ITHACA, N.Y. — As the landscape around Cayuga Lake has changed over hundreds of years, so has the scene below the lake’s surface. Many fish that swim there today were introduced over time. Two new tanks at Cayuga Nature Center are bringing people up close to the past and present of the lake.

Visitors who have walked through the center’s doors this month may have noticed the two big 650-gallon tanks installed in the main entrance. They are part of the new exhibit, “Cayuga Lake: Past and Present.

The tanks are installed side by side to show the contrast in aquatic landscapes. On the right, visitors can get a small glimpse of what the lake looked like before European settlers came to the Finger Lakes region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The tall forest backdrop of the tank gives an idea of what the region looked like before much of the trees were cleared for farmland.

In contrast to the woods on the right side, the tank on the left shows a background of sunny, cleared fields. Built into the tank is a dock with zebra mussels (sculpted not live) attached to the pilings. In the modern tank, there are koi, channel catfish and hybrid bluegills. There is some crossover with the tank of the past, like fathead minnows and native crayfish. Largemouth bass can also be found in the past tank.

The intricate design and installation was done by Split Rock Studios, based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

From left, Lainey Sempler, director of live animal collection, Natalee Wrege, manager of aquatic animals, and Savannah Wilson, animal education manager. They stand in the room behind the tanks where water is filtered and regulated. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
From left, Lainey Sempler, director of live animal collection, Natalee Wrege, manager of aquatic animals, and Savannah Wilson, animal education manager. They stand in the room behind the tanks where water is filtered and regulated. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

“What the Nature Center’s doing, what we’re all trying to really accomplish here is just trying to get people to be more aware of their surroundings,” Lainey Sempler, director of the animal collection said. “And if you’re more aware, you’re going to care that much more.”

The fish featured in the tanks are just a small sample of Cayuga Lake’s diverse ecosystem. Cayuga Lake, which is the second-largest of the Finger Lakes, is home to about 80 species of fish. At least nine species of fish — like trout, goby, zebra mussels and common carp — were introduced by humans over the past two centuries.

Visitors will find stories about the different species that have been introduced to Cayuga Lake. For example, the zebra mussel was first reported in Cayuga Lake in 1991. The freshwater mussels are native to Ukraine and Russia and can reach “astonishing densities of up to hundreds of thousands per square foot.” The mussels have changed freshwater ecosystems throughout North America. They efficiently filter water and improve water clarity — which comes with its own pros and cons — and compete with native mussels, resulting in the loss of almost all native mussels from Cayuga Lake. The arrival of the bottom-dwelling round goby around 2013 has reduced numbers of zebra mussels.

An example of zebra mussels attached to pilings of a dock. The mussels are sculpted and not live. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
An example of zebra mussels attached to pilings of a dock. The mussels are sculpted and not live. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
The left tank shows Cayuga Lake’s present and the right tank shows the past. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)
The left tank shows Cayuga Lake’s present and the right tank shows the past. (Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice)

A native fish that disappeared for a time is the Atlantic salmon. Though they were native to the Finger Lakes, they became extinct due to overfishing and environmental changes in the early 19th century. Now they are regularly stocked in Cayuga Lake since they seldom breed successfully. According to information at the exhibit, their favorite prey, Alewife, contain an enzyme that interferes with their reproductive success. This mortality has been called “Cayuga Syndrome.”

The exhibit is full of such bits of information about different species in the lake, as well as the history of the lake itself.

The exhibit has been years in the making. Planning, gathering the information, consulting local experts, and ultimately setting up the tanks was no simple feat. Behind the scenes, they have a complex system to filter the water to maintain a balanced environment. It’s a small representation of how delicate the balance in the lake is.

Jim Harper, manager of marketing and communications, said part of the exhibit is to get people thinking about the larger picture, how people’s actions impact the lake.

The tanks being installed is only the first step, Harper said. The tanks will open up a lot of opportunities for education and programs.

Natalee Wrege, manager of aquatic animals, said they would like people to see the contrast between the past and present and understand the ways people contribute to the health of the lake.

“Trying to clarify the good things and the bad things and the ways that people can contribute, in the very small ways they may not even realize,” Wrege said. “For example, microplastics are a major concern in the lake. Because of the level of microplastics, it’s currently recommended to only eat one fish from the lake per month.”

The exhibit was made possible by grants from the New York Economic Development Program, the Tompkins County Tourism Program, and the Triad Foundation, with additional support from Cornell University, Incodema, Inc., and individual donors.

The Cayuga Nature Center, located at 1420 Taughannock Blvd., Ithaca, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The center is open on Labor Day. Admission rates and more details are available here.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.