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News and events

News & events

A person stands on the dock talking to a group of people in kayaks in the water

Traversing the James River to learn about its biodiversity and history

June 16, 2022

(Sarah Gordon teaches about microplastics in rivers to VCU students participating in Footprints on the James, a five-week experiential course to learn about the biodiversity and history of the James River. Photo: Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

By Brian McNeill

A dozen Virginia Commonwealth University students and one Reynolds Community College student have just returned from a quick canoe trip at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Their assignment: Paddle out from the dock and observe any litter, estimate its age and record its location.

“What did you all see out there?” asked instructor Sarah Gordon.

“Plastic. Glass and plastic,” said one student. Another held up a Blow Pop wrapper she’d scooped out of the water, along with a plastic bottle she found that had a plant growing out of it.

“That’s great,” Gordon said. “The experiment we’re doing today is asking: Are there microplastics in the water here? Why or why not? And how would you test that?”

Over the next couple of hours, Gordon, who teaches at Colorado Mountain College, led the students through the process of collecting samples from the water, and then using microscopes to detect any microplastics that might be present.

Read the entire VCU News story, "Traversing the James River to learn about its biodiversity and history."

Six people stand around a table inside

Richmond Times-Dispatch highlight Rep. McEachin and Chair Mallory visit to Rice Rivers Center

June 3, 2022

U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory visit to the Rice River Center is highlighted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Read the story, "Inside VCU's efforts to study air quality, wildlife and waterways."

A person wearing a mask stands across a table talking to two others

Rep. McEachin and White House DEQ Chair Mallory visit VCU Rice Rivers Center

June 2, 2022

Image: Raquel Wetzell, a VCU master’s degree student in environmental studies, describes her mussel restoration research to U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Faculty and students from the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Biological Data Science and the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education presented their research during a visit to Rice Rivers Center from U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory.

Read the VCU News article, "Rep. McEachin and White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Mallory visit VCU Rice Rivers Center."

Cartoon figures dressed in graduation gown throwing up caps and words above say Congrats Rams!

Celebrating our 2022 Life Sciences graduates

May 23, 2022

(Illustration by Olivia Libbey, University Relations Intern and VCUarts senior.)

Congratulations to all of our new spring 2022 Life Sciences alumni!

Center for Environmental Studies

Masters of Science in Environmental Studies
Sarah Fones
Maxcy Hill
Julia Josephs
Erik Kaseloo
John Mcintosh
Paige Punzalan

Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies
Ethan Baker
Erica Banks
Dylan Curtis
Sonia Deshmukh
Sensairanay Duty-Stone
Owen Ehret
Garrett Every
Sam Haeussler
Silas Hensley
Penelope Huhmann
Parris Hunt
Shaquan Jackson
Sky Kincaid
Jaquille Kirkland
Madison Kolda
Sara Little
Jordan McCormack
Sarah Mendoun
Kathryn Montemayor
Jeremiah Moore
Nikola Novak
Katherine Nowak
Jamie Panzino
James Powell
Daniel Rafferty
Benjamin Rivelis
Felecia Rogers
Tianna Rogers
Emily Roots
Josephine Sara
Willie Schwartz
Tatiana Sera
Dylan Slusarz
Meaghan Thacker
Scott Turner
Reyna Vazquez-Miller
Forrest Veit
Logan Webster


Center for Biological Data Science

Master of Science in Bioinformatics
Ahmed AlQaffas
Muskan Bansal
Quinn Barrow
Shelby Bennett
Molly Creighton - Outstanding Graduate - Leadership
Tyler Hohenstein
Maggie Marshall - Outstanding Graduate
Nathaniel Smith 

Bachelor of Science in Bioinformatics
Rishitha Anumola - Outstanding Undergraduate
Kimberly Arambula
Saad Bhatti
Kathleen Choi
Mallika Datta
Ayomide Fakulujo
Sophia Fehrmann
Zainab Haider
Sumaiya Hanif
Sameem Jaghori
Brendan Jamieson
Shilpa Jasti
Bhavya Jetty
Raveena Joshi
Sukhleen Kaur
Alice Lin
Michael Martis
Suha Minai
Shahad Musa
Tharun Nandakumar
Srinidhi Nemani
Rowan O’Hara
Yuktha Penumala
Shweta Perumal
Huzaifa Safeer
Hiba Saleem
Amandeep Sandhu
Reid Spalding
Kirthana Srinivasan
James Vithoulkas


Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education (Ph.D. program)

Joseph Morina (Advisor: Rima Franklin)
Niels Asmussen (Advisor: Barbara Boyan)

A man checking out some local mussels in the Flint River, GA.

The Emerge program focus of VPM's Science Matters

May 11, 2022

Photo: Checking out some local mussels in the Flint River, GA. Credit: Jeremy Monroe (Freshwaters Illustrated). Featured (left-to-right): Denzell Cross; Ayi Ajavon.

Daniel McGarvey, Ph.D, associate professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, is the co-lead in the presentation, “Emerge: Broadening Participation and Leadership in Freshwater Science.” The presentation looks at developing sustained peer-peer and peer-mentor relationships to help recruit and retain underrepresented minority individuals as they pursue careers in the freshwater sciences. McGarvey worked with colleagues from the University of Georgia, UC Berkeley, and Georgia Southern University Foundation.  

VPM takes a look at the The Emerge program and its focus on access, inclusion and equity.  Read more about it at their Science Matters website.

The Emerge program will be part of the 2022 STEM for All Video Showcase, held online May 10 - 17th, and was funded by the National Science Foundation



Students from Chris Gough and Stephen Fong's class show off the finished product of one of their projects with the Science Museum of Virginia, a spiral garden with sun-loving plants at the top and shade-loving plants at the bottom.

Building a sustainable urban park – from the ground up

May 10, 2022

(Students from Chris Gough and Stephen Fong's class show off the finished product of one of their projects with the Science Museum of Virginia, a spiral garden with sun-loving plants at the top and shade-loving plants at the bottom. Their design can be seen on the ProtoPath, a pedestrian path connecting Leigh Street to Terminal Place along the west side of the Science Museum. Photo courtesy of Chris Gough)

A course led by Stephen Fong, Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrative Life Sciences and professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, is the subject of the VCU News story, "Building a sustainable urban park – from the ground up."

Elena Meyer

Ph.D. candidate Elena Meyer selected as 2022 COVES Policy Fellow

May 9, 2022

Elena Meyer, candidate in the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. program, has been named a 2022 Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science (COVES) Policy Fellow.  Once she is assigned to a Host Office, the fellowship will begin on May 25, 2022 and conclude on August 12, 2022.  Elena works in the Eckert lab, located in VCU Department of Biology. Her research interests include plant reproductive biology, the evolution and stability of mixed/selfing mating systems, and the implications of anthropogenic global change on evolutionary dynamics.


Two students rock climb

Outdoor Leadership Certificate program celebrates its first graduate

May 11, 2022

(Photo courtesy of Outdoor Adventure Program)

By Joan Tupponce, VCU News

Gillian Fitzgerald has always liked the outdoors and been passionate about education. A senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, Fitzgerald is a student worker for the university’s Outdoor Adventure Program. This month, she becomes the first graduate of VCU’s Outdoor Leadership Certificate program.

“I never knew you could do both at the same time before coming to VCU,” said Fitzgerald, who is majoring in English and minoring in environmental studies. “I hope to continue to grow as an outdoor educator through both recreational guiding and youth mentorship in an outdoor setting.”

The Outdoor Leadership Certificate is the result of years of collaboration between VCU's Outdoor Adventure Program and the Center for Environmental Studies. The Outdoor Leadership Certificate was officially approved and launched in Fall 2021.

Read the rest of the VCU News Article, "Outdoor Leadership Certificate program celebrates its first graduate."

An Atlantic sturgeon

2,000th tagged sturgeon focus of Chesapeake Bay Magazine article

May 11, 2022

The sturgeon, named VCU2000, was tagged in the James River by Dr. Matt Balazik and is the focus a Chesapeake Bay Magazine article.

Read the entire story, "Sturgeon Science Milestone: 2,000th fish tagged."

Five kayakers on the water

Rice Rivers Center part of VPM Science Matters story

May 6, 2022

(Photo: James River Association)

Read more about Rice Rivers Center's part of of this professional development initiative for local teachers in the VPM article, "Virginia students spread awareness about protecting the James River."



Dr. John Jones

John Jones, Ph.D., part of NBC-12 story on food insecurities

May 2, 2022

Dr. John Jones, assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, is interviewed by the Capital News Service about his work addressing food insecurity on VCU's Monroe Park and Health campuses.

Read the story on NBC-12, "Community members, legislators, academics work to eliminate food insecurity."

An Atlantic sturgeon

VCU researchers tag 2,000th Atlantic sturgeon in the James River

May 5, 2022

(The 2000th sturgeon was caught, tagged and released near Westover Plantation in Charles City County, a few miles downstream from the Rice Rivers Center. Photo courtesy of Dr. Matt Balazik)

By Brian McNeill 

Researchers at VCU Rice Rivers Center have tagged their 2,000th Atlantic sturgeon, marking a milestone in the center’s effort to study and support the restoration of the federally endangered fish species that can grow up to 14 feet in length, weigh 800 pounds and live as long as 60 years.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d get to 2,000 in my time at VCU,” said Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., research assistant professor at VCU Rice Rivers Center, a field station that is part of VCU Life Sciences and devoted to environmental research, teaching and public service. “It took us 11 years to get to 1,000 and then only three years to get to 2,000. It’s a sign that the fish are likely more numerous.”

Read the full VCU News story, "VCU researchers tag 2,000th Atlantic sturgeon in the James River."

Atlantic sturgeon, Credit: Ryan Hagerty/US Fish and Wildlife Service

Matt Balazik, Ph.D., updates Virginia Mercury on sturgeon travel distances

May 3, 2022

(Photo credit: Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)


Matt Balazik, Ph.D., talks to the Virginia Mercury about the data he collected during sturgeon spawning runs in the James River.  Dr. Balazik heads the Virginia Sturgeon Restoration Team at VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Read the Virginia Mercury article, "Some Virginia sturgeon traveled over 500 miles last year."


Nelson Gustin of Winchester, Va. (left) and Randy Parker of Louisa, Va. ride the Virginia Capital Trail just east of downtown Richmond. Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing.

Can you go the distance like a James River sturgeon?

May 2, 2022

(Nelson Gustin of Winchester, Va. (left) and Randy Parker of Louisa, Va. ride the Virginia Capital Trail just east of downtown Richmond. Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing.)

By Brian McNeill

Each spring and fall, adult Atlantic sturgeon leave the ocean and return to spawn in the waters of the James River. According to data gathered in 2021 by researchers at the VCU Rice River Center, individual sturgeon last year traveled estimated distances in the river as short as 212 kilometers and as long as 841 kilometers.

This spring, the VCU Rice Rivers Center is challenging the community to see if they can match the sturgeons’ pace.

Read the entire VCU News article, "Can you go the distance like a James River sturgeon?"

Daniel Bustamante

CILSE doctoral candidate awarded NIH/NIDA grant

April 20, 2022

Daniel Bustamante, a Ph.D. candidate in VCU Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program with a concentration on Behavioral & Statistical Genetics, was awarded a National Institute of Health/National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH/NIDA) F31 grant.  

Bustamante is the Principle Investigator studying the risk for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse disorder (SUD) as a result of traumatic experiences during childhood and early adolescence. The project, titled “Longitudinal neuroimaging and statistical genetics modeling of substance use and trauma-related phenotypes,” will study how genetic, neurodevelopmental and environmental factors contribute to an increased risk for adolescents to present with these disorders, and how other risk factors, such as personality traits, come into play.   

The grant will allow Bustamante to continue to fully dedicate his time in a training fellowship under then mentorship of Michael C. Neale, Ph.D. and Ananda Amstadter, Ph.D. professor and associate professor, respectively, of psychiatry and human molecular genetics at VCU School of Medicine, and at VCU Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics (VIPBG).

 “The F31 award will allow me to continue to fully focus on research, as I have been doing under VIPBG’s NIH/National Institute of Mental Health T32 training grant for the last two years. The F31 mechanism offers new avenues of training since it carries more administrative responsibilities to the fellows, states Bustamante. “Overall, the F31 it is important to me, because it will help me to i) continue researching in neuroimaging and advanced genetic modeling for the completion of my dissertation research, and ii) pursuing my long-term career goal of becoming an independent and federally-funded multidisciplinary researcher.  And finally, it is important due to the opportunity of keep researching and collaborating with other researchers to the development of these fields, and potentially increase the benefits for the society from the study results.”

Sky Kincaid and Dylan Stephens on stage

CES students win first place at GeoCon

April 19, 2022

Congratulations to Center for Environmental Studies undergraduates Sky Kincaid and Dylan Stephens for winning First Place in the 2022 Virginia Association for Mapping and Land Information Systems (VAMLIS) GeoCon Student Web App category for their Story Map, entitled, From Redlines to Greenways.

When asked about the experience, Sky stated,”It was a great project and a great learning experience! I’m glad it was received well! ” Dylan added, “Creating this Story Map was a wonderful opportunity to connect with Richmond’s history and to take a look at the ways our community can work together to create verdant accessible spaces in the future.

VCU CES GIS instructor and student mentor Jennifer Ciminelli, commented, “Sky and Dylan created a beautiful, and compelling Story Map to tell the story of their semester-long research on the role of urban trees in our environment, and the impact we can have in bettering our community.

Another CES professor, Dr. Cathy Viverette, who worked closely with Sky and Dylan reflected, “Dylan and Sky, and the rest of their team, were a pleasure to work with whether we were in the field collecting data, post-processing data, or conducting analyses and developing final project deliverables.  Always fun to work with dedicated, enthusiastic colleagues.”

This accomplishment reflects the strong qualitative and spatial analysis training and close faculty advising students in the Environmental Studies program receive. Well done everyone involved – students and mentors!

Lexi Howard, on left, holds award next to unidentified woman in the middle, and an unidentified man on the right

CES student receives John W. Tolbert Jr. Environmental Achievement Award

April 12, 2022

VCU Center for Environmental Studies undergraduate Lexi Howard has been awarded the 2021 John W. Tolbert Jr. Environmental Achievement Award. The Tolbert award recognizes those that conduct or participate in activities that benefit the environment of Leesburg, Virginia. Lexi launched a website, which provides a brief overview of pollinators, native plants, and how others can get involved. It is her goal to save and restore native plant populations, which will help pollinator populations as well. You can read more in the official press release. Congratulations, Lexi!

Gerron Scott headshot

CES advisor Gerron Scott recipient of Black History in the Making award

April 11, 2022

Gerron Scott, senior academic advisor in the Center for Environmental Studies, is the recipient of VCU's Black History in the Making Award, and was honored at a cermony on April 5, 2022.

Read the article, "Two SOE student receive Black History in the Making Awards."



RVA Environmental Film Festival logo

VCU students place in 2022 Environmental Film Festival

April 6, 2022

Two VCU student films won second prize and best call to action in the 2022 RVA Environmental Film Festival (EFF) Contest.

 “Breathing Life Back into Richmond,” by Jacqueline Stephens garnered second place, while Nick Garnhart’s “Canaries in the Coal Mine” took home the call to action award.

Stephens and Garnhart were both students the fall 2021 Life Sciences class, Conservation Filmmaking. The senior and graduate-level class was taught by VCU Rice Rivers Center faculty Ron Lopez, a VCU Center for Environmental Studies alumnus (M.S.'17/LS). Lopez is also a multi-award winning filmmaker, who is a former RVA EFF grand prizewinner. 

"Breathing Life Back into Richmond"


"Canaries in the Coal Mine"


Sea Lion pup lying on back with eyes closed

Michael Rosenberg, Ph.D. co-author of paper published in Nature Communications

March 23, 2022


Michael Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of the Center for Biological Data Science, is the co-author of a recently published paper in Nature Communications. Titled, “Geographically dispersed zoonotic tuberculosis in pre-contact South American human populations,” the authors expand on previous published research which found that humans along the Peruvian coastline were infected with tuberculosis-causing bacteria similar to that found in seals and sea lions. In this new paper, the authors use ancient DNA technology to examine tuberculosis in skeletal remains from Peru and Columbia who are buried far away from the coast. In all cases, the bacteria found in the skeletal evidence were similar to that found in seals and sea lions. Because of their distance from the sea, these individuals are unlikely to have had direct contact with the mammals, suggesting this may have been the dominant strain throughout South America, requiring human-to-human or other animal-mediated transmission of this disease.

As we are currently experiencing with the Delta and Omicron variants of COVID-19, novel variants of an illness that begin in one part of the world can rapidly spread and overtake existing variants, leading to additional surges in infection.


Previous ancient DNA research has shown that Mycobacterium pinnipedii, which today causes tuberculosis (TB) primarily in pinnipeds, infected human populations living in the coastal areas of Peru prior to European colonization. Skeletal evidence indicates the presence of TB in several pre-colonial South and North American populations with minimal access to marine resources— a scenario incompatible with TB transmission directly from infected pinnipeds or their tissues. In this study, we investigate the causative agent of TB in ten pre-colonial, non-coastal individuals from South America. We reconstruct M. pinnipedii genomes (10- to 15-fold mean coverage) from three contemporaneous individuals from inland Peru and Colombia, demonstrating the widespread dissemination of M. pinnipedii beyond the coast, either through human-to-human and/or animal-mediated routes. Overall, our study suggests that TB transmission in the pre-colonial era Americas involved a more complex transmission pathway than simple pinniped-to-human transfer.


Read more about the research in a “Behind the Paper” blog, From seals to humans and beyond: Tuberculosis in ancient South America.




VCU assistant professor William Shuart uses multirotor and fixed-wing drones to teach students the benefits and limitations of each aircraft and the system that drives them.

Drone and GIS classes subject of Ersi article.

March 22, 2022

(Photo: VCU assistant professor William Shuart uses multirotor and fixed-wing drones to teach students the benefits and limitations of each aircraft and the system that drives them.) 

Rice Rivers Center's William Shuart explains in a recent article from Ersi, how GIS Drone Technology is being taught at VCU.

