What:  A field-based conservation research project using paleontological, sedimentological, and geochemical tools to address modern environmental concerns.

When: Early July-Early August

Where:  Students will spend the first week in Wisconsin, collecting cores and surface samples from three lakes across the state. Field work will be followed by lab analysis in the National lacustrine core laboratory in Minneapolis, MN and in the geology department of Washington & Lee University, Lexington, VA.

Who:  You, together with 5 other students and two mentors- Jill Leonard-Pingel (Washington & Lee) and Andrew Michelson (University of Pittsburgh).


SHadow_Lake_June_30_2015-1Project Overview and Goals

Conservation paleobiology has provided tools to identify polluted habitats, but tools to monitor efforts to clean up those impacted habitats are sorely needed. This six-student Keck project will expand existing taphonomic tools to include not only identification of impacted habitats, but also measurement of the progress of long-standing remediation efforts. To this end, we will explore the environmental history of northern temperate lakes in Wisconsin through taphonomy and paleolimnology that span a gradient of human impact: relatively pristine, remediated, and highly impacted. First, students will expand existing live/dead records of benthic assemblages across the gradient of human impact to test the hypotheses that remediation efforts have proven successful such that high live/dead fidelity in ostracodes and mollusks returns, similar to “pristine” habitats today. Students will then analyze the mollusk and ostracode faunual assemblages found in sedimentary archives to determine how humans have affected all lakes, independently of climate, and determine how and when communities have diverged in response to human impact, both positive (remediation) and negative (pollution), in the very recent past. We will use geochemical techniques, including heavy metal concentrations, which record human activity in all lake cores. These geochemical techniques will provide a metric of the magnitude and timing of human impact, independent of written environmental history, that can be used to interpret anthropogenic changes in subfossil assemblages contained in sedimentary cores and variation in live/dead agreement across lakes with different levels of human impact today. This Keck project will fund six student projects that will provide a record of how humans have impacted lacustrine habitats, but also further the development of new tools to monitor efforts by people to reverse damage humans have done.


Geologic Background

Lakes in Wisconsin provide an ideal study site for this work because these lakes contain a mosaic of impact: from relatively “pristine” lakes in Northern Wisconsin, to heavily-impacted lakes near its capital and second-largest city, Madison, and remediated lakes treated with alum to counteract the effects of acid rain in the latter half of the 20th century. Lakes in northern and eastern Wisconsin were created following deglaciation at the end of the Pleistocene and thus contain a near-continuous record of ecosystem changes throughout the Holocene (Williams et al., 2015). Many lakes in this region of the state have provided paleoclimate (Winkler et al.,1986), paleoecological (Heide, 1984), and anthropogenic records (Gajewski et al., 1985), and lake sediments often include mollusks (Solomon et al., 2010) and ostracodes (Kitchell and Clark, 1979; Smith, 1997).


sampling_Sparkling_LakePotential Student Projects

  • Paleontology: Mollusks (1-2 students)- Mollusks (snails and clams) have proven to be reliable sentinels of environmental change. The student(s) involved in this project will examine how mollusk communities have changed in lakes through time in response to anthropogenic influence in lakes both negatively (pollution) and positively (remediation) affected by humans.
  • Paleontology: Ostracodes (1-2 students)- Likewise, ostacodes (microscopic crustaceans) are widely used as bioindicators. The student(s) involved in this project will also use ostracodes as recorders of human influence and compare their records to the mollusk record.
  • Sedimentation Dynamics (1-2 students)- A prerequisite to using paleotoligical proxies in sediment cores is also understanding how their environmental has changes. The student(s) involved in this project will analyze all cores, using sedimentological and geochemical methods, to understand how the environments of these lakes have changed in response to human, climate, and hydrological factors.
  • Sedimentation Rates (1 student)- No paleolimnology project is complete without an understanding of how sediment accumulated over time. One student will use radiocarbon and lead-210 geochronological methods to establish age models for all lakes.
  • Remeditaion Methods (1 student)- We have identified remediated lakes to core, but remediation efforts have varied across Wisconsin, the US, and the globe. One student will seek to understand how each method employed affects the magnitude and rate of change to benthic ecosystems.
  • Environmental Outreach (1 student)- Fossils are important proxies of change, but are just beginning to be used by environmental managers to identify polluted habitats and to monitor the progress of remediation efforts. On student could work with conservationists locally and across the globe to develop practical tools for conservation using fossils.


