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The History Of Limnology

Info: 3039 words (12 pages) Essay
Published: 28th Apr 2017 in History

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Limnology is an interdisciplinary field of study that has been around since the 16th century, however, as a distinct field of science, has existed less than 60 years. The word ‘Limnology’ in Greek means ‘lake knowledge’ and is defined as the study of inland waters with reference to the biological, chemical, physical, geological, and other attributes to inland waters (running and standing waters, both fresh or saline, natural or man-made) (Wikipedia definition, 2010), hence the multidisciplinary status. Limnology is essentially a synthetic science composed of elements some of which extend beyond the limits of biology as ordinarily conceived.

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Beginnings of knowledge concerning fresh water life, like those of marine life, arose in the remote past, possibly before the days of Aristole (384-322 B.C). These early beginnings, often strange mixtures of fact and fancy, have no scientific value (Welch, 1952). As time went on and mans knowledge of his surroundings slowly increased, certain unusual fresh water phenomena were observed and recorded in simple fashion, often with increasing accuracy. However, aside from the historical interest involved, no significant contributions of a strictly limnological nature were made for at least nineteen hundred years after the time of Aristole, although, certain facts about the habitats of fishes, emergencies of aquatic insects, aquatic plants, and so on, easily observable happenings had been described.

The study around limnology has attracted many scientists, usually ecologists simply for reasons of aesthetic appeal of being by a lake. Since the early studies of lakes and other water bodies, one of the main points of study was biological aspect of what was found in the lakes and finding relationships between animals and their environment with regard to the population and community level of organization and their experimental testing. In addition to being intellectually stimulating, limnology is of great practical importance in that the limited supply of fresh water must be shared by an ever growing human population, thus becoming subject to pollution, misuse, and depletion.

While Peter Erasmus Muller is sometimes credited with laying the foundation of limnological research with his plankton discoveries in fresh water, and while it appears that Anton Fritsch began lacustrine investigations in the Bohemian Forest as early as 1871, it remained for F. A. Forel (1841-1912), a professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, to recognise the real biological opportunity in lake investigations and, by his work, to become the founder of modern limnology.

Limnology first came to be in 1901 through the publication of the first ever text on the subject which led to world-wide recognition. Before this time since 1650, the progression and development of limnology was rather slow and steady, however the work that was done was influential and set a platform for other scientists to build on methodology and application. Such an influential figure emerged as one, Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), a Dutch tradesman and scientist from Delft, Netherlands. He is commonly known as “the father of microbiology”, and considered to be the first microbiologist (Wikipedia 2010). He created his own microscopes and was the first person to observe single celled organisms. In 1674 he first described filamentous green alga (Spirogyra) from a Dutch lake and an early recognition of seasonal differences in algal populations as well as descriptions of rotifers. Limnology slowly progressed further and in 1787, Clark was the first to determine depths of some English lakes which for its time was a huge stepping stone for lake science. In 1865, development of the Secchi disk used for measuring water transparency in oceans and lakes was created by Professor Pietro Angelo Secchi, priest/scientist on the SS Immacolata Concezione, a steam corvet of -the papal navy travelling in the Adriatic Sea (Kalff 2002). A major trend in the studies around this time was found to be more of an ecological nature (studies revolved around ecology), as expressed in the 1867 distribution and ecology of crustacean zooplankton in Danish lakes by E. Muller, however, these studies had not been recognised by the wider community and limnology was still left in the shadows.

It was the efforts of Francois Alphonse Forel (1841-1912) and his early studies on Lac Leman (Lake of Geneva) which would get world wide recognition and response and saw this form of science accelerate and change throughout the years, surviving two world wars, depressions, revolutions, and many other social, political, and economical occurrences that shaped and defined a period in history. In 1869 appeared his “Instruction á l’étude de la fauna profonde du Lac Léman”; in 1892-1879, “Matériaux pour server á l’ètude de la fauna profonde du Lèman”; in 1892-1904 he published his monumental and epoch-making work “Le Lèman. Monographie limnologique”, in three volumes, which was not only the first comprehensive limnological treatise but which also opened up a whole new field of biological research. In 1885 appeared his “La fauna profonde des lacs Suisses” for which he was awarded a prize. Then in 1901, he published the “Handbuch der Seenkunde. Allgemeine Limnologie,” a book which is the first general presentation of limnology from the modern standpoint. It could even be said to be the first textbook foe the study of limnology.