Read the article, "Students Get Real with GIS and Drone Technology"

A yellow Little Ram Pantry box is being open by a person

Little Ram Pantries project expands, including to the MCV Campus

March 22, 2022

(Launched last fall the Little Ram Pantries provide free food and toiletries to help address food insecurity among students. An additional six pantries have been installed this semester, including in Larrick Student Center on the MCV Campus. Photo by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.)

Little Ram Pantries continue to be added around VCU's Monroe Park and MCV campuses. John C. Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, began this project last year to mitigate food insecurity for VCU students.

Read the VCU news article, "Little Ram Pantries project expands, including to the MCV Campus."

A tagnelogram (visual representation of host-parasite associations through a tangled tree).  The trees represent the relationships of host species (left) and parasite species (right).

Center for Biological Data Science faculty, Bret Boyd, Ph.D., lead author on paper

March 9, 2022

Picture: A tagnelogram (visual representation of host-parasite associations through a tangled tree).  The trees represent the relationships of host species (left) and parasite species (right).  They are connected by their associations, bars in the middle.  The connecting bars are color-coded by geographic region. The discontinuity and geographic distributions were critical to evaluating the hypothesis.


A paper submitted by Bret Boyd, Ph.D., has been accepted into the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Proceedings B is the Royal Society's flagship biological research journal with a long history of publishing influential scientific articles and papers.

Titled, “Long-distance dispersal of pigeons and doves generated new ecological opportunities for host-switching and adaptive radiation by their parasites,” the article describes a study examining the impact of host dispersal on parasite diversification.  Preliminary evidence suggested to the researchers that doves and pigeons began to diversify approximately 50 million years ago, but their parasitic “wing” lice began to diversify only 25 million years ago, with many species appearing just 15 million years ago.  In this study, the researchers sought to understand the cause of this sudden diversification by the dove’s parasites, which occurred well after dove diversification.  By examining the evolutionary histories of dove species, they found evidence that doves began to move between continents at approximately the same time that their parasites began to diversify.  From this, the researchers proposed that long-distance movement by doves provided parasites with an opportunity to encounter new host species.  Once on a new host, the parasites likely began to adapt to life on that new host, leading to the appearance of new parasite species.  Therefore, it appears that long-distance dispersal provided an opportunity for parasites to switch between host species, resulting in new parasite lineages are still with us millions of year latter.  The results shed light on the long-term impacts of intercontinental dispersal on parasite diversity.

To complete this study the researchers first sequenced the genomes of 61 species of doves and pigeons and their parasitic wing lice.  By examining changes to DNA at more than 12.7 million different sites within the organisms' genomes, the researchers could infer patterns of host and parasite diversification, which was critical to estimating when new host and parasite lineages first appeared.  This was a massive undertaking that required a team of talented and dedicated scientists.  Without the collaboration of scientists working around the world, this project would not have been possible.

The researchers working on this project were support the National Science Foundation, US National Institutes of Health, Swiss National Science Foundation, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Read the article: “Long-distance dispersal of pigeons and doves generated new ecological opportunities for host-switching and adaptive radiation by their parasites."

The abstract:

Adaptive radiation is an important mechanism of organismal diversification and can be triggered by new ecological opportunities. Although poorly studied in this regard, parasites are an ideal group in which to study adaptive radiations because of their close associations with host species. Both experimental and comparative studies suggest that the ectoparasitic wing lice of pigeons and doves have adaptively radiated, leading to differences in body size and overall coloration. Here, we show that long-distance dispersal by dove hosts was central to parasite diversification because it provided new ecological opportunities for parasites to speciate after host-switching. We further show that among extant parasite lineages host-switching decreased over time, with cospeciation becoming the more dominant mode of parasite speciation. Taken together, our results suggest that host dispersal, followed by host-switching, provided novel ecological opportunities that facilitated adaptive radiation by parasites.



Students are in three canoes in the water under a bridge

Outdoor Leadership Certificate focus of Blue Ridge Outdoors article

March 1, 2022


The Outdoor Leadership Certificate launched last fall from VCU Center for Enviromental Studies is the focus of an article in Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Read the entire article, "Virginia Commonwealth University Launches New Outdoor Leadership Certificate." 



Congratulations to this year's Critical Language Scholarship semifinalists! Shraddha Harikumar, Angela Okoye, Samara Shabon, and Sumaya Smarony

VCU Life Sciences student Critical Language Scholarship semifinalist

February 16, 2022

Congratulations to VCU Life Sciences' Samara Shabon and all of this year's VCU Critical Language Scholarship semifinalists.  

Samara is a member of the Honors College, who will graduate in 2023 with dual degrees in bioinformatics from the Center for Biological Data Science and philosophy from the College of Humanities and Sciences, applied to study Urdu.

Learn more about VCU's 2022 Critical Language Scholarship Semifinalists.

Dr. Matt Balazik in the water holding an Atlantic sturgeon

Matt Balazik, Ph.D., featured in Save the Bay magazine

February 7, 2022

Rice Rivers Center's Matt Balazik, Ph.D., who studies the population of sturgeon in the James River, appears on page 22 of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Winter Edition of Save the Bay magazine. He discussess the resurgence of Atlantic sturgeon.

Read the entire article, "Comback Kids."

Greg Garman, Ph.D.

Greg Garman, Ph.D. quoted in the Bay Journal

February 3, 2022

The subject of how beavers contribute to the health of the Bay is the focus of an article in the Bay Journal, which includes a quote by Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman.

Read the article, "Can beavers help build a better Chesapeake Bay?"



Dr. John Jones

Dr. John Jones quoted in Richmond Magazine article

January 26, 2022

John Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor of urban food systems at the Center for Environmental Studies, provides an expert quote as part of a Richmond Magazine article. Dr. Jones launched Little Ram Pantries on VCU's Monroe Park campus to help address and gather data about food insecurites among students. The Little Ram Pantries are the subject of last fall's VCU News article, "Little Ram Pantries will provide emergency food assistance to VCU students."

Read the article Richmond Magazine article, "Good Scraps."




Gerron Scott standing on city street with buildings in the background

Welcome and Congratulations to Gerron Scott!

January 25, 2022

Congratulations and welcome to Gerron Scott, our new ENVS Senior Advisor in Environmental Studies!

New Award!

The National Academic Advising Association Mid-Atlantic (NACADA) Region 2 just announced that Gerron has been selected for the Region 2 Excellence in Advising – Advisor Primary Role Award! He will be recognized at the upcoming NACADA Region 2 Conference!

The NACADA Excellence in Advising – Advisor Primary Role Award recognizes individuals whose primary role at the institution is the direct delivery of advising services to students. The Selection Committee evaluates applications/nominations on the evidence of qualities and practices that distinguish the nominee as an outstanding academic advisor. Such evidence may include, but is not limited to: Interpersonal/human relations skills, professional practices, documented success, and documented advisor development.

The award comes with a professional development stipend, complimentary early registration to the upcoming Region Conference, and a complimentary one-year NACADA general membership.

Background in Advising Excellence

We are very excited about the skills and experience Gerron brings to our program. Gerron has an advanced degree in Counseling, a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and is pursuing a PhD in Educational Leadership. He has four years of experience as an academic advisor at VCU in an allied field, Biology. His excellence in advising was recognized university-wide just this year with the VCU University Academic Advising Board’s “Outstanding Advisor Award” in 2021.

Gerron brings considerable experience working across the campus. He has served as the VCU University Academic Advising Board Vice Chair (2019-21) and Annual Conference Chair (2019 – 20). This leadership within the larger VCU advising community means Gerron can communicate our needs broadly and bring trends across the university advising community to ENVS.

Gerron’s leadership within VCU and nationally in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is also outstanding. He was awarded the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences “Leadership in Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Staff and Adminsitor Award ” in 2020. He is also the Region 2 Chair for the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Diversity, Inclusion, & Engagement Committee – the first person to lead this committee. These strengths align with ENVS and VCU objectives to promote DEI.

Needless to say, we are super excited to have Gerron join our team and continue the ENVS tradition of offering award winning excellence in undergraduate advising!

Gerron Scott headshot

Gerron Scott named new Center for Environmental Studies Advisor

January 18, 2022

It is with great pleasure that the Center for Environmental Studies welcomes Mr. Gerron Scott as the Senior Academic Advisor in the Center for Environmental Studies. Mr. Scott has his Bachelors of Science in Biology, a Master of Education in Counseling (both from the University of West Georgia), and is currently working on his Ph.D. here through the School of Education focusing on Educational Leadership. He has four years of academic advising experience here at VCU in an allied field, Biology. In 2020, he was awarded the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences Leadership in Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Staff and Adminsitor Award and in 2021 received the VCU University Academic Advising Board’s Outstanding Advisor Award for 2021. Gerron’s experience outside of Biology is also considerable. He has served as both the VCU University Academic Advising Board Annual Conference Chair in 2019-2020, is currently serving as the Advising Board Vice-Chair, and is also the Region 2 Chair for the National Academic Advising Association’s Diversity, Inclusion, & Engagement Committee.

We are very excited to have Gerron on board and look forward to how his expertise may improve the advising experiences for students in programs associated with Environmental Studies.

Lynn Crump, the coordinator for the Virginia Scenic River Program, talks to the class about considerations for designating scenic rivers in the field

VCU Center for Environmental Studies Students will partake in research for Virginia’s Scenic Rivers

January 20, 2022

(Lynn Crump, the coordinator for the Virginia Scenic River Program, talks to the class about considerations for designating scenic rivers in the field. Photo: James Vonesh)

The Commonwealth Times contributing writer Mae Oetjens takes a look the the Center for Environmental Studies participation in Virginia's Scenic River Program.

Read the article, "VCU Center for Environmental Studies Students will partake in research for Virginia’s Scenic Rivers" 

VCU students paddle alongside a Terrain360 boat that generated a panoramic virtual tour of an 11-mile stretch of the Middle James River studied by the students.

VCU students to assess rivers on behalf of Virginia’s Scenic Rivers Program

January 10, 2022

(VCU students paddle alongside a Terrain360 boat that generated a panoramic virtual tour of an 11-mile stretch of the Middle James River studied by the students. Photo courtesy of James Vonesh)

By Brian McNeill, VCU News

In 2020, students in the Virginia Commonwealth University course Scenic Resource and Policy Assessment conducted a field assessment of a roughly 11-mile section of the middle James River between New Canton to Columbia running through the Virginia counties of Buckingham, Fluvanna, Cumberland and Goochland.

The class studied that stretch of the river’s landscape, historic features, vegetation, water quality, fish and wildlife — including identification of endangered or threatened fish and bird species — public recreational access and a variety of other measures.

Their goal was to make a formal recommendation to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation about whether that section of the James should be added to the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program, which aims to identify, designate and help protect rivers and streams in Virginia that possess outstanding scenic, recreational, historic and natural characteristics of statewide significance for future generations.


Read the entire story, "VCU students to assess rivers on behalf of Virginia’s Scenic Rivers Program"

Dr. Greg Garman introduces Governor Northam in front of a crowd at Rice Rivers Center

Rice Rivers Center hosts Governor Northam's announcement for Chesapeake Bay funding

December 16, 2021

(VCU Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman introduces Governor Northam at the Walter L. Rice Education Building. Photo courtesy: Office of Virginia Governor Ralph S. Northam)

VCU Rice Rivers Center was proud to host Governor Ralph S. Northam as he announced adding $1 Billion in his two-year budget proposal dedicated to restore the Chesapeake Bay and the state’s tidal tributaries.

Research done at Rice Rivers Center supports innovative instruction and relevant research across the Environmental Sciences. A significant part of our mission is focused on conservation and management of the Commonwealth's critical freshwater resources.

For over 20 years, Center faculty, staff, and students have worked closely with agencies of the Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources, as well as NGOs and federal partners, to provide the best science in support of sound environmental policies and practices.

In addition to studies of water resources across the Commonwealth, the Center's applied research programs restore tidal wetlands, build new oyster reefs, and identify ecologically healthy streams for protection. All of these initiatives help to advance the Governor's water quality goals for Virginia.

Press Release: Governor Northam Announces $1 Billion for the Chesapeake Bay




Congrats Grads!

Congratulations to our newest Life Sciences Alumni

December 15, 2021

Life Sciences undergraduate and graduates students were celebrated for their accomplishments.


Masters of Science in Environmental Studies

Timothy Owen - Assessing Land-Use Change on Fish Assemblage Dynamics and Distribution.
Dr. Stephen McIninch, Advisor

Masters of Science in Environmental Studies

David Sale

Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies

Katie Annette Belic
Katelyn Ruth Carper
Emma Lauren Christoffersen
Jason R. Conrad
Sensairanay Duty-Stone
Sophia Camille Edwards
Gabriel Patrick Glover
Miles C. Hairston
Amanda Mae Haywald
Kate Rose Jackson
Caitlin Angela Kelly
Aerin Jacqueline Kirk
Rachel Elizabeth Kline
Grace Christine Lumsden-Cook
Brian P. Marx
Rebekah Rachel Muniz
Madison Louise Nuzzi
Caroline Schar Nyfeler
Margaret Anne Pascoe
Thomas Riedl
Joshua B. Sementelli
Sydney Mackenzie Swanson
Melody Ann Yu

Certificate in Sustainable Innovation

Sensairanay Duty-Stone
Jenalee Brooke Orenduff



Bachelor of Science

Muskan Bansal
Kraig Cole
Farah Kandil
Lawangin Khan
Virgin Kincaid
Evan Korade
Shreya Muscu
Stephanie Osei
Rishma Singh

Master of Science

David Kuforiji



Carolyn Lewis

VCU assistant professor William Shuart uses mutirotor and fixed-wing drones to teach the students the benefits and limitations of each aircraft and the system that drives them.

Will Shuart's use of GIS and drone technology the focus of Ersi article

November 30, 2021

(Photo: VCU assistant professor Will Shuart uses mutirotor and fixed-wing drones to teach the students the benefits and limitations of each aircraft and the system that drives them.)

The beautiful drone videos and photos that frequent our social media sites are created by our own Will Shuart. Will's work, and how he prepares students for growing and popular career tracks in GIS and drone technology, is highlighted in the recent arctile on the Esri website.  

University Students Gain Valuable Workplace Skills with Drone Education and GIS Courses

Rockfish River surrounded by trees in fall

Dr. Dan McGarvey and Virginia Scenic Rivers Program profiled by Virginia DCR

November 23, 2021

(Photo: The Rockfish River, a designated state scenic river since 1990. Photo courtesy Nelson County.)  


How does a river’s eye-pleasing beauty benefit the organisms that make it their home?

Graduate students at Virginia Commonwealth University dove into data to answer this question, using the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program at Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as a case study.

Led by Dr. Dan McGarvey of VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, they built species distribution models to assess whether Virginia scenic rivers provide fish with higher quality habitat than statewide rivers at-large.

“At the end of the day, the study indicates the scenic river designation is not only good for people but also good for fish,” said Olivia Latham, a study co-author.“Scenic rivers are not just nice for humans to look at. Expanding the designation to other viable fish habitats can have positive benefits for those habitats.”

Results of the two-year study have been published in “Biological Conservation”.

Read more at the Virginia DCR site, "Scenic rivers: more than just pretty places."

Adele Balmer headshot

Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education Ph.D. candidate named COVES Policy Fellow

November 10, 2021

Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education (CILSE) Ph.D. candidate Adele Balmer hasn’t let a pandemic get in the way of combining her passion of science and government.  In 2021, she was selected as a 2021 Commonwealth of Virginia Engineering and Science (COVES) Policy Fellow with the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine (VASEM), and recently completed a 12-week program with the goal to strengthen the relationship between sciences and the state lawmakers in Virginia. She also found time to be a finalist in VCU’s Graduate School Three Minute Thesis (3MT ®) competition last month. 

Balmer earned a BS in biology from the University of Nevada, Reno, but it wasn’t until she was a master’s student at Auburn University that she became interested in policy. Her involvement began with the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students (NAGPS), an organization that provides a platform for students to become advocates. During NAGPS Legislative Action Days, students travel to Washington D.C. to meet with congressional offices and committees.  The experience provides valuable insight into how to communicate with policymakers and learn first-hand how policies are created at the national level.

A few years after joining NAGPS, Balmer began her doctorate in the Integrative Life Science doctoral program at VCU, which also supports a NAGPS chapter. Balmer is part of the Bulluck Avian Ecology Lab and the Johnson Population Ecology Lab, under advisors Drs. Lesley Bulluck from the Center for Environmental Studies  and  Derek Johnson from the Biology Department in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. Her research investigates factors that affect the population demography of the Prothonotary Warblers with a focus on how anthropogenic climate change may affect future populations of migratory songbirds. 

Earlier this year, Balmer became a COVES fellow and started her work with the Virginia General Assembly.  Balmer says her goal was two-fold – to learn how to communicate complicated science topics to policymakers, and provide information and data to those who make policy decisions. “There are very few scientists who are also in politics,” she continues. “Policymakers depend on experts to help them make informed decisions. Effectively communicating with people who have the power to act on our work will allow our research to make a greater impact.”

Her 12-weeks began with a one-week policy boot camp to learn about how policy legislation is created in Virginia. Balmer then worked closely with the Virginia Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee staff. While working with the Health Subcommittee, she gained access to information on Medicare spending within the Commonwealth. She focused on how to improve the health of the residents who are on Medicaid by creating a mathematical model using 30 different factors to examine how they influence Medicaid expenditure.  Distance from homes to parks and access to exercise, teen pregnancy rates, smoking, and alcohol use were included as factors, and the data presented gives policymakers the ability to make decisions to improve the health of the community and lower Medicaid costs. 

When her educational journey ends at VCU, Balmer wants to continue to work on merging science and policy. “My goal after graduation is to eventually work on international climate change policy for the Department of State Office of Global Change,” says Balmer. 


Two Shark teeth - focal species from Alabama.

How did sharks respond to evolutionary changes? The teeth tell the tale.

