Among the many varied ecological habitats in the Inyo National Forest is the renowned Mono Lake area. Located in an ancient basin, surrounded by high mountains, is the distinctive, ancient Mono Lake. Although it does not rival the Great Salt Lake in terms of total surface area, water volume or circumference, it is a very large, salty and productive ecosystem.
Mono Lake is decreasing in surface area, depth and volume due to the demand for the freshwater which flows from the rain and snowfall on the neighboring mountains. Far too much of the fresh, clear water runoff is intercepted by an aqueduct system and sent more than 300 miles to the dry and thirsty megatropolis of Los Angeles. There is no outflow from Mono Lake and the lack of inflowing freshwater, as the demand from Los Angeles has increased, has resulted in the constantly increasing salt content due to evaporation.
This decrease in water volume has resulted in the exposure of both the north and south Tufa Towers. As visitors walk from the parking lot to the towers, there are signs which note how much the lake levels have decreased during the past 50 years.
Tufa Towers actually form in and under the surface of Mono Lake as the carbonate content combines with the calcium rich freshwater. Tufa Towers are composed of calcium carbonate and are not unique to Mono Lake, but are very distinctive at this lake.
As the lake surface area drops, the Tufa Towers are exposed. In Mono Lake there are the north and south Tufa Towers. The north towers are in a park that is under county/state government while the south Tufa Towers are in a scenic area supervised by the National Forest Service. The Mono Lake Visitors Center serves the entire lake district.
Here are 10 interesting facts about the Mono Lake Basin.
- The lake has a very high salt content, 2.5 times as salty as ocean water.
- The increasing salt content is due to the decreasing freshwater input.
- Composed of calcium carbonate, both the north and south Tufa Towers can be visited.
- There are ancient volcanoes in and surrounding the lake.
- Mono Lake is one of the oldest lakes on earth at 750,000 to 1 million years old.
- There is a fragile, but very interesting food chain in this ecological habitat.
- There are billions of brine shrimp.
- Billions of alkali fly eggs, larvae and pupae can be seen here.
- Fly eggs, larvae and pupae served as a food source for the Monoache Indians.
- The Mono Lake Visitor Center offers good displays and local art work. It is one of five visitor centers in the Inyo Forest District.
The Food Chain
Speaking as a microbial ecologist, the Mono Lake food chain begins with bacteria and other microorganisms which serve as the food for the brine shrimp and alkali flies. The abundant bird populations feed on the shrimp and flies. However, at Mono Lake, this food chain was partially interrupted and dispersed by the Kutzadika’a Indians.
Using finely woven baskets the Indian ladies filtered fly larvae from the water. Although quite small the larvae and pupae were very abundant. Collected fly pupae were spread to dry in the sun and served as a main protein rich food source for the Indian families. Other Indians called them the Monoache or “Fly Eater Indians.” Hence the shortened version of Mono Lake.
When walking along the shoreline we observed millions of flies which darken the soil and water. A convenient boardwalk leads from the parking lot to the south Tufa Towers and visitors may walk among the Tufa Towers and examine them closely.
The road to the south Tufa Towers is predominately gravel when coming in from the Yosemite Road to the west and is not suitable for large RVs. There is sufficient RV parking space at the Mono Lake visitors Center. The visitors center is not open during the winter season.
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