Great Lakes Water Life database documents biodiversity of Great Lakes native species

The Great Lakes Water Life (GLWL) hosts a broad range of ecological information and tools for use by environmental researchers and the public.

Screen shot of the front page of the Great Lakes Water Life database.

The biological diversity of the North American Great Lakes makes this set of interconnected freshwater ecosystems unique on a global scale. To document the wide variety of flora and fauna native to the Great Lakes, NOAA-GLERL has partnered with US EPA and the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network to launch the new Great Lakes Water Life database: a comprehensive, accessible inventory of aquatic species found throughout the region.

Great Lakes Water Life (GLWL) is designed to support environmental researchers and managers by hosting a broad range of ecological information and tools: identification guides for native species, records of rare or unfamiliar taxa, lists of expected species in a specific area, summaries of broad-scale biodiversity patterns, and more. This site is also available for public use to students, citizen scientists, and other Great Lakes residents who wish to learn about native species in their area -- providing new opportunities for outreach and education online.

Broad search capabilities

GLWL allows users to search for species by taxa (including both scientific and common names), origin (whether a species is native throughout the region, is native to one part of the Great Lakes and introduced in others, or nonnative), domain (whether a species occupies sediment, shoreline, or the water column), and broad geographic location (such as Lake Superior). Each species result links to taxonomic information, a bibliography of reference and sighting information, links into Barcode of Life DNA markers, and more. The database also includes links to other taxonomic keys and field guides to native species, information about the purpose and history of this project, and a user contribution portal where researchers can share new photos, sightings, and collection records to be added to the site.

This database expands upon a project known as the “Great Lakes Waterlife Gallery,” originally created in 2002 in support of Sea Grant’s Great Lakes Fisheries Leadership Institute in partnership by NOAA-GLERL and the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network. The original site was a static photo gallery with access to regionally-specific taxonomic lists and keys, as well as links to a host of regional resources for the various taxa. Additional segments were added by the partners over the years in support of a variety of projects, and eventually included fish, benthic invertebrates, zooplankton and algae. The historic gallery has since been completely replaced by the new Great Lakes Water Life database, which offers many more interactive features in an easily-accessible format.

Cross-linked with GLANSIS

Another NOAA-led regional database, the Great Lakes Nonindigenous Species Information System (GLANSIS), runs in parallel with GLWL to more comprehensively document the non-native aquatic species that have been introduced to the Great Lakes. Cross-linking the two systems helps GLANSIS to provide DNA information on non-native species and identify species that may be expanding their ranges, highlighting the value of the native species inventory to monitoring for and understanding the impact of aquatic invaders.

The Great Lakes Water Life partnership welcomes review and contributions from Great Lakes scientists and managers to provide the most accurate and up-to-date ecological information. In particular, the GLWL team is requesting distribution information, updated taxonomy and alerts about any potential species misidentification, and clear, high-resolution photos to aid in species identification guides.

To learn more about the Great Lakes Water Life database or contribute information, please visit the site or contact

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University and its MSU Extension, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

This article was prepared by Michigan Sea Grant Extension under award NA17OAR4320152 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce through the Regents of the University of Michigan. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Commerce, or the Regents of the University of Michigan. This project was also supported by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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