Field work throttles up in Larkin Lab despite pandemic

In the spring of 2020, conquering uncertainty though MAISRC research was elevated to a new level. As the pandemic settled all aspects of our team’s personal and professional lives, a bigger question floated to the top—“How can we complete lab and field work safely and socially distanced?” With over 100 research plots scheduled to be surveyed underwater in 2020, one project team dove into the challenge.

Dr. Daniel Larkin is the Principal Investigator on a MAISRC project seeking to understand the impacts that removing invasive plant species have on the native species’ recovery. Dan’s lab includes; Research Fellow, Wesley Glisson; Doctoral Candidate, Mike Verhoeven; and Undergraduate Researchers, Jonah Bacon and Jackson Millasovich. In the spring of 2020, the Larkin lab familiarized themselves with the University of Minnesota’s COVID-19 safety protocols and created a game plan for the summer. 

Some of the basic protocols required the team members to ride in separate vehicles and wear face coverings. The team also met weekly to discuss the status of COVID-19 in the community and risks to the team. Each workday began with a 5:30 a.m. SCUBA call-in meeting to verify no symptoms or COVID contacts within the group. Additionally, the team developed a plan where each SCUBA diver’s gear would be kept separate from other members of the team, preventing possible cross-contamination during gear use, cleaning, and drying each day. 

Field work that was scheduled for the project’s 2020 summer included hand-pulling curlyleaf pondweed and Eurasian watermilfoil, planting native seeds, and surveying 112 research plots. Not only did the team complete all outlined tasks, but they got them done ahead of schedule too. By late July, with their planned work done, the team seized the opportunity to conduct lake-wide vegetation sampling of all their study lakes, and explored additional, novel methods of planting native species.

In addition to the project’s field work, the team is working remotely to construct a web portal for sharing plant survey data with stakeholders. The portal will consist of a map displaying the Minnesota lakes that were surveyed. Users will be able to select a lake and view any associated plant data. One of the biggest challenges with this portion of the project is combining data from a wide array of lake surveyors. From private contractors to government agencies, every lake surveyor in Minnesota seems to have their own spreadsheet, so it took some clever data management coding to make everyone’s data work in harmony. However, once consolidated, the portal will be a huge time saver for resource managers. 

Looking ahead to the 2021 field season, the Larkin lab members will return to the lakes they worked in last year to check the regrowth of native plant species. “We are excited to get back out on the water and collect this final round of data,” Dan explained. “I am proud of the team for being diligent about safety while still having fun and getting work done. As the project wraps up at the end of 2021, we should have a great data set to work with and recommendations for managers looking to boost the recovery of their lake’s native plant communities.”

You can learn more about this project on MAISRC’s website.

Vegetative reproductive structures called turions are one of the common ways that aquatic plants propagate themselves. In some cases, such as these turions of Potamogeton pusillus, the turions serve as a way of overwintering under the cover of ice and snow.
Underwater view of two experimental plots in Otter Lake. Left of orange marker at photo centerline: a  plot in which Eurasian watermilfoil was hand-removed for the past two years. Right of marker: a control plot where the invader was allowed to remain.
Pink flagging tape rests on the bottom of Otter Lake, held down by clay-balls like those used by our team to hold native plant fragments down to the substrate while they establish. The pink-flagging tape was used to test the methodology of using wet clay balls could hold fragments in place reliably for a week.