Sam Friederichs is an avid duck hunter and has enjoyed the outdoors since he was a young boy, and he doesn't like what he sees happening to Minnesota's wetlands.
The wetlands that Minnesota is noted for are becoming fewer in number and lesser in quality, and the ducks that depend on the wetlands for habitat have declined along with them. More than 52 percent of the Minnesota's original wetlands have been lost to development, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and one DNR Web site noted that 2005 was the "worst duck hunting season in recent memory."
Friederichs found a way to do something about it, though, through a Collaborative Inquiry research project with biology assistant professor Dr. Kyle Zimmer. Friederichs' project, part of a broader collaborative project with the DNR, is attempting to assess the quality of 70 wetlands in Grant and Pope counties in west-central Minnesota. The study is looking at why some shallow lakes remain turbid - green with algae - despite the presence of stocked predatory fish, which typically reduce algae via influences on the food chain. His research has uncovered some new data that has excited aquatic biologists.
Wetlands are not his only concern, however. In 2006 he took a field research class, taught by Zimmer and Dr. Anthony Steyermark, during January Term at sites in two national parks and a biological reserve in Costa Rica, to study leatherback turtles, an endangered species.
Both projects involved long hours in inhospitable environments and neither was easy, but they were solid preparation for the path Friederichs wants to follow.
"I plan to go into conservation biology in one form or another, and this was really good experience in that field, because that's what this project (The Leatherback Trust) is trying to accomplish," said Friederichs, who will graduate in May. "Playa Grande is the last large breeding beach in the Pacific. It's the only one left. Humans have destroyed all the others." He hopes to continue biology studies in graduate school.
Friederichs' wetlands research is part of a broader question asking what influences fish distribution in Minnesota's shallow lakes. "Some wetlands have no fish, others have carp and bullheads, and others have a whole fleet of different fish species," Zimmer said. "The reason we're interested in doing this is some fish can have strong influences on the water quality of shallow lakes."
While being exposed to the questions of the broader project through field and lab research, Friederichs took on an additional piece of that project by assessing the role of larval fish in maintaining turbid water - green water.
Friederichs' project has turned up some unexpected results. "What Sam's data is starting to show is that it's not as simple as stocking a lot of predatory fish. That was a kind of working paradigm," Zimmer said. "If you have a lot of minnows present, the old way of thinking is that if you just stock a ton of adult predatory fish you'd get clear water. Sam's data shows that's not always the case. That might happen once in awhile. When it doesn't happen it's likely being caused by levels of larval fish being way too high."
"Aquatic biologists are really excited about it," he added. "It really shows them a new way of thinking about how these lakes work."
Results of the entire study are expected to be released later this year. "In the end, what they want to do is assess the effect of fish and agriculture on these wetlands, because Minnesota really has a problem with its wetlands right now, which in turn really affects the duck hunting," Friederichs said.
Friederichs returned to Costa Rica on his own as a volunteer in January 2007. The leatherback turtles are "amazing," he said, weighing 600 to 900 pounds and measuring 5.5 to 6 feet in length.
Beach patrol - scouting at night for turtles laying eggs on the beach - is one of the many jobs that volunteers do for the Leatherback Trust (see The Leatherback Trust: www.leatherback.org). Patrol hours often stretch through the night to nearly sunrise.
Despite attending college hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, Friederichs is able to pursue both his interest in marine biology and his love of the outdoors. "Who would think that here in the middle of Minnesota you can be working on marine biology, and I found a way to do that," he said. "Being outdoors and being out in the field, I found a way to do that all summer and get paid for it."
And the education is top shelf. "Research is the best way to learn biology," Zimmer concluded. "You still have to learn the facts and figures and theories, but you're seeing it firsthand, and the other thing students learn is how difficult it is to do research."