A Day at the Havana River Research Laboratory
Public science on the Illinois River
The Nature of Illinois
The Illinois River country is differ’nt, as some of my relatives might have said. In the 1980s I spent a fair amount of time with Illinois public scientists like those described below, and came to appreciate them and their work.
For more than 90 years, its scientists have hunted fish from aboard horse-drawn wagons, camped in floating houses, been bombed by birds, dived into water so murky that they had to see with their hands instead of their eyes. "Only certain people like to work in a field station," explains Stephen Havera, a doctor of ecology who is director of the Havana River Research Laboratory on Lake Chautauqua in Mason County. "It's not that plush."
In 1895 Dr Stephen A. Forbes, founding Chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey, complained that students, indeed science itself "suffered . . . from lack of opportunity to study nature alive." Thanks to Forbes, the study of nature in Illinois has been very lively indeed ever since. It was largely at Forbes' suggestion that the then-State Natural History Laboratory established in 1894 a biological research station at Havana, on the backwaters of the Illinois River.
It was the first inland aquatic biological station in the country manned and equipped for continuous investigations and the first to dedicate itself to the study of a major river system. Even today, it is still one of only a handful of such stations on the large floodplain rivers, as what was begun on the Illinois River 94 years ago has since been undertaken on the Nile, the Volga, and the Amazon.
"The creek has never been down this far," Havera observes as he trudges across a footbridge which connects the lab grounds to the shore of Lake Chautauqua The bridge crosses Quiver Creek, which owes its survival in dry years to cool water springs. In the shadow of the bridge a cohort of young channel catfish gorges on minnows. Nearby a gar lies still in the water like a broken log with teeth; a few yards upstream a great blue heron—what Illinois' preeminent nature writer John Madson once described as "a fishspear with an attached bird as a life-support system"—stands at attention.
What a remote field research station cannot provide in plush it makes up for in proximity. "In Champaign, you get into the field maybe once a week, " Havera says, recalling his own experience at the Illinois Water Survey, "and then it takes a two-hour drive to get there " In contrast, the Havana station offers convenient daily access to riverine marshes, floodplain forests, mud flats, and of course the Illinois and (barely 75 miles away) the Mississippi. Says Havera, "It's monitoring the same population and habitat year in and year out that gives you an index to measure variation."
In ecological science, you can't understand the way things are unless you understand how things used to be. Because senior scientific staff have been stationed at Havana almost continuously for nearly a century, they have been able to measure the river's response to a variety of man-made "perturbations," from increased flow from diverted Lake Michigan water to sewage pollution to sedimentation to the introduction of alien species such as the common carp and the Asiatic clam. Havera slaps at a stinging fly which was claiming this spot of shore, then points out that the only reason there is a Lake Chautauqua during the rain-short summer of 1988 is that water is being pumped into it. "Droughts come and go. But we've modified the environment so much. Those fish back there are in a foot of water. In the 1930s they'd be in three feet of water."
Havera is one of three senior scientific staff presently at the Havana lab. His colleagues include Richard Sparks, an aquatic biologist who specializes in mussels and other creatures that live in the bottoms of rivers and lakes, and Frank Bellrose, an ornithologist who has made a lifelong study of the birds which float on and fly above them. They are joined by as many as 19 junior scientists, interns, and support staff, plus farther-flung associates. The lab is isolated physically but not bureaucratically. Ecological research tends to be not just interdisciplinary but interagency in nature. The lab staff works in conjunction with the other Illinois scientific surveys and state universities as well as assorted federal wildlife and environmental agencies
Learning and teaching
In its early years, Survey scientists worked out of houseboats outfitted with beds and stoves which were moored in area lakes. In 1939 permanent quarters were built next to Lake Chautauqua. That small frame building has been outgrown several times since, and a $100,000 addition was recently finished that quadrupled available space. The new 3,500 square feet provide expanded conference and library space, a computer room, even office space for visiting scientists.
Havera is called to the telephone. A plan to fell 79 trees near Rice Lake has excited local controversy, since the trees are near an eagle roost. A meeting is being held that evening to discuss it, and Havera is asked to attend. "My kid's got a ball game tonight," he laments.
