CHICAGO -- Cornell University researchers have confirmed two new exotic species, both about the size of a flea, have established themselves in the Great Lakes, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The arrival and staying power of both species in western Lake Erie remains a mystery to scientists who say it is the farthest north either has been tracked in the Western Hemisphere. Although neither is considered an invasive species because they have been found in low abundance compared with native zooplankton, they now join the more than 180 foreign species that have crept into the Great Lakes, which has one of the highest numbers of non-indigenous species in the world.
While experts say their introduction to the planet's largest system of fresh water is alarming, the discovery validates arguments from public officials and environmental groups who say monitoring is necessary for early detection.
Cornell has been monitoring zooplankton populations in all five of the Great Lakes since 2012, but the new species were located through a separate program funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has provided billions of dollars in federal funding for conservation and restoration. Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate voted to fund the program with $300 million, breaking with President Donald Trump's proposed budget that sought to cut funds to $30 million. The appropriations bill still needs to be signed by Trump by Oct. 1 to secure funding, but at a public meeting earlier this week Chris Korleski, director of the EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office based in Chicago, said he was "optimistic."
"We now have information about the presence of a non-native species that we didn't have before" and wouldn't have had without the restoration program, Korleski said Wednesday.
Every spring and summer, Cornell researchers in the EPA's research vessel, the Lake Guardian, tow nets across 72 areas in the Great Lakes to monitor zooplankton populations. But in recent years, as part of the restoration program, they've searched closer to shore, sifting through Lake Erie's pea green waters. While non-native zooplankton species are considered rare, Cornell researchers have discovered four in the past three years, all in western Lake Erie.
"Generally speaking, western Lake Erie has the most diverse assemblages of these species out there, probably because of how nutrient rich it is, and how different it is than the other Great Lakes," said Cornell taxonomist Joe Connolly. "It's shallow, it's relatively warm and you get a lot of strange things there."
Plankton serve as the base of the food chain because they are the staple of several small fish species' diets and they help sustain the Great Lakes' $7 billion fishing industry.
Cornell's team of six trained taxonomists examine thousands of samples through high-powered microscopes. If they find an unfamiliar organism, they will dissect it with a needle and try to distinguish its features.
"When they see something unusual they definitely get kind of excited and try to figure out what it is," said James Watkins, a senior research associate. "It's often a big detective story. You have to get all the background information and take it apart before you come out and announce it."