Land, sea and everything in between: Rice Rivers Center researchers present their work

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Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center researchers shared discoveries on everything from the fish that swim in the James River outside the building’s back door to the shorebirds that fly over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the West Indies during the center’s seventh annual research symposium on May 8.

Each year the symposium brings together faculty, students and researchers from cooperating universities, agencies and organizations to share the latest in conservation ecology and the environment. More than 100 people attended this year’s event at VCU’s 494-acre living laboratory in Charles City County for a day that included nine platform presentations, two short films and 15 research posters.

One really nice aspect of the center is the number of students who get their feet wet in research out here.

“One really nice aspect of the center is the number of students who get their feet wet in research out here,” said Leonard Smock, Ph.D., interim vice provost, VCU Life Sciences; director, VCU Rice Rivers Center. “There is no substitute for hands-on involvement in research.” 

Throughout the day, students and faculty demonstrated the multitude of ways they are immersing themselves in research. 

Environmental studies graduate student Jameson Hinkle discussed his exploration of new ways to track Atlantic sturgeon without having to catch the prehistoric fish. Hinkle is developing environmental DNA tools that are used to analyze sediments from the water column in which sturgeon are present.  This is used in place of traditional sampling efforts such as gill netting.  DNA is commonly associated with suspended sediments so Hinkle filters the sediments out of the samples and extracts the DNA from the filters for testing.

“If we could get these methods to work we could save time, money, and risk and injury to the sturgeon,” Hinkle said.

Upstream, Daniel J. McGarvey, Ph.D., is studying 71 species of fish in West Virginia waterways. The VCU Center for Environmental Studies assistant professor presented findings from his graduate-level conservation biogeography class, which is tracking the combined threats of climate change and mountaintop removal mining on West Virginia fishes.

“Mountaintop removal mining is covering a very large chunk of the real estate in southern West Virginia,” McGarvey said. According to research from his class, a significant portion of fish species will have habitat quality decreases due to climate change in the upcoming years. As the fish swim upstream to escape the effects of climate change, they’ll be coming dangerously close to mountaintop removal mining sites, where the water will be uninhabitable due to coal mining byproducts. 

Looking up – literally – Bryan D. Watts, Ph.D., presented on the progress he has made protecting shorebirds that stage in the mid-Atlantic.

Every spring the director of the Center for Conservation Biology, a unit within the VCU Rice Rivers Center, flies a small Cessna aircraft weekly along the outer edge of the East Coast barrier islands to count shorebirds.

“We fly low, get the shorebirds up, identify them and estimate numbers,” Watts said.

The data he collected on whimbrels showed that the birds’ population was declining by more than 4 percent annually in recent years. “This matches up fairly well with some surveys in North and South America which shows a similar decline rate,” Watts said.

In order to uncover the reason for the birds’ declining population, Watts and his research team outfitted 35 birds with solar-powered satellite transmitter harnesses. The harnesses allowed the researchers to track the birds anywhere on the planet. 

Aided by the harnesses, the researchers discovered that whimbrels were being hunted in large numbers in the West Indies. “We think that is one of the primary reasons that the population is currently in decline,” Watts said. Now, Watts and his research team are working with policymakers for the 60 independent jurisdictions throughout the Western hemisphere where the birds fly to change hunting laws.

“We are having some success,” Watts said, adding that Guyana changed their hunting policy within the past month.

Closer to home, integrative life sciences Ph.D. student Benjamin Colteaux is studying whether the commercial snapping turtle harvest in Virginia is sustainable. Colteaux is working with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to assess the sustainability of snapping turtles under increasing commercial harvest pressure within Virginia waterways.

“The United States snapping turtle export has gone through the roof,” said Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries herpetologist John D. Kleopfer, who presented Colteaux’s findings along with historical background. In the past decade, the commercial snapping turtle harvest in Virginia has increased 12-fold, mostly due to shipment to the Asian food market.

“We have a lot of folks around the country that are waiting for our results,” Kleopfer said. “This is the first project that has investigated this type of harvest in an open water coastal plain system.” 

We as scientists can guide conservation. The problem is we can’t deliver it.

Throughout the day-long event it became obvious that the research conducted through the Rice Rivers Center, which has included more than $130,000 in funding for more than 100 students, extends far beyond the boundaries of the center’s Charles City County property limits. 

“We as scientists can guide conservation. The problem is we can’t deliver it,” Watts said, echoing the sentiments of presenters throughout the day. “We have to have people along the way who buy into our message. They’re the ones who can actually deliver it in the long run. Without people in these different places, we can’t collectively protect these species. We’re seeing the rapid emergence of an eco-sociology. That is really the end-game of conservation.”


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