Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2018OH548B

Can health of aquatic wildlife indicate the quality of water resources?

Institute: Ohio
Year Established: 2018 Start Date: 2018-03-01 End Date: 2019-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $21,636 Total Non-Federal Funds: $37,710

Principal Investigators: Jeanine Refsnider

Abstract: Harmful algal blooms (HABs) occur almost every year in the Western Basin of Lake Erie, and are a major contributor to the decline in quality of Ohio’s water resources. Although the algal toxin microcystin, which is produced during HAB events, is known to be harmful to humans and pets if ingested or inhaled, almost nothing is known about its effects on the aquatic wildlife living in water bodies affected by HABs. Yet, critically, the health of aquatic wildlife is likely a key measure of the health of aquatic systems and the quality of water resources. That is, water resources that support healthy wildlife populations are, themselves, healthy. Many species of freshwater reptiles and amphibians that live in Lake Erie and adjacent wetlands are exposed to HABs almost every year. These animals may be directly harmed through ingestion of microcystin in the water, or they may experience indirect effects if physiological stress caused by algal blooms leads to depressed immune function. The purpose of this study is to determine whether wildlife health can be a used as an indicator of the quality of water resources. Specifically, we are testing whether HABs cause physiological stress and/or depressed immune function in several common species of freshwater turtles, snakes, and frogs. If we find that HABs-exposed wildlife exhibits poor health compared to wildlife from sites not exposed to HABs, then this would provide strong evidence that health of aquatic wildlife can be used as an indicator of aquatic system health and water quality. Our research will consist of two complimentary field- and laboratory-based studies. First, will collect blood samples from wild populations of common freshwater turtle, snake, and frog species in sites exposed to high levels of microcystin from HABs, and also in control, unexposed sites. We will compare physiological stress levels and three measures of immune function of animals from HABs-exposed vs. -unexposed sites. Second, we will conduct a controlled, laboratory exposure experiment in which we will temporarily expose na turtles and frog larvae to microcystin concentrations reflective of those found during Lake Erie HABs. We will again compare stress levels and immune function between animals experimentally exposed to microcystin vs. control, unexposed animals. We hypothesize that animals exposed to microcystin will exhibit increased physiological stress and depressed immune function compared to unexposed, control animals. This study will provide the first baseline data on sub-lethal effects of Lake Erie’s HABs in aquatic wildlife, and it will test whether several measures of aquatic wildlife health are correlated with quality of water resources. The information gained during this study will substantially increase our knowledge of how HABs impact the integrity of Ohio’s water resources through effects on health of aquatic wildlife.