October 27, 2021

(Teeth of focal species, both found in Alabama) 



If you have ever been on a beach in southeastern Virginia, chances are you either found a fossilized shark’s tooth or walked right by one.  Virginia beaches and shorelines are rich with fossilized pieces of history, but not all shark species who swam in our area remain here. Bret Boyd, Ph.D., assistant professor in VCU’s Center for Biological Data Science, collaborated with Jason C. Seitz from ANAMAR Environmental Consulting to follow the trail left by these fossils to learn more about the evolutionary history of sharks. In this study, the authors focused on group of small-medium sized sharks that inhabit reefs and near-shore habits, and the pelagic whale shark.

From 100–50 Million years ago, many of sharks included in the study populated the shallow seas that flowed into the Atlantic Ocean.  Fossilized teeth from this era can be found in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and as far south as Florida and as far west as Alabama. Over time, changes in climate and sea level altered the ecosystem, leaving our region inhospitable to many of these sharks.  Now, the majority of these species are found in the waters off Australia, Asia, and Africa.

In this pilot study, Boyd and Seitz wanted to find out how to use fossils to infer the evolutionary history of sharks and better understand how these sharks responded to global events over the last 100 million years. Boyd stated they gathered 347 fossil records from both local and international sources. “Due to their abundance, fossil shark teeth present a valuable opportunity to study the evolution of marine predators,” said Boyd. The data compiled resulted in their published paper, “Global shifts in species richness have shaped carpet shark evolution.” 

This is not the first time Boyd has been involved in the study of fossilized shark teeth. As a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida, he took an interest in the creeks in Gainesville, which are a treasure-trove for hunters of these fossils. These fossils where so plentiful in 2016 Boyd published the guide, “Fossil sharks and rays of Gainesville creeks Alachua County, Florida,” which is distributed by the Florida Paleontological Society and is still sold in the Florida Museum of Natural History gift shop.

The authors plan to expand their data set, test new theories, and develop additional methods of capturing information from the fossil remains of sharks.

“Humans are reshaping marine ecosystems,” explained Boyd. “By understanding how these sharks have responded to previous events, we can better predict how they will respond to future changes in climate and habitat loss.”


Photo of Rice Rivers Center Research Facility

A research gem for the river

October 19, 2021

Wondering what the inside of the VCU Rice Rivers Center Research Facility looks like? VCU News finds out in the VCU Exposure article: A research gem for the river.

The Rice Rivers Center Dedication building is seen in the background, with a white tent set up in front. In the foreground, water plants grow from a water-retention area in front of the property

The Richmond Times-Dispatch story on Rice Rivers Center new Research Facilities

October 15, 2021

(Photo courtesy Daniel Sangjib Min/Times-Disapatch)

The dedication of Rice Rivers Center's new research facility was front-page news in the October 15th Richmond Times-Dispatch. The building completes the master plan for Rice Rivers Center, which includes an education building on the banks of the James River, a pier, a wetlands research center, and an overnight lodge for on-site researchers.


Read the Richmond Times-Dispatch story by Eric Kolenich, "VCU's newest building opens in Charles City for study of James River, its ecosystem, climate change."



A Little Ram Pantry Box that made of yellow plastic with a clear lucite door stands against a wall

Dr. John Jones installs Little Ram Pantries around campus

October 11, 2021

John C. Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, leads a team to help address food insecurities on campus.

Read the VCU News article, "Little Ram Pantries will provide emergency food assistance to VCU students."

Nine finalists for the 3MT Competition stand in front of the 3MT logo on a big screen

Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education candidates place in competition finals

October 19, 2021




Congratulations to Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education Ph.D. candidates Ann Kee and Chastyn Smith as they placed in the 2021 Three Minute Thesis Competition finals.

Students presented their research in three minutes or less, with topics that included: psychedelics to treat substance use disorder, computers learning to read, and genes that make asthma worse in women.

Hosted by the VCU Graduate School at the James Branch Cabell Library, the finialists were:

First place: Josly Pierre-Louis (Improving Cancer Treatment by Targeting the Toxic Side Effects of Radiation Therapy)

Second place & People’s Choice Award: Ann Kee (One Mean Gene: How P2X3 Makes Asthma Worse in Women)

Third place: Chastyn Smith (Helping Solve "Whodunnit": Determining the Number of Contributors in a Sample Earlier in the Forensic Workflow)

VCU College of Engineering chemical and life science engineering professor Stephen S. Fong affixes a monitor on his car to measure local ozone pollution. (Daniel Wagner, VCU College of Engineering)

Dr. Stephen Fong measures air quality in Richmond

October 6, 2021

(Stephen S. Fong Ph.D. affixes a monitor on his car to measure local ozone pollution. Photo: Daniel Wagner, VCU College of Engineering)


Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education Director and VCU College of Engineering chemical and life science engineering professor Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D., is part of a multi-university heat-mapping collaboration.

Read the VCU News story, "In the hottest parts of the city, how polluted is the air?"


n the foreground, two teachers tested the river water for nitrates while SOE's Elizabeth Edmondson, Ph.D. (center), tested it for turbidity. (Courtesy photos)

Transforming student learning through watershed experiences

September 28, 2021



In the foreground, two teachers tested the river water for nitrates while SOE's Elizabeth Edmondson, Ph.D. (center), tested it for turbidity. (Courtesy photos)


The VCU School of Education, along with their partners in VCU Life Sciences, hosted its final Environmental Literacy Teacher Workshop on September 24 and 25, 2021, at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, as part of a three-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Bay Watershed and Education Training (B-WET) grant titled Bivalves as Ecosystems Sustaining Treasures (BEST) in Bay Watersheds.

Read more about this collaboration in the VCU School of Education article, Transforming student learning through watershed experiences.

Matt DiNardo, left, speaking with Fish Biologist Dr. Stephen P. McIninch, professor in  Vcu Envs

Rice Rivers Center's research on Invasive Blue Catfish highlighted on 8News

September 24, 2021

(Matt DiNardo, left, speaking with Fish Biologist Dr. Stephen P. McIninch, professor in Center for Environmental Studies. Photo by Will Shuart)

WRIC Meteorologist Matt DiNardo learns more about the Blue Catfish – an invasive species in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. VCU Rice Rivers Center has been researching how this population is exploding in size and diminishing other species in the river for the past 20 years.  Watch the 8News story below. 


Nine students with backpacks hike along a small pathway in the woods

New ENVS students take to the wilds!

September 21, 2021

The Center for Environmental Studies and the Outdoor Adventure Program (OAP) hosted a backpacking trip in the Blue Ridge for first year and transfer Environmental Studies students this past weekend. The goal of the trip was to provide new students a chance to explore natural areas, meet each other, and participate in programming focused on leadership and career development. Fourteen students participated, led by OAP student guides Lucy Bolin, Rose Brown, Kristin Dippolito, and Brenner Malo. Professors Dan Albrecht-Mallinger, who teaches our ENVS gateway courses, and James Vonesh, director of the ENVS undergraduate program, also participated in the trip.  The trip explore the Appalachian Trail between Jennings Creek and the Cornelius Creek Shelter/Blue Ridge Parkway, hiking over Floyd Mountain at > 3500 ft elevation along the Bryant Ridge and overnighting at the Bryant Ridge AT shelter.


(Students and supplies in the shelter)

Nine people stand between canoes on the banks of the water with trees in the background

Recruiting for River Studies and Leadership Certificate Program

August 30, 2021

The Center for Environmental Studies is now recruiting for the VCU – River Management Society “River Studies and Leadership Certificate“! This program can be pursued as either an undergraduate or graduate student.

If what you read below is of interest, get on our interest/mailing list, or reach out to the VCU RSLC coordinator – Prof. James Vonesh – jrvonesh@vcu.ed



Why Rivers?

Rivers play a central role in shaping landscapes and creating biologically diverse and unique ecosystems; they also form the foundation of cultures, economies, and communities.  Indeed, rivers connect us to nature, to our past, and to each other. Leaders of the future with an understanding of the fundamentals of river sciences, river-related policy and management, and river-based recreation and education will be best equipped to make sustainable decisions about future uses, studies and management of river systems around the world.  A new generation of young leaders is essential to create a brighter future for our nation’s rivers.

VCU has partnered with the River Management Society (RMS) to offer the “River Studies and Leadership Certificate” program, awarded upon completion of river-focused coursework and a river-related professional project by RMS. VCU is one of only 12 schools to offer this program nationwide.

Here are some example presentations from past RSLC students

More information on the program can be found at the River Management Society.

RMS River Studies and Leadership Certificate Facebook page.

THIS FALL SEMESTER — career development opportunities!!

To support recruitment and professional development, RMS has  partnered with the USFS, to host a virtual discussion series for current, prospective, and alumni RSLC students called Braided Channels: Opportunities for River Careers from Sept. to Dec 2021. Each discussion will touch on the RSLC program and feature interactive Q&A related to beginning a river-related career. Please see the attached flyer. Faculty and advisors are also welcome to join.

Click the following links to register for the discussions:

Also specifically for VCU

Braided Channels Sept. 16 Flyer


Lean more about RSLC at VCU

VCU River Students in the News

VCU RSLC Courses & Programs in Spotlight



Todd Janeski speaks, lower third says

VOSRP Director interviewed on Voice of America

September 17, 2021

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program Director Todd Janeski is interviewed by Voice of America. His contribution to the story begins at 16:45.



Dr. James Vonesh

Dr. James Vonesh interviewed by Voice of America

August 30, 2021

Voice of America sought an expert comment from Dr. James Vonesh, who studies conservation biology at VCU Environmental Studies, about the possible extinction of a pygmy chameleon.

Read VOA News article: Endangered Pygmy Chameleon Still Hanging On


Andrew Sackman, Ph.D.

Andrew Sackman, Ph.D., joins Center for Biological Data Science

August 2, 2021

When Andrew Sackman, Ph.D., began his collegiate educational journey, he spent many hours in the Blue Ridge Mountains, studying a microendemic species of salamander (Plethodon sherando) found only in an isolated region of Augusta County, Virginia. The Washington and Lee undergraduate then began to take an interest in population genetics and “fell into it,” said Dr. Sackman.  He began to interview faculty members working in experimental evolution and saw evolution in action in real time – hundreds of generations of evolution occurring in a few months within the lab – and his course of study changed.                                   

Fast forward to 2019, and Dr. Sackman, now possessing a Ph.D. from Florida State University in Ecology and Evolution and postdoctoral experience in the Center for Evolution and Medicine at Arizona State University, found himself back at his alma mater in Lexington, Virginia as a visiting assistant professor.

This fall, Dr. Sackman will join VCU’s Center for Biological Data Science as assistant professor. His focus is evolutionary genetics, and his research is mostly concentrated on viruses. He uses experimental evolution in a model bacteriophage system to understand how the interactions between genes and mutations determine viral traits. A few years ago, his research was mostly theoretical, but with the continued evolution of coronavirus variants, it has become more practical and timely. Viruses can adapt rapidly to environmental changes, including changes in environment, host species, or drug therapies.  Dr. Sackman studies what happens on a genetic, biochemical, and biophysical level as viruses adapt to those changes.

“Viruses are everywhere and they evolve very quickly,” says Dr. Sackman. “With such short generation times and large population sizes, changes can accumulate quite rapidly, as we are seeing in real time on a global scale with SARS-CoV-2. Understanding fundamental processes and rules that govern how organisms evolve is important not only for clinical reasons, but also for understanding the history of life itself.”

Dr. Sackman is settling into his new home in the greater Richmond area, and will be teaching Computing Skills and Concepts for Bioinformatics (BNFO 201) this fall. His office is in Grace Harris Hall on VCU’s Monroe Park Campus.





Stephen Chan of Ameriflux conducts a site evaluation of a tower that gathers greenhouse gas data at VCU Rice Rivers Center. (Contributed photo)

VCU wetlands research will help improve models that predict global climate change

August 2, 2021

(Stephen Chan of Ameriflux conducts a site evaluation of a tower that gathers greenhouse gas data at VCU Rice Rivers Center. Contributed photo) 

Congratulations to Chris Gough, Ph.D., an associate professor in the VCU Biology Department in the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $11 million in funding for research projects, and Dr. Gough's work investigating fluxes of methane and carbon dioxide at Rice Rivers Center is part of that award.

Read the VCU News story, "VCU wetlands research will help improve models that predict global climate change"

Stephen Fong, Ph.D.

Dr. Stephen Fong part of national heat mapping study

August 2, 2021

Stephen Fong Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education and professor in the Department of Chemical and Life Sciences Engineering, is part of the initial team that worked the first heat mapping study in 2017. He is continuing to work on this project, and VCU Life Sciences is providing equipment to to measure ozone levels.


Richmond Times-Dispatch article: Richmond to participate in nation’s largest heat mapping effort

VPM story: Citizen scientists map extreme heat in Richmond, Virginia cities



Still of three people on boat in water surrounded by Oyster buckets; Lower third says Virginia oyster shell recycling, VCU Rice Rivers Center helps restore oysters in Bay

Three-part 8News story on oyster recycling shines light on VOSRP

July 22, 2021

No one can argue that Virginia leads the east coast in oyster production and is the commonwealth’s most valuable seafood product. Perhaps we are biased, but we think state oyster farmers grow the best in the world. While many have enjoyed this delicacy at restaurants and festivals, we usually do not give much thought what happens before and after the oysters are consumed. The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP), part of VCU Rice Rivers Center, has been working with the seafood industry and restaurants since 2013 in raising public awareness on oyster shell recycling and how every person can become part of returning oysters to the Chesapeake Bay, even if all they do is don’t chuck that shuck.

8News Meteorologist Matt DiNardo wanted to learn more about the collaborative project to replenish oysters to the Bay. He joins VOSRP Director Todd Janeski, and visits with 3 Hands Oysters Company’s Brandon Eanes and Lemaire’s Executive Chef Patrick Willis for his three-part series on WRIC 8 News

Watch all three segments

Part one: Building oyster reefs is an integral part of oyster shell recycling. Matt visits with VOSRP Director Todd Janeski on a trip to one these reefs in the Piankatank River, and joins other volunteers as they help return an estimated 20 million oysters to the water in 2021. 

Part two: Matt looks at how oysters are grown, beginning with the larval stage and ending with spat on shells. 

Part three: What is oyster farming and how are restaurants helping with VORSP’s “Don’t Chuck that Shuck” program? Brandon Eanes of 3 Hands Oysters Co. shows how oysters are grown on their farm located on Gywnn’s Island. Then Matt visits Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, where 3 Hand Oysters are part of the menu. Ordering oysters at VOSRP participating restaurants is the central part of the recycling program, as these shells are used to house spat and build up the reefs. 

Michael Rosenberg Ph.D. headshot

The Center for Biological Data Science debuts new name

July 22, 2021

 (Image: Michael Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of the newly-named Center for Biological Data Science) 

Director Michael Rosenberg, Ph.D., announced the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC) has officially become the Center for Biological Data Science (CBDS).  “Our new name is more representative of the broad interdisciplinary nature of the unit and better parallels current and future trends in scientific branding,” states Rosenberg. CSBC was originally founded as a chartered center within VCU Life Sciences in 2001; over the course of two decades the focus of the center and discipline has shifted, leading to a disconnect between the original name and the center’s training and research activities.

CBDS provides an interdisciplinary research and training program focused on applying quantitative and computational discovery and data science to questions in areas such as genomics, proteomics, and evolutionary life sciences.

The new name is essentially unique in the educational community and reflects the emerging direction of the Center. It also places VCU and the Center in a stronger position to compete with similarly-structured educational entities for federal funding, as the name embodies target objectives of the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation. CBDS will resonate with these and other agencies much more as the need for explanation of the unit’s name is no longer an issue.

The phrase “Biological Complexity” has confused both potential faculty and students given the degrees, curriculum, and research are more objectively focused on bioinformatics and biological data analysis. “Biological Data Science encompasses all of biology and the life sciences, not just the molecular or genetic sub disciplines. The unit’s new name will impact the quantity and quality of faculty recruited for research, graduate programs, and leadership roles in the Center,” said Rosenberg. “The name will also help VCU Life Sciences promote the Center to potential undergraduate and graduate students. As we expect to increase our student population to better train in STEM, a name change that is up-to-date and promotes inclusion was a top priority.”

The new name is timely and invitational, according to Rob Tombes, Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research. “Biological Data Sciences reflects our mission to promote borderless educational and research opportunities and promote quantitative aspects of the Life Sciences.“

A comic created by Maggie Colangelo and Bernard Means tells the story of the world's oldest ham.

The subject of a VCU student and professor’s new comic? The world’s oldest ham.

July 19, 2021

(Image: A comic created by ENVS student Maggie Colangelo and Bernard Means tells the story of the world's oldest ham)


Maggie Colangelo, who is double majoring in environmental studies in the Center for Environmental Studies and communication arts in the School of the Arts, partners with professor Bernard Means, to create a one-page comic to give the Isle of Wight County Museum "another way of telling the story of Smithfield hams."

Read the story by VCU News' Brian McNeill, "The subject of a VCU student and professor’s new comic? The world’s oldest ham."


VCU students take samples from water pools collecting on r

Center for Environmental Studies is emerging as a national leader in hands-on freshwater education

July 15, 2021

(VCU students take samples from water pools collecting on rocks on the James River. Photo by James Vonesh, for VCU News)

By Brian McNeill

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $497,000 grant to a Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Environmental Studies faculty member who will lead a collaborative network of more than 100 professors across 35 states focused on providing undergraduate STEM education through inclusive, interdisciplinary and immersive field studies on the nation’s rivers.

As part of the five-year grant led by professor James Vonesh, Ph.D., the River Field Studies Network will train 40 to 50 instructors in field programs, incubate five or six new river field courses and develop more than 50 open-source educational resources focused on river field studies.

“We [will] provide professional development and training for faculty to teach effectively and safely in river field settings with the goal of broadening the quantity, quality and diversity of experiential river field education,” Vonesh said.

The NSF grant follows a separate but similar significant grant awarded last fall to a team of researchers including Daniel McGarvey, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Center for Environmental Studies. That five-year $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to the Society for Freshwater Science will fund a project, Emerge, that aims to support training and experiences for underrepresented minority students and early career scientists in freshwater science.

Read the full VCU News Story: How VCU's Center for Environmental Studies is emerging as a national leader in hands-on freshwater education


VCU students Abby Wright and Nathan Salle took part in a series of VCU courses in 2018 that included a 10-day excursion to Idaho’s Lower Salmon River.

