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Coe College team spearheads Cedar Rapids community-based project to study Cedar Lake biodiversity
Community can use mobile app to contribute to scientific research on wildlife in Cedar Lake
CEDAR RAPIDS — After slipping on his waders, Danny Hughes emerged from underneath a shelter along the Cedar Lake loop trail and into the sunlight, ready to discover the wildlife that live there.
Hughes, a Coe College assistant professor of biology, was on the lookout Saturday for any plant and animal species. Could the day’s walk around the lake lead his team to find turtles, frogs or snakes?
The potential for new scientific discoveries propelled Hughes, two Coe College student researchers and a few community members forward on a 1.6-mile journey around the paved trail. Along the way, they checked about 30 boards for snakes, waded into Cedar Lake to check turtle traps and scoured their natural surroundings for any chance encounters of new species.
Pausing at the second board, Hughes — in true professor form, standing at the front of his outdoor classroom — asked, “Anyone want to do the honors?”
Lyssie Ahern, a Coe College rising senior who just started working on the project, stepped up to check for snakes under Hughes’ watchful eye. The two examined the many rollie pollies and millipedes clinging to the board before resuming their stroll toward the turtle traps.
This walk around the trail on Saturday was part of an effort Hughes is spearheading at the Coe College Biology Department to research the biodiversity of Cedar Lake in a citizen collaboration. The effort aims to raise awareness for local species, generate excitement for urban parks and educate all on the importance of biodiversity.
The project is funded by a $2,500 grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which helped purchase equipment such as turtle and minnow traps and allows Hughes’ team to do sampling.
Citizens can attend bimonthly BioBlitz events or venture to Cedar Lake on their own, take photos and upload them to the iNaturalist app. Once those observations are verified by two people, they are usable for scientific research.
How to participate
Go to the Coe College team’s website, thebiodiversityofcedarlake.com, to see when future BioBlitz events are scheduled and learn more about the team’s work. Instructions on how to download the iNaturalist app and use it to contribute to the research are available there.
“If you can hold a phone and take a picture with it, you can participate,” Hughes said.
Before crossing the bridge to the other side of the lake near the rail yard, Hughes and his students walked into the water to check the turtle traps. After several minutes, they returned to dry land and Hughes announced to the group, “No turtles,” but he said they did find striped and largemouth bass, bluegill and crappies.
Seeing the trio checking turtle traps, a few others had gathered to see what creatures might turn up. Hughes prompted one onlooker riding his bike to download the iNaturalist app and recruited a family to join for the rest of the afternoon BioBlitz.
Emery Stead, 6, became Hughes’ eager helper as the group of seven walked the trail. Birds, flowers, mushrooms and a “rollie pollie city” were among the citizen scientists’ findings.
Under one snake board, Stead found a caterpillar and held it in her hand for Hughes to photograph using the app. She proudly displayed it for the group to see, and Hughes shared the news of her discovery — before it escaped her hand and fell to the ground.
“Was a caterpillar. Past tense,” Hughes said as the group laughed.
‘Community science initiative’
Watching as Stead discovered the wonders of the natural world, her mother, Elizabeth Mohanna, 44, said “any time a kid is not attached to a piece of technology is always a win.”
“The closer we come to the natural world, the more we are going to feel accountable to it and want it to survive and live on.” — Elizabeth Mohanna, of Cedar Rapids
Mohanna said natural beauty and industry need to better coexist in Cedar Rapids, pointing to the lake’s industrial backdrop of the nearby downtown area, lined by factory buildings. She saw potential for the lake and industry to flow together more cohesively.
“I think the closer we get to nature is the closer we’ll find solutions for the problems that my generation — Emery’s generation even more — are going to face,” Mohanna said. “The closer we come to the natural world, the more we are going to feel accountable to it and want it to survive and live on.”
By conducting this research as a community-based research project versus a traditional one-person survey, Hughes said the chances of encountering all species that live in and around Cedar Lake are much lower. People may find a rare species or help gain a better understanding of common species, like Canada geese.
More than 350 observations have been made so far. Hughes said his goal for the end of the summer would be for the community to make 1,000 observations.
He envisioned keeping the project going in the long term to look at potential patterns and see whether global changes are affecting the local ecosystem.
“If you can tap into this community science initiative, which is just people that are already walking around using it for recreation and for exercise, we can end up with a whole bunch more observations of species and potentially increase our chances of finding anything,” Hughes said.
Farah Suboh, a Coe College rising junior from Jordan who majors in biology and chemistry, said working on this project will help her determine whether she wants to pursue research as a career or enter the medical field.
Suboh said she hopes the project inspires the community to care about the biodiversity here and for the creatures around them.
“You don’t really need to have a degree or be in a class to learn about that, so I just think that that’s very exciting,” Suboh said.
Ahern, the other student on the project, is a biology, psychology and neuroscience major from Dubuque. She said this work will give her field experience and help figure out the biodiversity of the lake.
Like Suboh, she hoped it would raise awareness of environmentalism and encourage better treatment of the natural world in Cedar Rapids.
“We don’t really know what is in this lake or around this lake because it’s never really been thoroughly researched at all,” Ahern said. “ … It’s important to find out to be able to protect what’s in the lake better.”
Changing the perception of Cedar Lake
When Hughes first started studying the wildlife at Cedar Lake, he said people initially laughed at him because of the perception of Cedar Lake as a wasteland. He hopes the community-led research changes that notion.
“Nature is taking itself back, if you will, at Cedar Lake,” Hughes said.
The research also may provide a baseline data set that city officials and other decision-makers can use as they work on projects around the lake, Hughes said.
Other changes are planned to infuse new life into the lake, such as the ConnectCR initiative. The grassroots effort aims to revitalize Cedar Lake north of downtown and build a pedestrian span called the Smokestack Bridge over the river south of downtown.
And as part of the city’s $750 million permanent flood control system, a new levee and trail system will be added west of Shaver Road NE and south of McLoud Run. The changes will bring a trail on top for pedestrian and bike traffic, and some fishing areas on the base of the levee by Cedar Lake.
Completed flood control measures will wrap around Cedar Lake, tying into high ground at Interstate 380 near J Avenue. The city anticipates completion of that segment in 2023.
Rob Davis, the city flood control manager, said both the city of Cedar Rapids and the Army Corps of Engineers are following all state and federal guidance regarding environmental impacts at Cedar Lake.
The Army Corps conducted analyses in 2011 and 2019, Davis said, which did not identify significant impacts to Cedar Lake fish, waterfowl and invertebrates that would occur as the result of the flood control project. Davis said there will be efforts to mitigate short-term impacts to wildlife as design and construction phases continue.
“Long term, however, Cedar Lake will benefit from the protection of the flood control levee that is planned on the west side — the levee is an investment not only in protecting property, but in protecting ecosystems that could be disrupted through Cedar River flooding,” Davis said.
Cedar Rapids City Council member Dale Todd, who has championed the revitalization of Cedar Lake, said the city aims to minimize the impact of construction on this ecosystem, and the Coe College-led research collaboration with the community will help.
“The way to do it is to understand what’s there now and how we can minimize any impacts that we might have on it during construction,” Todd said. “We do not want to displace it but in fact enhance it, so it thrives and is sustainable.”
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