March 14th, 2011

A Universe unto Itself

Mark Fraser is the host and executive producer of "Nature Walks with Mark Fraser"

Living our daily lives we hardly notice the goings on in the natural world. I suppose in all fairness they probably do the same. A close observation of a flower will reveal to you that it is not only a place for an insect or hummingbird to find nectar, but it is also a home for a wide variety of insects looking like representatives from an alien world. The range in color in body shapes is as varied as their roles. There is everything from miniature predators like spiders waiting to ambush other species looking for nectar to herbivores taking advantage of the plant itself. In some cases there is even species looking to simply catch a ride on other species like some sort of a biological bus station.

Each zone in the natural world is like its own world with its own set of rules just like each continent on Earth has its own unique accent of plant life and fauna. These same rules apply both above and below the waterline where each habitat range provides a bounty of sustainability to its own fauna and plant life. During a recent dive into Lake Champlain I found that depth and lighting created a universe unto itself allowing specific species and survival techniques to flourish.  Just imagine that this particular lake is 120 miles long. However it varies in depth from very shallow to an amazing 400 ft depth.

The amount of sunlight varies greatly as well so the deeper you go the less sunlight makes it to the bottom. This means the greatest amounts of algae are in the areas that allow near constant bathing in sunlight.

Life in the Shallows” seems to be driven by the very sunlight it self. The abundance of light allows for blooms of algae that in turn is food for species including filter feeders like invasive Zebra Mussels whose razor sharp shells seem to cover the bottom until you go deep enough that they are starved for algae due to the eventual decrease in sunlight. Amazingly some species of birds and fish do actually feed on Zebra Mussels so although they are invasive, they are now another food source and also abundant.

In the coming years biologists will need to perform long term studies to understand the impact on the overall health of species like Yellow Perch that now include the Zebra Mussels on their dinner menu. The shallow zones of Lake Champlain are now synonymous with these prolific mussels but the well lit areas also have many other species carving out a niche in this shallow aquatic universe. It is hear that large predatory fish are taking advantage of those beams of light that makes their prey stand out in the brightly lit water. While exploring by scuba on water approx 8 to 15 ft I found they seemed to be patrolling parallel to the beach along the longer part of the lake and looked like some sort of aquatic bird of prey soaring like a Hawk waiting to flush out its prey as its eyes gazed with  deep intent at the world below.

With colors reminiscent of camouflaged soldiers trying to remain hidden the Log perch Darter fish blends perfectly against the grasses along the bottom. Their colors look like a beautiful design blending of jaguar and tiger patterns with a yellowish hue background against the black stripes. Like their namesake they seemed to “Dart” about within the small rounded rocks on the bottom quickly looking for food before once again finding a hiding place as the ominous shadows of the predator fish species like Smallmouth bass move with and eerie glide nearby.

With the lake having over 80 types of fish they come in may sizes. Some species in large freshwater lakes such as Lake Champlain can be enormous like Channel Catfish weighing well over 30 pounds to Sturgeon that can be 7 feet long and over 300 pounds! I did not see any during the recent series of diving expeditions however; I did come across a very large and exciting species to swim with which included the somewhat skittish Fresh Water Drum. I saw several of these very large fish in the shallows in water that was about 12 ft deep. They were very large and at least at a glance appeared to be well over 10 pounds. They added to the excitement of the exploration and gave an amazing sense of wonder to the shallows.

Like all things in nature, the most amazing things come when we actually pay attention to the fine details.

Seeing species taking advantage of “Life in the Shallows” introduced me to a beautiful world of amazement just beyond the beach and the glitter of the sun dancing on the waters surface. Understanding that each unique zone within such a massive watershed forms a universe unto itself means we can have a greater understanding their secret world.

Admiring the myriad of life in the shallow water zone is undoubtedly key to our own species appreciation of the health of the watershed and also the raw beauty that resides just beyond our site. I suppose that is what it’s really all about, taking the time to understanding our wild neighbors then gaining a better appreciation of them.

Mark Fraser




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