Setting a cardboard graveyard filled with small ethanol caskets onto the surface of the lab countertop, Pete Cadmus dove into a vile with tweezers and pulled out an insect resembling an alien.
Gathered from streams and rivers, such as the Poudre River northwest of Fort Collins, the aquatic creatures encased in the clear viles help Cadmus, a CSU graduate student, to understand the effects of pollution and toxins on the local ecology.
Poisons in the river
Toxins found in streams sometimes originate from rickety, abandoned mining sites where the metal fragments drift slowly into the water, polluting the environment and gradually becoming more lethal.
“(There are) tons of examples in Colorado where there’s a direct correlation of heavy metals and loss of biodiversity,” Cadmus, a student in the Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Department, said.
Although Cadmus called the Poudre a “gem” with no metal toxicity due to a lack of mines, other rivers in Colorado, such as the Arkansas River, Peru Creek, Mosquito Creek and Ten Mile River, have numerous mines, causing great damage not only to the ecology but also communities that lie along the river.
The ecological damages from the loss of macro-invertebrate communities, like the mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies Cadmus studies, have led to a decrease in fish populations, changing the ecosystems and affecting recreational sports.
Local farmers are affected when their crops and topsoil are polluted by toxic irrigation water, and fisherman can’t probe in polluted streams where there are no fish.
However, the Poudre is not completely pristine. Other types of pollution have affected its ecology.
“Once (the Poudre) hits Fort Collins (and) the urban environment, (there’s) runoff from storm drainage and sewage treatment plants, pollution from combustion engines and fertilizers,” Cadmus said.
As more toxins have become present in the Poudre over time, the city has to rely on getting more water from Horsetooth Reservoir, said Fort Collins Environmental Services Manager Keith Elmund.
Elmund said the city is aware of the impacts of bacteria, salts and metals, pesticides and herbicides and radioactive materials from mining activities found in Fort Collins’ water sources. To ensure the health of Fort Collins’ residents, the city conducts consistent water quality testing he said.
A debate has ensued whether development takes precedence over environment, because with concrete advancements come loss of natural filtration systems in soils, lowering the concentrations of toxins and other pollutants.
“(The) diversity of insects is affected (by the) numerous reservoirs, diversions, and roads. (You can) see big differences in (their) communities due to changes in the environment,” Cadmus said.
The current developmental issue is building a dam along the Poudre River, making the water stagnant and disrupting the insects’ eating patterns, possibly leading to an increased population of mosquitoes.
“(We would) lose the natural cycles that keep ecosystems healthy,” Cadmus said.
Aliens under the microscope
Having volunteered off and on since 2002 in Dr. Will Clements’ ecology lab at CSU, Cadmus solidified a research position five years later, where he now conducts his research.
Atop a bench in the lab sits a net specially made to fish for bugs. This cylindrical wire-framed tool called a Hess Sampler, was covered with extremely fine meshwork to allow only small invertebrates in.
Demonstrating how he dips the net into the water five times to take samples, Cadmus attached a removable side-net to the Hess sampler, which captures all of the insects with debris from their environment.
The mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, when viewed under a microscope, look far different from a pesky household fly on the kitchen counter. Although meek to the naked eye, when magnified, the caddisfly larva look like half lobster, half shrimp, and the stonefly are akin to a cockroach with hair.
In the lab, senior wildlife biology major Jenna Swartz sat crouched beneath a fluorescent lamp with tweezers at hand, went to and from an island bench and picked through a sample of algae and debris.
Swartz, who has worked in the lab for a year, said of her experience, “It’s been a great a job. I’ve learned a lot. (Even though) insects aren’t really my thing, I find it interesting to learn. (Cadmus) is really enthusiastic about everything, (so) the teacher comes out in him a lot. It’s cool.”
The duo create a laid back environment in the lab, listening to music while sorting bugs.
“He’s into so many different things, always thinking about them. We’ll just be working on insects and all of a sudden he’ll say something about sailing or rockclimbing . random rants about the world. It keeps it interesting,” Swartz said.
Opinions and innovation
For his advice to undergraduates who are not sure what to do, Cadmus said, “(You) don’t have to know . roll with the punches, take a diverse credit load, and suck the marrow out of life. Don’t look at your grades. Don’t do it for the grades, do it for the knowledge . take as many classes as you can.”
“Follow your heart (and) don’t necessarily go with the highest paying job. I didn’t get paid jack as a teacher, but there’s no way I could’ve bought that experience,” said Cadmus, who taught biology, chemistry and physics at a Fort Collins charter school known as the Pioneer School for Expeditionary Learning before attending graduate school at CSU.
Staff writer Lauren Leete can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.