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Ashley Elgin

Ashley Elgin

Is too many mussels even possible?

by Michelle Parker (NOAA Research Communications)

Those not familiar with the Great Lakes freshwater coasts may wonder how a seemingly endless supply of mussels could possibly be a bad thing. After all, saltwater mussels considered a delicacy by many, is a common item found on your favorite restaurant’s menu. Unfortunately, the freshwater dreissenid mussel is not only an unwelcomed item on the menu, but also in North America’s freshwater waterways. These invasive mussels have very few natural predators to limit their numbers, so their populations continue to grow and spread, wreaking havoc on the Great Lakes food web.

Dr. Ashley Elgin describes the invasive mussel’s behavior as analogous to, “mowing down the field before all the other animals can eat.”

Elgin, a benthic ecologist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (GLERL), studies the environment and organisms that live on the bottom of the Great Lakes. She works in Lakes Michigan and Huron, and has plans for future studies in Lakes Erie and Ontario. She uses a combination of field surveys, and both lab and field experiments to learn more about the ecology and impacts of invasive species. Her focus is primarily on dreissenid (zebra and quagga) mussels.

Dreissenid mussels were originally introduced into the Great Lakes via ballast water from ships traveling from the Ponto-Caspian region. They then continued to spread throughout North America through additional pathways, including hitchhiking on boats and other equipment, and natural dispersal via connected waterways.  

Dreissenid mussels are among the most impactful species to enter the Great Lakes ecosystem. Not only are they a major stressor on all levels of the aquatic food web, but there are economic implications as well. Mussels will clog water intake pipes and cover hulls of vessels, which causes substantial infrastructure issues.

Growing up in the Great Lakes region in Northern Michigan, Elgin had an early awareness of the harmful effects of invasive species. Beginning in elementary school, she first learned about the sea lamprey (a blood sucking, eel-like species). She saw pictures of fish that had been attacked by the sea lamprey, and knew that it was adversely affecting the fish. She also learned about invasive zebra mussels, which made her understand, that when aquatic species come in from other areas, “they can cause a lot of problems when their populations increase.” By the time she reached graduate school, it was clear to her that she wanted to study the impacts of invasive species.

The most challenging aspect of her research, says Elgin, is the weather. She gives kudos to the NOAA National Weather Service because they do a great job of giving a heads up of what the weather is going to be, which facilitates short term planning and ensures that they only go out in safe conditions. However, field experiments are planned months in advance for a specific timeframe, which requires extensive logistics. The preparation process usually goes quite well, but there is no controlling the weather.

Aside from just focusing on her research, Elgin sets aside time every summer to mentor at least one student on an independent project. She feels the importance of this mentoring is that it provides the students an opportunity to explore how to conduct research, giving them a chance to experience the successes and failures associated with science, and determine if this is the field for them. “I’ve had many rewarding interactions with students, even years after I’ve mentored them and they’ve gone on to be researchers. I love being a part of the process as they develop their careers.”

Elgin says she’s gained a lot from communicating with people who have different interests and levels of understanding and involvement with the Great Lakes. She values hearing about their experiences and impressions, and then having the opportunity to enhance their knowledge on aspects they hadn’t already known.

Elgin has worked at GLERL for three years, and says she truly enjoys being a member of the Great Lakes research community. She takes the responsibility of being a federal scientist very seriously, and looks forward to a full successful career, “meeting the needs of the Great Lakes, whatever they happen to be.”

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