Resurrecting population responses to past environmental changes from lake sediments

Piero Guilizzoni from the Institute of Ecosystem Study during sediment sampling in 2012.

In this project, we investigate life-history responses of a freshwater rotifer, Brachionus calyciflorus, in retrospect. This is possible because brachionid rotifers produce dormant stages, so-called resting eggs, some of which remain viable in lake sediments for decades.

During the last century, Lake Orta – a deep, subalpine lake in northern Italy – was severely affected by industrial pollution. In 1926, a newly established textile factory began to discharge copper- and ammonium-sulphate contaminated sewage into the lake. The following acidification of the lake resulted in a dramatic decrease in rotifer diversity and an accumulation of resting eggs in the sediments. From the late 1950s onward, pre-treatment of the sewage prior to discharge gradually improved the quality of the lake water, and recovery was further accelerated by whole-lake liming in 1989 and 1990. Ten years after these liming efforts, the pH of Lake Orta had returned to pre-pollution levels, and copper was virtually absent from the water column.

In collaboration with the Institute of Ecosystem Study in Verbania, Italy, we collected sediment cores from different basins of Lake Orta. Back in the laboratory in Zürich, we screen these cores for brachionid resting eggs, which we try to hatch. Subsamples of rotifer lineages established from successfully hatched resting eggs are then subjected to a variety of treatments mimicking selected water parameters of historic lake conditions. Using such a ‘resurrection ecology’ approach allows us to investigate the adaptive value of life-history differences among rotifer lineages from different sediment layers, with each layer representing a distinct pollution period in the well-documented history of Lake Orta. More information on our resurrection ecology research programme can be found here.


The video shows a B. calyciflorus female carrying five male eggs.


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