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The Lake Where You Live: New leader at Trout

January 24, 2020 by Ted Rulseh

In the Jurassic Park movies, scientists brought back dinosaurs from fossilized DNA millions of years old. Gretchen Gerrish does something a little bit similar in her research work.

Gerrish, the new director at Trout Lake Research Station near Boulder Junction, is an evolutionary ecologist whose work has included resurrection ecology, looking at skeletons of insects and zooplankton in sediment cores from the bottom of the Mississippi River. 

“Sediment cores store the history of a region,” she said. “There you can find the remnants of things that lived in the past. In addition to their skeletons, many species produce long-lived dormant stages called diapause eggs. You can actually hatch out eggs that are more than 100 years old.” 

Studies like these enable researchers to observe how water bodies and the creatures in them have changed: “It’s a time capsule of genetics and lifestyle for these organisms that you can use to compare to what’s happening in the modern day.” 

Gerrish joined the University of Wisconsin Center for Limnology and the Trout Lake team last June after nine years as a professor at UW-La Crosse. She earned her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University. 

She now studies how moonlight variation affects zooplankton migration in a clear-water Northwoods lake, while overseeing Trout Lake’s long-term ecological research involving five lakes and two bogs in the Northern Highland-American Legion State Forest. The lakes cover a range of primary productivity, depth, size and more and were selected to reflect the region’s diversity. 

Long-term research has significance to your favorite lake, and mine. The project, conducted under the National Science Foundation, has compiled a record going back to 1981 and is among the longest-standing data sets on lake research in the world. 

“There are a lot of reasons why long-term data is important,” Gerrish said. “The project here addresses many of the differences in the lakes we see in the watershed. It provides a baseline for how those lakes have changed over time and how much change can be expected. Then if a lake around here is changing in an odd way, we are better able to assess whether it’s really a big change or is part of a natural variation.”

Because the lakes being studied are diverse, the research data can be extrapolated to other lakes in the region and beyond. One example is the widely known acid rain study on Little Rock Lake. Gerrish did field work on that project for two summers during her college studies.

“It had extreme impacts on EPA decision-making about emissions from industry,” she said. “Long-term research does impact policy on a local, regional and national scale.”

Her vision for the future of Trout Lake includes making sure the research station continues to thrive with a diversity of people and ideas. One new initiative is winter research, which includes assessing the effect of climate change and the loss of ice cover on the health the region’s waters and aquatic life.

“The lakes are among the biggest resources we have in this region, and I’m excited to be a part of gaining knowledge about them,” Gerrish said. “They’re a resource that draws people to the area and makes us want to live and be here.”.

Ted Rulseh resides on Birch Lake in Harshaw and is an advocate for lake protection and improvement. His Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News columns are the basis for a book, “A Lakeside Companion,” published by The University of Wisconsin Press. Ted may be reached at [email protected].

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