A species of duckweed called Wolffia has covered the surface of Elizabethtown College’s Lake Placida, making the lake appear green and obscuring the view of the water. Wolffia is the smallest flowering plant in the world.
“There’s not much to [Wolffia], but they can reproduce very quickly and spread,” Associate Professor of Biology Dr. David Bowne said.
According to Bowne, nitrogen and phosphorous in Lake Placida gave the duckweed fuel to grow. The nitrogen and phosphorus floated to the lake’s surface, creating the perfect conditions for both algae and duckweed.
When this vegetation dies, it sinks to the bottom of the lake, where bacteria begin the decomposition process. This process pulls oxygen out of the water, but that is not an issue because the lake’s oxygen is continuously replenished by the water from the lake’s fountain.
“The most negative impact isn’t when [the duckweed is] alive. It’s when [it’s] dead,” Bowne said.
Students have noticed that the mass of vegetation has made the lake less appealing. As unsightly as students say it may be, changing the look of the lake is the only harm the duckweed has caused to the ecosystem. In fact, duckweed can have positive uses for animals.
The ducks that live on Lake Placida eat duckweed. Fish do not eat the duckweed itself, but they do eat insects that surround it. Duckweed can even be a cheap, nutritious food for cows because of how quickly and easily it grows. It can also be used to make paper.
The abundance of duckweed will help Etown students learn about the ecosystem of Lake Placida and similar ecosystems around the world. Strategies for Ecology Education Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS), Etown’s new ecology club, will learn about and collect the algae and duckweed from Lake Placida. Bowne and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Dr. Alexandria Poole are the club’s advisors.
“Our goal is to get [the duckweed] all out before it starts to decompose and cause an even greater decrease in the lake’s quality,” junior and SEEDS President Marquise Henry said in an email interview.
According to Henry, SEEDS is open to all students who are interested in sustainability and ecology regardless of their majors. Students who would like to be a part of the collection process or who are interested in environmental issues and sustainability can contact Henry for more information.
SEEDS’ first project will be a collaboration with Assistant Professor of Fine and Performing Arts Dr. Kristi Arnold and students from her Fundamentals of Color and Design class. The students will work to turn the collected vegetation into paper before using the paper to make art.
According to Arnold, this type of papermaking process is usually done by adding algae to a cotton-based pulp, but the club wants to try it with duckweed as well.
She said she hopes that this project teaches students how algae can affect the environment, how paper is made and how to collaborate with students from different disciplines.
According to Bowne, projects like this one take the duckweed problem and turn it into a solution.
“We’re hoping that by participating in this activity, students will learn that everyone can play a role in helping defend and take care of the environment that we live in,” Henry said.