New certificate at VCU to provide students with outdoor leadership credential

June 15, 2021

(VCU students Abby Wright and Nathan Salle took part in a series of VCU courses in 2018 that included a 10-day excursion to Idaho’s Lower Salmon River. Photo by James Vonesh.)

This fall the VCU Center for Environmental Studies will launch a brand new SHEV-approved undergraduate Outdoor Leadership Certificate open to all majors. The certificate is the natural outgrowth of eight years of successful collaborative programming with the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program.

Read the VCU News story, "New certificate at VCU to provide students with outdoor leadership credential."

Water scooped from Twitchell Lake in the western Adirondacks shows a tint from matter in surrounding wetlands

Paul Bukaveckas subject of Adirondack Explorer article

June 7, 2021

(Water scooped from Twitchell Lake in the western Adirondacks shows a tint from matter in surrounding wetlands — a sign of what researcher Paul Bukaveckas says is recovery from former acidity. “Notice that it is not murky, just stained,” he says. Photo courtesy of Paul Bukaveckas)


VCU Center for Environmental Studies Professor and Rice Rivers Center Affiliate Faculty Paul Bukavekas Ph.D., is the subject of a recent Adirondack Explorer article. 

Read the story by Ry Rivard, "Adirondack lakes turning brower...but in a good way"

photo take from Zoom of 2nd place VCU Clarion team participants

VCU CLARION Case Competition Team Takes 2nd Place

May 18, 2021

Congratulations to Bioinformatics student Rohan Rathi and VCU Biology students Jessica Truong and Vineeth Vaidyula, the VCU CLARION Case Competition team which took second place this spring in the 17th annual national CLARION case competition focused on improving health care through interprofessional collaboration. This year’s focus was healthcare disparities experienced by immigrant families.

VCU Center for Environmental Studies Graduation Ceremony, May 15, 2021 Zoom screenshot with some students in the frame

Congratulations to our ENVS graduates

May 17, 2021

On May 15, VCU Center for Environmental Studies celebrated the hard work and achievement of the class of 2021 and thanked all of those that supported these students on their path to success!

In a virtual ceremony that included more than 100 participants, we awarded six Masters and 39 Bachelors degrees to some of the most resilient, creative, hard-working students we’ve had the honor to serve. In addition to individually recognizing each of our graduates, we awarded the “Most Outstanding Graduate Student” to Heather King and “Most Outstanding Undergraduate Student” to Megan Black. Congratulations to all our new graduates, keep in touch, let us know what you are doing — we are excited to see how you all help make the world a better place. Here is the recording of the complete ceremony in case you missed it! 


Congrats Grads!

Center for the Study of Biological Complexity spring 2021 graduation

May 17, 2021

Congratulations to CSBC spring graduates in bioinformatics!

Bachelor of Science

Muskan Bansal, Ryan Butler, Jenifer Christanti, Linda Do, Hunter Freeman, Cash Frost, Giuliana Gordon, Nasita Islam, Ahmed Ismail, Preksha Jerajani, Pratiik Kaushik, Justin Le, Dylan Lee, Mudassir Lodi, Brian Mejia, Yashna Nainani, Aarib Omair, Nupur Pandya, Shraddha Pradeep, Tanuj Saini, Kathylene Saravane, Owais Shahzada, Arashpreet Singh, Ankita Thakur, Sahana Tharakan, Nana Afia Twumasi-Ankrah, Hasib Zaman

Master of Science

Shelby Bennett, Jesse Raynor

Stephanie Osei headshot

Real research: CSBC's Stephanie Osei pursues passion for medicine in the classroom and the lab

April 29, 2021

(Faculty have guided Stephanie Osei from one research opportunity to the next on her journey toward her goal of becoming a doctor who can help young people understand the importance of health from an early age. Photo by Kevin Morley, University Marketing)


By Tom Gresham
University Public Affairs

Growing up in Ghana, Stephanie Osei knew many people who did not receive the medical care they needed. Most of them had not been educated about the importance of routine health care, and consequently they rarely pursued it. Those people included not only her friends but her grandmother, who died of what Osei believes was undiagnosed throat cancer. “They didn’t tell us what it was,” Osei said. “But if she’d had regular checkups, they would have known about it and she could have been treated.” 

As a result of those experiences, Osei said, she has had a passion for medicine and a desire to become a physician since she was a child. She saw a career as a doctor as a way to prevent more people from growing sick and dying because they did not get the medical attention they needed. When Osei arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University, she discovered how to take that passion a step further and explore the ways she could help as a medical researcher. 

“I learned that I didn’t want to just diagnose diseases,” Osei said. “I also wanted to find out what was causing the diseases that people were suffering from so we could find new possibilities for how to treat them and to figure out how to help them get better.”

Read the rest of the article: "Real research: CSBC's Stephanie Osei pursues passion for medicine in the classroom and the lab"


Headshot of Katie Schmidt

Katherine Schmidt awarded prestigious Lapham Fellowship at American Rivers

April 29, 2021

Recent Master of Environmental Studies and River Studies and Leadership Certificate graduate Katherine (Katie) Schmidt has been awarded The Anthony A. Lapham River Conservation Fellowship at American Rivers! The Lapham Fellowship is awarded after a national competition to only one person every two years. Congratulations, Katie!

Katie is enthusiastic about this next stage of her career,

“I am excited and honored to have been selected as the Lapham Fellow with American Rivers and for the opportunity to work to protect and restore our rivers. I completed my Masters … with the intention to work in river conservation and this Fellowship will allow me to do just that.

Katie completed her M.Envs. in December 2019. While at VCU she supported outdoor education outreach at the Rice Rivers Center and served as a trip leader for the “Canyons of the Salmon” and as a teaching assistant for the “Footprints on the James” field courses. She was also a leader among the River Studies and Leadership Certificate students, helping organize RSLC events and participating in national meetings. As part of her graduate program, she completed an internship with American Whitewater about the potential for recreational dam releases on the Hiwassee River in Tennesse, North Carolina, and Georgia. After graduation, Katie leveraged her GIS skills into a position at Timmons Group.

Center for Environmental Studies Assistant Director, Dr. James Vonesh, commented,

“Katie brings a positive “can do” energy to everything she takes on. As a graduate student, she had a tremendous positive impact on our program. She was an enthusiastic student, always ready to engage in the classroom, even when at the edge of her comfort zone. She was instrumental in helping create camaraderie and esprit de corps among her fellow graduate and River Studies and Leadership students. She made invaluable contributions to our river field courses. She worked hard to develop a connection with American Whitewater which led to her internship, and that internship, I am sure, was key in her winning the Lapham Fellowship. It’s a perfect fit for her. All in all, she really made the most of her time with us, and gave back as much as she benefited”

The goals of the Anthony A. Lapham Fellowship Program are to develop the next generation of conservation leaders and to generate work products that directly support the mission and goals of American Rivers. Advancements in river conservation will be especially important during the coming years due to the extreme pressure on rivers, headwater streams and freshwater supplies brought on by climate change, population growth and demographic change, and development. The Lapham Fellowship program aims to develop the next generation of skilled leaders who can promote practical environmental solutions that achieve measurable results for natural and human communities.

The 24-month Fellowship will be supported by a team of conservation staff and members of the American Rivers’ Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee, which includes some of the nation’s foremost experts on freshwater conservation science and policy. Conducting an applied research project under the guidance of expert advocates will provide the Fellow with invaluable experience as they begin their career. In general, the first year of the Fellowship is spent researching the decided project, and the second year is spent implementing the project on the ground. Fellows will be provided with opportunities for professional experiences unique to Washington, DC, including legal and policy, economic, and scientific analysis of federal legislation and proposed rules, lobbying training, participation in meetings with congressional offices and federal agency officials, and attendance at congressional hearings and federal court proceedings.

Katie says she will be joining a team working on river restoration through dam removal and hydropower reform, which she studied while at VCU and while working with American Whitewater through an internship as part of the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program.

My academic studies at VCU as well as my position as a graduate assistant helped me to prepare for this position with opportunities such as teaching Footprints on the James with Dan Carr and teaching environmental education programs with the Outdoor Adventure Program at the Rice Rivers Center. These experiences helped to make me a highly competitive candidate and all of which I am very grateful for.”

A cartoon drawing of 1/2 the earth, with EARTH DAY written above it

ENVS graduate student reminds us to say, “No Thanks, Single-Use Plastics”

April 22, 2021

VCU Environmental Studies graduate student Heather King published an article on Virginia Public Media to remind us that This Earth Day Say “No Thanks, Single-Use Plastics”!  

Check out her article, art work and video. 


Two graduate interns with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Project, stack bushels of recycled oyster shells, collected from area restaurants and homes, at the Ivy Material Utilization Center in Albemarle County recently.

VOSRP and Rivanna Authorities team up for shell recycling in Charlottesville

April 16, 2021

(Photo: Casey Johnson, from left, and Julia Josephs, graduate interns with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Project, stack bushels of recycled oyster shells, collected from area restaurants and homes, at the Ivy Material Utilization Center in Albemarle County recently. The shells are now headed for the Piankatank River. Courtesy Erin Edgerton, The Daily Progress.)

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) and it's partnership with the Rivanna Authorities are the subject of a recent Daily Progress article.  

In addition to the bushels of shells mentioned in the article, VOSRP puts back more than 2,000 per year to the Piankatank River as part of a comprehensive restoration strategy. And of those bags in the article? That will result in the return of 1.7 million new oysters through their "spat on shell" (attaching baby oysters to the shells). When those oysters become adults they will filter 86 MILLION gallons of water a day and almost 32 BILLION per year. By comparison, our friends with the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority are producing 10 million gallons of treated drinking water and 10 million gallons of waste water. Those oysters are providing an ecosystem service comparable to our treatment plants...and its all because you help us recycle those oyster shells. 

Read the Daily Progress article, "Shucked shells sent to seashore to boost oyster beds."


Picture of the sun setting over the waves of the James River

Virtual symposium co-hosted by VCU to shine national spotlight on Virginia’s waterways

April 8, 2021

Co-hosted by VCU's Center for Environmental Studies, with faculty participation from VCU Rice Rivers Center, the River Management Society’s 2021 River Management Symposium, to be held April 12-15, will help shine a national spotlight on Richmond and Virginia’s diverse waterways. 


By Christopher Katella
VCU University Public Affairs

An upcoming virtual symposium held in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University will help shine a national spotlight on Richmond and Virginia’s diverse waterways.

The River Management Society’s 2021 River Management Symposium, to be held April 12-15, aims to bring together representatives from the public, academic and private sectors to network and share insight into the successful stewardship of rivers, creeks and streams in North America and around the world. 

Under the theme “Mountain Creeks to Metro Canals,” the symposium will also retroactively mark the 50th anniversary of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Virginia Scenic River Program and its role in shaping protective efforts of the commonwealth’s most notable and significant waterways — including the James River, a symbol of Richmond and Virginia’s conservation and recreation efforts.

Read the rest of: "Virtual symposium co-hosted by VCU to shine national spotlight on Virginia’s waterways"

Virginia Wildlife magazine highlights Rice Rivers Center's Atlantic sturgeon program

April 1, 2021

(Cover photo: An Atlantic sturgeon breaches in the James River at Richmond. Photo by Rob Sabatini)


Dr. Matt Balazik and VCU Rice Rivers Center's Atlantic sturgeon program is part of the cover story in the March/April 2021 of Virginia Wildlife magazine.  "Ghosts No More" chronicles the history of  the Altantic sturgeon in the James River. Virginia Wildlife magazine is a paid-publication from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DWR).  

Read the article and learn more about Virginia DWR:


Yaa Adarkwa Darko

CSBC student works in local COVID-19 testing lab

March 31, 2021

One of the Center for the Studies of Biological Complexity masters students, Yaa Adarkwa Darko, is featured in a VCU story about her work in a COVID-19 testing lab.

Read about her work in: "VCU student works in local COVID testing lab"


A photo of bagged oyster shells with typeface overlay: recycle, replenish, restore

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program part of VCU annual research report

March 26, 2021

VCU Rice Rivers Center and the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) are proud to be a part of the in the 2019-2020 annual research report from the VCU Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation. Thanks to all of our partners and volunteers who help to make the program successful. Support of the VOSRP from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is just one example of how far the program's collaborative reach extents. Rice Rivers Center is one piece of the VOSRP's community and industry initiative to restore the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay.


Read the report here.

Visit the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program's Facebook page to learn more about the program and volunteer opportunties. 

Daniel Bonchev headshot

Danail Bonchev Honored by MOL2NET

March 16, 2021

The upcoming MOL2NET sponsored conference CHEMINFOICD3-03: Cheminfo. Int. Conf. Drug Des. & Discov has been dedicated to Professor Roberto Todeschini (Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca) and our Emeritus Professor Danail Bonchev, for more than 35 years of promoting Cheminformatics, Bioinformatics, and Mathematical Chemistry and Biology research and education.

The James River estuary begins in the Richmond area with the head of the tide located near 14th Street. Photo by Lily Doshi

Dr. Edward Crawford interviewed by Commonwealth Times on VCU's Common Book

March 11, 2021

(James River estuary begins in the Richmond area with the head of the tide located near 14th Street. Photo by Lily Doshi)

VCU Rice Rivers Center deputy director and VCU Environmental Studies assistant professor Dr. Edward Crawford is interviewed by the Commonwealth Times on why  “Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore” by Elizabeth Rush will help students learn more about the impacts of climate change. 

"Rising: Dispatches From the New American Shore" has been selected as the 2021-2022 VCU Common Book.

Read the Commonwealth Times article, "VCU Common Book selection explores link between climate change and social justice."



A helicopter has landed on an ice flow, and some people are walking from it

'Frozen Obsession' showcased in Style Weekly

February 17, 2021

Style Weekly's story of the Richmond Environmental Film Festival highlights the opening film, "Frozen Obsession." The film includes students and faculty from the Center for Environmental Studies. 

Read the article, "Green Perspectives."



Students and researchers explore the frozen landscape in “Frozen Obsession,” a documentary film about a Canadian Arctic expedition set to premier at the RVA Environmental Film Festival.

VCU alumni to share stories of their Canadian Arctic expedition at documentary film premiere

February 10, 2021


By Chris Katella
University Public Affairs

Three former Virginia Commonwealth University Center for Environmental Studies students will participate Feb. 12 in the world premiere of a feature-length film chronicling a research expedition to the Canadian Arctic. 

Hosted by VCU associate professor Linda Fernandez, Ph.D., Mirella Shaban, Tristan Rivera and Ericka Schulze will share their experiences as part of the Northwest Passage Project during a panel discussion after the debut of the documentary “Frozen Obsession.” The premiere and discussion will serve as the official kickoff to the 11th annual RVA Environmental Film Festival, which is virtual this year.

Interested attendees can register on the film festival website to view the event.

Read the rest of the story, "VCU alumni to share stories of their Canadian Arctic expedition at documentary film premiere."


Watch the trailer of "Frozen Obsession." 

Fulfilling the Promise

VCU Life Sciences co-hosts virtual discussion with Drs. Trani and Kneebone on their new book

February 5, 2021

VCU Life Sciences and VCU College of Humanities and Sciences co-hosted a virtual discussion with the authors of “Fulfilling the Promise, Virginia Commonwealth University and the City of Richmond, 1968-2009.” The discussion was introduced by Robert M. Tombes, Ph.D., vice provost of VCU Life Sciences and Research and moderated by John Ulmschneider, dean emeritus of Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries. The January 27 online event was open to the public.

Authors Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., president emeritus of VCU and University Distinguished Professor, and John T. Kneebone, Ph.D., VCU associate professor of history emeritus, spoke of the history and their personal experiences in shaping the present-day VCU.

Proceeds from this book will be donated to the VCU Foundation in support of student scholarships. Purchase the book here.

From the publisher:

In “Fulfilling the Promise,” the authors tell the intriguing story of VCU and the context in which the university was forged and eventually thrived. Although VCU’s history is necessarily unique, Kneebone and Trani show how the issues shaping it are common to many urban institutions, from engaging with two-party politics in Virginia and African American political leadership in Richmond, to fraught neighborhood relations, the complexities of providing public health care at an academic health center, and an increasingly diverse student body. As a result, “Fulfilling the Promise” offers far more than a stale institutional saga. Rather, this definitive history of one urban-setting state university illuminates the past and future of American public higher education in the post-1960s era. 


Carolyn Lewis

CILSE doctoral candidate Carolyn Lewis awarded Graduate Research Fellowship Grant

December 16, 2020

Carolyn Lewis, Ph.D. candidate in the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education (CILSE), has been awarded a $49,994 Graduate Research Fellowship Grant (GRF) towards her research: Developmental evaluation of a combinatorial qPCR multiplex for forensic body fluid identification. The grant is through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), Office of Justice Programs (OJP), and U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Lewis is one of 23 GRF recipients for the fiscal year 2020, and she is one of a handful at VCU to receive this funding. 

Understanding the biological source of forensic evidence is important for crime scene reconstruction and story corroboration of witnesses and/or suspects. This step of the forensic workflow is tedious and not all-inclusive, meaning one must test for each body fluid separately, which consumes valuable evidentiary sample. To address this concern, Lewis is developing a molecular-based method for body fluid identification that can be implemented into DNA analysis workflows within crime labs. The quantitative-PCR assay targets both microRNA and bacterial DNA sequences in order to predict the biological source of a bodily fluid sample.

“My overall goal is to reduce sample consumption for body fluid testing in forensic casework by developing a more comprehensive analysis method,” says Lewis. “I thrive on knowing that my ideas have the potential to streamline and improve the way forensic scientists analyze evidence samples in the future.”


Congrats Grads!

Congratulations to our graduates!

December 15, 2020


Celebrating our summer and fall graduates in VCU Life Sciences! Please scroll to the end for our virtual ceremonies. 

