VCU Rice Center

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News and events
April 17, 2014

Publications up and rising at Rice Rivers Center

We are pleased to report that VCU Rice Rivers Center researchers have published thirty-eight papers thus far.

April 17, 2014

Smart river = James River

As part of the “Mountains to the Sea” partnership among VCU, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Randolph-Macon College and Washington & Lee University, exciting developments are happening.

Each of the three schools involved is hiring a student intern, who will be working with researchers from VCU and the USGS this summer. They will be using new, cutting-edge water quality sensors, acoustic receivers and satellite telemetry equipment being installed at Weyanoke on the James River to monitor the hydrology, water quality and migratory fish movements within the river. The instruments will work in concert with existing equipment to provide real-time estimates of the amount of nutrients, specifically nitrogen, that move through the James River each year.

The hydrology and water quality data will significantly aid ongoing studies by Dr. Paul Bukaveckas on nutrient and algal dynamics in the river. Data generated by VCU’s acoustic receivers will support recovery efforts for the endangered Atlantic sturgeon and related research initiatives.

This project is generously funded by MeadWestvaco, Dominion, NOAA and the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.

April 16, 2014

International partnership with University of Cordoba

VCU Rice Rivers Center and the Department of Biology are pleased to announce the VCU-University of Córdoba (UCO) Collaboration: Development of a synthetic, complimentary degree program focusing on science of the James River and Guadalquivir River ecosystems.

The collaborative research project between VCU and UCO is designed to strengthen and expand the existing collaboration between faculty and students at both universities to enhance the sharing of resources, expertise and cultural experiences, and ultimately resulting in increased collaborative research and the development of a collaborative graduate degree.

The collaboration will focus on two river ecosystems, James and Guadalquivir, which are historically fundamental to the economy and culture of Virginia, USA and Andalusia, Spain, respectively. The central theme of the project is to evaluate the impacts of global change induced rises in sea level on these river ecosystems. Emphasis will be placed on ecological communities and broader impacts on societies within the river watersheds. Researchers will use historical and current understanding of sea level rise and associated effects on river and watershed ecological assemblages by using quantitative tools for watershed analysis, as well as computer simulations to predict future scenarios that will impact the rivers ecosystems and society. Hydro- and bio-indicators of this sea level rise impact will also be identified as tracers of the global change evolution.

VCU faculty will be travelling to Spain this June to kick off the collaboration.

April 15, 2014

Engaging work in Panama

VCU Rice Rivers Center’s annual trip to Panama this year was a success. Sixteen graduate and undergraduate students from VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies joined Dr. Lesley Bulluck and Dr. Ed Crawford on a two-week research excursion to the tropics.

Their goal while in Panama was to monitor migratory and resident birds in black mangrove forests of varying condition in and around Panama City. One week was spent doing intensive field work in the mangroves, where students learned how to band and measure birds captured in mist nets. Also, data was collected on the birds’ foraging behaviors and condition as well as vegetation and soil characteristics throughout the sites. The students currently are finalizing their data analysis and plan to present their major findings at the VCU Rice Rivers Center Research symposium, to be held Friday, May 9.

The second week abroad involved traveling to more remote locations in Panama to explore cloud forests. This year was different because we were able to host four university students from the University of Panama and the International Maritime University of Panama throughout the entire experience in Panama. This is especially exciting because it is rare for these students to gain experience doing field work or traveling to places beyond the city where they live. This course provides VCU students with an intensive research and service-learning experience that has proven to be life-changing.

April 14, 2014

LiDAR at Rice Rivers Center

On April 1, the Environmental Remote Sensing class met at the Rice Rivers Center to explore LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data collection and processing. Students received a lecture and participated in discussion of the technology, and were able to spend time manipulating data using imaging software in order to gain a better understanding of this cutting-edge technology.

Using airborne and terrestrial data collection methods, remote sensing scientists are able to collect massive amounts of data to create dramatically accurate images. Students on this day were exposed to a dataset containing approximately 150 million data returns.

