November 2016 AIS Spotlight

Letter from the Director

Hello from MAISRC!

nickI’ve had a very busy three months traveling around Minnesota as the new co-director of MAISRC. I have been meeting with people to better understand the challenges we face and the opportunities we have to address our AIS problems. You have shared a wide range of reactions with me – from hopeful to hopeless. I understand that it has been frustrating for all of us trying to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species recently. Each week seems to bring with it a new species to a new lake, and consequently, new challenges.

However, overwhelmingly, the people of Minnesota are hopeful and eager to build partnerships and work together toward solutions. After all, that is the Minnesota way! I have seen this sentiment across the spectrum of stakeholders, from individuals, lake associations, non-profits, local units of government, counties, state programs, and federal agencies. While our specific experiences and roles vary, we are all in the same fight. I often say that AIS have had years, decades, or in some cases a century head start – give us a chance and we will find a solution.

This battle we find ourselves in must be fought, in part, with ambitious and innovative research. We can prevent, control, and manage AIS threats, while promoting our economy and protecting our natural resources. Along with many of you, we are working hard to figure out how. 

I have heard you loud and clear and appreciate your encouragement and commitment to MAISRC.  More than 200 of you came to our annual Research and Management Showcase in September, and hundreds replied to our research needs assessment survey – thank you! It is rare to have such an engaged group of passionate stakeholders to work with. With your support, MAISRC will continue to work as hard as we can to develop research-based solutions to our AIS problems.

Time to get back to the lab…


nick signature

Dr. Nick Phelps
Co-director, MAISRC

Is hybrid watermilfoil the next resistant invader?

MAISRC researcher Dr. Dan Larkin and his team recently kicked off a new project that aims to find out if hybrid watermilfoil is as big of a problem as some suspect. This project will answer this frequently asked question by quantifying differences in performance and competition between Eurasian, native, and hybrid milfoil.

milfoil tanksSince the arrival of hybrid milfoil in Minnesota, there has been evidence – some anecdotal, some shown in the lab – regarding its increased invasiveness and resistance to herbicide. Since it is continuing to spread throughout northern states, and because Eurasian watermilfoil is already a challenging plant to manage, now is a critical time to learn more about this species. By assessing its invasiveness under different environmental conditions, this research will help prioritize hybrid watermilfoil management efforts, like how to make herbicide treatments most effective.

The first goal of the project is to evaluate competition between hybrid and parental watermilfoil species. To test whether hybrids really are growing bigger, faster, and stronger than their native or non-native parents, 30 tanks were set up with three sets of plants in each. The tanks are large enough to act as a mesocosm which mimics natural conditions more accurately than a laboratory can. Within the set, each species is rooted separately to ensure that they’re not competing for soil resources, but placed next to each other so that the native, Eurasian, and hybrid milfoils do all compete for other resources like sunlight and carbon dioxide.

Later phases of this project will include quantifying the differences in growth between species under different environmental conditions and investigating differences in phenology of each species. These experiments work to establish performance under different water depths and nutrient levels, which are key environmental factors that can influence invasiveness. They are also significant elements of what’s been missing in smaller lab studies or anecdotal accounts. To learn more about Eurasian watermilfoil research at MAISRC, please click here

Early detection tool developed for invasive mussels and their larvae

MAISRC zebra musselsscientists have developed a new assay that can detect invasive mussels and their microscopic larvae, and distinguish between zebra and quagga mussels in the same sample – even when their numbers are very low, such as in samples from newly infested lakes.

Dr. Mike McCartney, Dr. Jessica Eichmiller, and student Sendréa Best collaborated on development of this early detection tool.  Early detection is critical because it provides a better chance for early intervention which may prevent the establishment of a nascent infestation.

To test for the presence of invasive mussels, this method is being applied to samples from plankton tows – a common method in which a fine mesh net is pulled through the water to collect microscopic organisms. The samples are analyzed using a quantitative PCR (qPCR) instrument. After only a few hours, this new assay will reveal whether zebra or quagga mussels are present, as well as estimate their abundance.

Until now, the industry standard for early detection required viewing samples of water using cross-polarized light microscopy, which is effective but very time-consuming. There had been no method for distinguishing zebra from quagga mussel veligers, which have a very similar size and shape. MAISRC researchers are now pursuing this molecular approach which appears to be a promising alternative: not only does it discriminate between zebra and quagga mussel DNA, but it is much easier to efficiently analyze multiple samples at once.edna

Quagga mussel populations have exploded in the lower Great Lakes, replacing zebra mussels. It’s crucial that Minnesota has an early detection method like this that can be readily applied to lake, river, and stream samples.

