Katie Tapper ’21 nets, guts, and dissects fish as part of a larger project to investigate the culinary tastes of Lake Superior fish. Her most unusual find? A nearly intact garter snake inside the stomach of a trout she netted near Madeline Island in northern Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands archipelago.
“That was pretty cool,” she says with a laugh.
This is all part of a biological technician internship Tapper has had with the United States Geologic Survey’s Lake Superior Biological Station the past three years. The Station conducts nearshore and offshore surveys on fish, zooplankton, and water temperatures and research projects like evaluating the biology, population, community dynamics, and yield predictions of Lake Superior fish.
In partnership with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Tapper has been tasked with inventorying Lake Superior fish to get an assessment of their diets. “And that’s an ongoing project partnered with a couple of different local agencies, and so there’s this big dataset that I’ve just been adding onto.”
Once a fish has been gutted, its stomach is scooped into a bag and taken to the lab. At the lab, Tapper weighs the stomach, opens it to scoop out the contents, and weighs the empty stomach. She then investigates and catalogs the contents.
“The USGS is a really cool agency,” Tapper said. “They do important research and provide data for our decision-makers. They do a lot of important work on natural disasters and ecosystems, and it’s been awesome to work for them.”
In her first summer as a biological technician, Tapper worked on the Kiyi, a USGS research vessel based in Ashland, Wisconsin, and the largest such vessel on Lake Superior. On two extended trips—one sampling nearshore and another offshore—Tapper and her team went from site to site collecting samples from around the lake.
The USGS collects these samples twice a summer. The two trips, one in June and one in August, are part of the Station’s annual sample collections for historical data. Biological technicians collect and record the same samples: fish trawls, fish larvae gathered with neuston nets, and zooplankton.
“The USGS’s job is to research and be able to provide data,” Tapper said. “For us, our mission on Lake Superior is to collect information to assess how the ecosystem is doing and to be able to have that data available for those who need it.”
The research vessel team had more duties than just the fish collection and data entry. During the offshore sampling tour, the group would have “anchor days” where they drop the anchor—sometimes somewhere isolated—and take shifts watching the anchor and keeping an eye out for ships throughout the night.
“It’s always funny to see how cranky everyone is the next day,” Tapper said.
In addition to the anchor and boat watch, the group also took turns cooking dinner, washing dishes, and other cleaning duties.
Despite some cold and restless nights, Tapper reflected fondly on her time aboard the Kiyi cruising around Lake Superior.
“Rossport, Ontario, was one of my favorite places,” Tapper said. “It’s so tiny it would take three minutes to walk across the entire town. It was interesting talking to the locals there. It was a very charming place.”
Since March 2020, Tapper has worked primarily in the lab and with the data.
“The rules with the pandemic were two biological technicians at a time. I was the third, so I often stayed back at the station.” Tapper said. “I’m usually just the data recorder and just help the other researchers and technicians collect more in-depth samples from the fish they collect.”
Tapper graduated in December with a degree in natural resources with an emphasis in fisheries and wildlife ecology and a minor in biology.
Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tapper transferred from a local community college in her hometown to Northland her sophomore year in 2018.
“At the time I was looking for small schools, I liked small class sizes,” Tapper said. “And then this random Instagram ad popped for this small environmental school called Northland.”
Next up for Tapper: she plans to complete a wilderness first responder course. “I’d like to join a search and rescue team in the field and eventually end up with a canine partner,” she said.