40 years of IISG: Where we are and where we’re going

September 26th, 2022 by

This year, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) is celebrating 40 years of service to southern Lake Michigan communities. Started in 1982 by Robert Espeseth and Jim Peterson as a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Forestry & Natural Resources, the program has flourished as funding and partnerships have grown over the years.

Director Tomas Höök joined IISG in 2010 as associate director of research and in 2018, when his predecessor, Brian Miller, retired, Höök was asked to step up as director. During this transition, IISG also switched its administrative base from University of Illinois to Purdue University.

IISG has seen substantial growth throughout the past 40 years—especially the breadth of issues the program addresses, the technology employed and, most significantly, increased funding. Höök credits much of the program’s growth to Miller, who sought out partnerships with outside agencies.

Due to the boost in funding, IISG has been able to grow its staff, fund more research and expand extension and community programs. One area of focus that has grown considerably is community and environmental resiliency. Due to climate change, the Great Lakes have experienced more dramatic fluctuations in water levels. High water levels result in erosion, flooding and washed-out roads while low levels create mud flats, disrupt transport and potentially harm wildlife.

“We’ve been doing more work to educate people about changing lake levels and impacts of climate change while also trying to educate decision makers, like city planners or state park managers, on how to address it. So, we develop resources that are accessible to managers and that can also be used by more people,” Höök explained.

Improving accessibility to underserved communities is another area in which IISG has been intentional about expanding. Traditionally, IISG has focused much of their community outreach on recreational boaters and fishers, who tend to be more affluent than most of the populations around Lake Michigan.

“We’re trying to do more outreach, K-12 education programs, and research that serve the diversity of the citizens and communities in southern Lake Michigan, including programs to get kids interested and excited about the lake.”

The program has also seen significant growth to the IISG Scholars Program, which provides one-year grants to support graduate student and faculty research. According to Höök, in addition to funding research, the scholars program aims to educate participants about Lake Michigan issues while training them on how to conduct applied research.

Höök also takes pride in the culture and work environment at IISG and credits the program personnel for continued success. As director, he takes more of a “behind the scenes” approach, which fosters autonomy and opens the door to new possibilities.

“People seem to enjoy working at Sea Grant and tend to feel like the work that they do has meaning. They’re winning awards and bringing in grant money, and I often receive emails and feedback from partners telling me how much they appreciate the work the people in our program are doing.”

Going forward, IISG plans to continue expanding its research and community outreach. After 40 years of serving Great Lakes communities, the future of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant only looks bright.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.

Writer: Motinola Agunbiade
Contact: Irene Miles

Stakeholders invited to submit feedback

May 13th, 2022 by

Deadline: May 19, 2022

As part of our strategic planning process, the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant College Program wants to hear from you—our stakeholders. We are especially interested in learning about your experiences with our outreach, education, and research programs. Maybe you have participated in an IISG-hosted event, read one of our publications or listened to a podcast, borrowed our equipment for your classroom, accessed our buoy data, used our website, or learned about the research we fund. Whatever the case may be, we’d like to hear from you. Your feedback will help us refine our goals, strategies, and work plans as we develop our 2024-2027 Strategic Plan and future proposals.

Please send feedback to by May 19, 2022.

Thank you for your time and input!



Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.

Getting into the weeds of lawn care

April 11th, 2022 by

Springtime reminds us that owning a home comes with a lot of responsibilities, including maintaining the lawn. Many people choose to care for their property by looking to their parents, neighbors, and friends for advice. While we can learn a lot from our communities, the ecological and health impacts of traditional lawn care products and maintenance are worth reevaluating.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) has expanded the Lawn to Lake Program to include a new website, The site helps users dig into the weeds of natural lawn care. IISG has worked with horticultural experts at the University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension to provide the latest science-based lawn care recommendations. There are options for all levels of commitment and experience — starting with basic tips and extending through soil sampling strategies.

