Great Lakes Ecology

Understanding ecological processes in the Great Lakes is critical for managing water quality, fisheries, and other ecosystem services.

CIGLR collaborates with the Ecosystem Dynamics branch at NOAA GLERL to collect long-term ecological data and conduct fundamental research on ecosystem processes, with the ultimate goal of understanding Great Lakes food webs from microbes to fishes. This information helps us understand and predict the impacts of human activities on the ecosystem, such as nutrient pollution, invasive species, and climate change. Understanding how the Great Lakes function and respond to change is critical for protecting and managing water quality, fisheries, and other ecosystem services that attract millions of residents and visitors to the region. Our research team actively communicates research results to decision-making, stakeholder, and education groups to inform resource management and promote science-based stewardship of the Great Lakes.

CIGLR’s Great Lakes Ecology research is organized into two sub-projects:

1. Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER)

CIGLR partners with NOAA GLERL to continue the Long-Term Research program they have led in southern Lake Michigan since the 1970s. Our team is continuing to collect long-term observations of key water quality variables like temperature, dissolved oxygen, nutrients, and chlorophyll, and integrating them with short-term studies for understanding ecosystem change. Our experimental research is focused on the primary biotic factor shaping ecosystem change in Lake Michigan – invasive zebra and quagga mussels. Filtration by the mussels has reduced phytoplankton abundance, increased water clarity, altered nutrient cycling, and changed the food web, putting the valuable sport fishery at risk and exacerbating nearshore growths of nuisance algae. We are continuing the lake bottom surveys that began in 1980 to track invasive mussel populations and follow the concurrent decline of native crustaceans that are an important food source for many Great Lakes fish species. Through these lake bottom surveys and in-lake experiments, we are assessing the health, reproductive status, and growth rates of invasive mussels at various depths to help understand the recent population expansion to deeper water. We are also studying the food web, from plankton to fish, and relating changes observed over the past 30 years to invasive mussel impacts and tributary nutrient inputs.

2. Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI)

CIGLR also partners with NOAA GLERL to study each of the Great Lakes on a rotational basis as part of the U.S. EPA-led Coordinated Science Monitoring Initiative. Our team’s work within the CSMI program applies similar observations, analysis, and process studies as those conducted for the Lake Michigan LTR program. After contributing to the CSMI in Lake Huron in 2012 and Lake Michigan in 2015, we turned back to Lake Huron in 2017 to take a major leadership role in defining the spatial structure of the whole food web.

Our 2017 CSMI studies in Lake Huron include:

Lake bottom surveys and mussel growth experiments We are conducting lake bottom surveys at 125 sites in Lake Huron to analyze the community composition and biomass of sediment-dwelling organisms, including invasive zebra and quagga mussels, and a year-long in-lake experiment that will give seasonal and annual estimates of invasive mussel growth at different depths.

Food web dynamics We are relating food web structure to nutrients, light, temperature, and chlorophyll in Lake Huron. To accomplish this, we are using a variety of advanced technology such as the Plankton Survey System that includes a laser optical plankton counter, fisheries acoustics, and the Multiple Opening-Closing Net Environmental Sampling System (MOCNESS). In addition, the Slocum glider is being deployed for 16 weeks to collect autonomous measurements of temperature, chlorophyll, and light, and help track the impacts of nutrient loading. These observational data are being complemented by nutrient loading and dispersal models to help understand how nutrients are influencing the Lake Huron food web. This study will improve our understanding of predator-prey relationships, identify long-term trends in ecosystem food web health, and inform whole-lake ecological forecasts.

Stay up-to-date on the most recent news and scientific media generated from our Great Lakes Ecology research here:


CIGLR Spotlight Series: Let’s meet CIGLR Research Technician David Wells. In a ‘CIGLR Minute’ David highlights the work and research that he does at CIGLR and talks about what he enjoys most about his job and working on the Great Lakes.


