VCU Rice Center

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News and events
July 22, 2014

Wetland restoration update

Restoration of the 70-acre wetlands at the Rice Rivers Center is proceeding apace. Subcontractors from The Nature Conservancy have planted approximately 15,000 trees and shrubs, and an additional 10,000 plants will be planted in the fall. Vegetation monitoring starts this summer under the supervision of Dr. Ed Crawford, using undergraduate and graduate student research assistance. Dr. Len Smock, the Rice Rivers Center director, is conducting stream monitoring of Kimages Creek.

The overarching goal of the project is to restore the wetland to the state it was in before the area was dammed to create Charles Lake in the early 20th century. Researchers have examined stumps that remain from that era, and are replacing similar species in the wetlands as were originally there. Each stump is being geo-located to accurately plant replacements.

The method for identifying the original trees is multifaceted: cross-sections of stumps (“stump cookies”) are cut and brought into the lab, sanded down and identified. Graduate student Richard Ward has developed an 11-step process to identify species and determine the average age of the trees.

This process has been completed on approximately 10 percent of the stumps. A total of 4,500 stumps have been found and geo-located. It has been determined that there are approximately 15-20 species of trees native to the wetland.

With the assistance of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, drones carrying high-tech instrumentation are being used to create high-resolution images of the wetland to help gauge the success of the restoration efforts.

July 22, 2014

Osprey return to the Elizabeth
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Female osprey on nest with brood. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

During the height of the DDT era, breeding ospreys along the Elizabeth River in Virginia disappeared completely. Some 30 years later, when the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) surveyed the Chesapeake Bay osprey population, the tributary still seemed to be frozen in time. During the historic survey of 1995, only 8 breeding pairs were found. Unlike the other vibrant creeks, rivers and bays of the estuary where ospreys were thriving, piloting a survey boat along the Elizabeth gave an eerie flashback to the 1960s and 1970s. Like its sister superfund tributaries the Anacostia and Baltimore Harbor, the Elizabeth was a ghost town full of empty nesting structures.

Bryan Watts (r) from CCB and Casey Shaw (l) from the Elizabeth River Project use an extendable mirror pole to check an osprey brood along the Elizabeth River. Photo by Marian Watts.

In 2000 and 2001, wildlife contaminants expert Barnett Rattner from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center collected egg samples from the Elizabeth River, Anacostia River, and Baltimore Harbor to compare to three “clean” tributaries. During this period, eggs collected within the Elizabeth still contained elevated levels of DDT derivatives and various industrial compounds. However, productivity was not suppressed and eggshell thickness, an outward indicator of pesticide problems, had nearly recovered to pre-DDT levels.

Map of osprey pairs along the Elizabeth River from the 1995 survey.

Map of osprey pairs along the Elizabeth River from the 2014 survey.

Now, more than 40 years after the federal ban on DDT, osprey pairs are returning to the Elizabeth River in numbers. During the 2014 breeding season, CCB along with staff from the Elizabeth River Project ( the entire tributary, mapping 60 breeding pairs and documenting 73 young. One of the more satisfying aspects of the population recovery to date is that 16 of the 60 pairs are nesting on osprey platforms erected by private citizens along the shoreline. Aside from the overall cleanup of the tributary, platforms are one of the most effective management tools we have for the breeding population.

To build a platform for nesting osprey or to adopt a pair to monitor in future years, visit our OspreyWatch ( website.

An osprey chick less than one day after hatching. Photo by Bryan Watts.

July 22, 2014

VCU Rice Rivers Center’s latest publication

As we approach the fifty-publication mark at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, we congratulate Dr. Michael Fine on his latest article, “Reduction of the pectoral spine and girdle in domesticated channel catfish is likely caused by changes in selection pressure”, by Michael L. Fine, Shweta Lahiri, Amanda D. H. Sullivan, Mark Mayo, Scott H. Newton and Edward N. Sismour, which was published in the July 2014 journal, Evolution: The International Journal of Organic Evolution.

