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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!

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.

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.


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.


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

Reading environmental history from peat (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 12)

Today the Pymatuning wetlands spent the entire day in the lab. Our first day without any fieldwork since the course began.  However, we made up for it by doing a bit of time travel…

Examining plant microfossils from a peat core collected from Titus Bog.

Examining plant microfossils from a peat core collected from Titus Bog.

We examined the core we collected from Titus Bog yesterday.  We subsampled the sediment and peat, sieved the samples to isolate plant macrofossils (i.e., seeds, leaves, needles, etc.), and identified and tallied the microfossils to determine how the vegetation of the wetland has changed over the past 8000 or 9000 years.  The students determined that the site was occupied by a shallow lake prior to the establishment of the modern peatland, with submerged and floating leaved aquatic plants like Najas (water nymph), Nuphar (spatterdock), and Nymphaea (water lily) growing in the deeper portions of the littoral zone. Emergents like Cladium (sawgrass), Rhynchospora (beaked sedge), and other sedges likely occupied the lake margin along with small amounts of Sphagnum moss. The area abruptly became a floating peatland about 350 years ago, when Sphagnum became dominant.  The upland vegetation around the site contained Tsuga canadensis (hemlock), Pinus strobus (white pine), and Betula alleghaniensis (yellow birch) for much of the record. Most of the species in the paleoecological record have been observed at the wetlands we have visited during the past two weeks of the course; in fact, quite a few are the “must-know” list.

Summary macrofossil diagram from Titus Bog, PA.  Numbers per 10cm3 are plotted against depth in the core. Ages, in years before present, were estimated from Ireland and Booth (2011). The microfossil record was put together in one afternoon by seven students, with each student analyzing about 10 samples.

Summary macrofossil diagram from Titus Bog, PA. Numbers per 10cm3 are plotted against depth (cm) in the core. Ages, in years before present, were estimated from Ireland and Booth (2011). The microfossil record was put together in one afternoon by seven students, with each student analyzing about 10 samples.

Our age estimates for the record are tentative and come from a broader study of peatland development at the site by Ireland and Booth (2011).  We will discuss our paleoecological record in class tomorrow, along with the Ireland and Booth study, emphasizing the implications for understanding long-term wetland development and hydroseral succession.

Boggin’ (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 11)

Exploring Titus Bog.

Exploring Titus Bog.

After spending considerable time in marshes and swamps over the past two weeks, the Pymatuning wetlanders spent much of today in a bog (well, as they all know it is technically a poor fen). We drove to Titus Bog, located about an hour northeast of the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, and Tim Lyons of the Botanical Society of Western Pennsylvania accompanied us into the bog. The moat swamp surrounding the bog was fun to cross, as the water levels were quite high from the recent rain, and several students were delighted to have the opportunity to get a little water into their waders again.

Wetland Ecology class collecting a peat core from Titus Bog.

Wetland Ecology class collecting a peat core from Titus Bog.

Peatland ecosystems are quite unique. They leave a detailed record of their own development through time, recording past changes in plant communities, hydrology, and other environmental conditions within the stratigraphy of their waterlogged peat. To examine the paleoecological history of Titus Bog, we collected a peat core capturing most of the upper 9 meters. The students did a great job collecting the core, and tomorrow we will carefully examine the peat and sediments under the microscope to reconstruct how the present-day wetland came to be. We will use the record of past vegetation change as a springboard for a broader discussion of wetland development.

Bog copper butterflies. Mating individuals are shown to the left and upper wing coloration shown on right. Photographs by Tim Lyons.

Bog copper butterflies. Mating individuals are shown to the left and upper wing coloration shown on right. Photographs by Tim Lyons.

After collecting the peat core, we hiked around the surface of the floating peat mat, where we saw many typical bog plant species including several orchids, cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccus), leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata), podgrass (Scheuchzeria palustris), bog bean (Menyanthes trifoliata), and of course lots of Sphagnum moss. We were lucky enough to be on the bog during the brief window that the bog copper (Lycaena epixanthe) was active and mating. These small butterflies occur exclusively in these acidic peatland habitats, where cranberries serve as the host plant.

After we finished our exploration of Titus Bog, we went on a short hike to a very small peatland that has a nice population of purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea). The students have now seen all of their “must-know” plant species in the field.

The microbes are in charge (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 4)

A student clearly trying to closely examine the obligate anaerobic bacteria.  Or he fell in a hole.

A student clearly trying to closely examine the obligate anaerobic bacteria. Or he fell in a hole. (Photo: AS)

After a breakfast of energy-rich waffles, the Pymatuning wetlanders slowly descended the rungs of the redox ladder into the world of wetland biogeochemistry. The microbes rule this world, and we examined the ways they make living by examining nitrogen, iron, manganese, sulfur, and carbon cycling in wetlands.  Electron acceptors, photosynthesis, oxidation, reduction, aerobic respiration, diffusion, mineralization, nitrification, denitrification, sulfur bacteria, photosynthetic sulfur bacteria, redox potential, ferric iron, ferrous iron, nitrogen fixation, sulfer-reducing bacteria, extended glycolysis, heterotrophs, chemoautotrophs, facultative anaerobes, obligate anaerobes, methanogenic bacteria, cation exchange capacity,  and other trophic-genic-ifications until our brains were full and it was time to cool off in the marsh.

