Notice: this is a new page to replace the legacy Great Lakes Water Life gallery. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact Rochelle Sturtevant at

About Great Lakes Water Life

Origin in the GLERL and Sea Grant Great Lakes Water Life Gallery

The original ‘Great Lakes Waterlife Gallery’ was created ~2002 in support of Sea Grant’s Great Lakes Fisheries Leadership Institute in partnership by NOAA-GLERL and the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network as a static photo gallery with access to regionally-specific taxonomic lists and keys where such were available 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 with the gallery eventually including fish, benthic invertebrates, zooplankton and algae. The historic gallery is completely replaced by this new Great Lakes Waterlife Database.

Building a Reference Inventory of Great Lakes Aquatic Fauna

With funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, staff of the EPA Office of Research and Development Mid-Continent Ecology Division used the original gallery as one resource for the creation of a more comprehensive inventory of aquatic animals.

The taxonomic scope of this inventory includes members of the animal kingdom that spend all or significant portions of their life history in the water. Among vertebrates, it includes fishes along with amphibians and reptiles with facultative or obligate aquatic stages, but excludes birds or mammals regardless of how closely they associate with water or wetlands. Among invertebrates, it includes free-living taxa typically collected with nets and grab-samples as well as taxa that are parasitic on other aquatic vertebrates or invertebrates. Species-level entries are used whenever possible, but genus-level or family-level is the best taxonomic resolution available for some taxa. The inventory does not extend to subspecies.

The geographic scope of the inventory is waters of the Great Lakes proper (Lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, and Superior), their connecting channels (the St. Mary’s river, the Huron-Erie corridor, and the Niagara River), and smaller aquatic ecosystems that have bi-directional organism exchange with the lakes (such as coastal wetlands, embayments, and terminal river reaches). The information scope of the inventory is limited to occurrence by general waterbody (lakes and connecting channels) and habitat type (broken out into benthic, limnetic, and littoral; and into lakes proper, tributaries/wetlands, and aerial/terrestrial, as detailed below). The inventory does not track occurrences geospatially or temporally, nor does it track abundance information. Restricting the fauna inventory to broad-scale occurrence information makes the assembly problem tractable (limited information to extract and encode, definable stopping rules) and reasonably static (requiring only occasional updating as new species are reported or new lake occupancy information is obtained). The inventory does not include taxa with historic occurrences in the Great Lakes that are now extirpated.

Update of the Algae Inventory

The algae collection from the original photo gallery was not included in the EPA Fauna Inventory . Preservation of this resource within the new structure was a priority for Sea Grant staff. This older resource was updated following the methods of the EPA Fauna Inventory, including validation of the taxonomy with Algaebase in addition to ITIS and COL (Note: external links). This includes shifting to a species-level resolution rather than to a mix of genus, species and subspecies as in the original gallery. EPA Lake Guardian cruise data was used to validate algae species distributions for the open waters of each lake. Algae data for the connecting channels and environmental domains other than limnetic should be considered incomplete at this time.

Cross-Linking to GLANSIS and Creation of the Explorer Interface

The Great Lakes Nonindigenous Species Information System is a NOAA-led effort to document distribution, ecoogy and management information for non-native species in the Great Lakes. This system runs in parallel to the current GLWL program and the GLANSIS Team recognizes the potential value of the native species inventory to monitoring for and understanding the impact of non-native species. Cross-linking the two systems helped GLANSIS to meet objectives related to providing DNA information on non-native species. Note that GLANSIS currently includes a handful of taxonomic groups that are not included in this waterlife database – aquatic plants, bacteria, and viruses. Programming support for GLANSIS (provided by CIGLR staff on GLRI funding) enabled the creation of the Waterlife Explorer interface.

On-going Support

Subject to funding availability, NOAA-GLERL and GLANSIS remain committed to provide on-going support for the GLWL database as a regional resource. Feedback, review, distribution data and photos are welcome and may be sent to

Citing This Database

NOAA and USEPA. 2019 Great Lakes Waterlife. Accessed on mm/dd/yyyy.