Lake Tahoe is world-renowned for its dramatic natural beauty, but the attention it receives—and the pollution that comes with it—may play a role in an alarming decline in the populations of small creatures that live at the bottom of the lake. Scientists recently discovered that Lake Tahoe’s populations of eight invertebrates, all smaller than a thumbnail, have declined anywhere from 55 to 99.9 percent since the 1960s. And while these critters might be small in size, the scientists say they play a huge role in the lake’s ecosystem and their disappearance could mean big changes are set to happen within it.
According to Reuters, scuba drivers completed the first-ever circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe’s shallow areas and certain deep spots last fall. What they found was an unprecedented decline in populations of worms, stoneflies, bottom shrimp and water mites. The greatest decline was seen in populations of the blind amphipod and Tahoe flatworm, which have decreased by 99.9 percent since the 1960s.
Sudeep Chandra, a freshwater science expert at the University of Nevada, Reno, told Reuters that “(t)hese eight declining animals are multiple canaries in the coal mine.” The life at the bottom of Lake Tahoe is ostensibly the backbone for the entire ecosystem, and dramatic changes such as the ones noted in this most recent study suggest that new habitats are being formed.
As researchers continue to analyze the data, Chanrda remains optimistic. The ecosystem may be changing in part because of the introduction of crayfish, who are not native to the area, or as a result of increased algae and reduced visibility due to human activities. But all is not lost, there is still a change to save the lake. “The good news is both of these influences can be fixed, which could promote good plant habitat and improve the home and function of the ecosystem,” Chandra said.