VCU Rice Center

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News and events
Nov. 12, 2014

Three Chopt Garden Club visits Rice Rivers Center

On October 28, the Three Chopt Garden Club held their membership meeting at the Rice Rivers Center. It was a glorious day to experience the field station. Former James River Park System Manager/Naturalist, Ralph White, gave the keynote speech on the history and value of the James River. Catherine Dahl, Director of Development and Special Projects for Life Sciences gave a brief overview of the Center and how it fits in with the overall mission of river stewardship worldwide. Members enjoyed tours of the property, including the waterfront and the wetlands.

Nov. 12, 2014

A forest out from under a lake

What WAS there? Once a vibrant wetland, then a well-stocked lake, and now in the process of restoration, Kimages Creek has experienced a great deal of change over the last 100 years. VCU graduate student Rick Ward is working to identify the flooded stumps in order that the wetland forest can be restored as well as possible to its former state.

Under the guidance of Dr. Ed Crawford, Ward has developed an 11-step process that begins in the wetlands, locating stumps by GPS and flagging them for mapping. A cross section of a stump (“cookie”) is carefully sawn from the stump, bagged and labeled. Once back in the lab, the cookies are dried in an oven and sanded on one face. After being given an approximate age by counting rings, the samples are placed under a microscope and compared to known samples, examining pores of early and late wood.

Using as reference a number of scientific publications, Ward works to discern the historical tree species found in the wetland area. He can determine which species were able to grow in both upland and wetland areas, and which species are “obligate wetland” and must grow there, like the Black Willow.

Starting with porosity and growth rings, there are 11 steps in Ward’s taxonomic identification code that can lead to identification of a genus of a tree. Because of the variety of conditions under which trees can grow, narrowing down to the species isn’t always possible.

So far, 46 extant species have been found, with the Sweet Gum tree being the most prevalent species along the edge of the wetlands. In terms of the historical forest, Ward and his team have only identified 15 species that comprise the over 5,000 stumps that have been located. The Nature Conservancy has been helping VCU Rice Rivers Center to restore the wetlands, having planted approximately 25,000 trees and shrubs thus far.

It was 1862 when Confederate and Union troops pulled out of the area, having clear cut the trees for fuel and sight lines for battle. Based on his research, Ward estimates that it took approximately 35 years for the forest at Kimages Creek to start flourishing once again. And now, with the help of The Nature Conservancy, Dr. Crawford, and Richard Ward, as well as other graduate and undergraduate students, the wetlands at Kimages Creek are well on their way to returning to their natural state for the first time in over 100 years.

Nov. 12, 2014

Shell recycling update – don’t chuck that shuck!

The Rice Rivers Center’s Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) has been very active recycling used shell, bringing more restaurants into the program, and generating a great deal of interest. We were invited to participate in Governor McAuliffe’s Virginia Oyster Trail Event at the Governor’s Mansion, kicking off an exciting initiative to encourage oyster-wine tourism in Virginia. Our “shuck buckets” were everywhere, and the Governor himself was notably enthusiastic about adding his used shells to the collection. At a follow-up event, he asked for the shuck buckets and was pleased to know we were participating.

Governor McAuliffe enjoys an oyster, then seeks out our shuck bucket

Other events have included Shockoe on the Half Shell, Union Market’s “Eat Oysters! Drink Beer!” event, and Fire, Flour & Fork. Additionally, the Richmond Folk Festival featured a tent dedicated to the Virginia Oyster where World and Virginia champion oyster shuckers and sisters, Deborah Pratt and Clementine Macon-Boyd, kept sibling rivalry alive in an oyster shucking competition. The VOSRP collected shell there and interacted with participants of the Folk Festival, many of whom were VCU alumni.

The most recent partners added include The Savory Grain, Pomegranate, Westwood Club and Deltaville Oyster Co.

For up-to-the-minute information on this program, "Like" the Rice Rivers Center Facebook page and follow us on Twitter (@VCURiceRivers).

