Sino-Canada Eco Dreams or How We Humans Change Plant and Animal Communities in our Rivers and Lakes.

Post by Art Goldsmith

(unless otherwise credited,  photos by Art Goldsmith)

Effects of Human Development on Aquatic Environments and Biodiversity in Canada and China Field Course 2015

Chapter 2 – Student Seminars

Invasive Species Seminar

Environmental and Ecological Impacts of Dams
by Team Scrambled-Egg Slime Mold

Seeing this topic connects me to relevant strong and vivid personal memories. Since World War 2, so much of human enterprise has been about dams, principally those built to satisfy our gluttonous appetite for cheap energy. In the 1970s, I worked with Professor John Spence of McGill University, who took on the role as Science Advisor for the First Nations’ court battle against Hydro Quebec’s massive James Bay development (1972). Those dams are now built, and the environmental and social consequences well known.

Read about it here.

Therefore, it was with more than a little interest that I entered into this discussion with these four students.

Sarah Minnes (sitting left), Zixing Li (sitting right), Fei Jin (standing left), Natalie Wang (standing right)
Sarah Minnes (sitting left), Zixing Li (sitting right), Fei Jin (standing left), Natalie Wang (standing right)

Canada has a large share of hydro development mega-projects, including James Bay (Quebec), Churchill Falls (Newfoundland and Labrador), St. Lawrence–Great Lakes (Ontario), Churchill–Nelson (Manitoba), plus so many more megawatts of capacity on most of our streams in the populated south of the country. When you add water supply, navigation and irrigation dams, finding natural rapids and falls in southern Canada is now a challenge! Some species, like the Rapids Clubtail dragonfly (Gomphus quadricolor), which is dependent on southern rapids for habitat, are now rare and endangered. Hydrological and stream hydraulics changes cause an array of undesirable ecological effects.

Although no southern projects have recently caused major social disruption in Canada, the same is not true for China. In Canada, only the Eisenhower Dam project, which created Lake St. Lawrence, comes to mind. In that 1950s case, three villages were flooded. Most of the homes and businesses were moved to a larger planned village nearby (Ingleside, Ontario) before flooding. Historical buildings wound up at a new interpretive historical village (Upper Canada Village, Morrisburg, Ontario).

In China, when we hear that 1.3 million people lost their homes to the Three Gorges Project, the scale boggles the mind. Already threatened ecosystems and their species are now contending with new development pressures. Just opened in 2003, this dam across the Yangtze River is associated with the largest capacity power station on our planet. The reservoir is a 1,000-square kilometre lake which reached its “final height” in 2010.

One can only imagine the ecological and socioeconomic consequences. But why do that, when, like our four team members, you may easily read the facts yourself.

Oil Spills
Team White-winged Scoter (Melanitta deglandi)

Team Members: Mengxi Wu, Chang Leo, Anyi Tang, Manreet Kaler
Team Members: Mengxi Wu, Chang Leo, Anyi Tang, Manreet Kaler

Team Members: Chang Leo, Mengxi Wu, Anyi Tang, Manreet Kaler

My time with this group was short. I talked with Chang before the other three team members arrived. He started by telling me about the different kinds of oil and oil products which are transported and spilled:

1. very light
2. light
3. medium
4. heavy

Of the four types, very light is the most difficult environmentally due to its volatility and high toxicity. We all know well the results of offshore drilling infrastructure collapse (BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling platform) and transportation accidents (pipeline breakages and shipping accidents, the Exxon Valdez in Alaska being one of the best known and most destructive).

The group also reported on one of the activities on the course blog. On August 3rd, the students participated in a fish seining learning exercise. Seining is one of the most straightforward ways to sample the population of fish along a shoreline. Partners spread out after extending a net to its full length and attaching it to the appropriate foot. The two people at each end then move out, so as to create a pocket with the net. They then envelop the fish by moving toward each other, closing off the pocket. Fish are transferred to buckets for identification, counting, and data collection (age, sex, condition, etc.). This team caught 158 fish, 7 species.

Aquaculture in the Modern Era
by Team Black-shouldered Spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)

Huck Nelson is from PEI and feels a vested interest, like so many young Maritime biologists, in the burgeoning aquaculture industry. His hopes and concerns were echoed by the Chinese members of this team.

Upon meeting, we immediately entered into an animated discussion about the origins of aquaculture. The team found reference to British Columbia First Nations’ clam farming as far back as 5,000 years. Evidence of fresh water fish farming in Egypt would be concurrent, and carp in china may reach back as far as 4,500 years. So there is a long-term human penchant for stewardship of aquatic animals in addition to terrestrial animals.

