Can an ecosystem survive a massive flood?

I found a nesting colony of herons along the North Platte River recently. Herons are a great barameter on the health of an ecosystem. This stretch of the North Platte River appears to be in good shape.

We look at the pictures of the damage and destruction that parts of Nebraska have suffered recently and wonder if it will ever be the same. Mother Nature has some amazing recuperating powers, but it will take time and a lot of human effort to get things back to some kind of working order.

The before and after pictures show devastation and severe contrasts. What used to be cropland or meadows now looks like a desert of sand and silt. Areas that were timber are now uprooted, laying over or stacked with debris. Recovery efforts can do much to rebuild the environment, but what about the animal ecosystems that were destroyed as well?

When addressing nature, environment refers to the physical, chemical and biological factors, such as climate, soil and living things that act upon a particular organism or natural community. An environment can shape and ultimately determine the form and survivability of a given species or place. It is a broad look at a part of nature. An environment may not necessarily be altered by changes to its physical, chemical or a biological component — i.e., a river is still a river, but it may be in the new channel.

An ecosystem is a smaller component of nature, or the environment, that can be defined. An example might be a swamp, wetland, tall grass prairie or an evergreen forest. It has boundaries that can be demarcated and recognized. It is the sum of all organisms, soil and water within that area that make it work.

Healthy ecosystems are balanced and maintain a state of equilibrium. Take one or two of the elements of the ecosystem out of the equation and things start to go downhill. Time will have to show us if any elements have been permanently removed from the areas that have been impacted.

A healthy ecosystem has lots of species diversity and is less likely to be seriously damaged by human interaction or natural disasters as long as all the components stay in place. This is where questions arise when such massive flooding occurs. Every species has a niche in its ecosystem and working together in a balance to maintain the health of the wetland, swamp, desert, forest any other type of environment.

Take a pond ecosystem as a simple example: The sun hits the water and helps the algae grow. Algae then produce oxygen for animals like fish and provide food for microscopic animals. Small fish eat the microscopic animals, absorb oxygen with their gills and expel carbon dioxide, which plants then use as energy to grow. Bigger fish eat the smaller fish. Take the algae out of the process and everything else would be impacted.

As a biologist, I tend to look at the small things first. They are the building blocks. Everything else in the environment is built from the components of each ecosystem. So, how do you know if you have a healthy ecosystem?

It has been many years ago, but one of my biology professors made a statement that has stuck with me far beyond my college days. He was in the middle of a lecture on wetlands and said that if you see a heron, you probably have a good ecosystem. That has always stuck with me.

I was fishing along the North Platte River in Keith County recently and spotted a heron that was working the opposite shoreline. A heron is a sign of a healthy ecosystem because of what they eat.

Herons feed on small fish, insects, invertebrates, other small organisms that live in or near the water. When hunting, herons will stand silently along riverbanks, lake shores or in wet meadows, waiting for something to eat to come by. As soon as they have prey in sight, they strike with their bills. They will also stalk prey slowly and deliberately while looking for food. It is very interesting to watch.

Herons are such good barometers of an ecosystem that if the water becomes polluted or if its quality degrades, they leave. The same fish and organisms that sustain the heron die off when the ecosystem is damaged, and the herons must then find nourishment elsewhere. That’s why I always smile when I see a heron stalking the edges of any pond or stream that I’m fishing.

I followed this heron upstream and found a nesting colony. To be able to support this many birds, this section of the river must be very healthy! That is good for all of us.

Dragonflies are another indicator of a healthy ecosystem. They are only found around good, clean bodies of fresh water. Native Americans that inhabited the plains knew this. Pioneers that crossed this country learned about dragonflies and discovered that they were harbingers of good water nearby. As it still is today, good water was necessary not only for their oxen, cattle and horses used by the pioneers, but essential for the people themselves.

Science and paleontology tell us that frogs and other amphibians have been part of ponds, streams, lakes and rivers for 350 million years or so. They have survived all the climate and environmental changes the earth has undergone that caused many other species to go extinct. A worldwide decline in their numbers could lead to some serious problems.

When I’m fishing in any pond, if I hear bullfrogs it is another indicator that tells me I’m in a healthy ecosystem. Frogs absorb moisture and other elements through their skin. If the water is polluted, frogs are quite often one of the first species to die off. A deformed frog may be an indicator of an unhealthy ecosystem.

Let’s all hope and pray that the lands impacted by the floods of 2019 recover well.