Nov. 12, 2014

VCU Rice Rivers Center and Virginia Green

The Rice Rivers Center is now a member of the Virginia Green program, demonstrating that we are committed to minimizing our impact on the environment. For more information, see the program’s Web page at

Nov. 12, 2014

VCU Rice Rivers Center accepted into important network

Earlier this month, the Rice Rivers Center's application to join the Cooperative Ecosystem Study Unit (CESU) was accepted by a unanimous vote of its members. Based in Washington, D.C., the CESU is network of federal agencies and academic institutions working together to conduct research and restoration for the Chesapeake Bay watershed. With funding from CESU, VCU faculty will begin avian and herptofauna surveys of Fort A.P. Hill in early 2015. These baseline surveys will support future conservation activities by base personnel and will provide valuable field experiences for graduate and undergraduate students in Biology and Environmental Studies. For more information on this organization, please visit

Nov. 12, 2014

Nitrogen Retention in a Restored Tidal Stream (Kimages Creek, VA) Assessed by Mass Balance and Tracer Approaches
VCU Rice Rivers Center Publication

The VCU Rice Rivers Center congratulates Drs. Paul A. Bukaveckas and Joseph Wood on their publication: ”Nitrogen Retention in a Restored Tidal Stream (Kimages Creek, VA) Assessed by Mass Balance and Tracer Approaches”, published in the Journal of Environmental Quality.

The abstract reads as follows:

Tidal streams are attractive candidates for restoration because of their capacity to retain nutrients from upland and estuarine sources. We quantified N retention in Kimages Creek, VA, following a dam breach that restored its historical (pre-1920) connection to the James River Estuary. Estimates of N retention derived from mass balance analysis were compared to tracer-based retention estimates obtained by injecting NH4Cl during an incoming tide and measuring recovery on the outgoing tide. The injection experiments showed that dissolved inorganic N (DIN) retention in the restored tidal and nontidal segments was similar to nearby streams and previously published values. These data suggest that the stream has attained expected levels of functioning less than 2 yr after restoration despite 80 yr of impoundment. The mass balance analysis provided additional information for restoration assessment as this approach allowed us to track multiple N fractions. These results showed that DIN retention was offset by export of total organic N resulting in net loss of total N from the restored creek. Seasonal variation in DIN retention was significantly and positively related to tidal exchange volume and ecosystem metabolism (gross primary production and respiration). Our findings show that existing methods for measuring nutrient retention in nontidal streams can be adapted to the bidirectional flow patterns of tidal streams to assess restoration effectiveness.

Bukaveckas, Paul A. and Wood, Joseph. (2014) Nitrogen Retention in a Restored Tidal Stream (Kimages Creek, VA) Assessed by Mass Balance and Tracer Approaches. Journal of Environmental Quality, 2014, 43:1614–1623.

Restored tidal segment of Kimages Creek following dewatering and revegetation of former lakebed

Nov. 12, 2014

Local Habitat, Global Impact: Anderson Gallery walk

The “Local Habitat, Global Impact” field trip to the VCU Rice Rivers Center on October 25 was a big success! Sponsored by the Anderson Gallery, approximately 30 participants heard from four researchers about their work and how it relates to climate change.

Chris Gough demonstrates methods for researching carbon sequestration

Scott Neubauer discussing wetland restoration and sea level rise

Lesley Bulluck explains her work with migratory birds

James Vonesh at a mesocosm, explaining his work with amphibians

Nov. 11, 2014

Exposure to the Cyanotoxin Microcystin Arising from Interspecific Differences in Feeding Habits among Fish and Shellfish in the James River Estuary, Virginia
VCU Rice Rivers Center Publication

The VCU Rice Rivers Center congratulates Drs. Joseph D. Wood, Rima B. Franklin, Greg Garman, Stephen McIninch and Paul A. Bukaveckas, and Aaron J. Porter on their publication: “Exposure to the Cyanotoxin Microcystin Arising from Interspecific Differences in Feeding Habits among Fish and Shellfish in the James River Estuary, Virginia”, published in Environmental Science and Technology.

