May 21, 2013
Turn over at Cobb Island Peregrine nest
The W&M-VCU Center for Conservation Biology reports peregrine developments on Cobb Island:www.ccbbirds.org/2013/05/20/turn-over-at-cobb-island-peregrine-nest
Photo by the Center for Conservation Biology
May 8, 2013
Research project analyzes land use and frog diversity
As darkness falls, Virginia Commonwealth University biology students stand silently in the rain at the edge of a shallow pool near the Inger and Walter Rice Center and listen intently to a chorus of Cope’s gray tree frogs that fills the night air. This is not the latest fad on campus, but rather part of a national collaborative analysis of land use and frog diversity.
Students taking VCU’s Amphibian Landscape Ecology class, through VCU Life Sciences and the College of Humanities and Sciences, joined students from nine other universities to participate in a coordinated undergraduate research project, “Toads, Roads and Nodes,” to understand how land use is affecting amphibians across the Eastern and Central United States.
The project was developed by David Marsh, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Washington and Lee University, and funded by the National Science Foundation’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science (TUES) program and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). It is one of the first distributed undergraduate research projects in the country.
May 8, 2013
Environmental educators study keystone species
On March 21, the second session of the Keystone Species Workshop was held at the VCU Rice Center.
This workshop series, conducted in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University Life Sciences Outreach Education and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, brought together scientists and environmental educators from throughout Virginia to learn about and discuss the history, current understanding, and future outlook for important (keystone) plants and animals in the Chesapeake Bay. The focus of the March 21st session was to study ecosystem-based fisheries management, invasive and endangered species.
In a prior session, educators made ROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles) for underwater exploration, and tested them in a water feature at the Rice Center.
May 8, 2013
Large student group “greens” VCU Rice Center
On March 22, VCU Green Unity, the student group focused on greening and promoting sustainability at VCU, completed a cleanup at the VCU Rice Center: 21 students collected 500 pounds of trash along Route 5. Prior to their campout under the stars, they had audible exchanges with three barred owls. The VCU Rice Center is grateful for their support.
May 8, 2013
VCU Rice Center Researchers Receive Awards
On Wednesday, April 24, the Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity was held in the Commonwealth Ballroom of the Student Commons. Organized by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and part of VCU Student Research Week, the annual Undergraduate Poster Symposium is a wonderful opportunity for students to present their research endeavors to their academic peers, members of the VCU faculty, community members, and friends and family. Projects include research and scholarly work from a wide variety of academic disciplines.
Dr. Cliff Fox presented awards for two projects:
Ryan Weaver, a senior in the Center for Environmental Studies, won an award for his scientific poster, “Mangrove Age as a Predictor of Overwintering Habitat Quality for Neotropical Migratory Birds”. He will be giving an oral presentation on the same study at the Rice Research Symposium on May 17 at the VCU Rice Center. Dr. Lesley Bulluck is his faculty mentor; also, Mr. Weaver is a two-time attendee of the Panama Avian Field Ecology class.
Dr. James Vonesh’s research team received an award for their scientific poster which also will be presented at the Rice Symposium: “A Collaborative National-Scale Analysis of Land Use and Frog Diversity”. Dr. Vonesh’s group consisted of the following students: Shane Abinette, Uswa Arain, Blair Cousins, Christopher Crockett, Max Dichek, Jennifer Fjelsted, Sara Holtschneider, Arthur Kay, Sajan Moktan, Alessandro Molina, Juliana Rostan-Zimmer and Ryan Weaver. The project was part of a class involving ten universities and was a very unique experience for the students; students were selected to bring these data to NCEAS in Santa Barbara, CA for a large-scale analysis of the results. VCU sent four students (the most of any participant) with additional funds from the Department of Biology, The College of Humanities and Sciences, and UROP: Ryan Weaver, Chris Crockett, Jennifer Fjelstead, and Alessandro Molina were selected based on externally reviewed proposals, their skill using spatial analysis tools, and their ability to identify all the frogs of Virginia by call.
Additionally, there were four posters presented at the Symposium by VCU Rice Center researchers:
“Feather Reflectance Indicates Reproductive Success and Reveals No Carry Over Effect in Female Prothonotary Warblers” — Samantha Kay, Sarah Huber, Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D.