The integrative nature of limnology was stressed even before Forel coined the term limnology. In a prescient article published in 1887, Stephen Forbes described lakes as ”microcosms,” or little worlds (CGER 1996). Although the term “ecosystem” was not introduced for another half century (Tansley, 1935), Forbes defined an approach that presaged this concept. He proposed that lake studies should focus on many of the processes that today define the field of ecosystem ecology: mineral cycling, production and decomposition of organic matter, food web interactions and their impacts on the structure of biological communities, and the effects of physical conditions on biological communities. Forbes viewed these topics as essential to understanding lakes as functioning, integrated systems. Shortly after the publication of the first limnology text in 1901, came another study in 1904 (following pioneering work in 1897) delivered another aspect to this form of science, hydrology. Hydrology had been practised before, but was not of central focus and studies conducted were basic principles of stream inflows (B. Varenius 1650), water balance in determining lake size, salinity, and sediment retention (J. P. Jackson, GB), and the like. Description of internal waves or thermocline seiches in Loch Ness was carried out by E. E. Watson following work by Lord Kelvin (GB). Then in 1908 the establishment of the first limnological journal, Internationale revue der gesamten Hydrobiologie und Hydrographie, encompassing limnology and hydrology was created. Also a systematic attempt to use a component of the biota (diatoms) as indicators of (stream) water quality was done by R. Kolkwitz and M. Marsson (DE).

The period in history believed to be the catalyst for such a strong revival and explosive development was due to the hiatus produced by World War 1, and saw a new generation of limnologists eager to recover lost momentum. Limnology developed rapidly between the two World Wars , mostly in Europe, north America and Japan, because of its emphasis on fundamental research, the more applied components of limnology (fisheries, waste-water biology hydrology) went their own way. One of the key reasons for the acceleration of limnology can be put simply to the sheer number of practitioners, meaning there was a lot of relevant work going on around the world, such that, by the end of this period at least some of the limnologists had figured out, what by todays standards is considered fundamental limnology. Most of the work done around this time was on estimations of the input and output of materials in lakes, measured primary production, and recognized that changes in the nutrient supply brought about changes in the biota and affected the geo chemistry of iron (Kalff, 2002).

Limnology continued to develop as a field of study and expand its geographic base during the first half of the twentieth century. Limnologists of the 1920s and 1930s founded many field stations, used them to collect a wealth of information on individual lakes, and synthesized this information at the regional scale. As practiced during these decades, limnology was essentially an observational science: knowledge gained was largely from sample collection and analysis of the resulting data rather than from controlled experiments (CGER 1996). August Thienemann (1882-1960) and Einar C. L. Naumann (1891-1934) were two prominent young scientists, ecologists of better description, from Europe. Naumann divided lakes on the basis of their implied nutrient content, and in the process acknowledged them to be open systems linked to their catchments or drainage basins through the supply of nutrients from the land. He came up with the use of glass slides to study the attaching organisms in nature in 1915 which was a huge success.

Thienemann was considered a very good scientist (ecologist) and was the major player in the development of research not only on individual insects (autecology) but also on functional groupings (producers, consumers, and reducers) which, as early as 1914, laid the foundations for later research on energy flow in aquatic systems (Vollenwieder and Kerekes 1980) and anticipated the ecosystem concept (Rhode 1979). Between 1910 and 1914, he was involved with studies on the volcanic Eifel Maar lakes in Germany, which provided the basis for his organization of lakes in terms of bottom-dwelling invertebrate communities and their relationships to chemical conditions, in particular the oxygen content, of bottom waters of lakes.

A. Thienemann and E Naumann were among the most highly regarded limnologists who led a 30 year effort, largely between the two World Wars, to classify lakes, they also aided the development of limnology through the establishment of the International Association for Theoretical and Applied Limnology in 1922, an organisation with strong educational programs and communication networks linking professional limnologists. Limnologists in the United States were organized as the Committee on Aquaculture in 1925 and as the Limnological Society of America in 1936. It joined with oceanographers to become the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography in 1948; its journal, Limnology and Oceanography, one of the premier research periodicals on lake limnology in the world, was launched in 1955.

Birge and Juday are usually included among the founders of limnology (Wetzle 1996). Their contribution to the study of progressive limnology began the foundation of knowledge among the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of lakes.

Fig 1. Edward Birge and Chancey Juday with plankton trap on Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, circa 1917. SOURCE: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Visual and Sound Archives.