Catfishes are one of the most successful groups of vertebrates, with over 3,000 different species. One of the adaptations that have led to their success is a pectoral spine that looks like a medieval weapon. When locked at a right angle, the spines increase the catfish's size and make it harder for predators to eat them. In this study, Fine and colleagues have shown that domesticated channel catfish that have not experienced fish predation for a number of generations have smaller spines than wild catfish, and that the difference appears to result from changes in selection pressure.

Images of a catfish spine (click to enlarge)

July 21, 2014

One if by land, two if by sea
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

The black rail is the most imperiled bird species along the Atlantic coast and could be extirpated in several portions of its range without emergency management. Photo by Greg Lavaty.

By Mike Wilson

The black rail is the most imperiled bird species along the Atlantic Coast. This species has undergone a range reduction, a loss of historical breeding sites, and a decline in numbers at their most critical strongholds. Recent surveys have shown a drastic 80% loss of breeding sites in the Chesapeake Bay over the short span of 15 years. It is very possible that black rail will become extirpated in many portions of their range in our lifetime without emergency management intervention.

Like Paul Revere’s historic ride to warn the people of Concord of the impending British march, conservation biologists are pressed to provide the appropriate signal in the tower of the Old North Church to prevent the species collapse. The Center for Conservation Biology (CCB) has taken a lead role in bringing biologists together and is undertaking specific field studies to help plot a course to halt and reverse this species’ declines.

Marsh complex of low and high elevation habitats. High marsh is composed of salt-meadow hay (Spartina patens) and intermixed with shrubs (Baccharis spp.) and black needlerush (Juncus roemarianus) and used exclusively by black rails. These habitats are at high risk to be lost from sea-level rise and contain significant populations of nest predators. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Unfortunately, recent investigations suggest that all three lanterns are required to warn the conservation community. Black rails appear to be threatened by two distinct lines of attack resulting from unprecedented rates of sea-level rise and high levels of nest predators that emanate from adjacent upland habitats.

This past year, CCB conducted an experimental approach to investigate the nesting potential of the high marsh habitats that black rails exclusively rely upon. The high marsh is a thin margin of habitat that forms on elevated terraces between the lower marsh and terrestrial upland. Historically, high marshes were only inundated during extreme tidal events and storms. The vegetation of this habitat forms a savanna-like groundcover of distinct marsh grasses and the ground is relatively dry when travelling across. Black rails successfully evolved nesting in these higher elevation habitats because they were at a lower risk of being flooded.

Clapper rail nest in high marsh of the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Daniel Poulton.

Specifically, our study was designed to determine fates of artificial nests containing quail eggs in the high marsh to pose as surrogates for species like clapper rails, Virginia rails, and black rails. Sea-level rise ultimately threatens to alter or destroy high marsh habitats through conversion but more proximately acts as a silent killer to species like black rails by inundating nests at a greater frequency. High marshes undergoing higher rates of inundation may show little sign of habitat change over the short term while the habitats are essentially being denuded of reproductive potential. Throughout the course of the study, the high marshes examined were repeatedly flooded with water levels greater than nesting height. Each of these flooding events poses significant risks of nesting failure.

The pattern of nest predation also revealed how reproductive potential of high marshes are severely limited. Sixty-four percent of artificial nests were depredated within the first 7 days of exposure and nearly 92% were depredated within the first 20 days of exposure. The average number of exposure days before depredation (=7.4) of all nests was less than half the time required for species such as black rails, clapper rails, and Virginia rails to complete a full incubation period.

Nest losses from flooding and predation are overwhelming threats to black rails and other ground nesters in high marsh habitats. Results from broad surveys for black rails in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina indicate that there are large blocks of appropriate habitat that remain unoccupied. This suggests that disruption of demographic processes may be more important to explaining population declines than habitat loss. Losses of black rails from historic strongholds that appear to have experienced little or no vegetation change in the face of sea-level rise further support the notion that population declines are tied to demographic threats such as reproductive success or adult survival. However, the future for black rail habitats also appears dire. Previous work completed by CCB has shown that greater than 95% of black rail habitats will be lost over the next 100 years at current rates of sea-level rise (

Management solutions for black rails must provide habitats with high nesting potential that are also protected over the long term from the negative effects of sea-level rise. The next challenge for CCB is to begin working on configuring management recommendations for impounded wetland habitats so they may be made available for black rail occupation and nesting.