Logistics/Field Conditions

We will spend about a week coring and taking lake sediment samples. This will entail being outdoors in all kinds of weather for many hours each day. You should bring warm and comfortable clothes, although summers in Wisconsin can be quite mild, weather condition can change quickly and cool weather is possible. Expect to be outside in the rain. You will not have to swim, but should be confortable working on and in the water. Wetsuits together with raingear are appropriate field attire. In addition, as we may be walking through high grasses to access lakes, please be aware that ticks bearing Lyme disease are prevalent in Wisconsin. You should take adequate measures to protect yourself from ticks when working in areas of high grass or trees (e.g. insect repellent, long pants/sleeves, etc.)

We will also spend part of the first week in classroom settings, getting orientated and hearing from researchers with ongoing projects in the area, in conservation, limnology, and/or paleontology.

After initial coring, we will spend about a week at the National Lacustrine Coring Facility in Minneapolis, MN. Here we will describe sediment facies from the cores we collected and complete initial analyses. We will spend all day in the lab, so comfortable clothes are appropriate, please no open-toes shoes.

Then, we will finish up initial analyses at Washington and Lee, learn research techniques we will use for final data collection at your home universities and begin preparing our results for publication and presentation.


Recommended Courses/Prerequisites

These courses will help you in this project:

Physical Geology

Historical Geology


General Biology



Intro to Statistics

 These courses are not mandatory and we will consider all applicants for this project. Depending on your individual research, you may want to take some of these courses in the 2016-2017 academic year.



As our project has a strong environmental focus, outreach to the general public is critical. We will attempt to work together with local and international conservation groups on identifying polluted habitats and monitoring the progress of remediation efforts. Students will also have the opportunity to communicate their experiences and key results through blogs and podcasts.


Contact Info:  For more information, please contact [email protected] Dr. Leonard-Pingel or Dr. Michelson will get back to you.


Literature Cited

Gajewski, K., Winkler, M.G., Swain, A.M., 1985. Vegetation and fire history from three lakes wirh varved sediments in northwestern Wisconsin (U.S.A.). Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 44: 277-292.

Heide, K., 1984. Holocene pollen stratigraphy from a lake and small hollow in north-central Wisconsin, USA. Palynology 8: 3-19.

Kitchell, J. A. & D. L. Clark, 1979. Distribution, ecology, and taxonomy of recent freshwater Ostracoda of Lake Mendota,Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI. Publication of the Natural History Council, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey Number 1: 24 pp.

Smith, G. L., 1997. Late Quaternary climates and limnology of the Lake Winnebago basin, Wisconsin, based on ostracodes. Journal of Paleolimnology 18: 249–260.

Solomon, C.T., Olden, J.D., Johnson, P.T.J., Dillon Jr., R.T., Vander Zanden, M.J., 2010. Distribution and community-level effects of the Chinese mystery snail (Bellamya chinensis ) in northern Wisconsin lakes. Biological Invasions 12: 1591-1605.

Williams, J.J., McLauchlan, K.K., Mueller, J.R., Mellicant, E.M., Myrbo, A.E., Lascu, I., 2015. Ecosystem development following deglaciation: A new sedimentaty record from Devils Lake, Wisconsin, USA. Quaternary Science Reviews 125: 131-143.

Winkler, M.G., Swain, A.M., Kutzbach, J.E., 1986. Middle Holocene dry period in the northern Midwestern United States: Lake levels and pollen stratigraphy. Quaternary Research 25: 235-250.