Cornell Experimental Ponds Facility

The Cornell Experimental Ponds Facility represents a unique research area consisting of 91 artificial ponds and two large reservoirs on approximately 160 acres of fully fenced land. Research pond construction began in 1958 to provide Cornell researchers with a field location for replicating experiments in controlled, aquatic environments. Continuing and expanding upon this tradition, the Ponds have been used for basic and applied research both within and outside the Cornell community, for instruction in campus agronomy, limnology, and field ecology courses, as well as for various extension activities. Faculty and graduate students from Cornell's Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Natural Resources and Entomology departments along with visiting researchers from as far away as Japan have used the facility to conduct experiments in areas of study that include: aquatic and fisheries ecology, avian behavior, and invasive species ecology. Further information about current and past research projects, facility rental policies, along with the the human and natural history of the Ponds can be found on this page. Please feel free to contact Facility Technician Benjamin Sterrett to begin a dialog about bringing your research project to the Ponds, or organizing a field trip for your students!

Cornell's Experimental Ponds Facility is one of only a handful of facilities across the country; we invite you to explore our online information and discover how the Ponds can fit into your current or future research and teaching programs.

About the Ponds

The Ponds Units

The Cornell Experimental Research Ponds property consists of Unit 1 and Unit 2 (see photos below), distanced about 1.5 miles from each other; Unit 1 is located at 947 Warren Drive, and Unit 2 is located at 205 Neimi Road. The entire facility is available for short or long term rentals; the Ponds can accommodate multiple and simultaneous research projects at any given time. For more information, see our Facility Rental Information page (click on aerial images below to view facility location in Google maps).

Cornell University Research Ponds Unit 1 on Google mapsCornell University Research Ponds Unit 2 on Google maps

Spanning a total area of 160 acres, Units 1 and 2 consist of 91 ponds on Cornell University owned land, just north of the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport. The Unit 1 ponds (22 total) were built in 1958-9 at the Warren Drive site by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. These ponds were initially designed to monitor growth of aquatic plants under variable conditions (findings were applied on the Erie Canal), while studying marsh ecology and chemistry, and waterfowl nutrition. All of the construction (except for the original 22 marsh ecology ponds) was supported by funds from the Cooperative Regional Projects Research Fund, Hatch Act (CRF-1). The Unit 2 ponds at the Neimi Road site (50 total), plus 19 more at the Unit 1 site were built in 1964 using Federal funds. Each pond is an inverted truncated pyramid with a 20m x 20m bottom (see diagram below). The Unit 1 ponds at the Warren Drive site are shallow ponds with emergent plants, while the Unit 2 ponds at the Neimi Road are 2.4m deep and can hold 1,000 cubic meters of water when full. Representation of a shallow pond


Robert Johnson (pictured below) was the manager of the Cornell Ponds from 1966 to 2010 and as such, was involved with most projects here. His own research primarily involves the physical, chemical, and biological management of aquatic plant communities, and is a noted expert on the invasive Eurasian watermilfoil, and its most potential biocontrol agents: Acentria ephemerella, a naturalized aquatic moth, and Euhrychiopsis lecontei, a native weevil. Past projects involved: (1) the rearing, augmentation and monitoring of milfoil biocontrol agents; (2) examining what factors influence invertebrate herbivore populations; (3) monitoring the seasonal 3-D structure of aquatic plant communities for the Lake Ontario Biocomplexity Project and in other lakes throughout the Northeast; and (4) leading projects demonstrating milfoil herbivore use in New York State. Currently Bob is monitoring and advising the project to eradicate Hydrilla verticillata from the south end and the tributaries of Cayuga Lake in Ithaca, NY. He continues to follow and monitor the successful control of Eurasian watermilfoil by the aquatic herbivores Acentria and Euhrychiopsis in Cayuga, Chautauqua and Bear Lakes along with Lake Bonaparte in northern NY. At Cazenovia Lake, Waneta and Lamoka Lakes Bob continues long term monitoring of aquatic plant communities managed by herbicides.

Robert Johnson looking upward

Research at the Ponds

Why Have Experimental Ponds?

For over 50 years, a broad range of short and long-term field research and experimental projects have utilized Cornell's Experimental Ponds Facility! Past and ongoing Ponds research projects provide valuable insights and solutions into a variety of disciplines including: management of invasive species in the Erie Canal; conservation of migratory birds; and a broadened understanding of nutrient and chemical pathways in aquatic environments.