Above: Samantha Kay
“Mangrove Forest Age as a Predictor of Overwintering Habitat Quality for Neotropical Migratory Songbirds” — Ryan Weaver, Cathy Viverette, Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D.
Above: Ryan Weaver
“Maternal Manipulation of Gender Ratios” — Gretchen Wilson, Cathy Viverette, Rodney Dyer, Ph.D., Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D.
Above: Gretchen Wilson
“Effects of Eastern Bluebird Nestling Mortality on the Distribution of West Nile Virus in Central Virginia” - Charles Robertson, Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D. and Kevin Caillouet, Ph.D.
Above: Wes Robertson
Additionally, Ed Crawford, Ph.D. was one of 5 faculty mentors who received an award as an undergraduate student mentor. According to student Gabby LaTora, Dr. Crawford’s love for ecology, his knowledge of the subject and enthusiasm for field research inspired her to pursue it as a course of study:
“He always incorporated real research into his lectures, and through his Ecology lab, I learned real field sampling techniques and exactly how to write a scientific paper. I feel much more prepared to find a job in ecological research after taking his courses because he made research such a reality for students. He accompanied us to Panama over winter break, and that's where I saw his field work in action. He taught us so many things in the field--how to identify plants and animals, why they were there, features unique to mangrove and cloud forest systems, and anything else you can think of. It was an unbelievably eye-opening experience, and I never would have gotten as much out of it if Dr. Crawford were not involved. Overall, he showed me what ecological research is and gave me an introduction on how to do it. Since my career goal is to do some type of ecological research, this experience was invaluable to me, and I have to give most of the credit to Dr. Crawford.”
Ms. LaTora emphasizes that Dr. Crawford is making an enormous impact on students at VCU. Our sincere congratulations to Dr. Crawford.Tweet
March 21, 2013
VCU Rice Center partnership featured in educational video series
As part of the VCU Rice Center's work in Panama Bay, WetlandsLIVE has produced a video describing the importance of wetlands in Panama Bay in connecting to wetlands in North America. WetlandsLIVE is free education program for students in grades four through eight, and their educators supported by USGS and a number of collaborators, including National and Panama Audubon.
To view the WetlandsLIVE home page, visit http://wetlandslive.pwnet.org/index.php. Click on the first "click here" link on the above page for a video called Wetland Connections, which offers a look at some of the work being done in Panama.
March 11, 2013
Osprey Watch takes flight for 2013
Osprey along the James River in the Chesapeake Bay. Photo by John DiGiorgio.
During the next few weeks, bird watchers throughout the northern hemisphere will welcome osprey as they return to their breeding grounds. This greeting is an annual ritual that for many marks both the arrival of spring and the hope for a productive breeding season.
For the second year, the Center for Conservation Biology — a research group shared by the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University — is sounding the call to osprey watchers worldwide to record and share their observations with a growing online community of global citizens that are linked by an interest in osprey biology and a concern for aquatic environments.
Last year marked the debut season for Osprey Watch, which included a network of more than 800 observers who recorded observations on 1,600 nests in five countries. Osprey Watch is a user-friendly, internet platform that allows observers across the globe to map their nests, log observations, upload photos and interact within an observer forum. Information entered into the platform will be immediately accessible to users and will be summarized following the breeding season.
Researchers at the Center for Conservation Biology hope that Osprey Watch will continue to engage a community of observers to record breeding information on a large enough spatial scale to be useful in monitoring aquatic health.
Osprey are one of very few truly global sentinels for aquatic health. They feed almost exclusively on live fish throughout their entire life cycle. They are a top consumer within aquatic ecosystems and are very sensitive to both overfishing and environmental contaminants. Nearly all populations breed in the northern latitudes and winter in the southern latitudes, effectively linking the aquatic health of the hemispheres. Their breeding season in the north is highly seasonal making them an effective barometer of climate change.
To join Osprey Watch, visit http://www.osprey-watch.org.
March 7, 2013
Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group receives award
The Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group has received the Wings Across the Americas Award issued by the U.S. Forest Service. This annual award recognizes individuals and groups that provide outstanding contributions to international conservation of important bird species. The award will be presented during an awards ceremony to be held in Arlington, Va. on March 27, 2013.
