Aquatic Microbial Ecology at the Flathead Lake Biological Station

This summer, I had the opportunity to take Aquatic Microbial Ecology at the Flathead Lake Biological Station. It fit perfectly into my global theme of resources and sustainability. As a terrestrial wildlife biology major, I don’t spend a whole lot of my time in my classes learning about water. This class gave me insight into how complicated and special aquatic ecosystems are, and also how important they are in the ecosystem web. My challenge is about how we should monitor ecosystems to prevent further destruction from climate change and invasive species. 

Before taking this class, I mostly thought about the cycling of the land – how the earth gives nutrients to the plants, how plants give nutrients to animals, and so on. I knew what water was important, but I didn’t know just how important until I got this field experience in the Flathead Watershed. 

The class started with us learning about how water health is measured. There are countless things that you can look at in an aquatic ecosystem: pH, biomass, chlorophyll, nitrite, nitrate, ammonia, phosphorus, etc. To see how the ecology of lakes differ, the class went to Echo Lake, Swan Lake, and Flathead Lake and tested at all different depths. After our water collection was done, we brought the samples back to the lab and tested for a variety of factors, then compared them in projects. We found that each lake had its own unique profile. Echo Lake, which is fed by groundwater only, had massive amounts of chlorophyll. The Flathead had an immense curve in nitrogen as you descended through the depths due to the amount of organisms in its surface waters.

When I started this class in June, Montana was experiencing a surge in flooding due to heavy rainfall. All of the lakes in the area pushed at the edges of their shores; in some cases, it drove people out of their homes for several days. The rivers were bloated and overfilled to the point where you couldn’t see people’s docks. Both the Swan and the Flathead lakes are fed by snowmelt and glacial runoff that form into rivers. The lakes had a unique “belt” of silt and dirt at the depth at which their respective rivers fed into them. We could see in our data that the flooding changed the normal ecology of both lakes. They were being mixed and turned over in a much greater capacity than they normally would. Even in our two week class, we saw the effects of climate change on aquatic systems in our own home state. This has given me a new diverse perspective on what it means to monitor ecosystems. We need to all work together and fit the pieces together from many different places in order to get a full view on how climate change is affecting our world.

From a leadership perspective, this class taught me that there is an immense importance in working together. As a future terrestrial biologist, I will have insights into how the land is doing when it comes to climate change. I will have to work together with marine biologists and limnologists on how their part of the world is doing so we can present a full review of just what climate change is doing, and how we can fix it as a group of people. Togetherness will play a key role in how we work to combat climate change in our world. It will involve many different parties, and a keen ear and willingness to listen, then implement is paramount to our success as biologists. 

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