Science: Baseline Comparison of Island and Mainland Algae

In the summer of 2013 research of algae began on Rabbit Island led by Professor of Microbiology, Tim Gsell, PhD, of Governors State University. Recently his team of graduate and undergraduate students reported initial results which are posted below for review. 

Background: The goal of this study is to quantify baseline microbial populations from island and mainland sites to create a foundation for future comparison. Dr. Gsell’s team hypothesized that annual data analysis will allow for identification of changes in microbial populations which will subsequently allow researchers to draw conclusions about Lake Superior water quality, nutrient loading, temperature changes, sources of pollution, fish habitat, and various other interwoven natural relationships. 

Microbial characteristics of large bodies of water, and particularly the negative consequences of imbalances of nutrient loading and pollution, frequently become headlines. Lake Erie, for example, the fourth of five lakes in the Great Lakes drainage, suffers annually from runoff from upstream farmland and fertilizer. Similarly, in Lake Superior in 2012, a small algal bloom off the coast of Wisconsin was believed to be the first documented bloom in the lake’s 10,000 year history. 

The subtext of this study of algae on Rabbit Island does not overlook such facts, of course, and is rooted in a belief that objective monitoring is required to quantify change over time and relate complex variables systematically. Further, Rabbit Island–situated remotely, undeveloped, uncut, and within the largest, cleanest body of fresh water in the world–serves as an ideal laboratory to measure changes of watershed scale that are manifested microscopically. 

Perhaps most important, however, is the idea that creating art on Rabbit Island, and everywhere else, requires consideration of the externalities of one’s creation relative to larger systems of organization. After all, the larger the scale of consideration of one’s creative force, the more classic the resulting actions have the potential to be. 

Here are the initial results. The following is a list of what was detected in the algal blooms around the island in comparison to the shoreline during July of 2013.

+ Mainland Samples: Obtained from two points in Lake Superior near the boat landing at Big Traverse Bay, roughly eight miles north of Rabbit Island. These samples had the following cyanobacterial/algae makeup:

Sample 1: Sphaerocystis, Oocystis, Synedra, Fragillaria, Nitschia, Oscillatoria.

Sample 2: Euglena, Ulothrix, Coelastrum, Chlorella, Actinastrum, Diatoms, Synedra, Fragillaria, Asterionella.

+ Rabbit Island Shoreline Samples: Obtained near the island landing and near the northernmost point. These samples had the following cyanobacterial/algae makeup:

Sample 1: Mainly Ulothrix with additional presence of Zygnema, Chlorcocum, Nitschia, Cyclotella, Navicula, Stauroneis, Spirochaetes.

Sample 2:  Mainly UIothrix, with additional presence of Ankistrodesmus, Pamella, Microspora, Actinastrum.

Discussion of Findings: Professer Gsell notes that his team found many crossover organisms found between the sites, which would be expected. However, some differences were seen in this rough first analysis, which will be interesting to chart over time and relate to other measured variables such as water temperatures, water clarity, other measurements of pollution, etc 

Some potentially confounding methods must also be controlled for in the future in accordance with scientific principle. For instance, it was not easy to discern if the density of algal blooms varied due to the different depths where samples were obtained. A more comprehensive study using quantitative methods, weekly summer samplings and standardized lab procedures is being designed based on these initial findings. 

Photographs: Top: Algae adhering to shoreline rocks on the northwest shoulder of Rabbit Island, 2012. Second: A non-fluorescent image of a filamentous green algae under light microscopy. Third: Fluorescence microscopy using DAPI stain on a biofilm sample exhibiting diatomsFourth: Under Ultraviolet light Chlorophyll A containing microbes shine bright red without staining due to their native properties.

Microscopic photo credit: Professor Timothy Gsell, PhD. 

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July 14, 2014