The site allows you to begin your journey toward a healthy lawn and landscape in your own backyard. Start with the lawn care quiz to evaluate your current lawn care practices. Then the featured monthly lawn tips can help you improve your score by providing a simple to-do list of seasonal lawn care tasks.

screenshot of homepage of

The website makes finding lawn care solutions easy. For example, an interactive map locates your nearest soil testing labs. “Soil health is the foundation to a healthy lawn and we have found that just finding testing labs could be an obstacle to action” says, Sarah Zack, IISG Pollution Prevention Outreach Specialist. You can find many other tools on the website including a handy fertilizer calculator that does the math for you. Excess fertilizer can run off into local watersheds, so knowing the correct amount to apply is important for protecting water resources.

With spring just around the corner, consult Lawn to Lake and head outdoors to see how you can work with nature to grow a healthier landscape for you and the environment.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Writer: Janice Milanovich
Contact: Sarah Zack

22 Ways to Prevent Pollution

February 22nd, 2022 by

Let your love of the Great Lakes have an impact. Challenge yourself to try something new to prevent pollution in Lake Michigan and beyond. All 22 actions won’t work for everyone, but taking one action can make a difference. 

Follow @GreatLakesP2 and #P2Tuesday on Twitter for more pollution prevention inspiration.

cleaning supplies and dry goods stored in mason jars

At home and work 

  1. Properly dispose of unwanted medications to protect people, pets, and the environment. Find a collection site at  
  2. Make your own cleaning products. By using less toxic ingredients you can reduce the threat of accidental exposure and pollution of the environment.
    1. Discover toxin-free household cleaning product alternatives with this publication from New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service. 
  3. Turn off unused lights, appliances and equipment when they are not in use.  Measure the impact of your energy use on the environment with several tools from the Environmental Protection Agency.  
  4.  Extend the life of equipment and products – repair or buy second-hand.  Check out some helpful tips from the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center.  
  5. Identify source reduction strategies.  Evaluate the materials that produce waste at work.  Try eliminating non-essentials, improving operating practices, purchasing more durable products, or replacing materials to reduce toxicity.  The Indiana Department of Environmental Management has pollution prevention resources for Indiana business:

hand holding mechanical weed remover with dandelions

In your yard 

  1. Before applying fertilizer to your lawn, always consider soil test results, desired lawn quality, and maintenance preferences. Find more information from Lawn to Lake about how to fertilize appropriately and protect local water resources.
  2. Use integrated pest management to control pests with fewer pesticides while creating favorable growing conditions for your lawn. Midwest Grows Green provides toolkits, guides, and factsheets to help you reduce the need for pesticides.   
  3. Mow smart to develop a deeper root system and reduce your dependence on irrigation and chemical fertilizers. Learn how to maximize your mowing practices on the Lawn to Lake website.   
  4. Overwatering and misdirected watering practices result in wasted water and polluted runoff that may end up in nearby streams, rivers, lakes, and even groundwater. Lawn to Lake teaches you how to conserve water and control runoff on your property.  
  5. Shrink your yard and plant natives, mowing less will reduce emissions. The Red Oak Rain Garden provides a number of native planting garden guides to get you started.
  6. Compost your food waste and by adding it to your garden and grass you can both mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and improve soil fertility. Check out Illinois Extension’s composting resources.
  7. Pick-up pet waste to protect water quality. Pet waste can carry two types of pollutants into our waterways, nutrients and pathogens. Learn more about this from the Great Lakes Echo’s Scooping Poop Improves Water Quality.
  8. Salt keeps our sidewalks and streets safe but it can also pollute local waterways.  Save money by sweeping up and reusing excess salt. Visit for more tips.  

reusable utensils and metal tupperware

At the store 

  1. Reduce household hazardous waste by reading labels and choosing the least toxic products. Search for products that meet the EPA’s Safer Choice Standards.  
  2. Buy in bulk to reduce packaging and food waste. North Carolina State University’s Sustainability office has a list of 5 things to buy in bulk.   
  3. When you can, choose natural fiber materials like cotton, linen, wool, silk to prevent microplastic pollution. Learn more with Delaware SeaGrant’s microfiber factsheet.
  4. Reduce the need to harvest new materials by choosing reusable mugs, straws, and utensils when you can.  Calculate the costs and benefits of reusable foodware with Upstream’s cost savings calculator.