Golden eagles are declining throughout North America and the population east of the Mississippi River is very poorly known and vulnerable. Birds from this population breed primarily in the eastern provinces of Canada but a significant portion of the population winters within the southern Appalachians and migrates along this mountain range. Birds within this region were virtually unknown in the early 1900s and only in recent decades have been "discovered" by the bird-watching community. Concern for this relatively small population in the face of industrial development has been mounting in recent years. Very little is currently known about the ecology and status of this population.
The Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group is a small assemblage of scientists and managers from across the range of the population that has come together to develop conservation strategies and to raise awareness of this little-known population. The group is co-lead by Todd Katzner of West Virginia University, and Charles Maisonneuve of Ministère des Ressources Naturelles, Direction de l'expertise Faune-Forêts-Territoire du Bas-Saint-Laurent.
Libby Mojica and Bryan Watts from VCU and William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology are members of the working group
Libby Mojica with golden eagle trapped and fitted with satellite transmitter in Highland County, Va. Photo by Fletcher Smith.
February 21, 2013
Rice Center wetland burn
On Feb. 21, after months of careful planning and preparation, members of the Forestry Service, in coordination with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), executed a controlled burn at the VCU Rice Center in an effort to alleviate the effects of an invasive spread of cattails (Typha latifolia). As part of an ongoing restoration project of the wetland area surrounding Kimages Creek, approximately 70 acres were mapped, prepared and burned in order to make way for planting of native species appropriate to the area.
In 2010, the dam and spillway that created Charles Lake in 1928 were removed by the VCU Rice Center in order to restore Kimages Creek and the wetlands that covered the original low-lying area. Since then, the cattails have spread rapidly, crowding out the area that will be planted with a broader range of species for a more balanced wetlands ecosystem.
The site was carefully mapped to delineate property boundaries, structures on the property and an eagle's nest in proximity to the targeted site. On the day of the burn, a dedicated TNC observer communicated frequently with the burn units via radio to make certain the eagles and their nest remained undisturbed.
Prior to the main burn, fire breaks were created all around the burn area: this involved removing all vegetation down to the mineral surface, and charring a wide strip inside and adjacent to the mineral strip as a virtual fence around the area to be burned.
On the day of the burn, the needed northerly wind would carry smoke and any embers out over the James, disrupting the surrounding areas as little as possible. Close to noon on Feb. 21, when the tide was high and the wind was blowing in the appropriate direction, the trucks were deployed to the first starting point, and the observers moved into place. Among those observers were Daniel Fort, VCU Rice Center's chairman of the board, and Len Smock, director of VCU Rice Center.
The burn teams began by testing test how flammable the fuel was that day — the cattails themselves. Engineers in protective fire gear set out by canoe to ignite different points for best advantage. Eventually a large section was successfully ignited, consuming a significant portion of the unwanted vegetation.
By the end of the day, much of the targeted vegetation was eliminated in order for further wetland planting in the spring.
Many thanks to the hardworking crew for their diligent work to assist in restoring these critical wetlands.
February 8, 2013
From Chesapeake to Panama: VCU Rice Center researchers expand migratory bird study
Where do they go when they leave? Why are there more of them here and less of them there? Does their color indicate anything about their health? How much does their habitat influence their health? How can we increase their diminishing numbers? What can we learn about critical wetland habitat from studying these migratory songbirds?
These questions are part of the current international Prothonotary Warbler project, which builds on a long-term VCU research initiative begun in 1987 studying Prothonotary Warbler (PROW) populations breeding in Chesapeake Bay wetlands. Data generated from the VCU study contributed to the designation of the Lower James River Wetlands Important Bird Area in Virginia in 2005. PROW are neotropical migrant songbirds that spend the non-breeding season in tropical mangroves in Central and South America, including those in Panama.
Funding for the international collaboration has been granted through a VCU Community Engagement Grant; the project is entitled "Team Warbler: From Chesapeake Bay to Panama Bay and Back – Cross Cultural Connections Supporting Sustainable Communities."
For three years now, a broad team of researchers, teachers, students and conservationists both here and in Panama have been involved in the long-term study of these bright yellow fellows. Through the National Audubon Society's International Alliances Program, VCU has teamed up with the Panama Audubon Society (as well as the Richmond Audubon Society, the Virginia IBA program and the William & Mary-VCU Center for Conservation Biology) to study important bird areas both here and in the Panama Bay, which is globally important.
