Wayne State University

Belle Isle: Wayne State on the front line in the battle against invasive species

DETROIT – Battle lines in the fight against invasive species have been drawn on Belle Isle, Michigan’s newest state park. The war against them is moving in full force — and the public is invited to watch. 

On Oct. 11, new exhibits, talks, self-guided trails and information about efforts to remove the invaders from Belle Isle will be officially opened at the Belle Isle Aquarium and the Belle Isle Nature Zoo. Many of the invasive species exhibits at the aquarium were designed by a team led by Jeffrey Ram, Ph.D., professor of physiology from Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, who chairs the aquarium’s Science and Education Advisory Board and conducts research on invasive species at Wayne State and the Belle Isle Aquarium.

The “grand opening” events at the Belle Isle Aquarium will begin at noon with a talk about sea lamprey by Steven Chang, Ph.D., from the University of Detroit Mercy. Wayne State will lead a ribbon-cutting at 12:40 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. to open new exhibits. Additional talks about sea lamprey will be given by Chang at 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

The exhibits are part of a larger project sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency through its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Headed by the Friends of the Detroit River (FDR) in collaboration with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the Belle Isle Conservancy, Wayne State University and others, the project seeks to clear Belle Isle of invasive plants and inform the public on how to control or prevent future invasions of aquatic plants and animals. As has happened elsewhere in the United States and Canada, invasive species such as Phragmites reeds and round goby fish have taken over large areas of forest and coastlines where they choke out or compete with native species and degrade the habitats for many others. But the battle against them on Belle Isle has begun.

This past summer, the project mapped invasive species all over the island park. According to Sam Lovall, head of the project, “Now that we know where many of the invasive species are located on the island, we’ve begun removal work this fall focusing on four of the worst offenders,  Phragmites, reed canary grass, purple loosestrife and Japanese knotwood.” 

The exhibits at the Belle Isle Aquarium and Belle Isle Nature Zoo will help visitors understand what is being done and how they can stop the spread of invasive species where they live.

At the aquarium, Ram and his students can often be seen climbing in and out of tanks, mounting exhibits, or bringing in live invasive species already found in the Detroit River or Lake Erie for display. Species that are not already found around Belle Isle are represented by models. Ram says the public is invited to “come see our new exhibit on northern snakehead, a carnivorous fish that can breathe air and walk over land. The snakehead is just one example of a dangerous invasive species that we hope to keep out of the Great Lakes.” The snakehead—only a model but, at 30 inches long, an impressive one—joins models of Asian carp; 3D prints of killer shrimp and spiny water fleas; and live displays of zebra mussels, white perch, round gobies, and the newest live exhibit, the sea lamprey, designed to encourage the public to do what they can to stop or slow future invasions. New technology about invasive species’ DNA and detecting them in ships’ ballast water is also on display.

Meanwhile at the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, the focus will be on invasive plants and the FDR’s invasive species removal efforts. In addition to new displays in the  zoo itself, Ram’s assistant, Tahrima Khnom, working in collaboration with Melvadean Pearson of the Belle Isle Conservancy and Michelle Selzer of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Great Lakes Office recently completed a self-guided trail map to invasive plant species on Belle Isle. The map invites the public to visit the “front lines” of the battle, search for many of the more than 20 species of non-native species on the island and return in the future to assess whether the project was a success.

For more information, contact Jeffrey Ram, jeffram@gmail.com and 313 577-1558 at Wayne State University, or Sam Lovall, 734-776-5445, sam.lovall@gmail.com, Friends of the Detroit River.

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