Bootsma, H.A., M.D. Rowe, C.N. Brooks and H.A. Vanderploeg. 2015. Commentary: The need for model development related to Cladophora and nutrient management in Lake Michigan. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 41:7-15. (DOI:10.1016/j.jglr.2015.03.023). Bootsma_etal.pdf

Bunnell, D.B., R.P. Barbiero, S.A. Ludsin, C.P. Madenjian, G.J. Warren, D.M. Dolan, T.O. Brenden, R. Briland, O.T. Gorman, J.X. He, T.H. Johengen, B.F. Lantry, B.M. Lesht, T.F. Nalepa, S.C. Riley, C.M. Riseng, T.J. Treska, I. Tsehaye, D.M. Warner, M.G. Walsh and B.C. Weidel. 2014. Changing ecosystem dynamics in the Laurentian Great Lakes: exploring evidence for bottom-up and top-down regulation. BioScience. 64(1):26-39. (DOI:10.1093/biosci/bit001). Bunnell_etal.pdf

Butts, E. and H.J. Carrick. 2017. Phytoplankton seasonality along a gradient of temperate lakes: Convergence in taxonomic composition during winter ice-cover. Northeastern Naturalist. 24:167-187 (IGLR # 82). (DOI:10.1656/045.024.s719). Butts_etal.pdf

Carrick, H.J., E. Butts, D. Daniels, M. Fehringer, C. Frazier, G.L. Fahnenstiel, S.A. Pothoven and H.A. Vanderploeg. 2015. Variation in the abundance of pico, nano, and microplankton in Lake Michigan: Historic and basin-wide comparisons. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 41(Supplement 3):63-74. (DOI:1016/j.jglr.2015.09.009). Carrick_etal.pdf

Denef, V.J., R.S. Mueller, E. Chiang, J.R. Liebig and H.A. Vanderploeg. 2016. Chloroflexi CL500-11 populations that predominate deep lake hypolimnion bacterioplankton rely on nitrogen-rich DOM metabolism and C1 compound oxidation. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 82(5):1423-1432. (DOI:10.1128/AEM.03014-15). Denef_etal.pdf

Denef, V.J., H.J. Carrick, J. Cavaletto, E. Chiang, T.H. Johengen and H.A. Vanderploeg. 2017. Lake bacterial assemblage composition is sensitive to biological disturbance caused by an invasive filter feeder. mSphere. 2(3). (DOI:10.1128/mSphere.00189-17). Denef2_etal.pdf

Johengen, T.H., H.A. Vanderploeg and J.R. Liebig. 2013. Effects of algal composition, seston stoichiometry, and feeding rate on zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) nutrient excretion in two Laurentian Great LakesIn, Quagga and Zebra Mussels: Biology, Impacts, and Control, Second Edition. T.F. Nalepa and D.W. Schlosser (Eds.). CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 445-459 pp. Johengen_etal.pdf

Lavrentyev, P.J., H.A. Vanderploeg , G. Franze, D.H. Chacin, J.R. Liebig and T.H. Johengen. 2014. Microzooplankton distribution, dynamics, and trophic interactions relative to phytoplankton and quagga mussels in Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron. Journal Great Lakes Research. 40(Supplement 1):95-105. (DOI:10.1016/j.jglr.2013.11.012). Lavrentyev_etal.pdf

Millie, D.F., G.R. Weckman, G.L. Fahnenstiel, H.J. Carrick, E. Ardjmand, W.A. Young II, M. Sayers, and R.A. Shuchman. 2014. Using artificial intelligence for CyanoHAB niche modeling: discovery and visualization of Microcystis-environmental associations within western Lake Erie. Canadian Journal of Fisheries & Aquatic Sciences (selected as an Editor’s Choice article for 2014). 71:1642-1654. (DOI:). Millie_etal.pdf