bike lane markings on pavement

On the go

  1. Don’t idle your vehicle when you are not driving. Learn more with this factsheet from the U.S. Department of Energy.  
  2. Choose a pollution-free mode of transportation when possible. Try walking or riding a bike for trips less than one mile. The EPA outlines what good could happen if we kept our cars parked for trips less than one mile.  
  3. Prevent pollution by washing your car in a commercial car wash facility where wastewater can be filtered and recycled or properly disposed. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency provides information about the requirements governing car wash wastewater and how these facilities can become more environmentally friendly and conserve water. 
  4. Don’t litter. Wind, rain, streams, and rivers can deposit marine debris (trash) into our Great Lakes. The NOAA Marine Debris Program works to prevent marine debris from entering the Great Lake through education, outreach, and removal projects.   

Lake Street Beach

Sharing is caring

As we aim for progress not perfection, remember that individual actions matter. Share these pollution prevention tips with others and then get involved! IISG connects people with science to help protect southern Lake Michigan ecosystems and build resultant communities. Look for opportunities to get engaged.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Contacts: Janice Milanovich, Sarah Zack

Teacher Feature: Steve Sturgis, Clay Middle School

February 16th, 2022 by
Location: Carmel, Indiana
Organization: Clay Middle School
Grade: 6th
Subject: Science
By supplementing his classroom materials with resources from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and the Center for Great Lakes Literacy, Steve Sturgis is able to incorporate Great Lakes science into his activities and lesson plans. 

Why do you think it’s important to infuse Great Lakes topics in education?

Invasive species pose a threat to our ecosystems, and our Great Lakes. My students are gaining an understanding of the fragility of those species we love to find in the Great Lakes and also how dangerous new invasive species would be if introduced to the Great Lakes.

Describe one of your favorite classroom experiences or activities associated with the Great Lakes.

“Everywhere we look, there are species damaging our natural ecosystems both now, and as we look into the future.” Sixth grade science students at Clay Middle School were tasked with coming up with creative solutions for solving these ecological problems. Students presented to members of the local scientific community who are on the front lines of Indiana’s invasive species problems. Members of this professional audience included scientists from the following institutions: Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Purdue University, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, Carmel Clay Parks and Recreation, Indiana Department of Transportation, Southern Indiana Cooperative Invasives Management,  Hamilton County Invasives Partnership, Hamilton Soil and Water Conservation District, and USDA National Resources Conservation Service.

girl stands in front of sea lamprey science poster, giving a presentation to other students

Students speak about sea lamprey problems and solutions at a student-led Invasive Species Symposium at Clay Middle School. (Photo provided by Steve Sturgis)

What teaching methods do you use to engage students in Great Lakes activities?

"Attack Pack" kit with aquatic invasive species classroom materials

Sea Grant’s Attack Pack resources are a Center for Great Lakes Literacy classroom supplement to invasive species Project Based Learning. (Photo provided by Steve Sturgis)

Project Based Learning or PBL. Creating projects centered around solving real problems creates a natural opportunity for students to learn curriculum in a more meaningful and engaging environment for learning.

How have you involved scientists in your teaching?

At the end of our PBL study “Invasive Species, Can They Be Stopped?” students present their unique solutions to the invasive species problem to a professional panel that consists of members of agencies that work directly with invasive species in the local community.

Student Reflections on Great Lakes stewardship

“I had no idea how many invasive species Indiana had wrecking ecosystems. This project was a fun way to learn about a species and come up with a clever way that scientists could maybe use someday to stop these invaders.” – Student at Clay Middle School

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Contact: Steve Sturgis,
Education and Student Engagement Coordinator: Terri Hallesy
Center for Great Lakes Literacy:

We’re searching for an AIS specialist to work on research and outreach

January 11th, 2022 by

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) is searching for an AIS specialist to work with the Illinois Natural History Survey to develop, direct, and assess the effectiveness of outreach and engagement activities for various stakeholders needing scientific information on Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) affecting Lake Michigan and the inland waters of Illinois and Indiana, as well as conduct social science research to help guide outreach efforts. Master’s degree—PhD preferred—related to subject matter emphasis and relevant experience are required. To view the complete job description and apply, visit the listing on the University of Illinois website. Closing date is January 28, 2022


University of Illinois is an equal access/equal opportunity university. We strongly encourage women, minorities, and people from traditionally underrepresented groups to apply. For more on Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s commitment to inclusion, please see our values statement.