This technology is being developed and employed by scientists worldwide, and locally by the Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). In this mutually beneficial partnership with Rice Rivers Center, the ERDC is using the center as one location to collect and test data.

LiDAR is used in environmental, humanitarian and military applications; for the Rice Rivers Center specifically, LiDAR is an excellent structural landscaping tool that is being used for the 70-acre wetland restoration project on the property.

Click the images below for a larger view

April 7, 2014

Uptick in cutting of bald eagle nest trees as social experiment continues
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

When bald eagles were removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in June 2007, the action was both a conservation milestone and the beginning of a social experiment.

Recovery of the bald eagle population is arguably the greatest conservation success story in our nation’s history and a testament to wildlife law. However, pulling the population out from under the big stick of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for the first time in nearly 40 years comes with an uncertain amount of risk. Within the Chesapeake Bay, 75 percent of all bald eagle pairs nest on private lands suggesting that the future of the population resides with the public. How private landowners would respond to the removal of ESA protections in the post-delisting era has been an open question of interest to the conservation community.

Typical bald eagle nest tree within the lower Chesapeake Bay. This nest tree near Colonial Beach, Va., was cut down during a logging operation in the years after this photo was taken. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Information compiled from the annual bald eagle survey is beginning to give a hint as to how the experiment is playing out. The Center for Conservation Biology has been monitoring eagles and their nests within the Chesapeake Bay for decades. One of several objectives for this ongoing program is to observe how eagle pairs fare on private lands. Since removal of eagles from ESA protection, we have observed a clear uptick in nest trees cut (13 trees since 2007) during logging operations.

Loss of nest trees to logging is not new to the Chesapeake Bay population. Following his historic survey of bald eagles within the Chesapeake Bay, Bryant Tyrell reported in 1936 to Richard Pough of the National Audubon Society that lumbermen were cutting several nest trees per year. He reported that “their attitude was one of absolute disregard for the eagles”. In general, the lumbermen were not selectively targeting nest trees, but they were cutting entire forest blocks that contained them. This practice continued and was well-documented by the annual eagle survey during the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s, news of the eagle’s plight and penalties under federal law were more widely known, and the number of trees lost to logging declined substantially.

Aerial photo taken after a logging operation along the Rappahannock River cut an eagle nest tree. This forest block supported a bald eagle nest for ten years prior to the harvest. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Cutting of bald eagle nest trees continues to be a violation of federal law. Although the species no longer enjoys ESA protection, both bald and golden eagles are unique in the United States in having their own federal law (the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1941, commonly referred to as the Eagle Act). Delisting eagles in 2007 effectively initiated a change in the lead legislation used to prosecute eagle violations from ESA to the Eagle Act. There has been very little change in the recommended federal management guidelines pertaining to bald eagles ( .

The recent increase in cutting of nest trees may reflect a broader public misconception that nests are no longer protected following their delisting. We, the conservation community, need to be more effective in communicating landowner responsibilities under federal law.

Graph of documented nest trees harvested (1962-2013) in the lower Chesapeake Bay. It should be noted that the number of nest trees in the population increased substantially over the 50-year period. Data from The Center for Conservation Biology.

April 2, 2014

Undergraduate receives award for Rice Rivers Research

Spencer Tassone, an undergraduate student working in the lab of Paul Bukaveckas, Ph.D., has won the Best Poster Award at the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society meeting held last weekend in Ocean City, Md. As part of the award, Tassone received a one-year membership to the parent organization that sponsored the conference: the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation.