Such requests are common. Science intersects recreation, wildlife protection, and environmental protection, and the expertise of the lab's staff is often in demand. Long-term research gets them involved in short-term controversies. "In 1982 there was a big mussel die-off, so mussels became suddenly important, " Havera recalls. "Or it might be Save Peoria Lake!'
Part of the lab's role is to teach as well as learn. Havera appreciates the need for public education, but talking about science is not science. Lab staff have to write press releases, conduct tours for the press, be interviewed on TV, lead seminars for visiting students, give speeches, even identify birds killed in combat with U.S. Air Force planes.
The laboratory's office building is itself an exhibit. The walls are festooned with photos of scientists in straw boaters and neckties collecting mussels the size of dessert plates, of before-and-after scenes of drained or silted-up lakes, of forests of water plants that aren't there anymore and of mud flats which are, of several generations of investigators diving, seining, tagging, and measuring everything that ever swam, flew, crawled, or grew—from eagles to benthic macroinvertebrates. Dr C. A. Kofoid, superintendent of the Havana station from 1895 to 1900, published 1,000 printed pages on what he learned about Illinois River plankton alone.
Havera excuses himself again, to have a word with a colleague who just returned from a morning aboard one of the lab's mini-navy of nine watercraft. Havera describes the channel catfish he'd seen in the creek, adding some distinctly non-icthyological judgments about how one of them might taste on a plate.
"That's Brian Todd," Havera resumes. Todd and co-investigator Frank Dillon are trying to learn more about the movements of the channel cats. Radio transmitters were surgically implanted in some three dozen fish which were then released into area streams. Their locations can be tracked in shallow water from as far away as a half-mile, 24 hours a day, data which should be useful in identifying (and thus possibly expanding) the preferred habitats of this valuable sport and food fish.
"We're doing things now that they didn't have the instruments to do twenty to forty years ago," Havera explains. Gas chromatographs have been used here to analyze the blood chemistry of ducks that have ingested lead shotgun pellets, for example, and computers are invaluable in digesting large amounts of information about the distribution of and fluctuations in waterfowl populations.
Old questions, new answers
Much of the lab's work involves finding new answers to old questions. Writing in 1958, George Bennett noted in the Illinois Natural History Survey Bulletin. "Many of the early activities in the management of aquatic resources of the United States were based on premises which later research proved to be inaccurate." For example, corn, buckwheat, Japanese millet, and milo have been the staple foods offered by waterfowl managers since the 1930s, Ducks eat them, certainly. But Havana researchers had established 50 years ago that duck feeding habits varied with available foods. Their preferred natural diet is highly varied, consisting of moist-soil plants such as smartweeds and nutgrasses along with pecans and pin oak acorns. Those foods have largely disappeared, however, leaving waterfowl increasingly dependent on simplified managed diets which, research suggests, are not as nutritional as wild diets. (Ducks fed exclusively on corn, for example, actually lose weight.)
There are new questions which need answers too. Havera leaves the office building and crosses a dusty gravel drive to the facility's wet lab, a former storage building converted for the moment into a combination aquarium and TV studio. The cultured pearl industry in Japan is paying top prices for mussel shell from the Mississippi and the lower Illinois. Commercial musselers have moved onto those streams from Tennessee and Arkansas, taking as much as a thousand tons of shell per year from each. Because mussels are slow to reproduce, wildlife biologists worry that surviving beds may be ruinously over-fished.
The once-rich mussel beds have already been decimated by over-exploitation and sedimentation. A be-aproned Phil Moy stands amid a jungle of cattle troughs and computer screens, the former holding mussels of various species in sand and gravel beds. Such mollusks often offer the only stable substrate on stream bottoms which increasingly consist of oozy mud. The mussels' excreta is itself a food source for certain invertebrates which in turn are fed upon by fish. But the link between mussels and game fish may be even more intimate. "Fish and mussels clearly share a close relationship," says Moy. "Mussels have to parasitize a fish as part of their reproductive cycle, for example, or they can't survive. But we don't know exactly what happens."