The abstract reads as follows: The cyanotoxin, microcystin (MC), is known to accumulate in the tissues of diverse aquatic biota although factors influencing exposure, such as feeding habits and seasonal patterns in toxin production, are poorly known. We analyzed seasonal variation in the MC content of primary and secondary consumers, and used dietary analysis (gut contents and stable isotopes) to improve understanding of cyanotoxin transport in food webs. Periods of elevated toxin concentration were associated with peaks in the abundance of genes specific to Microcystis and MC toxin production (mcyD). Peak toxin levels in consumer tissues coincided with peak MC concentrations in seston. However, toxins in tissues persisted in overwintering populations suggesting that potential health impacts may not be limited to bloom periods. Interspecific differences in tissue MC concentrations were related to feeding habits and organic matter sources as pelagic fishes ingested a greater proportion of algae in their diet, which resulted in greater MC content in liver and muscle tissues. Sediments contained a greater proportion of allochthonous (terrestrial) organic matter and lower concentrations of MC, resulting in lower toxin concentrations among benthic detritivores. Among shellfish, the benthic suspension feeder Rangia cuneata (wedge clam) showed seasonal avoidance of toxin ingestion due to low feeding rates during periods of elevated MC. Among predators, adult Blue Catfish had low MC concentrations, whereas Blue Crabs exhibited high levels of MC in both muscle and viscera.

Wood, Joseph D., et al. (2014) Exposure to the Cyanotoxin Microcystin Arising from Interspecific Differences in Feeding Habits among Fish and Shellfish in the James River Estuary, Virginia. Environmental Science & Technology, 2014, 48, 5194-5202.

Rangia cuneata (wedge clam), approximately 5-8 years old

Nov. 11, 2014

New logo: VCU Rice Rivers Center

VCU Rice Rivers Center is methodically transforming everything that carries the Rice Rivers Center name, as part of the ongoing effort to clarify the public’s understanding of our mission. The latest change is our trusty “Rice Car”, as well as our fleet of research boats.

VCU Rice Rivers Center’s Director, Len Smock, and the "Rice Car"

Nov. 11, 2014

Influence of Substrate Quality and Moisture Availability on Microbial Communities and Litter Decomposition
VCU Rice Rivers Center Publication

The VCU Rice Rivers Center congratulates Drs. David J. Berrier, Morgan S. Rawls, Shannon Leigh McCallister and Rima B. Franklin on their publication: “Influence of Substrate Quality and Moisture Availability on Microbial Communities and Litter Decomposition”, published in the Open Journal of Ecology.

The abstract reads as follows:

The main source of carbon (C) to soil stocks is plant litter, the decomposition of which is controlled by a mixture of physical, chemical, and biological processes. Bacteria and fungi are the dominant biota responsible for decomposition, yet we know very little about their respective contributions or how community dynamics may be affected by litter quality. This study sought to gain a better understanding of the variable relationships between organic matter decomposition, litter quality, and microbial community composition, with a specific focus on distinguishing bacterial and fungal dynamics. Experiments were conducted under contrasting hydrological conditions, comparing a wetland with an upland forest environment. Decomposition of native vegetation was monitored in addition to breakdown of a common substrate (Acer rubrum (red maple) leaves) placed in both environments. In situ incubations lasted 16 months, and were sampled at ~3-month intervals. Regardless of site, maple litter decomposition proceeded at a similar rate, though we did observe differences in litter quality over time (C:N, %N, solubility of organic C). For the upland site, native litter decomposed more slowly than the maple did. At the wetland site, both litter types decomposed at a similar rate which, surprisingly, was faster than either litter type at the upland site. This finding could be attributed to water-limitation at the upland site and/or stimulation of decomposition at the wetland site due to allochthonous nutrient inputs or organic matter priming. Substrate induced respiration (SIR) was measured for native litter incubated at each sampling site, and the relative contributions of bacteria and fungi were compared. No consistent major differences were detected across these microbial groups, though we did observe much higher rates of SIR at the wetland site compared to the upland site. Community structure of each microbial group was examined via terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (TRFLP), which revealed dramatic temporal shifts for both groups at both sites. In general, these results indicate a long-term effect of both litter type and environmental conditions (site) on the bacterial community, but show only environmental effects on the fungal communities. This suggests that different environmental conditions allow microbial communities to uniquely approach decomposition of leaf litter components.