The initiative was intended to help Panamanian collaborators, including the Panama Audubon Society, start a long-term avian monitoring program in Panama's coastal mangrove habitats as well as develop education and outreach programs using migratory birds to link middle school students in Panama and Virginia. Beginning in 2011, the team worked diligently to develop a partnership for the middle school students (locally, from Robious Middle School) that has included field trips, lectures, and building and monitoring warbler nest boxes. They are also developing an avian monitoring program in Panama, which is "coordinated in large part through the training and technical expertise of VCU researchers and students as well as Richmond Audubon partners," according to the Audubon Society.
Starting in 2011, the Virginia team has travelled to Panama yearly to assist in setting up this monitoring program and to work with the middle school students there. (Stay posted for upcoming articles on how the birds are studied, and the students engaged in the project.)
So here's the question some people quietly ask: Why should we study this?
Mangrove swamps are being destroyed through development in Panama, which means that not only is the habitat of these birds threatened, but that of a multitude of other species.
According to the project's initial proposal, "Migratory birds provide a vital link connecting people, cultures, and places. Preservation of critical bird habitats is often important to the environmental, economic, and cultural well-being of nearby communities." Dr. Ed Crawford, a wetlands ecologist and co-principal investigator on Team Warbler explains, "Prothonotary Warblers inhabit coastal wetlands, and wetlands provide a wealth of ecosystem services including filtering surface and ground water, shoreline protection, mitigating flooding, storing carbon, and provide invaluable habitat to plants and animals, many of which are threatened or endangered."
In 2012, Panamanian protections on the mangrove swamps were withdrawn, endangering critical resources, directly and indirectly, to resident birds, including mangrove specialists, migratory songbirds and shorebirds. Mangroves located along the coasts of Central America are considered some of the most threatened habitats globally. In 2009, the Humedal Bahía de Panamá (Panama Bay Wetlands), including extensive mangroves, were designated a National Protected Area. However, a 2012 Panama Supreme Court ruling suspended the protected designation. At the same time, fees for use of mangroves and fines for illegal mangrove clearance have been reduced.
The primary objective of this project is to expand the scope of the avian monitoring and research initiative focused on the threatened mangrove habitats in the Panama Bay watershed. Since the 1970s, greater than 35 percent of the world's mangroves have been lost and continue to decline at a rate of 1–2 percent per year. Globally the region of greatest concern includes the coasts of Central America, where up to 40 percent of mangrove species are considered to be threatened with extinction.
This international project supports clean and sustainable habitat for the Prothonotary Warbler, as well as countless other forms of wildlife, while fostering cross-cultural collaboration, grassroots community engagement and environmental outreach of a global scope. This collaboration between VCU and Audubon Society partners in Panama is facilitating the exchange of skills and resources designed to promote conservation of local landscapes — and the ecological benefits they provide — to both birds and people.
By understanding the value of mangrove swamps to the Prothonotary Warblers as well as the overall environment, a better balance can be achieved between human development and preservation of natural habitat, which is ultimately critical for environmental and human health.
January 27, 2013
A James River sturgeon photograph in The Washington Post
In the print version of The Washington Post on Jan. 27, Matt Balazik, a graduate student at VCU, was featured holding a large sturgeon as an illustration for the article on sturgeon restoration efforts in the Potomac. While the tags do not appear in the online version, his photograph is still prominently featured on The Washington Post website.
Photo by Steve Helber/AP
January 27, 2013
VCU Rice Center research director featured on NOAA’s website
Greg Garman, director of research at VCU Rice Center, was highlighted in the feature article on NOAA's website for the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System.
December 16, 2012
Audubon Christmas bird count at the Rice Center
December 16, 2012 was not an ordinary day, but the date of the Hopewell Christmas Bird Count (CBC), a long-standing program of the National Audubon Society. The CBC is an early-winter bird census, where volunteers throughout the Americas count all the birds they see and hear within a designated 15-mile diameter circle. CBC participants are organized into groups — or field parties — by the organizer or compiler of each count. Each field party covers a specific area of the 15-mile diameter circle on a specific route. It’s not just a species tally — all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day. The data collected by observers over the past century allows researchers, conservation biologists, and interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.