Degree Candidates

Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education

Dr. Stephen Fong, Director

Doctor of Philosophy

Mohammad Al-Zubi (S) 
Ghadeer Bukhari (F)
Joseph “Paul” Miano (F)
Eric Vornholt (F)


Center for the Study of Biological Complexity

Dr. Michael Rosenberg, Director

Master of Science in Bioinformatics

Christian Alcorta (S)
Ashley Arora (S)
Matthew Lowry (F)
Rachel Miller (S)
Karun Rajesh (S)
Cove Soyars (S)

Bachelor of Science in Bioinformatics

Ali Ahmed (F)
John Bowry (F)
Yojitha Damera (S)
Zainab Gbadamosi (F)
Amrita Harshini Kondeti (F)
Andrew Krakie (F)
Dylan Lee (F)
Shraddha Pradeep (F)
Perray Saravanane (F)
Stephen Shea (S)
Nathaniel Smith (S)
Thinh “Kyle” Vo (F)
Erik Wolfsohn (F)
Bethany Yachuw (F)


Center for Environmental Studies

Dr. Rodney Dyer, Director

Master of Science in Environmental Studies

Phillip M. Gibbs (S)
Kaycee Faunce (F)
Oliva C. Latham (S)
John-Reid “Jack” Ryan (S)
Charles “Ryland” Stunkle (S)

Master of Environmental Studies

Richie A. Dang (F)
Graham A. Shell (S)
Eric Womack (F)

Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies

Brandi Benton (F)
Kimberly Breitenbruck (F)
Kaila Cavanaugh (S)
Courtney Coates (F)
Haarsh Desai (S)
Liam Dryden (S)
Raven Dudley (F)
Alexander Eaton (F)
Jillian Frazier (F)
Mary “Meg” Goeke (F)
Isabella Griffin (S)
Joshua Heath (F)
Katie Hughes (S)
Diana Kessler (S)
James Minter (S)
Malik Morrison (F)
Addisan Pound (S)
Sania Qureshi (F)
Patrick Schwenkler (F)
Andrew Shaffer (S)
Rachel Tripp (F)
Lauren Vaughan (F)
Lucy Wooldridge (S)


Student Award Recipients

Most Outstanding Graduate Student - CSBC

Karun Rajesh - M.S. in Bioinformatics

Most Outstanding Undergraduate Student - CSBC

Thinh “Kyle” Vo - B.S. in Bioinformatics

Most Outstanding Graduate Student – CES

Kaycee Faunce - Master of Science in Environmental Studies (F)
Charles “Ryland” Stunkle - Master of Science in Environmental Studies (S)

Most Outstanding Undergraduate Students - CES
Katie Hughes - B.S. in Environmental Studies (S)
Jillian Frazier - B.S. in Environmental Studies (F)
Mary “Meg” Goeke - B.S. in Environmental Studies (F)


(S) = Summer graduate  (F) = Fall graduate


Watch the virtual graduations:

Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (on Zoom)

Center for Environmental Studies (on YouTube)


This sturgeon carcass washed up on Virginia Beach's 20th Street

Rice Rivers Center's Dr. Matt Balazik featured in Chesapeake Bay Magazine

November 18, 2020

(Photo: This sturgeon carcass washed up on Virginia Beach's 20th Street Sunday. Courtesy Matt Lillis)


Dr. Matt Balazik's research on Atlantic Sturgeon includes collecting remains washed up on the shoreline.

His work with Sturgeon is the focus of the Chesapeake Bay Magazine article, "Endangered 'Dinosaur Fish' washes up in Virginia Beach."


Ron Lopez taking measurements at CBSSC site at Rice Rivers Center

Turning the Tide on sea-level rise

October 28, 2020

(Photo: Ron Lopez takes measurements at the CBSSC site at Rice Rivers Center. Photo by Ed Crawford)

VCU Rice Rivers Center is part of the Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Site Cooperative (CBSSC), a regional collaborative network based around the Bay that evaluates the impacts of sea level rise on coastal wetlands and communities. CBSSC is part of the NOAA Sentinel Site Program (SSP), one of five sentinel site networks nationwide.  Rice Rivers Center is the only primary site added to the CBSSC, and the only primary site added since the original launch of the CBSSC program. 

Researchers at each sentinel site measure the same parameters around the Bay.  Meteorological, water quality, large-scale vertical land motion, surface elevation change, tidal (water level) and vegetation data are all collected at these sites, each with different geographic, geomorphic, and ecological characteristics.  Rice Rivers Center provides a unique fit to the CBSSC; in addition to being located on the southernmost tributary to the Bay, the James River Estuary, the center provides data from tidal freshwater-forested wetlands.

Ron Lopez, a member of Rice Rivers Center’s faculty and a graduate from VCU Center for Environmental Studies (M.S.’17/LS), wrote and produced a short film, “Turning the Tide,” which showcases several of the CBSSC sentinel sites contributing to the project. Lopez says his favorite part of making this film was seeing the different sites, meeting the people and hearing their stories. “The landowner at the beginning of the film, Allen Cunningham, drove me around Nanticoke Acres for a couple of hours, showing me firsthand how sea level rise was impacting his community,” Lopez recalls.  “Even as a scientist studying coastal response to sea-level rise, nothing I’ve seen or read has been more impactful to me than that time spent with Allen.”

Ultimately, the information collected at the data-rich sites will be used to model and forecast the dynamics of coastal response to sea level rise at less data-rich sites around the Bay. In the future, coastal managers, policy makers and landowners, like Allen, could use this type of information.  The cooperative is currently developing data products to disseminate our findings to end users.

Lopez’ film combines educational and outreach components for the public on a subject of interest to him not only as a filmmaker, but as a researcher working on a sentinel site at Rice Rivers Center.  “As coastal communities like Allen’s in Nanticoke Acres are becoming ghost towns in one or two generations, and critical habitat is being lost around the Chesapeake Bay at an alarming rate, the scientists and partners of the Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Site Cooperative are working hard to further our understanding of the dynamics of climate disruption around the Bay, and put useable data and information in the hands of stakeholders and policy makers,” explains Lopez.  “My hope is that this film helps spark interest in the cooperative and what we do, and helps inform the public about critical issues facing our coastal communities, habitats and economies.”

“Turning the Tide” was the first-place winner at the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative (NERRA) 2020 Facebook Film Festival.


VCU graduates Mirella Shaban and siblings Gabriella and Guiliano Melki incorporated RVA4Lebanon, a nonprofit organization, to help with relief efforts in Beirut. (Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing)

CES alumna helps lead non-profit for Beirut relief efforts

October 22, 2020

(Photo: VCU graduates Mirella Shaban and siblings Gabriella and Guiliano Melki incorporated RVA4Lebanon, a nonprofit organization, to help with relief efforts in Beirut. Credit: Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing) 

By James Shea
University Public Affairs

Three Virginia Commonwealth University graduates watched in horror on social media as a powerful explosion hit Beirut, Lebanon, in August. They knew they had to help.

Mirella Shaban, along with fellow VCU grads and siblings Guiliano Melki, who graduated in 2019 with a degree in biology from the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Gabriella Melki, a Ph.D. graduate from the College of Engineering, began talking about ways to help those affected shortly after the explosion. The Lebanese community in Richmond had started to organize relief efforts, but the friends saw a need for a centralized effort.

The explosion occurred when a fire detonated a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. The explosion devastated the city. It was the third-largest explosion in history after the two nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan in World War II.

Read the entire VCU News article, "VCU grads organize to help in Beirut relief efforts."


Students on a kayak and floating boat on the James River

Freshwater Fridays keeps learning REAL

October 13, 2020

Last spring CES faculty Dan McGarvey, James Vonesh, and adjunct instructor & Chesapeake Bay Foundation Staff Scientist Joe Wood envisioned a new collaborative course block focused on freshwater science and policy dubbed “Freshwater Fridays“. Freshwater Fridays includes 3 integrated 500-level topics courses – SCENIC NATURAL RESOURCES POLICY & ASSESSMENT, co-led by Vonesh and Lynn Crump, Scenic Resources Coordinator for Virginia Depart of Conservation and Recreation, STEAM SURVEY METHODS led by McGarvey, and VIRGINIA WATER QUALITY ISSUES & CAREERS led by Wood. The purpose of block scheduling these courses over 9 hours every Friday was to enable the courses to develop a more immersive and integrated curriculum whereby instructors can teach not only course-specific content but highlight the overlap across disciplines and to facilitate our ability to integrate day- and weekend trips to increase opportunities for hands-on place-based Relevant Experiential Applied Learning (REAL).

Adapting to the times

Student enthusiasm was high during spring registration – enrollment quickly filled. Then the pandemic hit.

“The pandemic forced educators around the country to rethink how they were going to teach their courses this fall”,  said Vonesh, “since our courses were fundamentally based on experiential hands-on in-person learning, often off-campus, we faced some unique challenges. We had to take Freshwater Fridays back to the editing table and see if we could still deliver something that resembled what we had promised safely and in compliance with health guidelines.”

After input from across the university and from the students enrolled, a revised Freshwater Fridays emerged. Wood’s WATER QUALITY ISSUES course moved online, with Wood focusing on bringing regional leaders in water policy to the class through ZOOM. McGarvey split his fish and aquatic invertebrate identification labs, which require extensive microscope work, into 2 sections to maintain social distancing. Since they were unable to obtain a large enough room for all the students to meet together on campus while maintaining social distancing, they schedule some classes in city park pavilions. Rather than the fieldwork initially planned across all Virginia’s major physiogeographic regions, which would have required overnight trips, the focus shifted to sections of the James River and tributaries that could be visited in a day.

While fieldwork itself is not contraindicated by health and safety guidelines, being outdoors is generally thought to be less risky than being indoors when it comes to exposure to coronavirus,  transportation to field sites became the bottleneck.

“We needed sites where students could meet us”, Vonesh said,” having the James River and the city park system within walking, biking, or driving distance of campus was key to our being able to retain many of the experiential elements.”

To maintain other elements of the course, they needed to develop new partners. On their scenic assessment field day on the James River below New Canton, safely transporting students between the put-in to the take-out presented a particular challenge. Normally, 12 passenger vans would have been used, but those wouldn’t have allowed sufficient social distancing. Instead,  Richmond-based Riverside Outfitters helped out with access to their full-sized school bus which enabled the course to maintain social distancing measures during the short shuttle.

Pathways to freshwater careers 

Wood’s water quality course focuses on putting students face to face with environmental professionals to give students a chance to see the opportunities and challenges that may face them in their future careers.  The course has focused on how the clean water act has played out in Virginia, including gaps in protection and successes.  Students engage with water quality experts from NGOs and State and federal agencies. Several  VCU Environmental Studies alumni have spoken to the students offering tips and advice for transitioning from student to professional. For example, last week CES alum Will Isenberg, who works on developing water quality plans at the Department of Environmental Quality, spoke to students offering tips on pursuing employment in the environmental field.

In-person meets virtual in scenic assessment

In SCENIC NATURAL RESOURCES, students are introduced to scenic resource concepts, policy, and assessment while engaging deeply in this topic through a course-embedded research project in collaboration with the Virginia Scenic River Program. Scenic resources are important to both quality of life and the economy and may be subject to local, regional, and national legislation.  The scenic value of a landscape is based on human perception of the intrinsic beauty of landform, water form, and vegetation in the landscape, as well as any visible human additions or alterations to the landscape. Assessment of scenic value often involves an in-person field evaluation. However, digital media are increasingly used to archive viewshed appearance and contribute to the assessment process. One of the focal research questions for the scenic class this year is,

To what extent can we rely on digital imagery when assessing scenic value? Do scenic resource assessments based on field observations and those based on digital imagery produce similar results?

To address this question, the class teamed up with landscape architect Lynn Crump, who runs the Virginia Scenic Rivers Program, and local entrepreneur and outdoor enthusiast Ryan Abrahamsen, of Richmond-based Terrain360, to study the 10.5-mile section of the James River between New Canton and Columbia.  Lynn explained that the local community had requested that this section be evaluated for possible state scenic designation to help attract more ecotourism to the region. Ryan shared his vision for using technology and high-quality imagery to create virtual maps of our natural treasures to attract people into the outdoors. He also walked the class through the iterative development of his raft-mounted “Google Streetview” camera equipment which he has used to create 360 virtual maps of a number of mid-Atlantic rivers, including the James River from source to sea.

“It was touch and go as to whether we were going to be able to conduct the scenic assessment”, Vonesh said, “There were a lot of moving parts to coordinate. The VCU Outdoor Adventure Program was leading the trip and providing safety training, boats, and other gear. Riverside Outfitters had just a few-hour window when their bus was available for the shuttle assist. Terrain360 needed clear weather to deploy their “Google Streetview” camera equipt raft. Lynn Crump was juggling her availability to meet us in the field. Everything was in place… then the remains of Hurricane Sally rolled through the evening before the assessment. We only make the call to go for it 24 hrs in advance – but fortunately, the skies cleared as we arrived at the put-in and the day was perfect”.

Student Courtney Coates said,

The coolest thing to me was getting to talk to Lynn and Ryan about their careers and seeing how passionate and happy they are. I liked hearing about all the other components of Lynn’s job, and the careers she has had in the past. We were so lucky to have a beautiful day on the river, perfect for learning and seeing our guests out in the field!

As the team floated downstream Lynn guided the students in visual assessment every couple of miles and students recorded their ratings on an ArcGIS Survery123 phone app specifically developed for the course. Simultaneously, Terrain360 captured the full panorama view of the entire section – enabling the course to re-float and re-assess this river segment in a virtual environment  (To float the river with the class in Terrain360 click here and hit “play”). By examining the correlation between scores students made in-person in the field with their scores made at the same georeferenced location viewed through the Terrain360 virtual environment we can begin to quantitatively address the relationship between field and digital imagery based assessments.

Student Josh McCauley summed up the day,

Whether collecting live data using a phone app, having friendly canoe battles, admiring some guerilla art, or identifying native and non-native vegetation, canoeing the James River from New Canton to Columbia was an entirely unique experience for me.


Biodiversity of the Rockfish River

McGarvey’s stream methods course focuses on sampling and identification of common fish and aquatic macroinvertebrates found in Virginia rivers and streams.  To develop basic proficiency in these skills, Freshwater Fridays students participate in McGarvey’s fieldwork on the South Fork of the Rockfish River, a tributary of the James River, in Nelson County. McGarvey started studying the Rockfish to establish a baseline benchmark for river health prior to planned development in the region associated with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project – a project that was canceled earlier this past July. 

However, the work continues to inform our basic understanding of how stream foodwebs are structured. Students spent the day working in and around the river in chest waders. They deployed block nets using seines up and downstream to isolate a focal reach, and then using backpacking electrofishing to conduct multiple depletion pass sampling runs to quantify fish abundance and diversity (see timelapse GoPro360 video below). Students were taught best practices for anesthetizing fish before processing, how to used keys and guides to identify the fish, and how to weigh and measure individual specimens before releasing them (IACUC AD10000441). They also learned how to use a Hess sampler to measure the abundance and diversity of stream benthic macroinvertebrates.  Dr. McGarvey and his lab recently published a video supplemented article in JOVE – the Journal Of Visual Experiments – which provides a roadmap for this widely used approach to sampling stream biodiversity (McGarvey, D. J., Woods, T. E., Kirk, A. J. 2019 Modeling the Size Spectrum for Macroinvertebrates and Fishes in Stream Ecosystems.  doi:10.3791/59945). If ever there was an “immersive” learning activity, this is it! Over 2 days of effort at 2 sites on the South Rockfish the team sampled nearly 1000 fish of 23 different species! When asked the total number of fish species in Virginia, McGarvey, responded, “There is no single, correct answer to that question. In Virginia, the official number of primary, native freshwater fish species was 210, as of the 1993 publication of Jenkins & Burkhead’s “Freshwater Fishes of Virginia”, the authoritative text. More recent taxonomic work has almost certainly pushed the number up by 10-20 species. But, extirpations have likely offset that. Also keep in mind that probably 1/3 of the 210 estimate is endemic to the Tennessee River, which is only a small fraction of southwest VA.” So it seems likely that the class got to see a nice slice of eastern Virginia’s fish diversity as part of the class.



Cindy Haddon Andrews

A picture-perfect retirement

October 12, 2020

Cindy Haddon Andrews walks quietly and deliberately along the forest edge, knowing that at any moment a sudden movement can chase away her intended target of interest. Slowly, she raises her hands that cradles her camera, and snaps away at the oblivious dragonfly that has come to rest on a branch.  Seconds later, the dragonfly made its way to a shrub, but Andrews has what she came for: a moment in time captured in a photo.

 If you have visited any of the Rice Rivers Center’s social pages, you have seen some of the beautiful photographs of the natural world Andrews has taken over the years. In addition, if you have ever volunteered with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP), you have met Andrews, the program’s coordinator, and experienced her love of all things natural, oysters, and VCU Rams.

Andrews’ passions began early in life. “I spent all my summers growing up at family property on the Piankatank River, near Deltaville,” she says. “Fishing, crabbing and endless hours outside with cousins.  Part of my lifelong love of nature.”

As a student at VCU, she obtained her B.S. in psychology and M.S. in rehabilitation counseling.  She moved from student to staff and retired in 2012 after a 34-year career in human resources, the final ten years as assistant vice president.

Retirement for Andrews did not mean slowing down, and she quickly signed up for a master gardener course, something that had been of interest to her for years.  The following year, she signed up for the state master naturalist program.  Andrews talked her husband Jerry into taking the training, too. 

To maintain certification, master naturalists must obtain 40 hours of volunteer work and 12 hours of continuing education per year.  One of the first volunteer projects the Andrews came upon was the VOSRP.  The director of the VOSRP, Todd Janeski, had just begun to collaborate with central Virginia master naturalists as a volunteer base for the program, and a way for master naturalist to meet their hourly requirements.  Jerry and Cindy have been raising their own oysters on the Piankatank for 22 years and many of the activities of the VOSRP occur on the weekends, which was appealing as Jerry still works. It was a good fit for both of them and they began as volunteers in 2017, recycling shells from East Coast Provisions, Savory Grain, Pig and the Pearl, Shagbark, SaltBox Oyster Company, and Tuckahoe Seafood. They have also bagged a countless amount of shells at VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Janeski ran the VOSRP by himself, and after a while, Andrews began to suggest ways to streamline and promote some of the activities of the program. It was not long after that Janeski asked Andrews to join VOSRP as program coordinator in January 2018. “Cindy said, ‘you look you could use some help’ and the rest is history,” Janeski recalls.  He continued, “I’m not sure what we would do without her enthusiasm and involvement. She has helped our program expand exponentially and built the backbone of the program, the Master Naturalists.” Although the workload has increased since that time, Andrews does not see it as work and still considers herself retired.

