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Great Rivers Partnership

Foreign Exchange on Aquatic Plants

Ask Anindita Chatterjee what she did last summer and it’s unlikely you get a canned response. This doctoral student from the Indian Statistical Institute spent her time comparing submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) in a section of the Upper Mississippi River to that found at Emiquon Preserve, a Conservancy floodplain restoration site along the Illinois River—a tributary to the Mississippi.

Native aquatic plants are vital to healthy waterways for a number of reasons. They help preserve water quality by absorbing nutrients such as phosphorus, protect shorelines from erosion, and hold down sediment with their roots. They also provide habitat essential to wildlife and produce oxygen needed by fish and other underwater species.

"In my lab in India, we are mainly doing research on aquatic plants that are rooted, free-floating and littoral [growing in the shallow transition between dry land and open water],” said Chatterjee. “This internship provided me the opportunity to study other forms of vegetation and learn the SAV sampling techniques devised by the Long Term Resource Monitoring Program.”

As part of an internship program organized by the National Great Rivers Research & Education Center (NGRREC), her visit was designed cooperatively by the Conservancy’s Illinois Director of River Conservation and GRP Fellow Doug Blodgett and Dr. Richard “Rip” Sparks, an aquatic ecologist from NGRREC and member of the Conservancy’s Illinois chapter board and chair of its science advisory committee.

“Aquatic vegetation, especially submerged aquatic vegetation, was once an important habitat and component of the Illinois River ecosystem. But since the 1950s it has been nearly absent,” said Blodgett. “To date at Emiquon we’ve had an amazing abundance of SAV, but the challenge is maintaining it long term. Anindita’s research provides us a currency to compare our system and the changes we’re seeing to those occurring on the Upper Mississippi. Ultimately, her findings lend to a broader view and offer us new ways to think about how we manage and maintain the native species we’re hoping will thrive here again.”

During her internship, Chatterjee discovered a couple of SAV species new to the backwater lake restoration at Emiquon, as well as confirmed the proliferation of an invasive called Eurasian water-milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum). This finding was of special interest as her PhD research focuses on invasive plant biology.

As part of a side trip during her stay, Chatterjee was pleased to visit a site in Kentucky where she sampled alligator weed (Alternanthera philoxeroides) — a native of Brazil that has compromised other aquatic plant communities in both India and North America.

“Not only did I get a chance to visit the U.S.A. for the first time in my life, but I also got to learn and gain practical field experience in sampling and had the opportunity to work with many highly respected scientists and field biologists,” she said.

In an effort to explore other possibilities for Indo-U.S. technology exchange, Blodgett is currently working with colleagues from the University of Illinois and the Illinois State Water Survey.

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