Harmful algal blooms wearing down Lake Erie wildlife

Microcystin was to blame for the water crisis in 2014. Researchers have turned their attention to the animals that live in and near Lake Erie to understand how the algae affects them.
Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 6:37 PM EDT
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TOLEDO, Ohio (WTVG) - Monday marked 7 years since Toledoans were told not to drink their tap water. We know what microcystin does to humans, but now, researchers at the University of Toledo are looking at how it impacts wildlife.

Dr. Jeanine Refsnider is an Associate Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Toledo. She started a research project in 2017 looking at microcystin and the animals living in it.

“There’s been a lot of research on the effects of algal blooms on human health, and wildlife has not been studied as much.” She tells 13abc of the animals she studied, “They’re really important parts of the ecosystem, so if you start losing birds or reptiles in the ecosystem, you might start seeing differences in the insect abundance and some of the species they eat will become more prevalent.”

Dr. Refsnider studied two bird species and two reptile species, totaling nearly 80 animals. And she found that the algae isn’t killing wildlife. “We don’t necessarily see fish kill events, for example, as a result of harmful algal blooms. So, you’re not seeing dead turtles or snakes washing up on the beaches,” she explains. But it’s certainly wearing it down.

“The snakes actually had higher immune functioning when they were from a wetland that was exposed to harmful algal blooms. And the turtles had lower immune functioning when they were exposed to harmful algal blooms.”

Dr. Refsnider says these differences could be because of how each species deals with the stress of the algae. For snakes, she says they could be using energy otherwise reserved for things like reproduction. So, threatened health and slowed population growth are some of the findings of her research.

Dr. Refsnider says of the future of her research, “The next step we’re hoping to do is to see if these animals can actually behaviorally compensate for the harmful algal bloom in some way, so might they be able to move away from it, sense it coming, and avoid it in that way.”

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