For the first time in a decade, a non-native species has been discovered in one of the Great Lakes.
It may only be the size of a pen tip, but according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Cornell University, the zooplankton known as Thermocyclops crassus was identified in water samples taken from the western side of Lake Erie.
“It’s kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Joe Connolly, a limnology technician at Cornell University told The London Free Press. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it wasn’t something we’d seen before.”
Normally this type of plankton is found in the waters of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Unfortunately, a discovery like this is not a cause for celebration. Non-native species like these often become invasive, and are extremely destructive, destroying ecosystems by degrading natural habitats and out-competing native species, costing the government millions of dollars each year.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Metro News that they’re not yet sure whether or not this species poses a risk, and it’s too early to classify it as invasive. The good news is that it appears to have had little impact on the environment so far.
“We don’t know enough yet about what this species could or could not do in the Great Lakes,” Elizabeth Hinchey Malloy, an environmental scientist with the U.S. EPA, told The Free Press.
What they do know, however, is that part of the Thermocyclops’ diet is blue-green algae, which blankets Lake Erie during warm summer months. Lake Erie is also the warmest of the Great Lakes, which means it could act as an incubator for a species like this.
According to reports, another Thermocyclops was found in the sediment of a ballast water tank on a trans-oceanic ship in 2001, before the strict flushing standards took place. It’s believed that this species arrived in ballast water as well.
Although the ballast water exchange program that became mandatory in 2006 is credited for managing the introduction and spread of more invasive species, and has been relatively successful over the past decade, it’s not a perfect solution. It also doesn’t address the spread of invasive species already living in the Great Lakes.