Job Duties


  • Contribute in the area of outreach and engagement in the service of INHS (Illinois Natural History Survey), PRI (Prairie Research Institute), IISG (Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant), the University, and the states of Illinois and Indiana.
  • Seek and secure external funding to maintain a robust outreach and research program.
  • Provide strategic leadership and oversight of the AIS outreach program.
  • Develop and deliver a variety of science-based outreach tools regarding aquatic invasive species (AIS) to address the needs of a wide range of stakeholders in Illinois, Indiana, and the wider Great Lakes region.
  • Ensure that programming addresses the diversity of stakeholders
  • Present outreach findings and activities in peer-reviewed literature and at conferences and meetings.
  • Maintain strong working relationships within Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG).
  • Develop new and maintain existing partnerships throughout the Great Lakes region.
  • Represent the Survey, PRI, IISG, and the University of Illinois on committees by serving on local, state, regional, and federal committees.


  • Conduct social science research that informs programmatic outreach activities.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the AIS program’s outreach activities.
  • Develop research collaborations with partners from agencies, non-government organizations, and academic institutions.
  • Present research findings and activities in peer-reviewed literature as well as via conferences and meetings.

Administration and Mentoring

  • Supervise and lead staff to achieve success and foster a culture of innovation and high-level performance at both individual and organizational levels. This includes task assignment, scheduling, and ongoing performance management with coaching and feedback, and travel approval.
  • Oversee administration of grants including budgeting, reporting, and other principal investigator duties.
  • Advise, supervise, and mentor undergraduate and graduate students as time permits.
  • Serve on graduate advisory committees as time permits.
  • Prepare internal reports, reports to sponsoring agencies, and scientific reports for distribution to stakeholders.


To apply, go to Log in to your account and upload a cover letter and resume as well as the names and contact information of three professional references. Resume dates must be in month/year format and employment history, at a minimum, should include all work dating back to the completion of your undergraduate degree. Positions that were less than full-time/100% must be noted as being part-time. Transcripts may be requested at a later date. To receive full consideration, all requested application materials must be submitted via the online system by the close date of January 28, 2022. 


Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.

Meet Our Grad Student Scholars: Alexandra (Ali) Touloupas

January 5th, 2022 by

“Meet Our Grad Student Scholars” is an article series from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) celebrating the graduate students doing research funded by the IISG scholars program. To learn more about our faculty and graduate student funding opportunities, visit our Fellowships & Scholarships page. 

Alexandra (Ali) Touloupas is a master’s student in Plant Biology and Conservation joint program with Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden, and is part of the inaugural Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Graduate Student Scholars cohort. She is interested in rare plant conservation and the impacts of climate change on bog and fen species. Her work involves monitoring and modeling rare plant distributions, and how critical habitat may be impacted by climate change. Ali has earned two bachelor’s degrees, learning about Plant Biology from North Carolina State University and Sociology from Mount Holyoke College. Ali enjoys hiking and exploring new natural areas, and stopping in antique stores along the way.

As a master’s student and scientist who studies rare plant species, Alexandra (Ali) Touloupas has partnered with the Chicago Botanic Garden to record current populations and predict how rare plant species may respond to climate change. This project has many components, some of which require Touloupas to survey rare species, model habitat suitability, calculate statistical predictions, and predict future climate scenarios in wetlands.

The rare plants Touloupas studies are considered high priority species. These species were chosen by expert ecologists and botanists because more data is needed to update their conservation status. Last year, she worked as a research assistant for the Plants of Concern program at Chicago Botanic Garden, coordinating and conducting rare plant monitoring throughout Cook County during the field season. In late fall, she analyzed annual monitoring data to detect population trends. This position helped Touloupas understand the potential impact of her work on rare plant monitoring initiatives.