In her role, Andrews coordinates regular volunteers with partner restaurants who need pickup, schedules and conducts onsite education and shell bagging sessions at Rice Rivers Center, helps coordinate the annual reef building activities, manages the event calendar and volunteer needs for events, and manages some of the VOSRP social media presence.

And takes breathtaking photos.

Andrews developed a love of nature photography, enjoying identifying the bird, bug, plant, or fungus she captures digitally. It is not surprising with all of Andrews’ interest and natural ability to connect with people, she wants to share her passion with others.  “One of my former co-workers who follows me on Instagram said that it was clear that working was holding me back from living my best and fullest life,” she says. “He frequently says that I am showing him and others how to really enjoy retirement.”


Learn more about the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program

Learn more about Virginia Master Naturalists

Learn more about VCU Rams Athletics



Chtaura Jackson

ENVS graduate Chtaura Jackson selected as VCU “10 Under 10” honoree

September 28, 2020

VCU Alumni’s 10 Under 10 awards program recognizes the noteworthy and distinctive achievements made by alumni who earned their first VCU degree (undergraduate, graduate or professional) within the past 10 years. This year we are proud to announce that one of VCU Environmental Studies’ graduates, Chtaura Jackson (M.S.’10/ENVS/LS), was selected to be among those recognized.

Chtaura received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Chowan University, North Carolina. At Chowan, she developed an interest in predator-prey ecology which then led her to the lab of Prof. James Vonesh at VCU.  Chtaura’s M.S. thesis examined the factors that shape biodiversity in the riverine rock pools characteristic of the James River fall zone here in Richmond.

“Chtaura really helped lay the foundation for our ongoing work in the rock pools”, Dr. Vonesh said, “She was the first student to work in that system in the lab and helped developed the maps and rock pool flood models that we used until very recently. Since her time in the lab, the rock pools have been both the focus of NSF funded ecological research and local STEM education outreach with RPS high school students. Chtaura played an important role in getting all that started.”

Chtaura has always been an adventurer, she says. So, in 2010, after finishing her master’s in environmental sciences at VCU, she took a trip abroad. Instead of a few carefree weeks hopscotching through Europe, she headed for a small village in South Africa’s North West province, working in the peace Corps for two years on a range of community development projects. The projects included providing HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis education at a local clinic, training staff in computer skills and database management, acquiring a grant to build a water collection system, and developing training materials for staff at a local orphanage. After that, she says, “I was just hooked.” Next, she went to a rural district in Malawi for a year for another wide-ranging assignment. There, she helped local government strengthen reporting, data management, coordination, and assessment of various programs to address HIV/AIDS and developed a strategic plan for HIV/AIDS response as well as helped improve the delivery of nutritional supplies to malnourished children. Eventually, she spent two years in South Sudan working for the Carter Center and the Ministry of Health on their guinea worm eradication program. If Guinea worm disease sounds obscure, it is —largely because it’s of no concern to citizens of healthier, wealthier parts of the world. “It only affects the poorest of the poor in the poorest country. The goal is to eradicate it; we only have four countries left in the world” where it still exists, she says.

Living abroad taught her resilience. “I think we really see who we are when we step out of our comfort zone. And I learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” Living in South Sudan, a conflict zone gave her that chance. “It really tests you to see what you can handle. I saw that I can survive and be able to thrive and help people in tough situations.” Returning to the U.S. in 2017 with the kind of hands-on experience few accrue in a lifetime, much less by their mid-30s, she enrolled at George Washington University in a master’s in the public health program, with a concentration in global health and epidemiology, which she will finish this year. (Not to rest on her laurels, she has also been volunteering with local HIV/AIDS nonprofits, applying the skills she honed abroad.) She plans to continue working on infectious diseases and neglected tropical diseases, eventually leaving the U.S. again. Her previous experience has resulted in an extra dimension of relevance — she was in Malawi during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone — so she wants to focus on prevention and control of future pandemics. In the meantime, she’s focusing on the current one, here at home: In August, she began working as logistics lead for the Richmond Health Department in its joint COVID-19community testing program with Henrico County.

As strong as her service ethos is, it’s also rooted in a deep foundation of humility. Yes, she knows she’s helped those she serves, but she feels just as indebted to them: “I’ve touched people in meaningful ways, but I’ve also been touched as well.“There’s an amazing proverb from the Zulu culture in South Africa: Ubuntu, or ‘I am because we are’ — I am who I am because of other people,” she says. “Being in a developed country, it’s easy to see ourselves in a bubble and don’t understand that we are all connected. I want to work within a community and to know people understand that we’re all connected. Because that is what will improve health and well-being and human rights.”

To find out more about the “10 Under 10” program and this year’s honorees visit the Office of Alumni Relations.


Statue of Charles Darwin

‘Survival of the fit’: A VCU professor’s new book calls for a shift in how we think about evolution

September 16, 2020

A new book co-authored by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Salvatore J. Agosta, Ph.D., calls for a paradigm shift in the mainstream theory of evolution as humanity faces crises such as climate change. And it suggests that answers can be found in Charles Darwin’s original arguments.

Agosta, an associate professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, co-wrote “The Major Metaphors of Evolution: Darwinism Then and Now,” with Daniel R. Brooks, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. Agosta recently explained why the book, which intertwines biology, philosophy and history, aims to help address the problems facing humanity.

See the full article in the VCU News.

Science On a Sphere, a 6-foot diameter sphere suspended 25 feet above the ground, shows animated images of the atmosphere, oceans and land.

Science On a Sphere, now at VCU, offers a world of possibilities

September 10, 2020

By Joan Tupponce, University Public Affairs


Anyone passing through the foyer of the Trani Center for Life Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University will notice a fascinating new feature — a 6-foot diameter sphere suspended 25 feet above the ground. Known as Science On a Sphere, the global display system is on long-term loan from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. 

Science On a Sphere shows animated images of the atmosphere, oceans and land. It is primarily used as an education and outreach tool to describe the environmental processes of Earth. Four projectors illuminate the hollow, lightweight carbon-fiber sphere and give it life.

“The sphere doesn’t rotate, but it gives you the impression that it’s rotating,” said Robert Tombes, Ph.D., vice provost for life sciences and research. “It’s really amazing. It will capture your imagination.”

Continue reading the VCU News article, "Science On a Sphere".

Kayla Mathes, a doctoral candidate in the integrative life sciences program of VCU Life Sciences, removes tree bark and sugar-transporting tissues immediately under it, using a process called stem girdling. (Courtesy photo)

CILSE doctoral candidate Kayla Mathes part of FoRTE project

September 10, 2020

Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education's Kayla Mathes (pictured) is part of  VCU's research team for the Forest Resilience Threshold Experiment (FoRTE), which seeks answers about forests' ability to adapt to increasing natural threats.

The experiment was led by Christopher Gough, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology, involving 3,600 trees across 50 acres in Michigan.

Read, "A VCU-led experiment will improve forecasts of how the forest carbon cycle responds to disturbances — a key question for climate change".

Adult male grey seal with head above water

Rare seal sighting in the James River

August 28, 2020

Rice Rivers Center Fisheries Biologist David Hopler captured this photo of a very rare sight near the center - an adult male grey seal. The seal was spotted swimming 500 yards upriver from the Benjamin Harrison Bridge in the tidal freshwater portion of the James River. "He should be in the Gulf of St. Lawrence area between Nova Scotia and Labrador," says Hopler. "I've been doing James River water monitoring runs once a week year round for 10 -12 years. First time I've seen a seal."

After seeing the photo, Chesapeake Bay Magazine's Meg Walburn Viviano contacted Hopler for more information.

Read the article, "Rare seal sighting in tidal James River."

Adult male grey seal with head above water

VCU Rice Rivers Center researcher experiences rare sighting of seal in the James River

August 21, 2020

VCU Rice Rivers Center Fisheries Biologist David Hopler has spent countless hours on the James River near the center. Recently, Hopler saw something that caught his eye - an adult grey seal.

Hopler captured a photo of the seal swimming in the tidal freshwater portion of the James River, 500 yards upriver from the Benjamin Harrison Bridge.  "I've been doing James River water monitoring runs once a week year round for 10 -12 years.  First time I've seen a seal."

It is extremely rare for a seal to make its way to the river, and especially as far inland as where he was sighted.  How far is he away from where his travels normally take him? Hopler states, "He should be in the Gulf of St. Lawrence area between Nova Scotia and Labrador.''

Welcome back, Center for Environmental Studies! The Center for Environmental Studies invites you to a special online event to meet the faculty and staff and learn about upcoming academic and research opportunities for fall 2020

Join the Center for Environmental Studies for a special online event August 10

August 4, 2020

The Center for Environmental Studies invites VCU students to a special online event to meet the faculty and staff and learn about upcoming educational and research opportunities for Fall 2020. 

Monday, August 10, 2020 at 2 p.m.

Register here using your VCU Google email.

Over the years, the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program has planted 30 million oysters, helping to filter billions of gallons of water. (File photo)

With new federal grant, VCU’s Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program expands its reach

July 24, 2020

Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D.

Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D., new director for the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education

July 22, 2020

Dr. Robert M. Tombes, Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently appointed Dr. Stephen S. Fong as the new director of the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education (CILSE) and the Integrative Life Sciences Doctoral Program. Fong has served as the Vice Chair in the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering (CLSE) at VCU and will continue as faculty in CLSE and also as co-Lead for the iCubed Sustainable Food Access Core.

He received his Doctor of Philosophy in Bioengineering and Master of Science in Bioengineering from the University of California San Diego, in 2004 and 2001 respectively, and his Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1998.

Fong has expertise in systems biology and metabolic engineering with a background in strain development for chemical production and computational modeling. As a graduate student, he completed the first-ever study that used large-scale metabolic modeling to design and implement novel chemical production into organisms, demonstrated through the production of lactic acid in the bacterium, Escherichia coli.

“Life Sciences at VCU has a great history of being driven by outstanding students across diverse disciplines," states Fong. "We will continue to grow the Integrative Life Sciences Doctoral Program and the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education by highlighting our students’ accomplishments and expanding the diversity of opportunities for our students to develop and apply their knowledge and skills to impact our world.”

Tombes remarks, “Dr. Fong has a distinguished record of integrative research and education, especially working with VCU Life Sciences. He has mentored many students, including ILS graduates, and is extremely comfortable working across disciplines. I am very pleased that I was able to recruit Steve into this position and thrilled that he is now creatively directing these programs.”  

Examples of the diversity of his recent projects include a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant to study low-cost pharmaceutical manufacturing acceleration, studying the impact of the human microbiome on pregnancy, computational modeling of microorganisms for lipid production to produce biofuel, and local sustainability projects (urban heat island, green infrastructure, air quality monitoring).

Fong has published 77 peer-reviewed articles, 15 book chapters and a book titled “Developing Biofuel Processes Using Systems and Synthetic Biology” for Springer Press.

His office is located in Trani Life Sciences, Room 300, and can be reached via email:

VCU students study community ecology of riverrine rockpools in the Virginia Highlands.

Seven VCU students receive River Studies and Leadership Certificate

July 8, 2020

Congratulations to our VCU 2019-2020 River Studies & Leadership Certificate Recipients! 25 students from four universities received this certification from the River Management Society (RMS), including VCU's Reid Anderson, Richie Dang, Jacob Korona, Andrew Davidson, Katie Schmidt, Ryland Stunkle, and Tom Tedesco.

Read the release from RMS, "Graduates prepare for careers in river managment after receiving national River Studies & Leadership Certificate."


CSBC director Rosenberg authored feature article

June 30, 2020

A recent paper published by Michael Rosenberg, Ph.D., director of VCU's Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC), was made the featured article for the Journal of Crustacean Biology for July.

Read, "A fresh look at the biodiversity lexicon for fiddler crabs"


Alex McCrickard

A shared love of fishing starts one man's journey toward a Master of Environmental Studies

June 17, 2020

Alex McCrickard’s path to his position as the Aquatic Education Coordinator at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) began on the water.  “My father introduced me to fishing when I was just a child.  Fishing together has been our thing since I was little,” said McCrickard.  “At a young age, my father’s passion for fishing as well as conservation of our resources was contagious.” 

McCrickard earned his undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies: Natural Resources in 2013 from Sewanee The University of the South.  He spent the summers of 2011 and 2013 as a fly fishing guide on Wyoming’s Upper North Platte River where he enjoyed sharing his passion and knowledge with new anglers.  In 2013, McCrickard moved back east and landed a position as an Environmental Educator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation where he spent one year working in Pennsylvania and three years working in Virginia.  Traveling around the state and educating middle school and high school students was a large part of his job, which brought him to work with VCU Fisheries Biologist David Hopler. Hopler runs the popular Go Fish! summer camp at VCU Rice Rivers Center, and McCrickard was there to provide additional education and awareness elements for the campers.  McCrickard and Hopler share a love of fish ecology, and Hopler suggested McCrickard take a class at VCU. A connection made with Steve McIninch, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) graduate program at that time and who became McCrickard’s advisor, led to his decision to become a full time graduate student starting in the spring of 2018.

The master’s program at CES proved to be a good fit, and he began his studies focusing on coursework in water quality and environmental policy.  In his first semester McCrickard met Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the Rice Rivers Center, during a guest lecture in a class with Paul Bukaveckas, Ph.D., associate professor in CES.  McCrickard expressed his interest in biomonitoring and joining Garman’s lab.

Working in Garman’s fish ecology lab provided McCrickard the opportunity for formal hands-on training directly in his field of interest, and also back on the water with Hopler throughout 2018 and into 2019.  McCrickard worked directly with Hopler, McIninch, and Garman conducting research that assessed the impacts of clearcutting on biotic integrity in Virginia’s Piedmont streams.  In the midst of his grad school studies, another conversation with Hopler set him on his most recent path.  A position within the VDGIF was available, and as a mentor, Hopler strongly suggested him to apply. It was the perfect fit.

In March 2019, McCrickard began his position at VDGIF as the Aquatic Education Coordinator.  His job is to conduct education in aquatic ecology and Virginia’s diverse freshwater fisheries in addition to leading the agencies’ Angler R3 (recruit, retain, reactivate) efforts across the state.  His role often focuses on articulating the science and management of our fisheries through an angling lens.  “VCU connected the dots, and working in Dr. Garman’s fish ecology lab gave me formal training in fisheries science,” said McCrickard.  “Working in the Outreach Division at VDGIF, I am able to blend my formal training and education with my passion for fishing.  We are working to build a diverse angling community with underlying values of conservation and stewardship.  I am a firm believer that the more we recreate and enjoy our fisheries, the more we respect and value them.  As we value our fisheries and wildlife resources, it soon becomes imperative that we must conserve them for generations to come.”      

While working at VDGIF, McCrickard continued his educational journey at VCU, and graduated this spring with a Master of Environmental Studies. 

Learn more about fishing opportunities in Virginia at:

Dr. James Vonesh holds RMS award with the James River and Richmond, VA in the background

Vonesh receives River Management Society’s outstanding contribution award

June 16, 2020

Congratulations to James Vonesh, Ph.D., asociate professor and assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies!

Read about the award and Dr. Vonesh's contributions in the VCU News article, "Vonesh receives River Management Society's outstanding contribution award."

Lindsay Freeman headshot

Lindsay Freeman wins VCU Advising Award!

June 12, 2020

Getting good information to make important career decisions is especially critical in these challenging times. That is why we are particularly proud to announce that Center for Environmental Studies Undergraduate Academic Advisor Lindsay Freeman was just awarded the 2019 -2020 VCU  “Excellence in Advising” award. The competition was stiff with over 150 advisors across VCU and 9 specifically nominated in this category this year. Congratulations, Lindsay!

The “Excellence in Advising- Primary Role” award was given by the Undergraduate Academic Advising Board (UAAB) Award Committee. The goal of the UAAB Awards Program is to encourage wider support and recognition of outstanding advising at Virginia Commonwealth University. Awards are presented across five different categories to individuals who have demonstrated excellence in advising, innovation, and administration. Lindsay has also been nominated to be considered for the National Academic Advising Association  (NACADA) Regional Award competition.

Dr. James Vonesh, Director of the Undergraduate Program in the Center for Environmental Studies, commented on this recognition,

Lindsay Freeman is an invaluable member of the Environmental Studies leadership team and a leader in academic advising across the university. This is reflected in the fact that Environmental Studies undergraduate advising is ranked in the top 5% of all programs at VCU and Lindsay’s student evaluation scores are outstanding–consistently well above the university average. Under Lindsay, excellence in academic advising has become part of the Environmental Studies major “brand” – it is something we highlight during new student recruitment activities.

Lindsay Freeman ENVS advisor wins REAL Challenge Award

Results from the Ruffalo Noel Levitz Student Satisfaction Survey released in 2019 revealed that Environmental Studies advising is ranked third out of the 59 undergraduate academic programs at VCU. That success is solely due to Linday’s efforts, as she is the only academic advisor for Environmental Studies. Based on a sample of 288 advising sessions Lindsay received the highest rating “5 out of 5 –  Excellent” by 99.3% of the students (all scores were positive).

Lindsay is a tireless advocate for students. In 2018 – 2019, she held 728 one-on-one advising appointments totaling more than 360 hrs with VCU students.  Considering that Environmental Studies has approximately 200 majors, it is obvious that most students are having multiple meetings with Lindsay. This doesn’t include the additional contact she has with students through email. One student describes an anecdote that exemplifies how Lindsay advocates for students,

The most touching and stand out moment for me and when I knew Ms. Freeman was different from all the other advisers and even some professors I have had, was last semester. I had mentioned I really wanted to take a course but it was full at the time. Ms. Freeman told me not to worry and wait until add/drop week. As I was sitting at home finishing some homework I noticed a new email in my inbox. … Ms. Freeman had sent me an email, regarding the class I had mentioned to her weeks ago, letting me know there was one opening! I could not believe it. My adviser had not only taken time to personally write me but had remembered the exact class that I was so desperate to get into.

