Thesis Research: Sediment Patterns in Relation to Vegetative Shifts at Catahoula Lake, La.
The processes that control species composition and structure in wetland ecosystems are complex and controlled by many factors including seasonality, depth and duration of flooding, and nutrient dynamics. Catahoula Lake is a floodplain lake that has existed with seasonally fluctuating water levels for at least 4,000 years. The herbaceous vegetation that attracts these waterfowl is slowly being outcompeted by woody vegetation, most notably water-elm (Planera aquatica). Our general goal is to understand the processes that cause this shift, focusing on the role of sediments. Our first objective was to use historical aerial imagery to detect historical changes in plant communities at Catahoula Lake, focusing on timing and rates of expansion of woody vegetation. Aerial imagery indicated woody vegetation has been encroaching into the lake bed and the rate of this expansion has increased 249% since major hydrologic alterations in the 1960s. There are three local patterns to this expansion: continuous expansion of woody vegetation, long-term stability of the tree line, and complex patterns of tree establishment. Second, we used 137Cs in lakebed sediments to calculate rates of sedimentation. Results indicated sedimentation was 0.26 cm yr-1, which is increased 225% from the pre-settlement rate of 0.08 cm yr-1. Peaks of 137Cs were muted and deposition rates were similar around the lake, suggesting redistribution of sediments is common. Third, we investigated elemental concentrations in sediment which revealed little spatial variation in recent sediment, but a shift from mixed coastal-plain and Mississippi Alluvial Valley sediments to dominance by acidic, coastal-plain sediments in the past ~60 yr. Sediments are low in organic matter, and carbon and nitrogen concentrations decrease with depth and are being sequestered at low rates (840 t yr-1 and 120 t yr-1, respectively). Compared to its condition prior to hydrologic alterations beginning in the 1920s, Catahoula Lake is about 15 cm shallower and the chemical composition of sediments is more acidic. Although these results are not sufficient to link these differences directly to ecological changes, it is likely the altered sedimentary and hydrologic environment is contributing to the increased dominance of woody vegetation.
Water-elm encroachment at Catahoula Lake
Catahoula Lake , Aug. 2012, data collection
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Clockwise from top, left: wading in the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Itasca State Park.; Collecting water quality data with LSU associate professor, Dr. Richard Keim at Lake Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge; Smelling the highly organic soils at Tràm Chim National Park in Đồng Tháp Mười, Đồng Tháp Province, Vietnam; Collecting data at Catahoula Lake.