Going forward, researchers will further refine the assay by conducting Limit of Detection trials, which account for other factors that could influence results such as non-target planktonic organisms, detritus, and dissolved contaminants.  

Learn more about MAISRC research on zebra mussels here.


A day in the life of a MAISRC researcher: Sampling for Heterosporis at Cass Lake heterosporis

What does studying the effects of Heterosporis on perch look like? Check out these photos of MAISRC PhD student Megan Tomamichel conducting field work at Cass Lake to get an idea. Megan is partnering with the Minnesota DNR to pick the gill nets from their large lake sampling. They also record the length, weight, and sex data as they process the fish. To search for Heterosporis, Megan filets the fish on site to look for the characteristic freezer burn appearance. Any Heterosporis that’s present is saved for future use in MAISRC’s pathogen lab on campus.

Each fish also gets its own ID number so their disease status can be tracked once further tests – such as wet mounts where they can look for spores and qPCR analysis – can be conducted.

The goal of this Heterosporis research is to provide an initial estimate of the threat posed to the harvestable biomass of yellow perch and establish timelines for population-level impacts. Heterosporis damages the skeletal muscle of fish, renders them unfit for human consumption, and can result in direct mortality. Learn more about this disease here.

First class of AIS Detectors certifieddetectors

Thirteen residents of Brainerd and elsewhere across the Northland are now Minnesota’s first certified Detectors for aquatic invasive species in Minnesota lakes. 

The AIS Detectors program is a new partnership opportunity developed by University of Minnesota Extension and MAISRC. It is training citizen scientists to identify numerous aquatic invasive species, including plants such as Eurasian watermilfoil and starry stonewort, invertebrates such as zebra mussels, and fish such as silver carp. Participants are also trained on identifying the native lookalike species that may be found in the same area.

This group of recently certified Detectors participated in the pilot test of the program. The full AIS Detectors program will launch to the public in early 2017. To learn more about this program, please click here.


Showcase presentations now available

Thanks to everyone who attended the 2016 Aquatic Invasive Species Research and Management Showcase last month! We hope you enjoyed the sessions and gained valuable knowledge that enhanced your understanding of AIS issues and the research MAISRC is conducting. If you missed out or would like to review the presentations, they can be found online here.

MAISRC student wins Conservation Sciences Graduate Student of the Year award

Congratulations to Melaney Dunne for winning this prestigious award! Melaney, who is working toward her master’s degree with MAISRC, won this award based on her academic performance, outreach efforts, and presentations at professional meetings. We are pleased to announce that this is the second year in a row that a MAISRC student has won!

Farewell and thank you to researcher Dr. Dan Zielinski

MAISRC would like to thank and acknowledge research associate Dr. Dan Zielinski for his many contributions to Asian carp research. We offer our congratulations to him on his new position with the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission in Michigan. Dr. Zielinski’s unique background of civil engineering and water resources culminated in his research on sound, air, and modified lock and dam operations to block the advance of invasive carp. While Dan will continue to assist MAISRC part-time with the completion of our lock and dam modeling work, we wish him the best in his new position!

Welcome to new researchers

MAISRC is excited to welcome five new researchers to our team!

Dr. Ranjan Muthukrishnan is a postdoc working in Dan Larkin’s lab on aquatic invasive plants. Carolyn Malecha is a graduate student working in Przemek Bajer’s lab on common carp biocontrol. Paolo Magnone is a graduate student working in Mike Sadowsky’s lab on the metagenomic approaches to control AIS. Dr. Anvar Gilmanov is a research associate joining Peter Sorensen’s lab to continue efforts involved with deterring Asian carps through locks and dams. Dr. Ping Wang will be working part-time on eDNA. Welcome, all!


Thanks to Brunswick Freshwater Boat Group

MAISRC is delighted to thank the Brunswick Freshwater Boat Group – maker of Lund boats – for their generous support of our research! By assisting us with the purchase of a boat for aquatic invasive plant research, we are able to conduct field work on starry stonewort throughout the state and better stretch our research dollars.

You can lend your support to MAISRC's solutions-oriented work by donating today. Private donations truly make a difference to our work and provide us with the flexibility to meet critical needs as they arise. Thank you!