Another of Lindsay’s strengths is her ability to make students feel welcome. Of the 77 students that provided written comments on Lindsay’s advising, 100% were strongly positive, and many speak directly to Lindsay’s interpersonal skills. For example,

Lindsay has really helped my transition to VCU be a positive and exciting experience! I’m very grateful for all of her hard work. She responds to my emails quickly and with very helpful information and resources. All of our meetings have been helpful and encouraging. She really makes an effort to provide students with all of their options and is thorough in her advising. I can feel that she wants to set me up for success and that’s extremely important to me! Aside from her exceptional work ethic, she has a great attitude and personality! Very happy with my first semester here at VCU (in large part due to the efforts of Lindsay).

Graduation requirements can seem overwhelming to some students. Lindsay is excellent at helping students figure out the best path forward and often helps to uncover solutions that help fit the specific situation of individual students. She excels at helping students navigate written and oral information and directions about our program so they can make good choices about course work and graduate in a timely manner. One student writes,

Freeman really knows her stuff. You walk into her office with a list of questions feeling confused, and walk out of her office feeling like your life is all mapped out, supplemented with a list of things you need. She is also incredibly organized and always on top of it. I have never had such a competent adviser before.

Lindsay’s student evaluations are full of comments like these examples.

In addition to working to help students succeed, Lindsay is also a critical liaison with faculty. One faculty member says of Lindsay,

Ever since I transitioned over to Life Sciences with teaching responsibilities in CES, Lindsay has been exceptionally helpful every step of the way. No matter what types of questions I have for Lindsay regarding institutional regulations, policies or procedures or if the questions involve prerequisites for students and classes or helping me to override additional students in my classes, Lindsay has been the consummate colleague and professional. She is always willing to help out in any way she can and always has an “open door” policy (which I greatly appreciate). Lindsay is truly a “champion” for our students and our program and I enthusiastically support her nomination for this award as she exemplifies “Excellence in Advising” at VCU.

Lindsay has continued to grow her capacity for leadership through her contribution to multiple university committees and has actively engaged in maintaining and improving her skills as an adviser.  She completed 8 different training activities and participated in an advising conference this past year alone. She brings this organizational knowledge back to the unit, helping others and the program succeed.

Just a few weeks ago, Linday was awarded one of the VCU Relevant Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL) 2019-2020 inaugural Challenge Grants. This inaugural competition was fierce – with only 13% of proposed projects receiving funding. Lindsay’s project, titled “Building a Pipeline for better Environmental Studies Internships & Careers” will couple an informal expert speaker series with a single credit “Paths to Internship” course to reduce barriers and increase access to these critical experiences. The project builds on the success of her Careers & Conversations (C&C) speaker series and takes advantage of VCU’s proximity to Virginia’s capital by bringing in a diverse set of speakers from state agencies as well as professionals from environmental consulting firms and NGOs.  By featuring representatives from public and private careers across the policy to science spectrum, we will expose our students early on to a wide range of internship opportunities and careers.

Dr. Rodney Dyer, Director of the Center for Environmental Studies, has led Environmental Studies efforts in recent years to strengthen our program to make sure we provide students with the opportunity to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and creativity that will be required to address the critical environmental challenges of the future and develop meaningful careers in rapidly changing world.

Dr. Dyer comments that advising is playing a critical role in this transition,

The Environmental Studies academic programs have been undergoing a complete revision these past years and it has only been because of Lindsay’s continued efforts and dedication to the program that the students have successfully navigated all the changes.  It is no secret that Lindsay and the professional advising activities that she had developed are a huge part of the success of our academic programs.

RVA Mountain Creeks to Metro Canals student research symposium

Student research symposium held via Zoom

June 1, 2020

Over 40 faculty and students participated in an online Zoom symposium the afternoon of May 12.  The Mountain Creeks to Metro Canals symposium was created to support students that planned to share their research at the River Management Training Symposium originally scheduled for May 2020 and postponed to the following year due to COVID-19.

Eight students presented at the event, hosted by VCU Center for Environmental Studies (CES) in collaboration with Northern Arizona University (NAU) and the River Management Society (RMS). Katie Schmidt, (M.S.’20/CES) was the moderator and a presenter.

Presentations included:

Jack Ryan (VCU) Assessing the feasibility of freshwater mussel restoration in urban and non-urban streams of Central Virginia

Rachel Henderson  (VCU) – Microbial Source Tracking of Fecal Contamination in the James River

Ryland Stunkle (VCU) – Flood modeling of riverine rock pools using an unmanned aerial vehicle

Richie Dang (VCU) Identifying drivers of ecosystem production and respiration in riverine rock pools

Andrew Davidson (VCU) Predicting warming’s impacts on mosquito control by larval predators

Riley Swanson (NAU) Assessing Groundwater Resources in the Colorado River Basin: Quantifying Base Flow in the Greater Grand Canyon Region

James Major (NAU) Utilizing Extant Conservation Policy to Fill Identified Gaps in Riverine Protected Areas

Katie Schmidt (VCU) Let it Flow: Restoring Dry River Reaches in the Southeast

Questions were posed after each presentation, and a panel discussion ensued at the conclusion. The full YouTube playlist of presentations can be found here.

Students who were awarded the RSLC Certificate

Five of the students – Stunkle, Dang, Schmidt from VCU and Swanson and Major from NAU – completed their Rivers Studies Leadership Certificate requirements with this presentation.

A surprise addition to the agenda came from Risa Shimoda, executive director of RMS, with the presentation of the Outstanding Contribution to River Management Society award to James Vonesh, Ph.D., associate professor and assistant director of CES, for his contributions and education in river health.

–Lynne McCarthy & James Vonesh

A woman stands on a mountain ledge overlooking a valley

Lindsay Freeman wins “Make it REAL” Challenge Grant

May 27, 2020

Environmental Studies Undergraduate Academic Advisor Lindsay Freeman was recently awarded one of the VCU Relevant Experiential and Applied Learning (REAL) 2019-2020 inaugural Challenge Grants. This inaugural competition was fierce! The Challenge Grant committee received requests for over $380,000 for the available $25,000 and only 13% of projects receiving funding.  Congratulations, Lindsay!

The Center for Environmental Studies is committed to offering REAL experiences to all of our majors and minors.  While internships are a common REAL experience for our students and frequently a stepping stone to post-graduation employment, identifying a rewarding internship can be challenging.  Lindsay’s project, titled “Building a Pipeline for better Environmental Studies Internships & Careers” will couple an informal expert speaker series with a single credit “Paths to Internship” course to reduce barriers and increase access to these critical experiences. The project builds on the success of the Careers & Conversations (C&C) speaker series piloted in 2018 in taking advantage of VCU’s proximity to Virginia’s capital by bringing in a diverse set of speakers from state agencies as well as professionals from environmental consulting firms and NGOs.  By featuring representatives from public and private careers across the policy to science spectrum, we will expose our students early on to a wide range of internship opportunities and careers.

While the C&C speaker series will benefit students at all levels, it will also directly target early academic career students enrolled in “Introduction to Environmental Studies” and “Paths to Environmental Leadership”  – which is new for fall 2020. “Paths to Environmental Leadership” aims to help students starting university begin to cultivate concepts of personal leadership and a vision of their career path while developing peer review and grant writing skills as they develop an application for the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship. The Udall scholarship honors the legacies of Morris Udall and Stewart Udall, whose careers had a significant impact on the stewardship of public lands and natural resources. Students will attend all C&C events offered during the fall semester as part of their grade. Those who choose to continue to work on their scholarship application during the spring 2021 semester for the March 2021 deadline and/ or who want to focus on finding an internship will have the option to complete the new for spring 2021 “Paths to Internship” course in which they will attend all spring C&C events, conduct research on potential internship sites, and write up an internship idea and/or wordsmith and submit their Udall applications.  Ultimately, we aim to have 20% of ENVS students attend at least one C&C event in 2020-2021 and will collect student evaluations at the end of each event.  As an added benefit to the university, C&C will help to create a pipeline for environmental professionals who could potentially participate in career fairs organized by VCU Career Services.

A teen boy holding a catfish

Go Fish! camper raises funds for sturgeon restoration

May 21, 2020

(Photo courtesy Caramucci family)


Tony Caramucci is no stranger to the outdoors and the river. A sophomore at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School and member of the James River Leadership Academy, he was tasked to create a capstone project that would raise funding to provide environmental awareness.  Tony quickly decided the focus of his project would benefit Atlantic Sturgeon research conducted at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.    

Tony, whose parents are both VCU alumni, first became acquainted with the center and its research by attending one of the summer activities available to middle and high school students. “Rice Rivers Center is a program that is special to me because I participated in the center’s Go Fish! camp with Captain David Hopler for four summers,” said Tony. The weeklong camp teaches students about fishing, fish biology and aquatic ecosystems like the James.   

Tony sold 40 stainless steel reusable straws, which translated into a $300 gift for sturgeon conservation at VCU. When the leader of the Atlantic Sturgeon Restoration program, Matt Balazik, Ph.D., found out about the additional funding and how it came to be, he offered Tony a chance to name a male sturgeon. “Mooch” is estimated to have been born October 2003, and was tagged by Balazik’s team on September 6, 2013.  At that time, Mooch was about 58 inches and is estimated to now measure well over 6 feet.   The fish has returned to the waters off Rice Rivers Center every year since he was tagged. Tony will be informed when Mooch comes back to the James River this year.  

The Swedish icebreaker Oden will traverse 2,000-nautical miles across the Northwestern Passage over an 18-day journe

CES Northwest Passage Expedition short part of 2020 STEM for All Video Showcase

May 7, 2020

(Photo: The Swedish icebreaker Oden traversed 2,000-nautical miles across the Northwestern Passage over an 18-day journey)

UPDATE 5-19-20: The film won "Presenters Choice" during the showcase; over 1800 people from all over the world viewed the film and participated in an engaging online discussion.


In 2019, three VCU Center for Environmental Studies (CES) students – Mirella Shaban, Ericka Shulze and Tristan Rivera (CES/VCU Biology) –  participated in the Northwest Passage Expedition, an innovative expedition into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  From May 5 through May 12, their journey is part of the documentary short, Advancing Research Through Telepresence Technology (ARTTT), part of the online 2020 National Science Foundation STEM for All Video Showcase.  

CES Associate Professor Linda Fernandez, Ph.D. was the faculty advisor for the three students and accompanied them on the trip.  She also served as the faculty representative on the National Science Foundation funded project and collaborated with the University of Rhode Island on organizing the expedition.

Over 170 three-minute videos are representative of formal and informal science, technology, engineering and mathematics education initiatives.

During this free week-long and virtual event, researchers, education professionals, students, policymakers, and members of the public are invited to:

  • Browse the showcase of 3-minute videos highlighting federally funded STEM education initiatives.
  • Join in the conversations, lend perspectives, and connect with presenters and leaders in the field. Presenters will be monitoring the online discussions, so be sure to check back for replies to questions and comments.
  • Vote for favorite videos through Facebook, Twitter, or email ballot.
  • Share the video through your own social media and networks from the ARTTT video page. Please consider including the hashtags: #NWPproject, #Arctic, #NSFfunded, #STEMvideohall, #STEMed in your social media posts.



Individual photos of new faculty on royal blue background

CSBC's Allison Johnson, Ph.D., and VCU faculty find new ways to connect with students

May 6, 2020

An April Fool's Day photo of Allison Johnson Ph.D., associate professor at the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (upper left), began a look into how faculty and students are faring as they transitioned to classes off campus.

Read the article, "Creative, flexible and resilient: How VCU faculty and students adapted to remote learning"


Stem for All Video Showcase, May 5 - 12, 2020. View/Discuss/Vote.  (various photos of students from films)

VCU Life Sciences, School of Education participate in 2020 STEM for All Video Showcase

May 6, 2020

“Bivalves as Ecosystems Sustaining Treasures (BEST) in Bay Watersheds,” a VCU Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Rice Rivers Center and VCU School of Education collaboration, will be featured in the 2020 STEM for All Video Showcase funded by the National Science Foundation.  The event will be held online May 5th -12th.

The film, produced by Rice Rivers Center’s Ron Lopez, is part of a three-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant awarded to the VCU Life Sciences and VCU School of Education. The grant will provide $447,000 toward Bay Watershed and Education Training (B-WET) student education about the importance of protecting the local watersheds along the James River.

This is the first year of the NOAA grant, which was truncated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the first year objectives were completed, which include: a) design and delivery of our blended teacher professional learning, b) educator implementation of environmental hands-on inquiry lessons in their classrooms, c) students conducting outdoor field studies, and d) students designing their future stewardship action projects. Students were able to share their efforts and future plans at the Virginia State Capital, which they will continue and complete this fall. 

The STEM for All Video Showcase, now in its sixth year, is hosted by TERC, in partnership with: STEMTLnet, CADRE, CAISE, CIRCL, STELAR, CS for All Teachers, NARST, NCTM, NSTA, NSF INCLUDES, and QEM. The Showcase is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (#1922641).

View video submissions at

Greg Garman, Ph.D.

Greg Garman, Ph.D., interviewed on VPM News

May 1, 2020

Dr. Greg Garman, director of Rice Rivers Center, is interviewed for VPM News.

Listen to the story, "Richmond Air Quality Improving After Social Distancing."

State of the Map US 2020

Center for Environmental Studies MS student wins national logo design competition

April 29, 2020

Second-year MS student Kaycee Faunce is busy racking up an impressive list of accomplishments. For her thesis, Kaycee is conducting an ambitious modeling project on the landscape-scale regulators of organic carbon age in U.S. rivers. This is a critically important project because rivers are traditionally assumed to be carbon sinks, but recent work suggests that rivers may release large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, thereby exacerbating climate change.

While working on her thesis, Kaycee has secured and started a competitive, full-time position with the U.S. Geological Survey. She has also continued to expand her technical skills through Environmental Studies coursework. Most recently, she completed the “Infographics” class, co-taught by ENVS professor Dan McGarvey and Communication Arts professor Sarah Faris. In this class, Kaycee has dramatically enhanced her design and visual communication skills. Armed with these new skills, Kaycee entered and won a logo design for competition for the 2020 “State of the Map U.S.” conference, scheduled for November in Tucson, AZ. This conference is an annual gathering for OpenStreetMap (the open-source competitor to Google Maps) data and application developers, and for Geographic Information Science professionals. As a reward, Kaycee will receive free conference registration and a $300 travel credit.

Lil' Sprouts Microgreens founder and VCU student Trenton Jackson demonstrating his product at a past Real Local RVA event. (Photo courtesy of Trenton Jackson)

Growing greens: Student entrepreneur cultivates food business

April 7, 2020

(Lil' Sprouts Microgreens founder and VCU student Trenton Jackson demonstrating his product at a past Real Local RVA event. Photo courtesy of Trenton Jackson.)

VCU student Trenton Jackson has been involved in a VCU greenhouse project with John Jones, Ph.D. Dr. Jones teaches Environments & Policies of Urban Food Systems and is a visiting scholar in the Center for Environmental Studies and a member of the VCU iCubed Sustainable Food Access.

Jackson's story about how his business, Lil’ Sprouts Microgreens, is providing food access during the pandemic is highlighed in the VCU News story, "Growing greens: Student entrepreneur cultivates food business."


Madison Bates, left, and Nana AfiaTwumasi-Ankrah are two of only 396 Goldwater Scholars this year, selected from a pool of 1,343 nominated applicants

Center for the Study of Biological Complexity student named Goldwater Scholar

April 6, 2020

Congratulations to Nana Afia Twumasi-Ankrah (photo, left), a junior majoring in bioinformatics in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity in VCU Life Sciences, and to Madison Bates (photo, right) from VCU College of Engineering.

Read about their achievements in the VCU News article, "Two VCU students named Goldwater Scholars."



Jeanne McNeil and her dog Jeanne hold a sign that say,

Meet Jeanne McNeil and her co-worker Zeke

April 2, 2020

VCU Monroe Park campus’ temporary closure has Life Sciences faculty and staff getting used to their new ways of teaching and working. 

For Jeanne McNeil, director, Operations and Administration, it means two members of the McNeil household are now working remotely: Jeanne and her certified therapy dog, Zeke, both volunteers for the VCU’s Dogs on Call Program.  Before the campus shutdown, Jeanne worked with all Life Sciences faculty and staff and was based in the Trani Life Sciences building, and Zeke provided canine-assisted therapy for students, and also for patients and medical staff in hospitals. 

Jeanne continues to work from home, but Zeke’s role has had to put his in-person visits on hold for now. However, he continues to try and provide support from afar. “We snapped a photo to send to the Dogs On Call folks to share our support of our amazing and brave folks at the VCU Health System,” say Jeanne.  “Zeke really misses seeing his friends at VCU Health, Children’s Hospital of Richmond, and The Doorways, so he was happy to be able to send them a message of thanks and puppy encouragement – until he can safely deliver it in person.”

Dr. Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens as conducts research in the wetlands at Rice Rivers Center

Dr. Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens subject of VCU's Invest in Me

March 25, 2020

Scholarships for many VCU students make the difference between students putting their studies on hold or becoming a graduate. VCU Center for Life Sciences Education alumna Dr. Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens talks about why it is important to invest in our students, and shows us some of the research she is conducting at Rice Rivers Center.


USNVC_Regional Editors_around the table in the Educational Building at Rice Rivers Center

USNVC Eastern Regional Editors meeting: Appalachian and Coastal Plain Forests

March 16, 2020

On March 10-12 2020, a regional peer-review meeting was held at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, where regional editors and ecologists met to discuss proposed revisions to Appalachian Forests and Mid-Atlantic Coastal Plain Forest classification units. A small group of United States National Vegetation Classification (USNVC) ecologists from state Heritage Programs (New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, North Carolina and Virginia) as well Region Editors, Senior Ecology NatureServe staff, and ecologists from academia participated in this two-day, three-night retreat at Rice Rivers Center. Revisions to these forest types will be posted in future releases of the USNVC and NatureServe’s International Vegetation Classification

students present outside at the VCU Rice Rivers Center

12th Annual VCU Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium Call for Presentations

March 5, 2020


DATE CHANGE: The Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium, originally scheduled for May 1, will be postponed until fall 2020. More information will become available when a new date is secured.