Leaf litter along Civil War earthworks, VCU Rice Rivers Center

Nov. 11, 2014

eESP 2.0 update

eESP 2.0 students review initial projects submitted by their classmates

On Wednesday Oct. 1, Daniel McGarvey (Center for Environmental Studies) and Laura Chessin (Graphic Design) assembled seniors from the Environmental Studies and Graphic Design programs at the new Depot (Arts) facility to begin a series of collaborative Capstone projects. Through the remainder of the semester, students from the two programs will work together to develop solutions to local environmental problems/challenges (e.g., reduction of storm water runoff, proliferation of non-native pest species, and on-campus composting facilities), and to create communication products that can be used in community outreach and engagement efforts.

Opening slide from student Cara Herchenrother's presentation on scientific illiteracy

In the process, Environmental Studies students will have a unique opportunity to apply what they have already learned and to gain insight to the design and communication process. Graphic Design students will, in turn, acquire in-depth knowledge of select environmental topics while building their professional portfolios. This process will build upon the initial Capstone collaboration, conducted last fall, but will raise the bar on expectations for project outcomes. For instance, students will be required to contact potential community partners and to prepare materials for posting on the Science Matters (NPR/Community Idea Stations) website.

Laura Chessin and Daniel McGarvey engage the class with exciting opportunities

Nov. 11, 2014

Migratory Movements of American Shad in the James River Fall Zone, Virginia
VCU Rice Rivers Center Publication

American shad (Alosa sapidissima)

The VCU Rice Rivers Center congratulates Drs. Aaron W. Aunins, Bonnie L. Brown, Matt Balazik and Greg C. Garman on their publication: “Migratory Movements of American Shad in the James River Fall Zone, Virginia”, published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management.

The abstract reads as follows: The installation of Bosher’s Dam fishway and notches or breaches to all dams downstream in the James River, Virginia, were completed during 1989-19999 to help restore the river’s alosine populations by providing access to over 400 river kilometers (rkm) of historical spawning habitat that had been blocked for about 175 years. We used stationary radiotelemetry receivers in April-July 2009 to assess the passage of tagged adult American Shad Alosa sapidissima through the fall zone and Bosher’s Dam fishway. Three receivers encompassed 25 rkm from below head of tide to 3 rkm above Bosher’s Dam. Ninety-four American Shad were radio-tagged over 30 d, either at the head of tide (n=64) or upstream below the Bosher’s Dam fishway (n=30). No American Shad tagged at the head of tide were detected at the base of Bosher’s Dam, and none were detected above Bosher’s Dam fishway. However, several tagged fish released at the base of Bosher’s Dam remained there for days (x=4.0 d, DS = 5.9 d) without negotiating the fishway. These results suggest that passage at Bosher’s Dam and through other fall zone dams needs improvement and that American Shad access to historical spawning habitat remains thwarted.

Aaron W. Aunins , Bonnie L. Brown , Matt Balazik & Greg C. Garman (2013) Migratory Movements of American Shad in the James River Fall Zone, Virginia, North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 33:3, 569-575, DOI: 10.1080/02755947.2013.768564

Oct. 28, 2014

Echoes of the Dough Birds
VCU Rice Rivers Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Crowberries were the primary fruit used by dough birds to fuel their transoceanic flight from eastern Canada to South America. They ate so many of these berries that their bellies were often dyed purple. Photo by Bryan Watts.