Students standing in a pond with nets

Current Research

Nelson HairstonNELSON HAIRSTON: With David Hambright (University of Oklahoma), along with Robert Howarth and William Schaffner (Cornell EEB), Dr. Hairston studies the role that zooplankton community structure has on the ecosystem-level processes of nutrient cycling. Using the Cornell Experimental Ponds Facility, the Hairston Lab manipulated zooplankton community structure by having fish present (produces a copepod-dominated community) or absent (produces a Daphnia-dominated community). Based on research by others, high rates of nitrogen fixation in ponds with low N:P ratios were expected. However, Hairston and colleagues found this result only in the presence of fish (where grazing by zooplankton is relatively low). When fish are absent, the Daphnia graze down the cyanobacteria to low levels and N-fixation is greatly reduced (Hambright et al. 2007a,b). Although cyanobacteria are generally considered poor food for Daphnia, these grazers appear early in the year and prevent any cyanobacterial bloom from starting (Schaffner et al. 1994).

Maren VitousekMAREN VITOUSEK: The Vitousek Lab studies how organisms cope with challenges. Ongoing research is exploring how stress and social interactions change the biology of individuals that experience them, and why some individuals are better able to cope with challenges than others. Since 2013, Dr. Vitousek has studied these questions in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) breeding at Cornell’s Experimental Ponds. This large, nest-box breeding population of tree swallows was first established by Dr. David Winkler over 30 years ago. Birds in this population are individually marked, enabling researchers to follow them throughout their lives. The team has recently shown that responding to brief challenges can have lasting impacts on tree swallows, and that variation in the ability to cope with and recover from stressors is predicted by individual differences in the ability to terminate the hormonal stress response.

David WinklerDAVID WINKLER: Since the mid 1980’s Dr. Winkler has been studying Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) life history variation. Swallows are obligate aerial insectivores during the breeding season, and because air temperatures in spring often are too cold for aerial insects to fly, food availability for swallows can go from feast to famine over a few hours with the passage of a cold front, leading to our current focus on the effects of weather and climate change on swallow reproduction. The Winkler Lab is developing, through a Long Term Research in Environmental (LTREB) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a sensor network of 25 next boxes at the Ponds Facility, each of which contains a web-cam, egg and nest-chamber thermocouples, a Radio Frequency Identification reader and a Peltier device to cool or heat the box contents. All these nodes are networked to a common server to allow observations and controlled temperatures, etc. remotely. With these boxes, Winkler and his team are gathering detailed information on the effects of nest temperature on patterns of parental care and offspring development, and we have coupled this work with experimental work on the effects of temperature on flight performance in insects to allow us to better predict and understand organismal responses to climate change (this research was based at the Ponds). READ the Cornell Chronicle article about Dr. Winkler's Tree Swallow research at the Ponds (September 2016).

Past Research

While recent and historical experiments at the Ponds have focused on the most effective and biologically sound management of lakes and ponds, several other research projects have been aimed at semi-aquatic or even terrestrial biota. These studies include: 

  • Influence of pond fertility on fish growth 
  • Growth and competitive interaction of emergent marsh vegetation 
  • Phenological studies of bulrush 
  • Long-term changes in marsh water chemistry 
  • Loss of N from aquatic systems 
  • Influence of environmental factors on algal productivity 
  • Aquatic herbicide evaluation 
  • Effects of nutrient enrichment on aquatic systems 
  • Structure and production dynamics of freshwater communities 
  • Female mimicry in bluegill sunfish 
  • Territorial behavior of the green frog 
  • Parental care and breeding biology of tree swallows 
  • Effects of varying light levels upon early aquatic plant growth using neutral density shades

Rental Information

The Experimental Ponds Facility is available through rental agreements for both short and long term research projects. The facility is primarily used by Cornell University affiliated teaching and research faculty and staff, although it can be rented by other non-profit, educational and research organizations provided these uses are compatible with the other users.

