Over 20 years ago Finnish and Swedish duck researchers began the “Northern Project” and conducted vegetation measurements on 60 Finnish and Swedish lakes while also counting their duck populations. The study lakes were located from southern Sweden and Finland to Lapland in both countries. Researchers found that the water horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile) grew abundantly on many of the study lakes. Breeding Eurasian wigeons (Anas penelope) were also abundant according to the study.
The water horsetail prefers eutrophic lakes and wetlands. Horsetails are an ancient plant group that has existed for over 100 million years. They are thus living fossils.
Wigeons also utilize eutrophic lakes during the breeding season. Adults are vegetarians, but wigeon ducklings also consume invertebrates, a common trait in young birds.
The vegetation mappings and duck surveys connected to the Northern Project were repeated in 2013–2014. The researchers wished to find reasons for the deep decline in breeding wigeon numbers. They observed that wigeons had disappeared from several lakes where they were found on 20 years ago. When the habitat use of wigeon pairs was studied, the pairs were observed to particularly prefer lakes with water horsetails. In Evo, southern Finland, the feeding habitats of wigeon broods were followed over a period of 20 years. Broods were found to forage significantly more often within water horsetails than in other vegetation.
Wigeons therefore prefer lakes with water horsetail present throughout their breeding season. However, the long-term research by the Northern Project has shown that water horsetail has declined and even disappeared from many lakes in Sweden and Finland: this is a large-scale phenomenon. The wigeon is suspected to suffer due to vanishing water horsetail populations. Also, Finnish pair surveys in addition to reproduction monitoring show negative trends for the wigeon.
The reasons behind diminishing water horsetail numbers are not known. Impact from alien species can be suspected locally. Glyceria maxima, an alien species in Finland, appears to be growing in areas were water horsetail has traditionally grown. Grazing by the muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) could also be a reason, but the species does not occur in southern Sweden. The whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) could be another potential grazer, and the species’ populations have rapidly increased during the last decades. But these species can only have local effects, which do no not apply to the whole study area. Researchers cannot exclude other possible explanations, for example diseases or changes in water ecosystems. Despite water horsetail having commonly existed in boreal lakes, their influence in the water ecosystem is poorly understood. This study suggests that the water horsetail has an important role, and its disappearance will be reflected in the food web.
Read more: Pöysä, H., Elmberg, J., Gunnarsson, G., Holopainen, S., Nummi, P. & Sjöberg, K. Habitat associations and habitat change: seeking explanation for population decline in breeding wigeon Anas penelope. Hydrobiologia.