By Bryan Watts

Like a summer carnival coming to a Midwestern town, wherever Eskimo Curlew went their arrival was the most anticipated event of the year. They were travelers along the Great Circle. From breeding grounds around the Mackenzie River they flew east to the Canadian Maritimes before making a nonstop flight to South America. Incredible numbers wintered on the campos around Bahia Blanca south of Buenos Aires. In the spring they flew north to Texas then on to the Platte River before returning to breed on the Mackenzie.

They were loved wherever they went. Described as the most delicious of all shorebirds, they appeared on the menus of posh restaurants in Buenos Aires, New York City, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans. They were canned and shipped to wealthy epicures in London. Hunters from the northeast called them dough birds because when they were hunted in the fall the birds carried so much fat that when they dropped to the ground they occasionally split open, revealing the white fat that appeared like balls of bread dough.

A small pond near Windsors Malbay on Miscou Island, New Brunswick. This site was a known fall staging area for migrating dough birds. Photo by Bryan Watts.

When demand drove their price above 75 cents each, the traveling dough birds became a moving industry. By the 1870s they were hunted somewhere every day of the year. The Honorable F. C. Berteau, a custom’s agent, describes coming into the Hudson Bay Company’s store in Cartwright Labrador and seeing 2,000 birds hanging that were shot by market hunters the same morning. Professor Myron Swenk from Nebraska describes the spring hunters from Omaha shooting flocks on the plains until they filled their wagons and had to put on higher sideboards. After successive years of low numbers, George Mackay, a sportsman from Nantucket, polled two Boston dealers in 1890 who indicated that they had received twenty barrels of birds from the Midwest including eight barrels of dough birds and twelve barrels of golden plovers and dough birds.

By the end of the 1890s the traveling carnival was over. The weight of a relentless harvest had broken the back of the population and it fell into a hopeless death spiral. By the 1930s, final sight records had been recorded over much of its former range. The last individual known to science was shot on September 4, 1963 over a shooting swamp on Barbados, one of several shorebird-hunting holdouts that persist to this day. This September marks the 51st anniversary of that last confirmed bird, now preserved forever in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

In the early 1900s, during the later years of the decline, many hunters lamented the loss of the population. Dough birds were a significant component of local cultures. The sight and sounds of flocks writhing over the horizon marked the seasons and filled everyone with a sense of life no matter how bleak the day. Today, there is no living link to those experiences. We have only the few written words to bridge the gap of time. Henry Hall from Massachusetts sums up the disconnect stating, “Our chief reminder of its former status is an occasional dusty decoy for sale in some antique shop….” One of the most charismatic shorebirds in the Western Hemisphere that was once estimated to number between 3 and 5 million individuals, now confined to libraries, museums and antique shops.

The heathlands of Miscou Island are covered with a mixed potpourri of miniature plants including the delicate sundew. Photo by Bryan Watts.

As ecologists, we rely on first-hand experience to get to the marrow of a species. We commit years to the effort - we wake up with it, walk with it through the day, and sit with it for months in its habitat. We talk to others about their first-hand experiences. Slowly, through the commitment of years, a vibrant, ecological image begins to take form. We begin to know the species to a depth achieved only with close family members. Despite the demands of our fast-paced world, there are no short cuts to truly understanding another species. But for some species, our arrival on the scene comes too late.

Recently, while conducting shorebird work with the Canadian Wildlife Service, I had the opportunity to spend two evenings on Miscou Island in New Brunswick during the peak season when the curlews would be staging. The island contains extensive heathlands that support dense populations of crowberry, the primary food used by dough birds to lay on the fat needed to make their transoceanic flight to South America. The island was a famous hunting site for the species. Dr. Orne Green spent 30 seasons hunting the area following his retirement in the 1870s as a professor from Harvard Medical School. His and other writings describe the shanties, camps, and hunting blinds positioned to intercept birds along the major flight lines between roosts and foraging areas.

