Aquatic Aggression

When Charles Ames saw small crops of an unfamiliar plant taking hold in his pond on Willard Street Extension last summer, he thought maybe it was the work of a form of seaweed.

Little did he know the crops were water chestnuts, an invasive species originally from central Asia making its way into water bodies across the Northeast and down the East Coast.

This summer, the plants have infested the perimeter of his pond, and are spreading toward the center.

Ames contacted the Jamestown Audubon Center & Sanctuary, which is increasing efforts to inform the public about what to look for and how to prevent the invasive species from taking hold in waterbodies countywide.

The plant’s sharp points with barbs on the tips make it easy for the water chestnut to spread quickly after attaching to bird feathers.

Ames said he believes that’s how the water chestnuts were transported to his pond.

“It’s very easy for that to happen,” said Tom Erlandson, former professor of biology at Jamestown Community College. “I would be surprised if great blue herons don’t do the same thing after wading through a fairly shallow pond.”

The water chestnut was first observed in 2006 at the Audubon’s Big Pond, a 45-acre body of water on the premises. By 2012, the pest had taken over. Efforts to control it included an intensive eradication campaign, but unfortunately the pond had to be drained.

In June, volunteers joined at Big Pond for the second summer in a row to help remove the plants.

Katie Finch, teacher/naturalist for the Audubon, said the invasive species does not fit into the natural ecosystems of lakes and ponds in Chautauqua County because it’s not native to the land.

Water chestnuts also take away resources from other plants and animals.

The plant has multiple leaves and sits on the surface of the water much like a lily pad, with roots extending to the floor of the waterbody. On the surface, a bulb, referred to as a “nutlet,” sits in the center of the leaves. Each plant can produce up to 20 nutlets, each of which can sprout at least five plants.

“It’s here, and it’s difficult to control,” Erlandson said.

Water chestnuts have yet to be seen as a major issue in Chautauqua Lake, according to David Spann, district field manager for the county Soil and Water Conservation District.

However, mass searches have been held for the invasive species, which can help prevent its establishment in the ecosystem.

Erlandson said the Audubon’s Big Pond is hydraulically connected to Conewango Creek.

“Whenever the creek floods, it backs up into Big Pond and now there are water chestnuts in Conewango Creek,” he added. “The suspicion is that the chestnuts from Big Pond have gotten into the Conewango and possibly the Allegheny River.”

In 2013, 14 plants were discovered and pulled in Akeley Swamp – the water chestnut’s first appearance in western Pennsylvania.

The Audubon is currently hosting a series of “chestnut pulling” days, which will require many volunteers to pull the plants before seeds disperse in August. Major pulls are taking place on weekends.

Volunteers should wear long pants and sturdy, closed-toe shoes, boots or waders. Reservations are required, and can be made by calling 569-2345. The Audubon Center & Sanctuary is located at 1600 Riverside Road.

The Audubon is also asking pond owners, boaters and fishermen to become familiar with the aquatic weed and report any observations by calling the Conewango Creek Watershed Association at 814-726-1441 or the Audubon at 569-2345.