A Michigan State University researcher will travel to Siberia to gauge how the world’s oldest and largest freshwater lake is adapting to global change.
Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is acknowledged as the world’s largest (by volume) and most-diverse lake. Its biodiversity is fueled by a unique planktonic food web endemic to Baikal with organisms that are highly sensitive to rising temperatures and other human-induced stress.
Elena Litchman, MSU associate professor of ecology, will lead a team of researchers through a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s new Dimensions of Biodiversity program to study how these tiny inhabitants adapt to a changing environment.
“These organisms fuel the lake’s incredibly diverse communities,” said Litchman, who is based at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station. “Human-induced global change is altering most ecosystems on Earth, and highly diverse ecosystems may be better buffered against change, maintaining key functions even as the environment changes.”
Litchman will visit the lake regularly with a team of interdisciplinary researchers to gather samples throughout the year. The team will focus on key organisms found only in Baikal that form the backbone of this ecosystem, map their genetic makeup and identify how they interact with the lake’s inhabitants. Based on the data gathered, the researchers will then create mathematical models to predict how phytoplankton and zooplankton will react and reorganize in the future.
The main question is whether there is enough genetic and functional diversity in the endemic species to help them adapt and persist in the changing climate, or whether the lake’s distinctive food web will collapse and be replaced by species found in many regions around the world, which may have dramatic consequences for the entire ecosystem, including the world’s only freshwater seal.
“Lake Baikal is a treasure trove of biodiversity and a unique natural laboratory in which to study evolution,” Litchman said. “Our goal will be to develop a model to predict how this ecosystem will respond to climate change. This prototype can then help us forecast what will happen in similar ecosystems undergoing rapid warming, such as those found in polar and subpolar regions.”
The data obtained in this project, especially facts describing genetic and functional diversity, will be the first of its kind available for the Siberian lake and will be available via public databases and a dedicated website. The results also will be shared with a film crew planning an IMAX movie about Baikal and freshwater conservation.
Litchman recently earned a prestigious national award for her work on phytoplankton and global change. Litchman was among 94 researchers honored this year by President Barack Obama as recipients of the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers.
Additional team members include Christopher Klausmeier, MSU associate professor of plant biology, and scientists from the University of California-Santa Barbara, Wellesley College, East Tennessee State University and the University Of Texas.