Seaside Sparrows use both high and low marsh habitats but are at risks of wetland loss from rising sea-levels and high nest predation. Photo by Bryan Watts.

July 21, 2014

2014 Whimbrel Watch establishes new high mark
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

It begins with a nearly imperceptible whistle and then a faint line along the horizon. In minutes the flock will be overhead treating the team of counters to a full chorus of contact calls. Flock after flock of whimbrels follows this same flight line in the last three hours of the evening. By morning they will be in Toronto, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) away. Within five days they will be on their arctic breeding grounds preparing a nest for eggs. The onlookers have come to a dock on Box Tree Creek along the lower Delmarva Peninsula to count the birds as they pass and to see them off on their long, nonstop flight north. The birds have been here in the marshes for three weeks gorging on fiddler crabs and putting on fat to fuel the flight.

View to the south from Box Tree dock along the lower Delmarva Peninsula. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Since the spring of 2009, The Center for Conservation Biology and The Nature Conservancy have teamed up to run a “leaving count” of whimbrels around the third week of May. In 2014, the count covered eight days between the 20th and 27th of May and documented 132 flocks totaling 8,249 whimbrels. The 2014 total is a record high for the site and represents a significant portion of the population for the entire Western Hemisphere. In addition to whimbrels, the counters recorded 642 black-bellied plovers, 894 dunlin, and 2,021 short-billed dowitchers leaving for the arctic.

Jane Batten, Talbot Jordan, Roberta Kellam, and Polk Kellam (L to R) talk shorebirds along the edge of Elkins Marsh near Box Tree. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Barry Truitt, Jill Bieri, Jack Burke, Judith Burke, and Tata Kellam wait on Box Tree dock for whimbrels to begin flying. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The birds gather, rally up out of the marsh, assemble in V formations, and head north. Until recently, researchers did not know where the birds staging here were headed. A satellite tracking project conducted by the group in this location has demonstrated that the birds represent a mixture from two breeding populations. Some will fly 3,000 kilometers to breeding grounds within the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Others will fly the longer 4,800 kilometers to nest within the Mackenzie Delta in extreme western Canada.

Flock of whimbrels flying north over Box Tree on their way to the arctic. Photo by Barry Truitt.

July 21, 2014

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program featured on CBS6 special

CBS6’s special, “Powering Virginia”, has most recently featured the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program. The Program Manager, Todd Janeski, was interviewed by CBS’s Jessica Noll at the VCU Rice Rivers Center; the interview outlines well for the public the structure and purpose of the VOSRP.

Last summer, the Rice Rivers Center piloted a near-zero budget project in the Richmond region as a proof-of-concept to collect business-generated shell and return it to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. In four months, nearly six tons of shell were collected from four Richmond restaurants, and partnerships were developed with Virginia Green, Virginia Coastal Zone Management, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, City of Richmond, Tidewater Fiber Corporation and the Virginia Master Naturalists.

Since then, more than 15 tons of shell have been collected and currently is coming from 14 restaurants with three public collection locations (Yellow Umbrella Provisions, Little House Green Grocery and the Farmer’s Market at St. Stephen’s). The VOSRP also partners with Anderson's Neck Oyster Co., Ruby Salts Oyster Co., Chapel Creek Oyster Co., and Rappahannock Oyster Co., and many more. During this time, nearly 300 volunteer hours have been amassed, Whole Foods hosted the program for a fund raiser, Starbucks has become an engaged partner and the program is working toward an expansion beyond Richmond. It is estimated that the Richmond region and the valley can generate 50-70 tons annually.