A typical research day for her depends on the season. In the summer, she does a lot of hands-on field work and sometimes turns into a modern-day Sherlock Holmes to find a specific plant. According to Touloupas, the detective work that goes into determining the locations of rare species is sometimes daunting but always fun. First, she looks for the last known coordinates of her species by accessing records from the Illinois Natural Heritage website. The data and coordinates can only be accessed through a confidentiality agreement to protect rare plants and their habitats from trampling and poaching. Then, she uses a GPS to get herself to the location. This can be tricky for a few reasons; bogs and wetlands are hard to move through, even when someone knows where they are going. And while getting stuck in the muck with boots sinking into the ground, Touloupas must be careful not to disturb the fragile habitat. 

hand holding species of plant, Epilobium strictum, and closeup image shows hairs growing off the stem

Using a hand lens is crucial to see the dense hairs that distinguish this species that Touloupas is studying, Epilobium strictum, from other species. (Photo provided by Alexandra Touloupas)

Last summer, she drove long distances to get to field locations and sometimes even camped overnight near the sites. The plants she is focused on live in bogs and fens—wetlands that accumulate lots of peat and runoff. Certain indicator species, which have adapted to the harsh conditions, help Touloupas know she is getting closer to her rare plants… or at least where they used to be. Some of the species she hunts for were last seen 50 years ago, so she never knows what she will find.

woman in safari hat and Chicago Botanic Gardens shirt wades through ferns nearly as tall as her

Sometimes Ali has to wade through ferns and other flora nearly as tall as she is when looking for rare species, as shown here during field work for Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. (Photo provided by Alexandra Touloupas)

A lot can happen over 50 years, including immense ecological changes. For example, cattails take over what was once a diverse bog, or an invasive animal could eat a whole population of plants. When Touloupas finds a rare plant species, she takes their new GPS coordinates as well as detailed notes and photos. Nothing is too small to be observed. She notes if plants are growing on a slope, in shade or sun, and especially looks for things that might not allow for long-term survival. Because ecological landscapes are always changing, she also takes note of small signs that indicate what might become of the sites, particularly if new bogs and fens are forming.

The next phase of Touloupas’ research is to process the data she collected during her fieldwork. She plans to incorporate the spatial data she collected about rare plants into possible climate change scenarios. Since climate change is so complex, Touloupas must compile scenarios with many different variables. She chose to include temperature and precipitation, soil type and soil characteristics, acidity of soil, and relationships to geology and glaciers. To understand conditions that enable her species to persist, Touloupas uses information from GIS datasets and remote sensing images. Land use will also be factored into the scenarios, including distances from developments that may produce harmful runoff, because wetlands are particularly sensitive to pollutants. Ultimately, Touloupas plants to contextualize her findings in various climate scenarios, like those created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

One of her proudest accomplishments is learning how to process data with the R coding language. She is using GIS mapping and R to model possible futures for her rare plants. To do this, she uses statistical analysis and strategic model selection. When she has combined all her results together, Touloupas plans to share best practices with organizations that want to conserve rare plants, such as suggesting sites where the plants could be reintroduced.

When she started graduate school, Touloupas thought of it as a career move and personal milestone that would secure an appealing job. After some time at Northwestern, she was surprised to find that graduate school itself is lots of fun. Being back in academia, around other people doing research and learning from their processes, has inspired her to dig into the field. She is particularly thankful for the support for her own research. She feels more empowered to do plant biology work and is even considering more research in the future.

To any aspiring plant scientists, Touloupas recommends gaining experience by working seasonal jobs or completing internships to test different roles and find something inspiring. “Find what you like and what works best for you,” she said. “Listen to podcasts and lectures, either in person or online, to get inspired by other people’s research and to see what’s possible. There is a lot of creativity that goes into designing a research project.”