It is utterly impossible for an ecologist to walk through such hallowed ground without conjuring up the ghosts of a species so recently extinguished. What does the architecture of the habitat say about the species that used it? Are there ecological echoes that persist here from their occupation? Has any other consumer come in to fill the vacuum left in their wake? You strain your senses to capture the setting and imagine what it must have been like to be among them - the smell of peat underfoot the sound of the wind pushing the water against the shoreline, the subdued greens of the heath plants.

Wagon tracks extending through the bog are the only reminder of the hunting camps from the 1800s on Miscou Island. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Today, the vast habitat patches on Miscou Island are spectacular – a base of sphagnum covered with a carpet of miniature plants including cloudberry, bog rosemary and sundew. Though very diverse, the plant community presents a low profile, allowing birds to walk unimpeded. There is no evidence of the camps and blinds of Dr. Green’s day. In some areas, every step falls on ripe crowberries that cover the ground in dense patches. There is a peace and an undeniable timelessness here.

It is difficult to find any impression left by the throngs that once stopped in the fall. The carpet of sphagnum is dotted with lichens that must be hundreds of years old. They would have “felt” the footsteps and been brushed by bills of dough birds marching across the heath gorging on fruit. But the lightening that once electrified this landscape is gone. There is no rush of wings dropping from the sky like a waterfall down on the crowberries to feed, just an emptiness that stretches from horizon to horizon.

It is tempting to comfort ourselves in the belief that the dough birds were casualties of a historical moment not destined to repeat itself. A brief time sandwiched between the sharp rise in available firearms and the passage of protective legislation. After all, didn’t we pass the Lacey Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act nearly a century ago to protect these species? We would only be deceiving ourselves to find comfort in such an illusion. The extinction of the dough birds was driven by the tragedy of the commons, a force that stretches back before human civilization itself and that is still alive and well today. The market hunters that encountered the birds in different places throughout their annual cycle were more concerned about their own profits and enjoyment than they were about the future of the birds or about the other hunters along the Great Circle. We may legislate hunting regulations, but what about the destruction of critical habitat, the consumption of coastal resource or human-caused climate change? Until we are all able to rise above our own self-centered concerns to see a future beyond our own and recognize that cooperation is not merely a kind gesture but an imperative for the future, no species is secure, not even our own.

Mounded lichens are dotted across the heath bog on Miscou Island. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Oct. 15, 2014

An eco-experience: Wading into wetlands

On Saturday, October 4, VCU Rice Rivers Center hosted its third EcoExperience, entitled “Wading into Wetlands: An Amphibian's Eye View of Some Exceptional Ecosystems”. Participants from the general public were treated to a special day of donning waders and experiencing wetland science from a researcher’s point of view.

Wetland habitats provide numerous ecosystem services such as clean water, clean air, and critical habitat for threatened and endangered species and increased regional biodiversity, and are among some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Participants learned about these critically important, yet highly imperiled, wetland ecosystems and engaged in hands-on exploration of some diverse and unique wetland resources located at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Participants investigated forested and herbaceous dominated tidal/non-tidal and ephemeral wetlands along the banks of the James River.

Additionally, some “Experiencers” planted bald cypress seedlings as part of the wetland restoration of Kimages Creek and its surrounding areas, a long-term project of VCU, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, American Rivers and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The project encompasses the original 70 acres of lake bottom (formerly Lake Charles, created by a now-removed dam) and 1.5 miles of tidal creek to their natural hydrology and ecosystem functioning.

Saturday’s EcoExperience was the final installment of the series for 2014. A series of EcoExperiences for 2015 is being developed as a way to further welcome and engage the general public in the exciting and vital work that is being done at the Rice Rivers Center.

wetlands image
Reed Richardson participates in a tree planting to help restore the wetlands area of Kimages Creek. Reed is a junior at Lafayette High School in Williamsburg. He’s considering field biology as an area of study when he goes to college, and he’s been a fan of VCU for many years.

Oct. 10, 2014

Oyster roast and reception

On September 24, approximately 60 guests enjoyed an oyster roast and reception outside at the Rice Rivers Center, overlooking the James.