Forget the Chautauqua Institution Archives. The real record keeper of any community, Courtney Wigdahl-Perry said, is its closest body of water.
Wigdahl-Perry, a biology professor at SUNY Fredonia, will lead the Bird, Tree & Garden Club’s Lake Walk at 6:30 p.m. tonight starting at the covered porch at Heinz Beach. She will discuss how fossil records found in lakes reveal information about a lake’s history, current state and future conditions.
This particular aspect of her research is called paleolimnology, which refers to the study of ancient lakes. She said lakes are highly receptive to changes happening in surrounding ecosystems, making them excellent record keepers.
“They’re the lowest point in the landscape, so whatever is happening around the lake comes in and influences them in some way,” she said.
Lakes also serve as a source of cultural heritage for many societies and provide tourism, drinking water and, in some parts of the world, a primary source of protein, all of which makes them important natural resources. Understanding how they have changed throughout history, Wigdahl-Perry said, informs people of what might happen to them in the future.
“With Chautauqua Lake in particular, I’m hoping that we will be able to understand what the lake was like before we got here and what’s normal,” she said. “That’s a really important piece of the puzzle when you’re talking about developing management plans for the lake.”
Originally from Wisconsin, Wigdahl-Perry now studies lakes in the Fredonia area, looking at the effects of excessive nutrients introduced by humans. This is the main problem facing many lakes in the county, including Chautauqua Lake.
She has also performed research on lakes throughout the world. Many lakes, she said, have been impacted by natural fluctuations in climate and biology over millions of years, and fossil records found at the bottoms of these lakes illustrate this.
“We can learn a lot about a system based on what’s lived there,” she said. “We use what we know about species we find, where they live and what kind of environment they prefer today as an inference for what the past environment was like. If you see something like a palm tree indicated in a fossil, you would know that because we have palm trees in hot, humid places today, that environment was probably hot and humid in the past.”
She has also studied lakes that have been impacted by acid rain, invasive species and acidification caused by evaporation, the latter of which is prevalent in lakes in the Midwest. She said the high levels of salt in these lakes create unique environments that are unlike both oceans and freshwater systems.
“North and South Dakota, for example, is a very drought-centered ecosystem,” she said. “A lot of those lakes are saltier than the ocean because of evaporation, even though they have nothing to do with marine ecosystems.”
Having grown up near Lake Michigan and other bodies of water, Wigdahl-Perry said studying lakes felt like a natural transition from her childhood to her career. She hopes people can walk away from this Lake Walk with an understanding of the dynamic nature of lakes.
“When we think about natural systems, we tend to be really concerned with what is happening now,” she said. “But if you take a minute and look back, it gives you this much better perspective on the lake’s overall health. This idea of looking back and trying to understand what’s normal and natural relative to what’s happening to the lake today and how we’re interacting with it is really important.”