Touloupas learned about the rare plants she is studying by taking classes during the first part of her degree. The graduate-level courses involved plenty of literature reviews, through which she learned about the latest research in plant biology. Additionally, folx who have worked in the areas for decades took students into the field to share their data collection processes and tips. She also tried to absorb all the information she could through books like “A Great Lakes Wetland Flora” and a few key organizations. The Illinois Wildflowers website, US Department of Agriculture and Illinois Natural History Survey resources were particularly helpful. Touloupas hopes that the final results of her study will end up help in one of these public resources.

You can learn more about the exciting research that Ali is conducting at Northwestern University by following @aktouloupas on Twitter and big_al_botany on Instagram.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Writer: Sarah Gediman
Contact: Carolyn Foley

Meet Our Grad Student Scholars: Jordan Holtswarth-Hartman

December 29th, 2021 by

“Meet Our Grad Student Scholars” is an article series from Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) celebrating the graduate students doing research funded by the IISG scholars program. To learn more about our faculty and graduate student opportunities for funding, visit our Fellowships & Scholarships page. 

Jordan Holtswarth-Hartman is a PhD student in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and part of the inaugural Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant Graduate Student Scholars cohort. She is interested in ecology and conservation and is currently looking at the impacts of Banded Killifish, a native transplant species in the Illinois-Indiana area. Jordan earned her bachelor’s degree in Fisheries and Wildlife from the University of Missouri – Columbia, and her MS in Biology from Tennessee Technological University, where she studied the transferability of habitat suitability models for freshwater mussels in Missouri. Jordan is an avid yogi and coffee enthusiast, and a mom to cat Ghost and bunny Luna.

PhD student Jordan Holtswarth-Hartman is studying the relationships between Eastern and Western Banded Killifish. She is comparing their ecological roles as well as whether the two are hybridizing, or breeding together. While their names indicate they live on opposite sides of North America, the two subspecies of Banded Killifish have come to inhabit much of the same territory over the past 20 years.

Western Banded Killifish typically live in kettle lakes, which are fed by underground rivers and streams. While originally from the eastern coast of the United States, not much is known about how the Eastern Banded Killifish became more common than its western counterpart in Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. Because Eastern and Western Banded Killifish look so similar, Holtswarth-Hartman needs to use stable isotopes and genetics to determine the ecological roles—the importance or function they play in the ecosystem—of the subspecies and whether they are hybridizing.

map featuring locations of eastern and western banded killifish subspecies around the Lake Michigan region

(Graphic provided by Larson Lab / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

So, what does it mean that at least some of the Banded Killifish are changing their habitats? Holtswarth-Hartman and the principal investigator on her project, Eric Larson, use the term native transplant to refer to species that are from the United States but have been moved outside their native range. Banded Killifish are also considered non-game fish, meaning there are no sport or commercial uses for them. There are an estimated 236 non-game, native transplants in the United States; they play an important ecological role in the greater Illinois-Indiana region, but are relatively under-studied. 

Eastern banded killifish pictured above a western banded killifish

Jordan Holtswarth-Hartman of the Larson Lab is investigating the eastern banded killifish in the southern Lake Michigan region, a non-native lookalike of the native, Illinois state threatened western banded killifish. (Larson Lab / University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Holtswarth-Hartman is working with 727 fish samples, so the detail-oriented lab work she is completing is time-consuming but necessary to reach her research objectives. She has two main goals: first, to determine the trophic position of the two subspecies using stable isotopes; and second, to determine whether they are hybridizing using genetics. 

A trophic position is an organism’s place in a food web, and helps define its ecological niche. Stable isotopes are two or more forms of the same element which have different numbers of neutrons. They are stable because they do not decay over time. Stable isotope values in muscle tissue differ based on diet, meaning Holtswarth-Hartman can deduce what fish eat and therefore where on the food chain they are. This gives a picture of the long-term diet, but there is another technique, called gut metabarcoding, that can reveal what the fish ate shortly before they were caught. 