The Cornell University Experimental Ponds Facility- 9 "F" treatments with fish are green with phytoplankton, 7 "O" treatments without fish look dark because water is clear enough to see pond bottom

Policies and Procedures

Rental options include:

  • Researchers may rent individual or groups of Ponds at an approximate rate of $500 per pond per year. Ponds may be drained and refilled, raked of vegetation, filtered, nutrient/herbicide/ piscicide applications, stocked with fish, etc., depending on the requirements of the experiment. 
  • Researchers may rent terrestrial areas of the ponds for studies that do not require the use of ponds. Rates are scaled to the scope of the proposed project, and its requirements from the facility.  A good example of this is illustrated by the long term study of Tree swallows. Hundreds of nest boxes have been monitored in a variety of ways over the years. The ponds provide habitat for insect food sources, and foraging areas, but the ponds themselves aren’t manipulated in this particular research.
  • Some of the ponds were designed to study emergent wetland vegetation. They may include shallow standing water, or a high water table, depending on the pond. These ponds may also be rented and would be appropriate for studies in this ecological community. These ponds may also be modified, tilled, or replanted dependent on the research goals and your available research funding. 
  • There is plentiful indoor covered storage space for research equipment (unconditioned barns) as well as a 15’ by 50’ office trailer with restroom, heat, AC, computer hookups, desks, and hi-speed Internet. 
  • Researchers may propose other uses of the uplands on the property provided they are compatible with current management strategies. Provisions may need to be included to return modified areas to their prior condition.
  • Depending on the complexity of a research project and its implementation plan, the facility manager may be involved at varying levels of support. Some of this support may require additional rental fees depending on the scope of work involved on the part of the facility manager.

Flora and Fauna at the Ponds

The Experimental Ponds lie within the Northern Allegheny Plateau ecoregion, which straddles the border area of New York and Pennsylvania. This ecoregion is a plateau made up of horizontally bedded, erodible shales and siltstones, and moderately resistant sandstones of Devonian age, however, the Ponds location is generally lower in elevation and less forested than the adjacent un-glaciated North Central Appalachians. The region is up of rolling hills, open valleys, and low mountains, and contains a mixture of cropland, pasture, and woodland. Soils are mostly mesic Inceptisols that are limited by stoniness and seasonal wetness. Historically, the natural vegetation was primarily Appalachian oak forest dominated by white oak and red oak, with some northern hardwood forest at higher elevations. The Experimental Ponds sit within an area that is the transition zone between the Plateau and the adjoining Eastern Great Lakes Lowlands, where land use shifts more heavily to larger and more productive farmland.

Birds at the Ponds

The broad range of both natural and manmade habitats found amongst and near the Ponds facility support a wonderful diversity of birdlife. Due in part to the property's proximity to Cayuga Lake (2.5 miles away), the Ponds environs provide important habitat for migrating and overwintering birds ranging from waterfowl, raptors and passerine species such as warblers, sparrows and finches. Nearby areas comprised of farmland, brushy old fields, mature woodlands, and wetlands also provide excellent transition zones and additional habitat for the birds found at the Ponds. Of particular interest to bird enthusiasts and researchers alike is the family of Osprey that call the Ponds facility home during the spring and summer months. The photo below (provided by local, conservation photographer Melissa Groo) shows the Osprey nesting platform that was erected specifically for the Ponds Osprey pair. To see more of Melissa's incredible photography and learn about her efforts to conserve wildlife both near and far, see:

A large nest

Amphibians and Reptiles

The aquatic habitats found at the facility -- the Ponds themselves -- offer an excellent home to a wide array of amphibians and reptiles. New York State endemic salamanders, newts, turtles, snakes, and frogs are plentiful at the Ponds. The photos below portray just a few examples of the amphibians (e.g., Eastern Red-spotted Newt) and reptiles (e.g., Snapping Turtle) that can be found at the Ponds.


Photos provided by local, nature photographer Christine Bogdanowicz.

Aquatic Life

The Ponds support a wide variety of phyto- and zooplankton, as well as insects, and many other invertebrates. For the purposes of ecological research on the structure of zooplankton community and related interactions within the pond environment, zooplankton communities were manipulated using fish presence and absence treatments. This work was done by the Hairston lab and more info can be found on our Research at the Ponds page.  Cornell entomologists use the Ponds for collecting specimens used for public educational programs, as well as in classroom study.


Trees and Wildflowers

The varied landscape found at the Ponds facility supports a variety of plant species, including a mix of northern and more southerly tree species near the limits of their range. Shagbark and Mockernut Hickory, Butternut and Walnut, Red and White Oak, White Pine, Black/Yellow/Paper Birch, Hemlock, Sycamore (leaf pictured below), Red and Sugar maple are firmly rooted within the Ponds environs. American Chestnuts (found within Tompkins County), along with aquatic and meadow plant species, such as Boneset, Joe-pye Weed, and a few less common plants such as Leatherwood and Fringed Gentian can be found nearby as well.

Sycamore Leaf

Photo provided by local, nature photographer Christine Bogdanowicz.