The VCU Rice Center is located within the Hopewell CBC count circle. This year’s count day for the Rice Center group started with ominous weather, but soon after sunrise it cleared and allowed the participants to comfortably walk the property and accomplish the count. It was agreed among the experienced birders that for the Hopewell CBC as a whole, the total count, as well as the species count, were both somewhat low, missing some species that are normally noted — these included wild turkeys, screech owls and Baltimore orioles. On a brighter note, there were three new species added to the count: a rufous hummingbird, an ash-throated flycatcher and a Tennessee warbler. Another highlight was seeing the red-headed woodpecker at the Rice Center.
Faculty, students and volunteers have participated as part of an organized field party at the Rice Center for a number of years. This year, Hopewell CBC compiler Arun Bose expressed his gratitude for those who participated and helped on the count, including Cyrus Brame and Lauren Billodeaux (USFWS), Mark Batista (Chesterfield County Parks), the VCU Rice Center’s Cathy Viverette, Len Smock and Lesley Bulluck, and CCB’s Bryan Watts and Mike Wilson. A number of VCU students also participated: Benjamin Duke, Ryan Weaver, Deborah Pridgeon and Jennifer Fjelsted, as well as VCU graduate Leeanna Pletcher.
For further information on the CBC, please visit http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.
For further information about the local count that includes the Rice Center, please visit http://www.richmondaudubon.org/HopewellCBC.html.
December 10, 2012
Pulling an all-nighter with owls
The Center for Conservation Biology's work on owls is highlighted in the November issue of Natural magazine. Read the article [PDF] »
November 26, 2012
VCU Rice Center hosts local high school students for carbon awareness program funded by Dominion
During the fall semester, VCU Rice Center hosted Advanced Placement environmental students from Clover Hill, Douglas Freeman and Varina high schools to participate in a carbon awareness program generously funded by Dominion.
Developed by VCU’s Life Sciences Environmental Outreach Education and three graduate and Ph.D. students from the Department of Biology, VCU undergrads are being trained to do research and teach high school students about carbon cycling and the role it plays in atmospheric carbon increase and global climate change.
Using an array of mesocosms, these students learned how to collect data in the field and laboratory. Following these experiments, students followed up with data analysis to complete their experiments.
November 20, 2012
Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind benefits from the VCU Rice Center
On Nov. 2, 14 students from the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton visited the VCU Rice Center for a memorable weekend of experiential science. This expansion of the center's outreach program was conceived by one of VCU's biology master's students, Jaimie Gillespie, who recognized hands-on experiences would be exceptionally meaningful for these students.
After much careful planning, the students, ranging in age from 13-18, arrived at VCU and first toured the Trani Life Sciences building, including stops in the aquatics and entomology labs. They were enthusiastically welcomed by the scientists at work, and received wax myrtle specimens as take-home gifts from the newly-created Plant Society at VCU.
Once at the Rice Center, VCU graduate students, faculty and staff as well as teachers and interpreters engaged with the hearing- and visually-impaired students to ensure understanding and appreciation of all the activities. They worked with mesocosms and weather and atmospheric equipment, as well as photosynthesis, respiration and carbon cycling experiments. They also learned how to handle data. Some of the students were enthusiastic to wear waders and head into the river to do fish seining, while others headed to the labs to work on Winogradsky columns.
During the weekend, Leslie Bullock, Ph.D., along with a couple of graduate students, caught and banded birds, allowing the visiting students to get close-up looks and feels of birds such as the sharp-shinned hawk. They were able to handle and experience feathers and wings, as well as an assortment of bones, such as deer and bird bones, to appreciate differences in bone density.
At night, sighted students studied the brilliant constellations, identifying them with the help of an iPad application. A thrilling exercise for both groups of students was the calling in of owls for the blind students, and then the subsequent spotlighting of the owls for the deaf students, which continued until the batteries in the caller were exhausted!
Overall, VCU supplied 12 graduate students and three faculty/staff members, totaling 165 outreach hours for the planning and execution of this memorable weekend for the students from the Virginia School of the Deaf and the Blind. There is a strong desire to repeat the experience, and the school is seeking further funding to make this possible.
November 9, 2012
VCU providing the science for critical public policies
The Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences is becoming internationally known for its scientific research. At the same time we recognize the importance of the application of this science - particularly in how we inform public policy related to river ecosystems, their watersheds and the conservation of species that inhabit those watersheds. The VCU Rice Center understands the importance of collaborating with other institutions and agencies to further our programs and ensure the benefits of collaborative research. And it is through these close ties with other environmental agencies and universities that VCU's voice on these critical environmental issues is being heard.