Holtswarth-Hartman studies the hybridization and genetics of Banded Killifish using a combination of mtDNA and RAD sequencing. Mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, is inherited from the mother, and tells Holtswarth-Hartman whether the fish is an Eastern or Western subspecies. However, because mtDNA is only inherited from the mother, it cannot be known if the fish is a hybrid. Once Holtswarth-Hartman knows the subspecies of the mother, she uses Restriction site Associated, or RAD, sequencing to determine if an individual fish is a hybrid. RAD sequencing uses nuclear DNA by looking at the polymorphic loci, or a set of DNA in which multiple alleles determine a single trait. When there is at least one allele from the mom and at least one allele from the dad, Holtswarth-Hartman can see if there is a combination of DNA from Eastern and Western subspecies. 

While genetics have become a key part of her project, Holtswarth-Hartman did not have any background in the field before starting her PhD. Now, she says she has developed a love for genetics and has included three different genetic aspects in her project. “I have really enjoyed broadening my knowledge in many different areas such as genetics and sample collection,” Holtswarth-Hartman said. “On a personal level, I have been fortunate to build close relationships with new mentors and friends that have been a major help with all aspects of my PhD.” After she earns her doctorate, Holtswarth-Hartman is thinking about jobs in academia, government or for NGOs where she can apply her skills in habitat suitability modeling and genetics.

You can learn more about the exciting research that Jordan is conducting in the Larson Lab at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign by following @JordanHHartman on Twitter or browsing her publications on Google Scholar or  ResearchGate.

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Writer: Sarah Gediman
Contact: Carolyn Foley

Scientists rally to collect data after Lake Michigan CSMI sampling year delayed to 2021

December 17th, 2021 by

CSMI, or the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative, is an internationally-supported endeavor to collect and process data about the Great Lakes. Each year, scientists study a different Laurentian Great Lake. They spend up to a month on ships for their research, and work together to answer broad questions about the health of the lake, generating data and information to help improve environmental management. Lake Michigan was scheduled to be sampled in 2020, so IISG hosted the kickoff workshop funded by the International Joint Commission in 2018 to discuss sampling priorities. Unfortunately, the worldwide COVID pandemic delayed sampling, so in 2021 CSMI research focused on both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, meaning ships and people had to split their time between the two lakes. While COVID protocols remained in place, researchers were tenacious and gathered exciting data. 

scientists pull a long-range autonomous underwater vehicle from the water

Long-range autonomous underwater vehicles (LRAUV) can sample 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as much as a couple of weeks at a time according to David Warner of USGS. (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

A key theme during 2021 sampling of Lake Michigan was to collect data from a broader area than had been done during previous field years. While physical researchers and biologists from the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (NOAA-GLERL) deployed buoys and autonomous underwater vehicles—and conducted larval fish and other biotic sampling—off the coast of the long-sampled Muskegon, Michigan transect, researchers from the EPA Great Lakes Toxicology and Ecology Division Laboratory (EPA-GLTED), the USGS Great Lakes Science Center (USGS-GLSC) and partners at other organizations also sampled extensively in the less-studied northern portion of Lake Michigan, plus included sampling of Green Bay and Grand Traverse Bay. This intentional effort on the part of the researchers was designed to make the most of the longer-term datasets from the southern portion of the lake, while also filling in important data gaps to increase overall understanding of Lake Michigan ecosystems. 

With regard to longer-term sampling, biologists from Buffalo State College, the EPA-GLTED office and NOAA-GLERL all gathered samples to explore the lower food web, including phytoplankton, zooplankton and benthic macroinvertebrates. Many of these sampling efforts are similar to Lake Michigan sampling efforts in 2010 and 2015, including using a benthic sled to assess benthic communities. Repeating sampling at the same locations, in the same ways, can help biologists understand if the food web makeup is changing or remaining the same. 

hand holding rock covered in quagga mussels

Rock covered in quagga mussels, collected in a Ponar grab in Lake Michigan during the 2015 CSMI benthic survey. (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