At Queen’s, the Bruce Tufts’ lab in Fish Physiology and Fisheries Biology is investigating the effects of different applications on aquaculture fish through their fish physiology expertise. For example, the team learned that a flow-through system is 200 times less efficient than a bio-filtered re-circulation system.

In terms of environmental impact, aquaculture is having a variety of undesirable outcomes; the most concerning being the weakening of wild populations, local pollution (flow-through) and the focusing on mono cultures.

Chinese aquaculture dwarfs our own, as 70% of global aquaculture production is Chinese. Their products do show up in our stores. Asian shrimp production (India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and China) has become big business, as most of the large volumes of shrimp now sold to North America come from that region.

Junshu Li, Yutong Liu, Huck Nelson, Xuewei Wang
Junshu Li, Yutong Liu, Huck Nelson, Xuewei Wang

I learned so much from this and subsequent discussions. For me, that is the big payback. Learning in such an enriched environment is a privilege. Thanks, Xuewei, for the Chinese lesson! “Yu” means fish; “tsing” is please; and Beijing has 24 million people, which is more than the population of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec combined.

spinyleg_the_actual_beastEach team is named for a common and often seen species seen in our aquatic ecosystems. This blog chapter is about the students and their learning. Surely, you miss seeing some great nature shots, so here is my photo of the Black-shouldered Spinyleg taken at the QUBS dock.

Climate Change
Scenarios, Predicted Impacts on Aquatic Ecosystems and
Strategies to Mitigate continued Change
by Team Cherry-faced Meadowhawks, Sympetrum internum,

Here are some highlights from this team’s presentation.

Chiahsing Hsu
Chiahsing Hsu
Fan Wu
Fan Wu
Will Baigent
Will Baigent
Xiaofei Feng
Xiaofei Feng

In the worst case scenario, global average temperature will increase by 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. Ice sheets and glaciers will melt, changing northern climates and causing a significant rise in global sea levels. Our carbon dioxide levels will be 3 to 4 times pre-industrial levels. They are already at 400 PPM as measured by NOAA (USA’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). How do we know that temperature will increase this much? Paleoclimatology provides the answers, principally from ice core analysis. You can see the data well presented at NOAA, where a chart shows over the last 400,000 years natural CO2 changes and temperature changes. Note that the highest measured concentrations were about 300 PPM over this very long period of time.


Our lake ecosystems will be affected greatly, as ice cover in the Great Lakes drops by 42%, meaning species adapted to ice cover and certain temperature ranges will be pressured. River ice will be similarly affected, affecting species diversity, species range and populations. Temperature increases cause more evaporation, increasing salinity and concentrations of other minerals. Oxygen levels will decrease. Carbon dioxide levels will increase, as CO2 is very soluble in water.

Oceans are also absorbing unprecedented concentrations of CO2, increasing ocean acidity. Sea levels have risen an average of 20 centimetres and may rise an additional 1 metre by 2100.


Here, Will tells us about the current effects of climate change. You can read his full list by enlarging the photo by clicking on it.

Many regions in the world will be affected greatly if these changes come to be. The young presenters will feel the full brunt of change and are very concerned. Just a few months ago, China and the USA signed a ground-breaking protocol on climate change. China is spending $50 billion on alternative energy sources, replacing its coal-fired generators at a very fast rate. Two very vulnerable regions in China are the water-scarce North China Plain, and the flood-prone Poyang lake Region.


This graphic shows simply how ice melt will result in a vicious circle of increased heating and further loss of ice.


Fan explains some of the ways we may be able to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had produced a book-sized report in 2012 on this topic.

I found it appropriate somehow that the seminar room was made uncomfortable by the heat and humidity outside. The facts about climate change are also uncomfortable. Perhaps you have heard Australia’s Will Flannery talking about climate change. He is Chief Councillor of Australia’s Climate Council. It started as a government organization and is now a non-governmental organization financed by donors. If you do want more than a summary, then go to its website.

If you wish to delve into the details of the science around climate change, you may refer to the IPCC web site.

If research interests you, there are great opportunities provided by the Queen’s University Biological Station. Professor Lougheed posted results of his research here in this Blog in 2013.

QUBS hosts a long-term climate monitoring project (since 2009) using web cameras which monitor forest change. The project started with 12 cameras, 2 in Ontario, 1 at Qubs, and 10 more in the northeastern USA.

Biological Indicator Species
by Team Dryad’s Saddle

Lyu Wen Yang, Derek Newton, Qin Lanxue, Xing Kangnan
Lyu Wen Yang, Derek Newton, Qin Lanxue, Xing Kangnan

There are four kinds of indicator species:

  1. Gian Swallowtail
    Giant Swallowtail

    Keystone species which create their own ecosystem. Our Beaver (Castor canadensis) comes to mind. One student suggested that the Anchovy, an estuarine brackish water fish common in Chinese waters, is a Chinese candidate.