A primary example of this relates to a major new study of the James River launched to investigate harmful algal blooms and their effects on water quality, living resources and human health. The six-year, $3 million dollar project will document the occurrence of algal blooms and their deleterious effects on the health of the James.
VCU and Rice Center researcher Dr. Paul Bukaveckas have been tapped by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to lead the Science Advisory Panel in developing a research strategy and interpreting the findings of the study. The project team includes faculty from VCU, Old Dominion University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Scientists, with a companion modeling project that includes experts from throughout the region. The project addresses a number of basic research elements that seek to identify causes of algal blooms as well as their harmful effects. The important applied aspects of the project are (1) evaluating the existing water quality standards for the tidal James to determine whether they are protective of human and ecosystem health and (2) developing a predictive model that can forecast improvements in water quality arising from anticipated nutrient load reductions.
This project brings together previously disparate research and monitoring efforts on the James and enhances collaboration among university researchers, regulatory agencies and diverse other stakeholders who have an interest not only in the health of the James but ultimately its effects on the Chesapeake Bay and the people living in the region who depend economically on the river and bay.
VCU will regularly present updates on this project to the DEQ’s James River Stakeholder Advisory Group as well as the EPA and the Virginia Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources. In addition, the lead researcher, VCU’s Dr. Paul Bukaveckas, will brief the Maryland Harmful Algal Blooms Task Force on this James River study in an effort to better collaborate with agencies working on other rivers affecting the bay. Bukaveckas will also present this study at the Virginia Environmental Conference at VMI in the spring.
VCU Rice Center personnel are also helping to improve regional fishery management policies, particularly those focused on Chesapeake Bay waters. Our fisheries scientists participate in several technical advisory groups, including Dr. Greg Garman on the Science and Technical Advisory Committee for the Chesapeake Bay and the Fisheries Management Goal Implementation Team. Results from applied research grants to the Rice Center have been used to help craft new or improved policies on topics ranging from control of invasive fishes to interactions between fish-eating birds and other predators (including humans) in the bay. Finally, Atlantic sturgeon researchers at the Rice Center are actively engaged in the development of a new Chesapeake Bay management plan for this federally endangered species.
Rice Center scientists are also having an impact outside of Virginia. Drs. Steve McIninch and Len Smock led a recently completed multi-year study of the impacts of flow regulation by a hydroelectric dam on the Roanoke River in North Carolina. The study focused on determining the impacts of short-term releases of large volumes of water during the production of electricity on fish and other organisms in the river. The results of the study are aiding Dominion, which operates the power station, in developing a report to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for relicensing of the station to continue producing energy.
In another ongoing project, our scientists are collaborating with researchers from the University of Messina in Sicily and the University of Cordoba in Spain on a project designed to provide a river management plan for the Alcantera River, which flows through the heartland of Sicily. The plan will be used by Sicilian environmental managers as they strive to protect this important water resource in a rapidly developing watershed with many economic and political pressures on its use and preservation.
Only in existence for a decade, the VCU Rice Center is clearly making its mark in environmental research and in the application of that research. The value of scientific research is to better our understanding of our environment and to apply that understanding to develop policies on the use of our abundant natural resources. As the VCU Rice Center engages in additional research efforts, increases its research collaborations and extends its geographic reach, our research will guide the development and implementation of new, more effective environmental policies that will have far reaching environmental, social and economic implications.
November 8, 2012
Saving the fish that saved Jamestown
VCU research aims to protect and recover one of the oldest fish species in the world
There it was, gently coasting along the shallow waters of the James River just below the urban backdrop of the Richmond city skyline - a giant prehistoric fish that once swam with the dinosaurs.
The rare sighting of an Atlantic sturgeon, one of the oldest species of fish in the world, just under the 14th Street Bridge in downtown Richmond last month generated a great deal of excitement.
Even more compelling during that same week was the discovery of the first fall spawning female - there were eggs in the water everywhere. Coincidentally, folks down on the Roanoke River came across a very similar scene.
No one could be happier about the find than Matt Balazik, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University. He made the initial discovery of the spawning female and eggs in the James.
October 16, 2012
Rice Center graduate student wins award from Atlantic Estuarine Research Society (AERS)
At the most recent Fall 2012 AERS meeting, VCU Rice Center researcher Joe Wood won the Best Graduate Student Oral Presentation Award for his presentation, “Phytoplankton consumption and Microcystin accumulation by fishes of the tidal fresh James River.”
