Volunteer Supports Scientific Discovery

Deep in the wilderness of Kodiak Island, Alaska, lies the isolated, 9-mile-long Karluk Lake. Known for its abundance of sockeye salmon and surrounding populations of Kodiak brown bears and bald eagles, the lake is also home to a rapidly changing population of diatoms — single-celled algae that have walls made of silica — essentially shells of glass. The lake is also the site of a scientific mystery that captured the attention of an Academy scientist and her volunteers.

Karluk Lake, Alaska at sunset

In 1961, French scientist Emile Manguin described 55 species of diatoms from Karluk Lake. The samples, many of which were considered the types, or perfect examples, of the new species, have never been found, so scientists around the world can’t consult them for research. Manguin left behind only drawings of the diatoms, which are not reliable enough to identify specimens.

Several diatom species that Manguin described from Karluk Lake are common in arctic and subarctic ecosystems, where they serve as important indicators of environmental conditions due to their sensitivity to temperature fluctuations and pollution. Scientists studying human-induced climate change in these areas must be able to consult type specimens of these species from scientific collections. Without Manguin’s type specimens, however, researchers may misidentify species, lowering the quality of ecological models aimed at understanding past conditions and tracking current environmental changes.

Man in boat with orange safety gear and navy baseball hat

The first “fix” to the problem of missing types is to travel to the location where the original specimens were collected to recollect new ones for study. Marina Potapova, PhD, the curator of the Academy’s Diatom Herbarium, knew that the only way to re-establish an understanding of these vital species was to return to Karluk Lake and collect them again. So Potapova’s volunteer and Academy member Greg Aaron sponsored and organized an expedition to Karluk Lake to collect more local diatom species.

After collection, Potapova would properly identify the collected specimens and designate epitypes, or additional, clarifying type specimens provided when the original materials are missing, ambiguous or insufficient. She would also sequence their DNA, photograph the specimens and study their morphology, with the eventual goal of publishing these findings for further study by researchers around the world.

Female scientists wade at Lake's edge

In summer 2019, Potapova, Aaron and Aaron’s teenage daughter, member Cate Aaron, a junior at Merion Mercy Academy High School, traveled to Kodiak Island. There they were joined by the Refuge’s Deputy Manager, Tevis Underwood, for the floatplane trip to Karluk Lake. During the team’s time at the lake, Underwood provided access to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s research cabin, operated the boat the Academy team used to collect samples, and provided security, keeping a trained eye out for the local bears. His constant presence enabled the team to focus on their search for diatoms.

What the team found at the lake surprised Potapova. They discovered that the lake, which was always considered to have scant diatom populations, was full of benthic (bottom-living) diatoms — the basis of the lake’s food chain. More importantly, she established that some of the diatom species that lived in Karluk Lake in the 1950s are no longer there. Kodiak Island has been warming in recent years, which has been affecting the feeding patterns of the bears and other wildlife.

Female scientists examine fresh caught fish while wading in lake

“Warming changes everything, including what the fish there eat,” says Potapova. “Everything there starts with diatoms, because they are at the base of the food chain.”

Is it possible that changes to the diatom population in Karluk Lake are occurring because of climate change? It’s possible, the scientists say, but much more research is needed to make a clear determination. By identifying what species occur in a region, tracing population changes over time and storing their finds in scientific collections, taxonomists like Potapova provide the tools for applied biologists who study species as indicators of environmental change.

Three scientists stand beside Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island, Alaska

More on our Volunteers

From working in the galleries to assisting with fieldwork and collections care, Academy volunteers are critical to our success. Without Aaron, Potapova would not have traveled to Kodiak Island, Alaska, in search of diatoms that could illuminate a mystery of missing type specimens 60 years in the making.

Two scientists ride in plane with earmuffs and mouth pieces

With an extensive teaching and research schedule, Potapova did not have time to organize and plan a trip to the remote Karluk Lake to try to find them again. Aaron, an Academy member who had been volunteering in the Herbarium for two and a half years at the time, took up the challenge — an undertaking that ultimately included hundreds of hours of planning and expedition logistics.

Aaron established a relationship with the staff of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, which administers the lake, and he helped Potapova secure a research permit. He also planned the expedition logistics, including the rental of a floatplane that could land on the remote lake. His daughter spent the summer volunteering at the Diatom Herbarium and assisted with the preparations.

Both Aarons accompanied Potapova on the expedition, collected samples, took photographs and prepared specimens for inclusion in the collection.

“Without Greg, none of this would have happened,” Potapova says. “It’s a great example of how much volunteers can contribute to science.”

The Academy is grateful for the dedication of our volunteers and members. Thank you to Greg Aaron, Cate Aaron and the many other individuals whose generous contributions make our work possible.

By Mary Alice Hartsock, Photos by Greg Aaron, Cate Aaron and Marina Potapova/ANS

This article first appeared in the spring/summer 2020 issue of the Academy’s member magazine, Academy Frontiers.

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