Saturday, October 18, 2014

Havana, City of Science

The excitement in Havana, IL began and ended with visits to biological research stations. It was somewhat surprising to find two premier scientific institutions in a small Illinois town, but it’s no coincidence: the Illinois River watershed has been one of the most studied river systems in the nation.

Director Heath Hagy showing us around Forbes Biological Station

Glacial movement in Illinois
We visited the Forbes Biological Station first, where the director Heath explained that the scientific interest stemmed from the rich and unique ecology of this area. The Illinois is different from the other major tributaries of the Mississippi River, because it used to be a part of the Mississippi itself. The ancient Mississippi River flowed where the lower Illinois River runs today, until a massive glacier crept south and blocked the river’s path. This damming effect diverted the Mississippi to the west to where it currently flows today. When the glacial dam receded north, it made the Mississippi River valley accessible, but the Mississippi’s waters were no longer flowing through this section of central Illinois. Instead, a relatively small amount of water from the upper Illinois River was being channeled into the existing river valley, which was unusually wide and allowed for vast floodplains on either side of the river. These floodplains provide abundant habitat for all sorts of waterfowl, migratory birds, fish, and aquatic vegetation. In simple terms, this region is teeming with life thanks to a big chunk of ice.

Taxidermied ducks
So of course, scientists have long flocked to this biological hotspot. The Forbes Biological Station, founded in 1894, is the oldest inland field station in North America, and home to the Bellrose Waterfowl Research Center. Their research focus was made clear when we stepped into the station and found ourselves staring at dozens of stuffed ducks and other assorted birds. Director Heath Hagy, our charismatic tour guide, showed us around the station, into the lab where they had a freezer stuffed with dead ducks.
Frozen ducks
At the microscopes, two poor souls were spending hours digging through soil core samples to pick out miniscule critters and seeds that make up the waterfowl diet. Another member of the research station greeted us at the end of our tour, having just landed from the small plane they use to count waterfowl. Imagine that: there is such a thing as a professional duck counter! We made plans to return to Forbes the next day and learn how exactly one counts ducks from a speeding plane. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to drive back to Forbes amidst all our other Havana activities, so we might never know!

Rich and Levi. These two give scientists a good name.
The next day, we did manage to make it to our tour of the Illinois River Biological Station. Unlike the other research station, this one studies the organisms beneath the Illinois’ murky waters. It’s fittingly located right on the main river, a block away from our campground. After our walking tour of Havana, our group was pleased to get out of the unseasonably hot weather and to enter the air-conditioned building, where we were introduced to Rich Pendleton and Levi Solomon. Rich and Levi are both fish specialists who are contributing to the Army Corps’ Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP). On a day-to-day basis, they take their boats out to shock and/or net fish, then identify, weigh, and measure them. Year after year, this fieldwork accumulates into a mountain of data, illuminating trends in fish population or fish size through the years.

The research boat for the River Biological Station. We encountered it on the river days later!

The main goal of this decades-long research is to inform decision-making so that we can correct some of the mistakes of the past. The Army Corps’ transformation of the Illinois into a navigable river caused unimaginable habitat destruction, but there are signs that it is slowly being restored. This station’s data has shown that the 1972 Clean Water Act has cut down on pollution and brought back some native species. Despite the recent invasion of the Asian Carp, the Illinois River watershed looks to be on the upswing.

This news may please no group more than the hunters and fishers who frequent the extensive backwaters of the lower Illinois. I’ve never hunted and I’m not much of a fisher, but I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for this crowd. Before, I’d only been aware of the spent shotgun shells and beer cans littered on the ground, a sign to me that hunters and fishers didn’t care about the environment. However, in rallying around their sport, they have been one of the main drivers of conservation work. To hunt or to fish means you have a stake in the health of the ecosystem. Thus, wildlife refuges and preserves are created in the areas where duck hunting and sport fishing are popular. People love these places. Even Al Capone loved these natural areas – he would take a break from the mob scene in Chicago to boat down to Havana and hunt ducks each fall. As we discussed in an earlier blog, the government will pour a lot of money and resources into protecting the places that we use and love.

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