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EGLE Career Series: Fast Five with Aquatic Biologist Joshua Tellier, recipient of Early Career Scientist Award

Joshua Tellier, an aquatic biologist in the Water Resources Division of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), recently received the Elsevier Early Career Scientist Award from the International Association for Great Lakes Research. The award was for the article “Widespread prevalence of hypoxia and the classification of hypoxic conditions in the Laurentian Great Lakes,” co-authored with five others. Today’s Fast Five edition of MI Environment, part of Great Lakes and Fresh Water Week, is the latest Q & A in its Career Series.

How long have you been with EGLE and how long have you been interested in hypoxia in the Great Lakes?

I have been with EGLE just under two years. I started in August 2021, and I have been enjoying every day since! My research focus on Great Lakes hypoxia began during my master’s program at Purdue University. However, more broadly, I have always had a keen interest in aquatic hypoxia. I grew up a short distance from Long Island Sound, located off the coasts of New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Parts of Long Island Sound have a reputation as a coastal ‘dead zone’ due to hypoxia, so I grew up with an awareness of the issue and its consequences for aquatic ecosystems.

Joshua Tellier headshot

Joshua Tellier


How much of a problem is hypoxia in the Great Lakes?

Aquatic hypoxia is the condition in which the concentration of dissolved oxygen within a waterbody falls below a certain level. Most aquatic organisms require some minimum level of dissolved oxygen to survive, so ecologists must often consider how hypoxia affects an ecosystem. By depriving organisms of oxygen, hypoxia alters metabolic processes and, in extreme cases, increases the likelihood of mortality. In the Great Lakes and connected coastal ecosystems, hypoxia most often develops when oxygen demand (i.e., how much oxygen is being used up by organisms) exceeds oxygen renewal from natural processes like diffusion or photosynthesis.

Hypoxia is a natural phenomenon in many systems, but it can become a problem when the intensity or duration of hypoxic events are elevated beyond natural levels. Some areas throughout the Great Lakes (e.g., coastal wetlands, Lake Erie central basin) are postulated to have had some degree of natural hypoxia. However, hypoxic events have been exacerbated by human activities, like nutrient loading, and now threaten the balance of these ecosystems.

How does research on hypoxia in the Great Lakes help the Lakes’ future and how does the State of Michigan benefit from such research?

Extended and severe hypoxia can result in mass mortality events for aquatic organisms, decreased quality of drinking water, and shifts in the composition of aquatic communities to species that are more tolerant of low dissolved oxygen. All these issues affect the ecosystem services provided to us by the Lakes (for example, recreation, drinking water, etc.). As such, it is important that we characterize and research hypoxia throughout the Great Lakes region, so that we, as aquatic resource managers, may be better prepared to respond to changing conditions.

Do you have other research plans?

I have two other research papers tangentially related to Great Lakes hypoxia that are currently in the process of publication. One describes the development of a model that maps habitat quality for Great Lakes fish species in response to temperature and dissolved oxygen. The other investigates potential difference in production pathways of the northern and southern shorelines of Lake Erie, with consideration of offshore central basin hypoxia. Keep an eye out for those papers to be (hopefully) published soon!

What advice would you give to others interested in a water resources career?

If you show passion and enthusiasm for the work that you do, everything else will come naturally. Your peers and mentors will recognize your commitment and dedication, and that will take you far.