All of the VOSRP shell will be used as part of Virginia oyster restoration work. The shell is delivered to the CBF Gloucester Point facility to be aged, seeded and returned to the bay at sanctuary sites. It is hoped that some of this shell can be used as part of the comprehensive restoration in the Piankatank River.

For more information on the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program, please visit our VOSRP page. To see the CBS6 special, please click the video below, or visit the CBS6 website.

July 18, 2014

Mulberry sparrows decline
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Swamp sparrow

By Bryan Watts

The population of coastal plain swamp sparrows (Melospiza georgiana nigrescens) breeding within Mulberry Point along the Rappahannock River in Virginia has experienced a dramatic decline over the past ten years. A survey conducted by the Center for Conservation Biology on June 7th detected only 5 singing males, in stark contrast to an identical survey conducted in 2005 that resulted in the detection of 41 singing males. Discovery of the site in 2005 extended the known breeding range 90 kilometers to the south.

The coastal plain swamp sparrow is restricted to the mid-Atlantic coast. The form is distinctive in having a larger bill, grayer plumage, and more black in the crown and nape compared to other swamp sparrows. A recent assessment of the population within Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey resulted in a conservative estimate of 28,000 pairs and established a center of abundance around Delaware Bay and the Tuckahoe and Mullica rivers in coastal New Jersey. The survey also suggested a decline in both abundance and distribution along the western shore and lower eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

Characteristic breeding habitat for the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow within Mulberry Point in Virginia

Within the Coastal Plain, swamp sparrows occur in marshes within a fairly narrow salinity band from tidal fresh to approximately one part per thousand. Pairs utilize habitats with a mix of marsh vegetation and shrubs that typically form along the marsh-upland interface. Within the Mulberry Point site, habitat components include olney threesquare (Scirpus olneyi) , salt meadow hay (Spartina patens) , marsh hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) , and cattail (Typha augustifolia) .

The cause of the population decline is unclear. The preferred ecotone habitat has been visibly reduced over the decade with invasive common reed (Phragmites australis) occupying more of the adjacent uplands and the wetter portions of the marsh containing pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) expanding. These two patterns have effectively squeezed the preferred breeding habitat within the site. It is also well known that occupation of sites by the form may be episodic. Populations seem to come and go over relatively short periods of time.

The Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow is morphologically distinct, geographically isolated, and specialized in a narrowly-defined habitat type. All of these characteristics are common to other sparrow forms that were extirpated or have been of high conservation concern in recent decades, such as the Dusky Seaside-sparrow (Ammodramus nigrescens), Cape Sable Seaside-sparrow (A. mirabilis) , and Ipswich Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps) . Given the uncertain status of this form in the southern portion of its range, a broad investigation of occurrence within appropriate habitat seems warranted.

Bryan Watts surveys for Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrows along the Rappahannock River in Virginia

July 17, 2014

Faculty visit Cordoba, Spain to discuss ecological collaborations

This summer, faculty members from the Department of Biology and the Rice Rivers Center visited the University of Cordoba (UCO), Spain, to initiate the development of a collaborative research effort on the James River (Virginia) and Guadalquivir River (Andalusia) watersheds. Participants included Donald Young (lead PI, department chair), Julie Zinnert (co-PI), Leonard Smock (co-PI, director of the Rice Rivers Center), Bonnie Brown (associate chair), Scott Neubauer and Dianne Jennings. The UCO team was led by Dr. Maria Jose Polo. In addition to defining collaborative research efforts, discussions focused on forming a dual doctoral degree centered on research on the two rivers. Future meetings, both virtual and in person, will define the dual degree and a forthcoming virtual course on integrating hydrological and biotic components of river dynamics. This international collaboration fits nicely with the Rice Rivers Center's research and education programs presently focused on the James River and its efforts at broadening its impact worldwide. Please contact Donald Young at or Len Smock at for updates and questions.