Collecting vegetation cover data at Pymatuning Creek Marsh.

Collecting vegetation cover data at Pymatuning Creek Marsh.

We spent much of the afternoon at Pymatuning Creek Marsh, where the students established transects along the moisture gradient from the edge of the wetland to the interior, and quantified the distribution of vegetation, water-table depth, and pH. While the students collected data I had a little time to quietly explore the marsh a bit, and I took a few pictures…

My least favorite organism in the marsh today. (Deer fly, Chrysops sp.)

My least favorite organism in the marsh today. (Deer fly, Chrysops sp.)

It was hotter than yesterday and the deer flies (Chrysops sp.) were relentless. Much blood was lost. But we obtained the necessary data and managed to collect a few more plant specimens.  This group of students has a fantastic attitude and they are all quite a lot of fun. We returned to the lab to press plants and sort out the unknown plant species that they encountered along the transects.

Tomorrow we will explore the lacustrine wetlands of Pymatuning reservoir, and visit a swamp and some shallow water environments to round out our “must-know” plant list for the first week of class.

And a few more students are now contributing to the twitter feed: #PLEwetlands

"I'll carry this because it looks cool"

“I’ll carry this because it looks cool”

“It only gets a little deeper” (Pymatuning wetlands 2015, day 3)

Best picture of me ever.

Best picture of me ever.

In the morning the Pymatuning wetland students continued learning about wetland hydrology, particularly how different wetland types are defined by differences in hydrology, including differences in hydroperiod, water source, and hydrodynamics. We also discussed how ecosystem processes like decomposition, primary production, and nutrient cycling are affected by differences in hydrology. Things then got a bit peaty, with a discussion of some of the unique features of peatland hydrology.

The students learned how to setup and launch data-logging pressure transducers, and suspended these in PVC surface wells in preparation for our fieldwork in the afternoon. We also setup four camera traps and brainstormed a bit about how we wanted to position them to assess differences in animal activity within a few microhabitats in a marsh. They clearly want to “capture” a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus).

Installing a well in Pymatuning Creek Marsh.

Installing a well in Pymatuning Creek Marsh.

Pressing Onoclea sensibilis.

Pressing Onoclea sensibilis.

We spent most of the afternoon at Pymatuning Creek Marsh in Ohio. It was a sunny and warm day in the field, although the deer flies were particularly abundant and thirsty. We all donated a little energy to the ecosystem, but it was well worth it for the opportunity to add so many plants to our “must-know” list. The marsh was very dry this year, and walking through it was much easier than in years past; however, a few students did manage to find the holes in the muck. We installed wells in areas characterized by different vegetation, including an area with abundant spatterdock and standing water, and an area dominated by willow shrubs. The students also mounted camera traps in different microhabitats, and began their plant collections. We returned to the lab to press plants.

Tomorrow we will return to the marsh to collect quantitative data on the plant communities along a moisture gradient…


Is this a wetland? (Pymatuning Wetlands 2015, Day 1)

Today began a three-week, field-intensive course in wetland ecology at Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology. It is my fourth year teaching this course and it is still a highlight of my year. This year’s class seems to be a really great and engaged group of upperclass undergraduates, with a range of expertise spanning environmental geology, environmental biology, ecology and evolution, and biochemistry. I look forward to getting to know them all over the next few weeks.

Soils collected along a gradient from a wetland to an upland.  Can you place them in the correct order along this gradient?

Soils collected along a gradient from a wetland to an upland. Can you place them in the correct order along this gradient?

Substantial rain over the past few days occurred here in the Pymatuning region, with lots of localized flooding. Today was also unusually cold for this time of year.  So we got off to a wet and cold start, but it didn’t slow us down.  Needless to say, both the wetlands and the uplands on our tour of local sites this morning were quite wet!  Wetland “hydrology” was everywhere! We discussed the definition of a wetland and how to identify them. The unusually wet conditions highlighted the need to look at more than just the present hydrology, and to examine the longer-term indicators of wetland conditions: the vegetation and soils. We also observed aerenchyma tissue in the stem and rhizome of spatterdock, discussed the likely composition of gas bubbles rising out of a marsh soil, speculated on the causes of tree mortality in a recently flooded area, and examined wetland and upland soil characteristics.  And of course we identified a few plants…most importantly poison ivy.  As I mentioned to the students, poison ivy will not be on the “must-know” plant list for the exams, but their identification skills will instead be tested in more “real-world” ways.

In the classroom we had an overview of wetland definitions, wetland types, and the ecosystem services that wetlands provide humanity. Later in the afternoon, the students utilized the FWS wetland mapper to examine the classification and description of the wetlands we visited earlier in the day.

Tomorrow we head to Morgan Swamp… where we are guaranteed to get wet!

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