Edward A. Birge (1851-1950) and Chancey Juday (1871-1944) were two scientists studying out of the University of Wisconsin studied many different types of lakes that differed in morphometry and size and in geologically varying basins and were generally sceptical about the possibility of constructing new data points from the relatively few non-humic lakes and some of those lakes were accessible to Thienemann and colleagues in northern Germany. By investigating many of these lakes, they were able to distinguish between what they called autotrophic lakes and allotrophic lakes, among others (Kalff 2002). They also recognised differences between lakes without stream inflows or surface outflows (seepage lakes), which receive most of their water and nutrients directly from the atmosphere or from groundwater, and lakes with a larger catchment area able to nourish in and outflowing streams (drainage lakes) that in-turn provide much of the water and nutrients originating from land. Birge and Juday were considered ahead of their time by the fact that they were able to recognize the existence of both internally autochthonous and externally allochthonous derived carbon sources underpinning lake food chains. Characterization of lake types along environmental gradients was hugely rewarding for Birge and Juday, however, the descriptive phase ended mainly because of the rise to superiority after World War 2 of G. E. Hutchinson (US).

G. Evelyn Hutchinson (1903-1991) dominated limnology stimulating a great deal of research between 1945 and 1980 about, among other topic, understanding the behaviour of whole ecosystems through assembling work on biological components (species) and their interactions with each other and their environment , the backbone of the field of ecology. He was a pioneer in the development of innovative experimental techniques (CGER 1996), using radioisotopes of phosphorus in lakes as early as the 1940s and bioassays of nutrient effects on phytoplankton population dynamics as early as 1941.

The post – war period heralded an unprecedented rapid growth of limnology starting in the mid to late 1950s. Its growth was fuelled in the western world by increased funding, the opening of new universities and research centers, and the development of much better analytical (electronic) and sampling equipment that was the result of technical advances made during the war.

In the period from 1960 – 1980, there were major changes in the way limnological research was carried out (Kalff 2002). Until this time, all projects done had been related and research almost exclusively by single scientists alone, sometimes assisted by one or more graduate students or a technician. During the decades of 1960 and 1980 and aided by funding from the International Biological Programme multidisciplinary teams were established in economically strong countries. This now meant that limnologists could answer bigger questions, were able to locate, observe and record data of not only entire lake systems, but of virtually any body of water from the biology to the morphometry.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the beginning of research funding shifts away from fundamental or basic research, where direction and questions are chosen by the scientist. These days research is conducted through government, therefore focussing on important issues or perhaps problems which took a large portion of the funding away from the ‘basic’ research previously conducted.

During the past few decades, limnological research has led to impressive conceptual and practical advances on all types of inland aquatic ecosystems (CGER 1996). Within the past 15 years, three new North American societies have formed, each resulting from the expanding activities in a particular aspect of limnology and its related aquatic sciences:

-The North American Benthological Society (NABS) 1974.

-The North American Lake Management Society (NALMS) 1980.

-The Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) 1980.

These days North America and Europe, particularly north America is where limnology has become more frequent, such that, courses for limnology are provided at many research institutes across these countries, and graduate training in limnology is offered at many of these institutions, even though only a few universities have distinct degrees or programs called limnology.

Limnology has grown and evolved over the years into a multidisciplinary mode of science practiced throughout the world and attractive to young scientists and amateur scientists alike. The limnological timeline has seen certain periods in history shape and influence different science techniques and created a myriad of methodologies, ideas, and approaches to applying knowledge to the field of limnology. Many people played a part in the success and rapid development of this brand of science that has helped people understand our surroundings with how they work and why, and also acknowledge what can be found in these water-based environments and how they are important in certain dynamics through the roles they play. Limnology continues to develop from strength to strength and initiate a level of interest throughout the world that will ensure its popularity. An example of this is the international limnology society, Societas Internationalis Limnologiae (SIL), known in English as the International Association for Theoretical and Applied Limnology, that was founded in Germany under the kindly endorsement and guidence of Thienemann and Naumann. Limnologists in the United States were organized as the Committee on Aquaculture in 1925 and as the Limnological Society of America in 1936. From a starting base of 221 members in 1936, the American society grew to include 4,000 scientists today.

The rapid development of applied limnology, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, continues to contribute much to fundamental limnology, but has naturally stimulated much healthy argument about the true goals of science.

References: Books

Limnology : inland water ecosystems / Jacob Klaff. 2002.

Limnology. Paul S. Welch, Professor of Zoology , University of Michigan. Second Edition, 1952.

Fresh water Ecosystems: Revitalising Educational Programs in Limnology (1996). Commission on Geosciences, Environment and Resources (CGER).

Training of Aquatic Ecosystem Scientists. Robert G. Wetzel, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alabama.

Ecosystems and human well-being: A Framework for Assessment. Arthur Tansley 1935.


<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Limnology. August 9 2010>.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonie_van_Leeuwenhoek. August 23 2010.


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