The project, overseen by assistant professor of biological studies Tiffany Schriever, is possible thanks to a Michigan Sea Grant of $200,000 for the research.
Schriever, who moved to Michigan three years ago, said there is very little existing literature on interdune wetland fauna such as amphibians, reptiles and aquatic insects.
“There was very little information on what lives there, how they’re connected to the coast,” she said. “Every time I go out there I’m always amazed.”
A study in Ludington State Park showed a 24 percent overlap of species identified in two wetlands fewer than 750 feet apart, indicating a great diversity of species.
Since spring, the group has discovered four species of aquatic moths never known to live in the habitat, and 68 of the state’s 168 known species of dragonflies and damselflies, including five new county records.
They’ve also found several hognose snakes.
“You don’t see them very often,” Schriever said of the reptile. “It’s very fun to see they’re using these habitats exclusively. That’s important to know.”
While wildlife discoveries have been abundant, the backdune habitat is under constant transformation. Lake level rise has caused an increase in dune wetlands, Schriever said, while both natural and human-caused erosion have caused dunes to deteriorate.
“It’s very dynamic on how many you see on the landscape and how quickly they can lose water throughout the season,” she said.
Human development along the Lakeshore, from sand mining to ORV traffic, is causing changes in these habitats, according to Schriever. Climate change may also be a factor in the rising Great Lakes water levels.
Schriever hopes the research, which continues through 2020, will be shared among organizations from the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to local parks where the project is being done, to help adapt and develop conservation strategies.
Four graduate students and typically 2-6 undergrad students are partaking in the project.
There are currently six state parks hosting studies: Indiana Dunes, Warren Dunes, Saugatuck Dunes, Ludington, Sleeping Bear Dunes and Wilderness State Park. New sites will be considered in coming years, as spots like the Kitchel-Lindquist Dunes Preserve in Grand Haven have sparked interest.
“We all enjoy days at the beach, but I encourage people to step beyond the beach and step beyond that first foredune and take a look,” Schriever said. “That’s amazing.”