Riverkeeper Report: Riverkeeper helps Virginia Tech researchers

Published 1:24 pm Saturday, August 25, 2012

Whew, it’s been a rough summer for the Riverkeeper.

The extra hot weather and a couple of surgeries (one melanoma) and some other medical issues have really put me down. But I’m getting better, and it’s not like I have not been out at all.

I recently took Rebecca Kidd, a Virginia Tech doctoral graduate research assistant, and Matt Johnson, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fisheries from Virginia Tech, on the Blackwater to do some interesting research.

Johnson is starting his doctoral degree this fall. It will focus on non-lethal effects of contaminants on freshwater mussels, unionid (Unionidae is a family of freshwater mussels) distribution, life history and habitat distribution.

We were after his other research, which examines the relationships between the growth patterns of trees and mussels along coastal rivers and identifying climatic patterns across the southeastern United States based on these relationships.

I thought that sounded pretty darn interesting so I agreed to guide them in this research.

According to Kidd, freshwater mussels are highly susceptible to anthropogenic impacts due to their habitat and feeding requirements in temperature and human influenced freshwater ecosystems. As a result, trade-offs in energy allocated to survival, reproduction and growth occur, which leads to variation in the annual growth rates.

Thus, growth rates can reflect behavioral and metabolic activity levels of mussels in response to environmental stressors. Freshwater mussel growth patterns can therefore serve as an indicator of the impacts of terrestrial disturbances associated with global climate and land-use changes on aquatic ecosystems and can further provide valuable information, which can be used in freshwater mussel conservation efforts.

The objectives of this project are to identify existing correlations between shell growth and water quality and hydrological variables, examine the relationships between mussel growth patterns and land-use activities (i.e., paper mill operation, agriculture), and determine the influences of terrestrial land uses (i.e., paper mill operation, agriculture) on freshwater mussel growth by comparing growth chronologies (developed growth patterns over time) from impacted and control reaches in the Blackwater River and in the Nottoway River.

Twenty-five living Elliptio complanata (mussels) (Lightfoot, 1786) were collected in August from four different river reaches; three on the Blackwater and one on the Nottoway. Internal annual growth rings will be identified and annual growth increments measured in the laboratory using techniques similar to those used in dendrochronological (tree-ring dating) analyses. This project will yield information which could be used to provide a better understanding of the influences of anthropogenic activities on global freshwater mussel declines.

Hey, anytime I can help people do this kind of research, count me in! So yep, I’m still out there getting some things done. It’s just now I (and be sure you do) go lathered up in sun block on the two rivers we call the Blackwater and Nottoway.

JEFF TURNER is riverkeeper for the Blackwater/Nottoway Riverkeeper Program, an environmentally conscious organization that focuses on keeping local waterways healthy. BNRP’s parent organization is The Waterkeeper Alliance. Contact Turner at his website, www.blackwaternottoway.com.