Every time Nate Tice ventures into a particular pond at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo in Indiana, he draws attention from visitors and occupants alike, as if he himself is on exhibit.
Guests are curious about what he’s doing wading around out there in the muck, and certain nearby animals don’t exactly roll out the welcome mat for him, the University of Findlay’s assistant chemistry professor said.
“The wattled cranes are very territorial. A male and female live at one of the ponds, and he’s never happy that you’re there. They like to peck,” he explained. A zookeeper must tag along to shoo the birds away.
But the risks are worth it for the work Tice and his partner, Chad Snyder, Ph.D., a chemistry professor and chair of the department of science and mathematics at Grace College in Winona Lake, Indiana, are conducting – water quality tests aimed at improving aquatic life within the zoo’s ponds. The pair, along with some of Snyder’s students, have been analyzing nitrates, phosphates, pH, water and oxygen levels, and recommending ways for the nonprofit to better control its algal issues.
Excessive algae can be caused by materials such as fertilizer run-off, so the team has also helped the zoo identify and mitigate such outside sources that are causing chemical imbalances. Some natural and cost-effective out-of-control algae solutions are to install a fountain to improve aeration and water circulation, and plant vegetation around the periphery to provide shade, Tice said.
Prior to the team commencing its work, the zoo would occasionally treat the ponds with commercial algaecides, as many are often tempted to do, to control problems. But Tice said those products are comprised of copper salts, which, at high levels, can be toxic to birds and mammals, and actually worsen problems.
Additionally, in an effort to avoid chemicals, physically removing algae was also performed, but this is time consuming and very difficult.
“If you do mass algae kill-offs, it often comes back stronger. It’s persistent,” said Tice.
Tice and Snyder are longtime collaborators and friends, having attended graduate school together, Tice said. Snyder heard of the zoo’s problem, offered to help, and asked if Tice would like to work with him. This year marks the third that they have collected water samples.
“It’s been interesting and educational,” Tice said. The project has also been fulfilling for volunteers. “The folks who are employed at the zoo are not necessarily environmental scientists. So it’s kind of neat to see that we’re making a positive impact.”
Snyder has noticed that the historical trend from 2015 is showing that algae levels are leveling off, and in some cases declining, with the non-use of chemicals. The implementation of more bubblers and better pond water flow have made improvements by disturbing algae aggregation on surface water.
Change can be difficult to achieve, but monetary savings can be powerful incentives, Tice added. “There are usually some up-front costs, but in the long run they’re cheaper.”
Snyder said the project has garnered a good deal of interest from the Grace College student body and the local community, and “the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo has been very helpful and encouraging with our partnership,” he noted. “Dr. Tice has also contributed his expertise and provided an additional layer of examination of our results. We’ve been grateful to his continued assistance in our partnership.”
The goal, Snyder mentioned, is to continue the water quality improvement relationship with the zoo, and possibly conduct water analyses for the zoo’s marina, sea lion or stingray exhibit.
Tice and Snyder have used their research to write a paper that’s being considered for publication, and Snyder has presented their findings to the Indiana Academy of Science. They hope their information will help other zoos experiencing similar water quality issues.