This research focuses on algal blooms in the James River — specifically, blooms of harmful algae that produce toxins of concern for human health and aquatic organisms. So far, Joe’s work has shown that during periods of harmful algal blooms, the feeding rates of benthic filter-feeders, such as clams, are diminished, thus reducing their effectiveness in controlling algal blooms.
Joe has also shown that fish which feed in the water column, such as menhaden and gizzard shad, experience higher levels of toxin contamination than those which feed on the bottom, like juvenile catfish.
Evidence of fall spawning by Atlantic sturgeon in Virginia river
Findings may help in future management and recovery of the fish
Scientists studying the Atlantic sturgeon, one of the oldest species of fish in the world, have found evidence that the James River population in Virginia spawns in the fall, according to scientists at the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and VCU Rice Center.
The finding challenges the longstanding view that this specific species only spawns in the spring, and may ultimately lead to the development of guidelines and protections for future management and recovery of the fish.
Experts assume that there is spring spawning here in the James River, just as there is in the Hudson River and in some of the few remaining other rivers with the fish. Therefore, there may be some unique ecological trait of the James River yet to be determined and understood.
Little is known about the biology and life history of the sturgeon. There has been a significant decline in the number of fish in the past 100 years, due largely to overharvesting and the construction of dams that have altered its habitat. Between 1900 and 1920, nearby fisheries collapsed and the James River population was assumed to be extirpated as recently as 10 years ago.
All populations of Atlantic sturgeon were given protection under the federal Endangered Species Act earlier this year. The James River fish are considered to be endangered.
In a new study published online this month in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, a journal of the American Fisheries Society, researchers report empirical evidence of fall spawning by the Atlantic sturgeon in the James River in Virginia. During the three-year study, the team captured and observed 125 adult Atlantic sturgeons to determine sex and stage of maturity, track movement of adults via ultrasonic tags, and collect data and examine seasonal frequency of reported vessel strikes on sturgeon.
In the study, breaching of adult sturgeon was reported by a number of fishers, guides and watermen starting in August 2010 and lasting for several months. One female that was captured in the three-year window showed signs consistent with female sturgeon that had spawned recently.
One notable observation — following the publication of the study — was a spawning female sturgeon that was captured and released at the end of September 2012 near Hopewell, Va.
“There is still a lot about this population of Atlantic sturgeon that we do not know,” said co-author Greg Garman, director of the VCU Center for Environmental Sciences.
“We’re still in discovery mode and as we uncover new things we’ll be much better able to protect and restore it. We need to learn how we can share this part of the James River with this iconic and now federally protected species,” he said.
According to Garman, the VCU research team will next identify critical habitats used by Atlantic sturgeon in the James and try to understand more about the biology and ecology of young sturgeon, which reside in the river for several years before starting oceanic migrations. Research will focus on effective management and recovery of this unique species.
There are approximately 20 different species of sturgeon worldwide and almost all of those are in peril of some form. Individual populations within the species have been extirpated — completely lost beyond recovery.
Garman, together with Matthew T. Balazik, doctoral candidate in the VCU Interdisciplinary Life Sciences program in VCU Life Sciences, with the VCU Center for Environmental Studies, collaborated with colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, University of California and University of Maryland.
This study was supported in part by grants from the VCU Rice Center and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish America Foundation.
September 26, 2012
Giant sturgeons spotted in the James downtown
Photo courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch
By: Rex Springston and Andy Thompson
A mild-mannered river monster has returned to downtown Richmond.
Atlantic sturgeons, giant fish that once swam with dinosaurs, have been gathering this week in the James River by the Mayo Bridge.
One expert says the area just upstream of the bridge's southern end — where the rapids, or falls, end and the tidal James begins — may be the long-sought spawning area of the mysterious fish.
“That's where I believe the magic is happening," said Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Matt Balazik. "I think (spawning) is all mostly happening at the fall line.”
A few people, including Balazik, have seen a few sturgeons in that area since 2009. And there have been other, hard-to-verify reports in recent years.
But the sightings seemed to peak this week as witnesses reported seeing three to four sturgeons estimated at 6 to 7 feet long in the clear water on Sunday just before dusk, and two fish, including an estimated 6-footer, about the same time Monday.