A Deep Dive Into The World of Invasive Species Research

Alanna Demetrius | The PhoenixMartin Berg, an ecology professor at Loyola, researches invasive species in Alaska.

“Culturally important” is just one of the ways Martin Berg, an aquatic ecologist and professor at Loyola, would describe his lab’s research. 

Berg’s research dives into the depths of examining the impact of invasive species on populations of aquatic insects, which are the main food source for Alaskan salmon. While geographically distant from the university’s Chicago campuses, Berg spoke on the influence his research has on the Loyola community. 

Berg said the “interconnected” nature of his work is what he wants the university community to take away from his research.

“Whether [students] are going into STEM or business or wherever it is, understanding the fact that something they may read about in the newspaper and think, ‘Well, it doesn’t really impact me,’ but the cumulative effects can impact them,” Berg said. “Everything from food resources, salmon for example, to just having an appreciation for the environment.”

Berg narrows in on the impact invasive species have on food webs and salmon on the coastal wetland ponds of the Copper Delta River in Alaska. 

When bodies of water are exposed to invasive species — non-native organisms that can cause ecological harm once they’re allowed to spread and reproduce — the major food source for fish, insects, are at risk of being depleted, according to Berg. 

After noting the “decimating” effect invasive organisms such as Zebra mussels, Round Gobies and the Eurasian Ruffe have had on food webs in Lake Michigan, Berg turned to the wetlands in Alaska. 

“Salmon are of course economically and culturally important to native Alaskans,” Berg said. “Anything that’s going to change the insect population up there has the potential to have an effect on the salmon populations as well.” 

However, unlike his research in the Great Lakes, Berg said that changing their focus from large bodies of water to smaller wetlands gave different scientific outcomes. 

“We’re not necessarily seeing decimations in food populations for fish, but we are seeing changes and reductions [in food populations],” said Berg. 

For Berg, the “fun” in his research comes from the vast difference in geographic location of his lab as well. 

Since the field season for salmon begins in May, the crew — Berg and typically one graduate and two undergraduate students — ventures up to Alaska for a summer of research, according to Berg. 

He said taking students to the wetlands has been an unparalleled opportunity, as some said it was even “transformative” for them. 

“It’s a great opportunity for undergraduates,” said Berg, “Over the past 12 years, I’ve had a couple graduate students, but I’ve had probably nine undergraduates that’ve gone to Alaska to work.”

While Berg’s research is STEM based, his lab has welcomed non-STEM major students in the past as well. 

“It’s very isolating, and students learn a lot about themselves, which is great,” said Berg. “ They may say ‘I don’t like this kind of environment —  being so isolated — or they really like it a lot, and that changes their perspective on things.”

Courtesy of Loyola University of Chicago Every summer, Berg has graduate and undergraduate students alike accompany him in his research.

At Loyola, some students find Berg’s research to be crucial to the university’s biology department and the community at large. 

Gloria Selvaraj, a senior majoring in biology, considers Berg’s focus in ecology to be “impactful.” 

“Seeing how food web structures in Alaska can change just by introducing one invasive species is crazy,” said Selvaraj. “Watching these changes closely can potentially serve as a way to focus on environmental changes around the campus and surrounding community as well.”

Amira McBeath, a junior majoring in psychology, considers Berg’s research to be important even as an individual who isn’t studying ecology.

“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a disadvantage to better understanding our environment, the effect it has on us and the effect we have on it,” said McBeath. “Overall, everyone could stand to benefit from this research.”

With his focus on aquatic insects and their effect on invasive species, Berg aims to “broaden horizons.”

“Even if someone isn’t interested in STEM, from the research aspect or any other aspect, our research aims to show that in fact it affects a lot of aspects of our lives,” Berg said. “Even if you don’t fully understand it, have an appreciation for it. This affects us for the rest of our lives.”

These invaders have the potential to “outcompete” native organisms, which inevitably will lead to the destruction of the surrounding habitat, according to National Geographic

The impact invasive species have branches beyond destroying food webs, as they have the potential to result in property damage, introduce new diseases and even lead to economic instability if the the surrounding community relies on the native species as a source of income, according to National Geographic. 

While Berg continues to dig at the ecological layers of insects in relation to food webs in Alaska, he said he will continue to give seminars open to all Loyola students and faculty in the near future. 

To visit one of his seminars and other ecology faculty’s seminars, can be found on the Biology Department’s News and Events page. 

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