Critters, from ants to dogs, might help protect Lake Tahoe |

Critters, from ants to dogs, might help protect Lake Tahoe

Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily TribuneAnts could help lake clarity.

From dogs sniffing for invasive mussels to ants helping improve the lake’s clarity, animals may play surprising roles in the future of Lake Tahoe.

In October, the California Department of Fish and Game announced the formation of a K-9 program that could eventually include up to 24 dogs.

Detecting quagga mussels will be part of the dogs’ training.

“A dog’s scent ability has been estimated to be up to a million times stronger than humans’, ” Lynette Shimek, K-9 handler and coordinator, said in a news statement. “When dealing with something as small as quagga mussels or waterfowl hidden in the trunk of a vehicle, a dog will let us know quickly that something is not right.”

Quagga mussels and their relatives, the zebra mussels, have wreaked havoc with Midwestern waterways, causing billions of dollars in damage to intake pipes, piers and watercraft while dramatically affecting the region’s aquatic ecosystems.

The mussels were discovered in Lake Mead in January, and basin land managers have expressed concern about waterborne recreation bringing the species to Lake Tahoe.

Six dogs and handlers for the K-9 program are expected to begin training this month.

Also, University of Nevada, Reno, researchers recently released findings about the importance of a resident species of “aerator ants” to Lake Tahoe’s clarity.

The ant species’ extensive tunnel networks “can play a substantial role in facilitating water infiltration in forests, which can affect the clarity of the lake’s waters,” Monte Sanford, a Ph.D. student at UNR, said in a news statement.

Sanford and Dennis Murphy, a professor in the university’s biology department, along with researchers from the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station and the University of California, Davis, studied responses of ant communities to urban development at dozens of locations in the basin.

The sample sites represented a wide range of conditions, from highly urbanized to essentially wild.

Researchers determined development, the amount of woody debris and the abundance of weedy plants all play a role in how many aerator ants are found in a particular location.

Highly urbanized areas tend to have lower numbers of the ants, but a moderate level of development can actually improve the ants’ numbers.

“It’s a fine balance,” Murphy said in the news statement.

Considering ant populations when removing wood from the forest floor during fuel reduction projects also is something land managers should take into account, according to the researchers.

“Removing some downed wood opens up the forest floor and provides areas for aerator ants and other species,” Sanford said in the statement.

Exotic, weedy plant invasions tend to increase in areas where dead wood has been removed and can have a strong negative impact on the ants’ numbers, according to the researchers, who also found exotic plants may be offsetting the positive side of fuels reductions for the ants.

“This is evidence that the whole ecosystem in the Tahoe basin is changing from urban development, fuels reductions and exotic plants,” Stanford said in the statement, “and that’s reason for substantial concern.”

“Here is a case where a seemingly minor element in a complex ecosystem must be sustained to help us meet the broader environmental goals of maintaining healthy forests and a blue lake,” Murphy said in the statement. “Our research suggests that ant communities and their ecosystem services should be an important target in land-use planning and conservation efforts at Lake Tahoe.”

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