for discussion of processes controlling forest dynamics, and will examine some of these issues in greater depth during our discussions and future lab activities.
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 among the different species? Why was this expressed as the average change in basal area per tree, as opposed to the total change in basal area for all individuals of the species? 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. 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.