(click to enlarge)

July 14, 2014

Footprints on the James: Captivating course begins at Rice Rivers Center

For four weeks this summer, VCU students were exposed to the importance of the James River watershed to Virginia in the present, past and future. This collaborative, experiential learning opportunity combined faculty from the biology department and history department, and the Outdoor Adventure Program. By immersing students in a natural landscape prominent in Virginia’s history for four weeks, backpacking and canoeing through the watershed and down the river, this program represents a unique opportunity for students at VCU to learn about human history, natural history and how the two have shaped each other.

The goals for each student were to learn more about the specific features that make up this river system by identifying and stimulating individual ownership of particular issues of interest to each student before and during the class. In addition, students learned and practiced advanced camping, canoeing/kayaking and outdoor living skills, including “leave no trace” camping. Students also learned to function as team members, and were instructed in expedition management, group dynamics, and leadership skills.

This expedition began with a series of topical seminars and skill development classes at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Dr. Greg Garman (director for the Center of Environmental Studies and research director at the VCU Rice Rivers Center) began with an intriguing lecture on his perspective on the past 400 years of the James River as a fish biologist. Biology professor Dan Carr commented, “Walking us through a timeline of the river and its life, we were shown how human-induced changes have had an extreme effect on the river’s function and flow, and on the life that dwells within its waters.”

The class continued by driving to the headwaters of the James River near the Blue Ridge Mountains and proceeded by foot, canoe, bateau and kayak through the watershed and down the river to the colonial capital of Jamestown, Va. During this journey, the students were engaged with a wide variety of hands-on interactions in the three disciplines (biology, history, outdoor adventure), guided by faculty from each department and guest experts.

The Outdoor Adventure Program provided trained students from their Student Outdoor Leader Program to act as program guides to teach the other students a wide variety of practical outdoors skills and to introduce traditional expedition management technique. The students camped out each night and managed their own daily affairs. Responsibility for daily activities such as group leadership, cooking, navigation, setting up camp and managing social media were assigned as daily duties on rotation.

For more information on the course, please visit and check out the Footprints on the James blog at

June 20, 2014

Fletcher Smith returns to the arctic
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Fletcher Smith in the field Zodiac near shorebird base camp within the Mackenzie Delta.

By Bryan Watts

For the third consecutive year, Fletcher Smith has returned to operate a base camp to study breeding shorebirds on the Mackenzie River Delta in collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Service. The camp is part of both the Arctic Shorebird Demographic Network (ASDN) and Arctic Program for Regional and International Shorebird Monitoring (Arctic PRISM). The overarching objectives of these programs are to measure demographic parameters of breeding shorebirds, such as adult survivorship and productivity, and to estimate population size and trends in Arctic shorebirds. This information is extremely hard to gather for shorebirds and the network of sites gathering this information spans the entire Arctic.

The Mackenzie camp is remote. All supplies and field personnel were helicoptered into the camp on June 4. Fletcher reports a pair of gyrfalcons nesting in camp for the second year and a female grizzly bear with two cubs in the area. Whimbrel pairs have begun to lay eggs and Fletcher reports seeing a satellite tagged bird from a previous year. Periodic progress reports will be posted on the CCB social media channels (Facebook, Google+, Twitter as the season unfolds.

Male red-necked phalarope in breeding plumage. The red-necked phalarope is one of the most common breeding shorebirds within the Mackenzie Delta study area. Photo by Fletcher Smith.

Focal shorebird species within the Mackenzie River Delta include Red-necked Phalarope, Semi-palmated Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, and Whimbrel. Breeding performance for these and other species will be documented. An additional objective of the season will be to deploy six satellite transmitters on breeding whimbrel. The collaborative satellite tracking project has been a tremendous success in providing useful information to conservation. Prior to the tracking of the Mackenzie River Delta whimbrels, very little was known about the broader life cycle of these birds. During the 2012 and 2013 breeding seasons, seven whimbrels were tagged in the Mackenzie Delta and all migrated to Atlantic Canada and staged for two to three weeks before undertaking a non-stop 4,500 kilometer flight to northern South America to spend the winter (read more about their migration. The whimbrels can be tracked at

Releasing a satellite-tagged whimbrel near base camp on the Mackenzie River Delta. Video by Fletcher Smith.