To find out, Moy and a colleague set up matched tanks. Mechanical paddles, gravel, and filtered light simulate a stream-bottom environment, half of which is populated by mussels, the other half left bare. A single fish swims in each. A video camera linked to a computer constantly records the fish's position in the tank at one to two second intervals. Different species of fish will be tested under different conditions (including breeding) in simulations of advancing complexity. If mussels do play some specific role in the life cycle of game fish, regulation to restrict commercial musseling might be warranted.
At the mercy of nature
Mussels have always figured prominently on the scientific agenda at Havana. Although of diminished commercial importance, mussels are still vital to diving ducks as food. To the human ecologist, they are vital as pollution monitors. To riverine inhabitants in general they are vital as waste assimilators and purifiers. Their numbers and variety have been decimated by sedimentation and over-harvesting; a 1966 survey by then-director William Starret found only half the species of mussels along the Illinois that had been reported prior to 1900. More modern dangers threaten mussel scientists as much as mussels themselves. In 1983, divers from the lab spent two dangerous weeks diving near Naples, Illinois, playing tag with snags and tow boats as they marked mussels in a study gauging the impact of barge traffic on local shellfish populations.
Ducks under study
"You're at the mercy of nature and the animals when doing field studies," Havera explains as he heads out of the wet lab toward the duck pens. "They tell you when it's time to do it, especially species which are migratory."
Come fall, for example, attention at Havana will shift from the river bottom to the skies. Censuses of waterfowl visiting the Illinois valley have been made weekly between September and April for 50 years, with less comprehensive surveys made of waterfowl and eagles along the Mississippi in years since. Pioneering studies of duck feeding and nesting habits were made at Havana beginning in 1938, as well as research which supported the economic and ecological utility of wildlife refuges. Much of that was done by Frank Bellrose, who has been widely recognized as having done for ducks what Johnny Appleseed did for orchards.
Unfortunately the great flocks of ducks and geese which visit the Illinois and Mississippi valleys have been dwindling. Looking toward the empty water of Lake Chautauqua, Havera says that more than 100,000, perhaps as many as a quarter million ducks (most of them mallards) will alight there in November to rest and feed. As recently as ten years ago, half a million birds could be counted there.
To find out why, an ongoing study of waterfowl management has occupied Havana staff for more than seven years. Waterfowl habitat has been inventoried for the first time since 1955. Food studies done by Bellrose from 1938–40 have been updated with the help of 11,000 birds of 14 species. Banding data amassed since 1922 have been analyzed to chart migration patterns. Distribution of nesting flocks has been compared to data from 1861–1929 to chart the adaptation of species to today's degraded environment.
Less of everything
For the moment, however, the only ducks at the Havana lab are in cages on the grounds. It is a strange menagerie which includes pink wood ducks whose feathers were dyed as part of a study on moulting and breeding behavior.
"A lot of the work essential to the ban on lead shot was done here in these pens, " says Havera. Lead poisoning of ducks which ingested spent hunters' shot was recognized as long ago as 1870, but the precise physiology of the condition is still not fully understood. The rates at which such shot is ingested, the effects of "second dosing" on wild birds, and comparisons of lead levels in dead and live birds have all been investigated in recent years.
The impending federal ban on the use of lead shot is one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy chronicle. There are fewer species, fewer habitats, fewer lakes than when the lab first opened—less of everything in fact except pollution and sediment. The backwater lakes and sloughs so vital to the river ecosystem are filling up and converting to grass and then floodplain forest. "We've done in 50 years what nature would have taken 1,000 to do, " Havera says. Even the lead shot ban (scheduled to take full effect in 1992) did not become law until more than a century after the problem was diagnosed. "How many ducks—and eagles which ate poisoned ducks—died in that time? "
Havera quickly adds, "How many eagles and ducks will that ban save over the next 100 years? " The circumstances of wildlife research leave the scientists based in Havana doing more postmortems than preventive medicine. The future may see more efforts to restore what could not be protected. If that happens, the knowledge accumulated here will provide the blueprint.
Until then there will always be more to learn, and people who will want to do the field research needed to learn it. "People do their best work, " says Havera. "where they're happiest." ●