Below the image is a summary of Tassone’s work with Joe Wood and Dr. Bukaveckas:

Spencer Tassone accepting his Best Poster Award

Effects of dissolved and dietary Microcystin on clearance rates of Wedge Clams (Rangia cuneata) in the tidal fresh James River

Tassone, Spencer; Bukaveckas, Paul; Wood, Joe

Date: 2014-03-26


Benthic filter feeders are important organisms in estuaries due to their ability to remove algal and non-algal particulate matter from the water column. Microcystin (MC) is a cyanotoxin that is known to have adverse effects on diverse consumers, though its effects on benthic filter-feeders are not well-studied. In this study, we examine the effects of microcystin on the filtering activities of Rangia cuneata, a common and often dominant filter-feeder in tidal freshwaters. Clams and seston obtained from the James River were used along with commercially-available microcystin to measure clearance rates of Rangia across a gradient of dissolved microcystin concentrations. We also compared clearance rates of James River clams to natural food sources in the presence and absence of microcystin. Our results show that dissolved microcystin inhibited Rangia clearance rates. Even at the lowest concentration tested (0.40 μg MC L-1) clearance rates were significantly lower than controls. Dietary experiments showed that when elevated microcystin was present in the James (September), clearance rates were lower for clams fed James River seston relative to clams fed seston from another source. Our results suggest that the presence of microcystin may diminish ecosystem service provided by benthic filter feeders.

Mar. 25, 2014

The early birds
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

By Bryan Watts

Beginning in the 1980s and for many years thereafter, a pair of bald eagles nesting on Jamestown Island was the first Chesapeake Bay pair to lay eggs. Known as the Christmas Eagles, this pair consistently laid around the Christmas holiday, weeks before their neighbors. The southernmost of the great Chesapeake tributaries, the James River is still host to the earliest pairs in the bay. As the population has expanded, egg dates have continued to advance to earlier dates than even the Christmas Eagles.

An eight-week-old eagle chick documented along the Chesapeake Bay. This bird is similar in age to the early brood documented along the James River on March 5 while almost all other pairs were incubating. Photo by Bryan Watts.

The 2014 bald eagle survey began with eight hours of flying along the James River on March 5. The survey team documented several nests with young that indicate egg laying in December, including one two-chick brood that was eight weeks old, a one-chick brood that was seven weeks old and a two-chick brood that was six weeks old. The clutch for the eight-week old brood would have been laid in late November, a time when most pairs had not even initiated courtship or nest repair. They were feeding young before almost all other pairs had begun to lay eggs. The average laying date for pairs along the James River is Feb. 6. The early breeding date recorded this year was more than four standard deviation units earlier than the mean, a tremendous jump ahead of the rest of the population.

These early eagle pairs are extreme outliers within the Chesapeake Bay and each year they are clustered on the lower James between Williamsburg and Smithfield. Are these pairs just filling out the tails of the laying distribution as the population expands or is there some directional movement toward earlier laying dates? What prey are these pairs exploiting that allow them to raise young a full month earlier than the rest of the population? Why are these outliers clustered in a short reach of the James? 

The many questions of why and how remain to be explored but, as with most things, it is the unexpected and unusual that lead to discoveries and make for a more interesting day.

Frequency distribution of laying dates for bald eagles along the James River (N = 664, 2004-2010). Watts, unpublished data.

Mar. 24, 2014

eESP 2.0: Where science and communications meet

Providing science students with enhanced communication skills has recently become a core challenge for graduate training programs throughout the country and VCU is rising to meet this challenge. A Quest Innovation Grant was recently awarded to two faculty in VCU Life Sciences (Center for Environmental Studies) and VCU Biology to create a new curriculum, in partnership with the VCU Department of Communication Arts, which will teach science graduate students to create more engaging and accessible data visualizations. This curriculum will be the centerpiece of a new program, entitled “eESP 2.0 – Ecological and Environmental Perception, version 2.0” that will help VCU graduates stand out in a historically competitive market.

eESP 2.0 will also be a national first-of-its-kind effort to make effective communication a fundamental component of the graduate student training process and may help to create a national precedent for similar interdisciplinary training programs. Additional support for eESP 2.0 has been secured through VCU Life Sciences and the VCU Rice Rivers Center, which will serve as a ‘hub’ for student-generated eESP 2.0 products.

The new curriculum will begin this coming fall with the initial course offering: “Infographics – The Visualization of Scientific Data”.

