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Published: Sunday, 9/19/2010

2 university labs study Great Lakes' island ecosystems

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jim Gillingham, director emeritus of CMU's biological station on Beaver Island, shows off an island snake. Plants and amphibians on the island include examples that are larger than those on the mainland. Jim Gillingham, director emeritus of CMU's biological station on Beaver Island, shows off an island snake. Plants and amphibians on the island include examples that are larger than those on the mainland.
TOM HENRY Enlarge

Several Great Lakes universities have biological stations near the Great Lakes shoreline, but only two are on a Great Lakes island.

One is Ohio State's University's Stone Laboratory on Lake Erie's Gibraltar Island, near Put-in-Bay.

The other is Central Michigan's University's on Lake Michigan's Beaver Island, north of Traverse City.

People tend to think of Great Lakes islands as popular tourist destinations or summer retreats. Or, in the case of Lake Superior's Isle Royale, a rugged wilderness experience for backpackers to catch a glimpse of moose or wolves while on daylong hikes in between primitive camping.

A giant toad on Beaver Island is an example of gigantism, or how certain forms of life grow bigger on islands. A giant toad on Beaver Island is an example of gigantism, or how certain forms of life grow bigger on islands.
TOM HENRY Enlarge

Many people would be surprised to learn, though, that scientists believe up to 35,000 islands exist in the Great Lakes. Dozens have had few, if any, human footprints and are inhabited by birds, snakes, and other wildlife.

"I can't say enough about this island and any other island," said burly, gray-haired Jim Gillingham, director emeritus of Central Michigan's biological lab as he spoke to a group of Great Lakes journalists on Beaver Island recently.

He had a gentle demeanor as he showed off some of Beaver Island's plants and amphibians. They included examples of what scientists call gigantism, an emerging field of study into how certain forms of life grow bigger on islands.

Beaver Island, for example, produces massive leaves of skunk cabbage. It has giant toads almost as large as chihuahuas - so big that at least one researcher says they should be declared a unique species. Even ordinary garter snakes there have wider-than-normal heads.

He said he had done research on New Zealand, Puerto Rico, and other islands but found his greatest joy on Beaver Island.

"To me, it is a jewel sitting out here in northern Lake Michigan," Mr. Gillingham said.

The Ohio State and Central Michigan labs have unique personalities, much like the diversity of islands themselves.

Stone Lab is an outpost for more than 65 researchers from 12 agencies and academic institutions.

Their research focus is more on western Lake Erie than on the island, according to Jeff Reutter, director of both Stone Lab and the Ohio Sea Grant college program.

Western Lake Erie is an important sentinel for the Great Lakes at large.

Mr. Reutter often notes how it is the warmest, shallowest, and the best part of the Great Lakes for spawning. But, as he says, it also is a living laboratory in its own right.

Nowhere is there a greater concentration of people in the Great Lakes region than the stretch of the Detroit River and western Lake Erie that goes from Detroit to Cleveland.

Stone Lab plays an important role in researching the human impact on the shoreline, as well as the trade-offs between heavy industry and agriculture, according to Mr. Reutter.

Problems that occur in western Lake Erie and in Michigan's Saginaw Bay serve as warning signs for the rest of the region, he said.

In addition to hosting scientists, Stone Lab provides outreach each year for hundreds of students in kindergarten through college.

According to Mr. Reutter, Stone Lab is especially valuable because its boats are "capable of transporting entire classes of students and offering courses on board."

The logistics for that are more difficult at Central Michigan's biological station on Beaver Island. Its newly acquired docks are a long drive from the station, and it doesn't have the boats that Stone Lab has. A ferry of more than two hours out of Charlevoix is required to reach Beaver Island, except for those who travel by plane. Stone Lab is accessible by boat in a little more than 30 minutes.

"The outreach program for the public, students, and teachers at Stone Lab is many times larger," said Mr. Reutter, who visited Central Michigan's station on Beaver Island for the first time recently.

Stone Laboratory, established in 1895, is the oldest biological field station in the United States.

The impressive 21-room lab building that Put-in-Bay tourists can see from the shoreline of South Bass Island was completed in 1928, as were the lab's dining hall and its affiliate cottage. Classes from the main Stone Lab building on Gibraltar began in 1929.

Central Michigan's biological station came years after the university got its foothold on Beaver Island in 1942.

Just beyond the dorms and dining hall is a modern, air conditioned lecture hall which includes a well-stocked library and a multimedia center with numerous late-generation computers.

The lecture hall is named for Mr. Gillingham, who recently retired.

One of Beaver Island's highlights is well off the beaten path in a marshy area few people know about.

It is a beautiful yellow wildflower called the monkey flower, reputedly because some people believe it takes on the appearance of a monkey's face when studied intently enough.

It is one of the Great Lakes region's rarest.

Monkey flowers grow only in standing water, something which was being depleted by a "two-year battle with beavers," Mr. Gillingham said.

So he and others installed a device they call a "beaver deceiver," a series of sewage pipes placed at the base of a beaver dam. They used dynamite - carefully waiting until the beavers were gone - to create a hole for the pipes.

The only thing injured was the psyche of nature's little engineers.

"They come back, build it up, the water keeps running, and they can't get a pond," he said.

Mr. Gillingham said they didn't simply destroy each dam because they knew the beavers would just rebuild them.

He said he has been doing research on Beaver Island for as many as five months a year since 1976.

He's fascinated by a place where he can be at a sand dune in 15 minutes and have all four major types of wetlands within a 10-minute drive.

"It's like a natural laboratory," he said. "Islands can be natural laboratories because of their isolation, because they have boundaries."

Both labs are on islands rich with history.

Originally known as Lake Laboratory, Stone Lab was on the mainland until industrialist Julius Stone donated Gibraltar to Ohio State. During the War of 1812, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry used Gibraltar to scout the British fleet that he defeated in the pivotal Battle of Lake Erie.

Gibraltar was privately owned. Mr. Stone, a former Ohio State board of trustees chairman, donated it to the university after buying it in 1925 from Laura Cooke Barney on the condition that the research station would be renamed after his father, Franz Stone.

Laura Cooke Barney was the daughter of Sandusky native Jay Cooke, an associate of Abraham Lincoln's Treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase. Mr. Cooke helped the former president finance the North's victory in the Civil War by selling $950 million of war bonds, an incredible sum at the time.

A 15-room castle that Mr. Cooke built on Gibraltar Island in 1865 remains intact. Registered as a historic landmark in 1966, Cooke's Castle is being renovated by Ohio State for activities that will support Stone Lab and Great Lakes research at large.

Beaver Island, which at times has been dominated by Mormon and Irish influences, was the home of America's only kingdom.

New Yorker James Strang formed a Mormon colony on Beaver Island in 1848, eventually crowning himself king before he was assassinated in 1856. Most of his followers were subsequently driven off the island.

Irish immigrants who settled in after that reputedly wrote to the friends and family members about "America's Emerald Isle," according to the island's Web site.

By the mid-1880s, Beaver Island became the largest supplier of freshwater fish in America. The harvest crashed from overfishing, but locals now claim it is a thriving spot for smallmouth bass.

The island now has two landing strips, several newer restaurants, art galleries, independently owned lodges, and bed-and-breakfasts. The boating industry is much larger now than it was 15 years ago.

One of Beaver Island's main attractions continues to be its Mormon printing shop.

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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