  2. Flagship species which act as a social target for conservation action. The Chinese have the Panda. We have the Loon.
  3. Sentinel species are the “canary in the coal mine”. Changes to these species tell us there is an environmental concern. Southern species spreading into our latitudes may qualify. Some dragonflies, birds and butterflies previously unheard of in our region are examples, such as Easter Amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis teneris), Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), and the Giant Swallowtail butterlfy (Papilio cresphontes).
  4. Eastern Amberwing
    Eastern Amberwing

    Umbrella species protect other species through their activities. The beaver qualifies again. Some African/South American termites also qualify as their giant mounds bring nutrients up from the depths, creating significant areas where other species may thrive. Professor Lougheed has written a paper for this blog on these industrious social insects.

QUBS Seminars

QUBS presents a series of seminars through the summer. They are most informative and entertaining. This year’s series ended Wednesday, August 26th with Stephen Lougheed’s favourite species. Some of his early research projects took Steve to southern South America, where he learned to appreciate the Rufous-Collared Sparrow, Zonotrichia capensis. I cannot possibly do justice to Steve’s love of this species in this blog. His enthusiasm has generated motivation to experience these birds personally. For now, I suggest we experience vicariously through the Web: Rufous Collared Sparrow

What follows is another good example of one of these seminars on July 29, 2015.

James Sinclair of Queen’s University:

James_SinclairJames’ topic: Strength in Size or Numbers – disentangling the factors involved in the establishment of non-native species

After dinner in the cafeteria in the Raleigh Robertson Biodiversity Centre, the class, local community members and I convened in the seminar hall in the basement. The hall is set up to accommodate about 75 people, and it was almost full.

James, in quest of an advanced degree, is studying a most pressing topic in ecology: invasive species. Since World War 2, the geometric scale human population increase, combined with ever expanding trade and human migration, has afforded many European and Asian species the opportunity to expand into the Americas (and vice versa!). Most of us have heard about exotic species getting a foothold before this era. The European Starling (Sturnis vulgaris) comes to mind. This feisty, intelligent bird was introduced in the 1890s in New York City by the American Acclimatization Society in its quest to have every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works among us in North America (Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV part 1). These same enterprising souls also gave us the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus).

Scientific American gave us on article on the Starling’s origin in North America.

James’ invasive species research focuses on one of our most recent cargo ship hitchhikers, the bloody-red mysid (Hemimysis anomala) which is a shrimp-like crustacean in the Mysida order, native to the Ponto-Caspian region, which has been spreading across Europe since the 1950s and is now in our own St. Lawrence River.

The theoretical basis for James’ research is the concept of propagule pressure. A propagule is a vegetative structure (bud, stem) from a plant from which new plants of the same species will spread. Therefore it is a way to propagate a species. The Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) has populated the shores of the tropics and subtropics in this fashion.

Propagule pressure is a measure of the numbers of a species introduced into a region where they are not native. Since this is a composite measure, you have to know how many were introduced each time, and then how many introductions occurred and over what area. As you can see from the slides taken from James’ presentation below, this is stated as “The set of individuals introduced” and “The rate of introductions”.

Propagule_pressureThere is a minimum population required to “launch” a species and each is different. Only scientific research which emanates from these theoretical underpinnings will clarify how species get started, and this could help us develop more effective strategies for prevention and/or elimination of unwanted species.

As you can see from James’ summary, we have learned a little and have a long way to go to better understand the invasion process.

Population_effectsJames’ research target, the small crustacean which you can see in the slide below, has already managed to make the St. Lawrence River its home. The port of Montreal seems to be its “drop-off” point, so the intrepid James decided to sample the port waters to collect research subjects. The best time to collect these light-sensitive crustaceans is at night, in a most seedy part of Montreal’s harbour front. Putting his life on the line, like so many courageous biologists, James was successful in bringing back sufficient mysids to conduct his experiments in the tanks at Queen’s.

See more about James’ previous research here.

For a full listing of events at the Station, including the Wednesday evening summer seminar series, click here.

In Chapter 3 we will experience another dollop of ecological learning from Professor Yuxiang Wang, and see some of the field trips which the students experienced. Some of the facilities at QUBS will be featured. This will be the final chapter for this field course. Tree Swallows research is the next topic, and look for stories and photos featuring Professor Emeritus Raleigh Robertson, a long-time Director of QUBS who started Tree Swallow research at Queen’s in the 1970s.