NOAA-GLERL scientists also continue to explore the biology of invasive quagga mussels. Quagga mussels, which have largely replaced zebra mussels across the Great Lakes, have completely reengineered Lake Michigan by altering phytoplankton dynamics, providing new sources of food for other Lake Michigan organisms, and altering habitat characteristics along the lake bottom. In 2021, a NOAA-GLERL-led team is focused specifically on assessing quagga mussel length-weight relationships and reproductive status. They are also examining veligers, which are very small, young mussels that are almost microscopic. The veliger stage is the only time that quagga mussels move freely with currents, and small fish and zooplankton likely take advantage of veligers as a food source. Scientists from Wayne State University worked with NOAA-GLERL researchers to see if laboratory-reared larval yellow perch that were fed veligers performed less well than those fed other zooplankton. Preliminary results suggest that feeding on veligers can have a negative effect on larval yellow perch growth, making it important to gain a greater understanding of when and where veligers are available for organisms to eat so that scientists can understand the growth of all Lake Michigan fishes. 

illustrations of alewife, yellow perch, and lake whitefish

(NOOA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)

One of the most exciting efforts of the 2021 Lake Michigan CSMI sampling year is a major push to understand distributions and growth of young fish, including alewives, yellow perch and lake whitefish. Sampling conducted during the 2015 CSMI effort found that larval alewife growth in Lake Michigan had slowed about 40% since the early 2000s. Alewife are ecologically critical prey for larger fishes in Lake Michigan, and it is unclear if slower growth rates are related to food availability, food quality or other factors. 

A team led by NOAA-GLERL did an intensive study along the Muskegon, Michigan transect to assess dynamics of all available larval and juvenile fish, including assessing the importance of night and day, depth, distance from shore and a large number of physical and abiotic variables, such as temperature and dissolved oxygen, on fish diets and growth. The team plans to combine their findings with efforts by the USGS Great Lakes Science Center and the EPA Great Lakes Toxicology and Ecology Division Laboratory, who in July sampled 15 transects across all of Lake Michigan for plankton and larval fish. At each transect, the EPA team also measured the depth that UV radiation now penetrates. Water clarity in Lake Michigan has increased over the past 15 years, in part because quagga mussels have expanded to deeper portions of the lake, and it is possible that UV rays harm larval fish. This is likely the largest spatial coverage for larval fish sampling that has ever been undertaken in Lake Michigan, and nicely showcases what can happen when sampling among organizations is coordinated. 

In early 2021, the USGS Great Lakes Science Center conducted weekly sampling of larval lake whitefish and available zooplankton prey along the beaches of St. Joseph and South Haven, Michigan; the southernmost locations in Lake Michigan to be sampled for lake whitefish larvae. By combining the results from these efforts with long-term lake whitefish beach sampling studies conducted by NOAA-GLERL and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB), scientists will better understand whether lake whitefish recruitment could be limited by zooplankton prey in their first weeks of life. Purdue University scientists were also able to examine diets of larval whitefish collected from 2015 through 2019 by the LTBB, after samples were graciously provided, and plan to assess diet and growth patterns of larval alewife collected in southeastern Lake Michigan in 2021. All teams are eager to learn more about the larval fish community in the coming months as they shift from intensive field sampling to laboratory processing: measuring larval fishes, counting what is in their diets, and assessing growth. 

The studies summarized here are far from the only efforts by scientists to understand Lake Michigan in 2021. Physical scientists at NOAA-GLERL deployed buoys and autonomous underwater vehicles to collect physical, chemical and biological observations in Lake Michigan, and NOAA-GLERL modelers created biophysical models to help visualize the movement of water and predict the locations of larval fish. USGS-GLSC scientists leveraged the existing Great Lakes Acoustic Observation System (GLATOS) network to better understand how lake whitefish and cisco select their habitats, and biologists were out as late as November 2021, tagging fish that will be tracked through 2022. Scientists from several different partner organizations will use indicators like stable isotope ratios in organisms to determine food web structure, and further understand how energy is passed among Lake Michigan organisms. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant looks forward to working with CSMI scientists to share the results of their work through online materials, presentations at conferences and written reports. To learn more about the 2015 CSMI Lake Michigan Field Year results, explore the story map Lake Michigan Health: A Deeper Dive

Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.


Writer: Carolyn Foley
Contact: Paris Collingsworth

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