Above infographic by CES/eESP 2.0 M.S. student Christopher Mason

Mar. 5, 2014

38 years and counting
VCU Rice Center collaborator: Center for Conservation Biology

Mitchell Byrd (lft), Captain Fuzzzo Shermer (rt) and Bryan Watts (back) flying a productivity flight along the Rappahannock River. The productivity flight goes nest to nest checking breeding success and counting young in the nest.

By Bryan Watts

When Mitchell Byrd took over the annual bald eagle survey for the state of Virginia, disco was king, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was just over 800 and France still employed the guillotine to carry out capital punishment. Dr. Byrd is now 85 ½ and the Bee Gees have long since gone the way of the leisure suit, but through all of the intervening years his commitment to bald eagles has never diminished. With the beginning of the 2014 flights in early March, Byrd will mark the 38th year of his involvement in the aerial survey.

The annual bald eagle assessment involves two rounds of flights. The survey round begins in early March and involves the systematic flying of all tributaries to check nests known from previous years and to map new nests constructed since the last breeding season. The productivity round is conducted in late April and involves flying to each nest and counting the number of chicks produced. This two-pronged survey monitors the number of breeding pairs, their distribution, and their breeding success.

Armed with a stack of topographic maps for plotting nests, a stack of datasheets for recording survey information and a supply of No. 2 pencils, Dr. Byrd sits in the front of the plane ready for eight hours of banks, dives and pulling Gs. Gone are the lazy flying days when nests were rare and a day’s flying could be recorded on a single sheet. The tremendous population recovery has made for intense flying where 100 nests may be checked before breaking for lunch.

There are no complaints about the increased workload. Still fresh are the memories of long, heartbreaking flights without finding a single nest. For the first two years of the survey, there were no eagle pairs remaining along the entire James River. The 2013 survey along this historic drainage documented 205 pairs that produced 267 young. It has been a great 38 years.

Adult with a stash of fish feeding a chick along the James River. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Three raccoons slumbering in an eagle nest along the Chickahominy River. In addition to documenting chick production, the survey has also documented the frequency of nest use by other species. Photo by Bryan Watts.

Feb. 27, 2014

International study of fish, toxins and human health

International study of fish, toxins and human health

How much of a threat to human health are algal toxins? As a direct outgrowth of our study of algal toxins in the James, VCU Rice Rivers Center now has a research collaboration with colleagues at Klaipeda University in Lithuania. Dr. Paul Bukaveckas and his team have shown here at home that certain fish species such as Threadfin and Gizzard Shad are more reliant on algae as a food source and therefore accumulate more of the toxin. Benthic feeders such as catfish ingest less algae and therefore have lower toxin levels. We now plan to test these ideas in a new system.

Researchers in Lithuania have been studying a Baltic costal lagoon and have the food web well characterized. Also, it is a body of water that is known to have issues with nutrient loading and cyanobacteria blooms, and therefore is a good candidate for this study. The team has received a grant from the Lithuanian NSF to fund this work for three years.

The purpose of this study is to assess environmental and human health safety concerns arising from the occurrence of cyanobacteria blooms in the Curonian Lagoon. An important and novel component is in linking consumer exposure to Microcystin with dietary habits.

This linkage will be explored through simultaneous tracking of toxin concentrations and stable isotopic signatures of algae and consumers. The dual approach will provide a mechanistic basis for identifying those populations at greatest risk to toxin exposure and for identifying potential routes of human exposure through fish consumption. We hypothesize that suspension-feeding consumers will exhibit higher concentrations of Microcystin in their tissues compared to benthic omnivores and secondary consumers (predators). We have previously established the utility of stable isotope-based food web models for tracking cyanobacteria biomass through primary and secondary trophic levels. We will use the results of the stable isotope analysis to establish pathways of cyanobacteria biomass utilization and relate these to measured toxin levels in consumers.

Study title:
Lesutiene, J., P.A. Bukaveckas, R. Pilkaityte, Z.R. Gasiunaite, J. Karosiene, Z. Putys, and J. Dainys “Environmental Health and Safety Concerns Arising from the Presence of Cyanotoxins in the Curonian Lagoon and their Export to the Baltic Sea. ”