Nalepa, T.F., D.L. Fanslow, G.A. Lang, K. Mabrey and M. Rowe. 2014. Lake-wide benthic surveys in Lake Michigan in 1994-95, 2000, 2005, and 2010: Abundances of the amphipod Diporeia spp. and abundances and biomass of the mussels Dreissena polymorpha and Dreissena rostriformis bugensis. NOAA Technical Memorandum GLERL-164. Nalepa_etal.pdf

Ptachnikova, R., H.A. Vanderploeg and J.F. Cavaletto. 2015. Big versus small: Does Bythotrephes longimanus predation regulate spatial distribution of another invasive predatory cladoceran, Cercopagis pengoi? Journal of Great Lakes Research. 41(Supplement 3):143-149. (DOI:10.1016/j.jglr.2015.10.006). Ptacnikova_etal.pdf

Rowe, M.D., D.R. Obenour, T.F. Nalepa, H.A. Vanderploeg, F. Yousef and W.C. Kerfoot. 2015. Mapping the spatial distribution of the biomass and filter-feeding effect of invasive dreissenid mussels on the winter-spring phytoplankton bloom in Lake Michigan. Freshwater Biology. 60:2270-2285. (DOI:10.1111/fwb.12653). Rowe_etal.pdf

Rowe, M.D., E.J. Anderson, J. Wang and H.A. Vanderploeg. 2015. Modeling the effect of invasive quagga mussels on the spring phytoplankton bloom in Lake Michigan. Journal of Great Lakes Research 41:49-65. (DOI:10.1016/j.jglr.2014.12.018). Rowe2_etal.pdf

Scanlan, A.M., D.F. Millie, G.R. Weckman and H.J. Carrick. 2015. Abrupt shifts in stream algal biomass and diatom taxonomic composition along a gradient of changing land use. Fundamental & Applied Limnology. 186:153-169. (DOI:10.1127/fal/2015/0634).

Tang, H., H.A. Vanderploeg, T.H. Johengen and J.R. Liebig. 2014. Quagga mussel (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) selective feeding of phytoplankton in Saginaw Bay. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 40(Supplement 1):83-94. (DOI:10.1016/j.jglr.2013.11.011). Tang_etal.pdf

Vanderploeg, H.A., D.B. Bunnell, H.J. Carrick and T.O. Hook. 2015. Complex interactions in Lake Michigan’s rapidly changing ecosystem. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 41(Supplement 3):1-6. (DOI:10.1016/j.jglr.2015.11.001). Vanderploeg_etal.pdf

Vanderploeg, H.A., S.A. Pothoven, D.M. Krueger, D.M. Mason, J.R. Liebig, J.F. Cavaletto, S.A. Ruberg, G.A. Lang and R. Ptacnikova. 2015. Spatial and predatory interactions of visually preying nonindigenous zooplankton and fish in Lake Michigan during midsummer. Journal of Great Lakes Research. 41(Supplement 3):125-142. (DOI:10.1016/j.jglr.2015.10.005). Vanderploeg2_etal.pdf

Vanderploeg, H.A., O. Sarnelle, J.R. Liebig, N.R. Morehead, S.D. Robinson, T.H. Johengen and G.P. Horst. 2017. Seston nutrient stoichiometry drives feeding, tissue nutrient stoichiometry, and excretion in zebra mussels. Freshwater Biology. 62:664-680. (DOI:10.1111/fwb.12892). Vanderploeg3_etal.pdf

Vanderploeg, H.A., A.E. Wilson, T.H. Johengen, J. Dyble, O. Sarnelle, J.R. Liebig, S.D. Robinson and G.P. Horst. 2013. The role of selective grazing by dreissenid mussels in promoting toxic Microcystis blooms and other changes in phytoplankton composition in the Great Lakes. In, Quagga and Zebra Mussels: Biology, Impacts, and Control, Second Edition. T.F. Nalepa, and D.W. Schlosser (Eds.). CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL, 509-523 pp. Vanderploeg4_etal.pdf

Research Themes

Protection & Restoration of Resources

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