The Twelfth Annual Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium will be held on Friday May 1, 2020 at the VCU Rivers Center, 3701 John Tyler Memorial Highway, Charles City, VA, 23030.  This is a call for oral and poster presentations. Presentations featuring research activities conducted at the Rice Rivers Center, the James River, its tributaries and associated riparian and upland landscapes are welcome, as are projects involving nearby public lands owned by Rice Research Partners such as USFWS and VDGIF.

Faculty and students from VCU and cooperating Universities, and Rice Rivers Center Partners are invited to submit titles for oral or poster presentations of completed research projects or research-in-progress. Once all submissions are received, oral presentations will be divided into sessions by topic (e.g. River Ecology, Terrestrial and Riparian Systems, Ephemeral Aquatic Habitats). Each oral presentation will be 10 – 15 minutes.

Please submit presentation titles, list of authors and affiliations, type of presentation (oral or poster) and whether the presenter is currently a student to Ron Lopez ( Deadline for submissions is April 1, 2020.

Format for submission:

Historical commercial harvest snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) in Virginia. Benjamin C. Colteaux, VCU-ILS; Cynthia M. Sheuermann, VCU-BIO; J.D. Kleopfer, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF); and Derek M. Johnson, VCU-BIO. 

Bioinformatics major Nasita Islam collects a water sample from a rock pool along the James River in Richmond. Islam developed a method to isolate phages from water for a VCU Honors Summer Undergraduate Research Program project. (Tom Kojcscich, University Marketing)

Answers in the rock pools

March 5, 2020

By Christopher Katella
University Public Affairs


Nasita Islam has made a few acquaintances during her time as a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, but none more interesting than Kyle, Phynn and Beyonphe. One important point, though — they’re microscopic. 

A third-year bioinformatics student in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, part of VCU Life Sciences, Islam went from a curious freshman studying bacterial viruses called bacteriophages in the Phage Discovery Lab of associate professor Allison Johnson, Ph.D., to teaching her peers a method she developed using samples from rock pools along the James River in Richmond. 

As a result, Islam has presented her work at conferences and is collaborating with Johnson on a manuscript detailing their discoveries.


Read the entire article. "Answers in the rock pools."

Kaycee Faunce, William Shuart and Anna Mika at the 2020 ERSI Federal GIS Conference

Faculty and students attend 2020 Federal GIS User Conference

February 24, 2020

(Pictured from left: Kaycee Faunce, William Shuart, Anna Mika)


William Shuart, environmental data management instructor at VCU Rice Rivers Center, presented two workshops at the 2020 ESRI Federal GIS conference February 11 and 12 in Washington, DC.  More than 5,000 participants from across the country converged at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to take part in over 125 professional development workshops. A map created by Shuart was used in the opening plenary address from Jack Dangermond, president and founder of ESRI.

Kaycee Faunce and Anna Mika (master’s candidates in VCU Center for Environmental Studies) were also in attendance.  Faunce is currently a geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Mika works as a database management specialist at Chesterfield County and is also pursuing a Graduate Certificate in Geographic Information System (GIS).  During the conference’s university session which took place on February 10, Mika presented on sea level rise and sustainability.

Students from Charles City County Public Schools joined (back row, from left) teacher Yolanda Smith and Dr. James Vonesh, assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies, to share their BEST in Bay Watersheds results with (back row, from center) Keith Westbrook and Birdie H. Jamison from the legislative staff of Del. Delores L. McQuinn.

Local students visit State Capitol as part of STEM grant

February 24, 2020

(Photo: Students from Charles City County Public Schools joined (back row, from left) teacher Yolanda Smith and Dr. James Vonesh, assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies, to share their BEST in Bay Watersheds results with (back row, from center) Keith Westbrook and Birdie H. Jamison from the legislative staff of Del. Delores L. McQuinn.)

VCU Life Sciences, in partnership with the VCU School of Education, was awarded a three-year grant by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA). The Center for Environmental Studies and Rice Rivers Center are part of this major initiative.

Read the article, "Local students visit State Capitol as part of STEM grant."



Aerial view of Rice Rivers Center - the pier, the education building and the wetlands

2020 Rice Summer Scholars Request for Proposals announced

February 21, 2020

The VCU Rice Rivers Center will fund competitive research awards to students working on a directed thesis, dissertation, or independent study in 2020. The objectives of the program are to support directed research experiences for VCU students and to advance the Center’s core mission of scholarship in environmental science, conservation biology, water resources, and related disciplines. Funds will be available by May to cover costs (supplies, equipment, travel) and may be used through December, 2020. Applications for Student Scholarships are solicited based on the following limits: undergraduates up to $750, Master’s up to $1,500, and Doctoral up to $2,500. Collaborative requests are especially encouraged; budget totals for joint applications may be higher. Graduate students may request a summer stipend (i.e., salary, up to $2,000) as an additional supplement; such requests should be justified and will be considered based on available funding.    

Who May Apply: Current VCU undergraduate and graduate students who will be enrolled in the Fall 2020 semester may submit a proposal for 2020 support.

Requirements: Written proposals must be received via email on or before April 3, 2020 and should include a cover letter, a concise (3-4 page) proposal with project title, introduction, objectives/hypotheses, methods, expected results, and a detailed budget, as well as a letter of support from a faculty advisor/mentor (required). The budget should show total project costs, not just funds being requested, and should justify the need for Rice Rivers Center support.  

Award decisions will be made in late April and will be announced at the 12th Annual Rice Research Symposium on May 1st, 2020 at the Center. 

Submit one electronic copy (pdf format) of your proposal and faculty advisor letter to Ronaldo Lopez ( no later than April 3, 2020.

A woman petting a dog

Zeke and the Dogs on Call team provide special valentines to VCU Medical Center

February 17, 2020

VCU's Center for Human-Animal Interaction's Dogs on Call program delivers smiles and pets on both the Monroe Park and medical campus. Their mission is dedicated to improving the health and well-being through interaction and human companionship. This Valentine's Day, Zeke (pictured) and his other furry friends delivered treats and their own puppy valentines to VCU Medical Center.  Life Sciences' Jeanne McNeil is the proud pet parent of Zeke.

See the group of volunteer pups in the VCU Exposure story, "Puppy Love."




12 VCU students pose on a mountaintop in Patagonia

Report from the field: A new wilderness practice and policy study abroad course in Patagonia

February 12, 2020


“…the reward of this venture, if there was one, would reside in the doing of the thing itself.”

– Kevin Fedarko

By Jordan Rasure -- Starting in Coyhaique, we traveled south in a clockwise loop – first to the snow-tipped mountains of  Cerro Castillo, to lake-guarded Chile Chico, then to guanaco-inhabited Jeinemeni and Chacabuco, to the marble caves of Río Tranquilo, and back again. Thirteen people carrying everything we needed for two weeks in roughly seventy-liter packs had come together to experience everything that Chilean Patagonia could offer in such a short time. Our individual motives for spending New Year’s south of the equator varied, but rooted at the core of each reason was a profound desire to immerse ourselves in the wilderness.

Formally, our unified goal was to learn about the differences in the management of national parks in Chile and the United States. Over the course of two treks and a handful of conversations with locals who engaged with the parks in various capacities, we gathered first-hand knowledge of a system that simultaneously contrasts and mirrors our own. We walked through a riverbed crisscrossed by strands of a glacier-fed stream that braided and unraveled itself over the landscape. We stared at guanacos that had returned to their endemic lands after domestic livestock had been removed. We felt the potency of the southern vernal sun and our own smallness when perched on exposed ridgelines overlooking peak after peak of the Southern Andes. We were there, absorbing and trying desperately to capture all the beauty of this wild and magical place.

But even as we admired the delicate alpine flowers nestled in rocky crevices and the great wingspans of condors riding thermals, we were reminded that this place needs as much protection as the parks and reserves that are closer to our home. For we saw the damage inflicted by grazing cattle, walked through scree fields uncovered by retreating glaciers, and listened to stories about an overextended government agency failing to conserve these precious and irreplaceable ecosystems. This was Patagonia – a place with a complicated past and an uncertain future in terms of its wild spaces.

In writing about an attempt to set a boating speed record through the Grand Canyon, Kevin Fedarko remarks that the joy of many endeavors is simply having the experience. The doing of the thing itself. Our thing was traveling to and throughout Chilean Patagonia. Collectively, our trip was full of firsts – a first plane flight, a first multi-day backpacking trip, a first chance to dabble in another language. We learned so much more than could have ever been taught in a classroom, but our thing is even bigger than just that experience. We are now charged with learning about the systems that are in place to protect the enchanting places both in Chile and in the United States. For some of us, a report at the end of the semester will be the end of the thing. For others, we hope to be able to take what we have learned and someday influence policies to protect cherished places. Maybe it will be somewhere in Patagonia, maybe it will be a park in the United States, but wherever we invest our efforts, we will remember the lessons we have learned in the doing of this thing.

About the author: Jordan Rasure is a senior pursuing a dual degree in biology and Spanish with a minor in chemistry at VCU.   She was one of eleven students who participated in the Patagonia National Parks- Comparative Analysis of Wilderness Policy course/ study abroad trip during winter break 2019.  Students traveled to Chilean Patagonia from Dec. 28th, 2019- Jan. 11th, 2020, and are taking a corresponding Wilderness Policy and Practice course on campus during Spring 2020.

50 participants at Rice River Center conference room discussing the control of invasive fish species

Rice Rivers Center hosts meeting on invasive species in the Chesapeake Bay

February 4, 2020

Last week the Rice Rivers Center hosted a two-day meeting focused on the impact and control of invasive fishes in the Chesapeake Bay. Over 50 individuals representing all of the Bay States learned about new science on invasive species, opportunities to build commercial fisheries by harvesting invasive species, and created management plans to be implemented by the states. Participants included a broad range of stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishers, seafood economists, scientists, and resource managers.

Anne Wright (left) with CES Assistant Director Dr. James Vonesh holding a plaque that says (Anne Wright, VCU 1990-2020

CES Assistant Professor Anne Wright retires

February 4, 2020

Anne Wright, CES Assistant Professor, retires after 30 years of service. Anne taught our Invasive Species Management in Urban Park in collaboration with the James River Park System. Many of her outreach activities can be found at Science in the Park.

VCU researcher holds juvenile sturgeon

Rice Rivers Center part of NOAA's Sturgeon recovery effort

January 16, 2020

VCU Rice Rivers Center plays a large role in NOAA's effort to help recover sturgeon populations in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. Sonar work by the NOAA team were done at the center to compare fish sampling information with habitat data.

Read Fishing Wire's article, "NOAA Science Supports Atlantic Sturgeon Recover Effort in the Chespeake Bay."

Headshot of Ashley Purdy standing next to two sunflowers

Center for Life Sciences Education student in VCU Student Spotlight

January 16, 2020

Graduate student Ashley Purdy is the focus of VCU Graduate School's January Student Spotlight.  She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Integrative Life Sciences, part of VCU Life Sciences.

Real the article, "Student Spotlight - Ashley Purdy".

Wild celery grass just before being transplanted into a seagrass restoration site on a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay in May 2019 - Original Credit: Gabby Troutman - Original Source: CBF/Gabby Troutman (Gabby Troutman / HANDOUT)

Rice Rivers Center part of Grasses for the Masses

January 10, 2020

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Grasses for the Masses is featured in the Daily Press. Rice Rivers Center is home to one of the restoration sites.

Read the entire article, "Volunteers are needed to grow Chesapeake Bay underwater grasses in their homes, classrooms and offices."

LaMont Cannon, Ph.D.

LaMont Cannon, Ph.D., joins the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity

January 7, 2020

The path LaMont Cannon, Ph.D. took to become an Assistant Professor in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity has come full circle. A graduate of Midlothian High School, which sits across the James River from Richmond and VCU’s Monroe Park Campus, Dr. Cannon has spent time working around the world and recently settled back in Richmond with his wife and two small children.

Dr. Cannon joins the faculty this month. Operating at the intersection of mathematics, statistics, engineering, biology and computer science his work will concentrate on Biostatical Learning, Genetic Inference, Computational Biology and Control of Biological Systems, with a focus on HIV systems biology. While at VCU, Cannon will be collaborating with different units at the Monroe Park and VCU Health Medical Campuses analyzing and sequencing data to provide information to wetlabs around the university so they can use it to enhance and modify their research.  

Following in the footsteps of his father, Dr. Cannon’s focus during his undergraduate years at University of Delaware (UD) was in Engineering. He obtained his Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering and his Master’s of Science in Electrical and Computer Engineering. While studying under Ryan Zurakowski Ph.D. for his graduate degree at UD and working full time for the US Navy, Dr. Cannon developed an interest in control theory for biological systems and switched his Master’s concentration. His educational and professional work came together when he saw how the mechanical aspects of a ship was very much like how cells operate in organisms. He continued to blend his background in engineering and research in biology, and received his Doctor of Philosophy in Biomedical Engineering at UD. Following the completion of his Ph.D., Dr. Cannon spent two years as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow working in the lab of Una O’Doherty, M.D., Ph.D. within the Pathology Department at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

We are happy Dr. Cannon’s journey has led him back to his hometown, and to VCU. Dr. Cannon is seeking motivated students with strong background or interests in mathematics and bioinformatics to join the lab.

Dr. Cannon can be found at:
Grace E. Harris Hall, Room 3110


Headshot of Niels Asmussen

Niels Asmussen receives Young Investigator Award

January 6, 2020

Integrative Life Sciences Doctoral candidate Niels Asmussen won a Young Investigator Award at the 13th International Conference on the Chemistry and Biology of Mineralized Tissues. Niels is advised by Dr. Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., the Alice T. and William H. Goodwin, Jr. Dean of VCU College of Engineering.

Kimages Wetland Complex education building interior with doors open overlooking the wetlands at Rice Rivers Center

Support from Universal Leaf Foundation turns new waterfront complex into reality

December 17, 2019

Friends and supporters of VCU Rice Rivers Center recently gathered to celebrate the opening of the Kimages Wetland Complex, a multi-use area providing sweeping views and direct access to the Kimages Creek wetlands at the center.

The complex, completed with generous support from Universal Leaf Foundation, includes a new education building, renovation of the former YMCA wooden pier, the addition of a floating dock for water-level canoe access, and lighting to the site. The education building is an on-site, multi-media equipped classroom that sits on piers over the wetlands, providing a unique and immersive educational experience in line with VCU’s commitment to experiential learning.  The design of the pier allows safe, ADA-compliant canoe and kayak access to the creek and tidal wetlands by students, instructors, and other outreach program providers at Rice Rivers Center.

Funding from Universal Leaf Foundation has also allowed the center to greatly enhance research and documentation of the ecosystem benefits from wetlands and river restoration, critical to the health of the James River and Chesapeake Bay.  This led to installation of a Surface Elevation Table (SET), with the center as one of several locations that tracks sea-level rise in the James River estuary. With the addition of the SET, Rice Rivers Center is now part of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Sentinel Site Cooperative, which generates new research opportunities for our faculty and staff.


Girl Scout Troop 5184 in back of the VCU Rice Rivers sign

Local Girl Scout troop blaze a trail at VCU Rice Rivers Center

December 17, 2019

Late summer, six scouts from a local Girl Scout troop partnered with VCU Center for Environmental Studies Masters student and VCU Outdoor Adventure Program’s (OAP) Katie Schmidt to build a trail through the forest at VCU Rice Rivers Center. The trail connected the Inger Rice Lodge to the newly-restored cabin. 

Schmidt taught the scouts low impact and sustainable trail building techniques as well as proper usage of a variety of tools. Together, they worked to create a smooth trail surface, install low retaining walls from fallen wood, and create features to allow water to move over the trail. While working on the trail, Schmidt also helped the scouts learn how to identify trees and fauna that are native to the property. The scouts are working this winter to make tree identification signs for installation along the trail. After providing the final touch by mulching the finished trail, the group participated in the Girl Scout Silver Award Ceremony, presented to Cadette scouts who are dedicated to working on a project to improve the community. 

Follow their story through photos on our Facebook page.


Oyster in net

VOSRP part of Virginia Living Museum Oyster Roast

December 3, 2019

The Virginia Living Museum held its 8th Annual Oyster Roast in Newport News, where over 600 guests enjoyed all-you-can-eat oysters. What happened to all that shell? Volunteers at the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) collected them and brought them to Rice Rivers Center to age.

Read more about the oyster roast from 'CoVaBiz': Virginia Living Museum Hosted 8th Annual Oyster Roast

A bird bander holds a black rail. As recently as 1990, the eastern black rail was a common bird found in marshes along the Chesapeake Bay. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, citing the inundation of nests from more frequent storms and increasingly high tides, has proposed listing the bird as threatened. (Woody Woodrow / USFWS)

Scientists raise alarm as North American bird populations plummet

November 13, 2019

(Photo: A bird bander holds a black rail. As recently as 1990, the eastern black rail was a common bird found in marshes along the Chesapeake Bay. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, citing the inundation of nests from more frequent storms and increasingly high tides, has proposed listing the bird as threatened. (Woody Woodrow / USFWS)

From Bay Journal:

It’s hard to imagine a world without birds chirping outside in the morning or during a stroll in the woods. But a new study has found that birds are in serious decline across North America, including in the Chesapeake Bay region.

There are nearly 3 billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970 — a 29% decline during a single human lifetime, according to the study published in October by the journal Science. The study was done by eight scientists with government and private bird research organizations in the United States and Canada.

Read the entire Bay Journal article, "Scientists raise alarm as North American bird populations plumment."


ENVS grad makes watersheds REAL for area students

November 13, 2019

VCU Environmental Studies graduate student and VDGIF Aquatic Education Coordinator Alex McCrickard making watershed education REAL for area students.



Joey Parent

ENVS instructor appointed to Board of Directors of national outdoor society

November 1, 2019

Congratulations to Joey Parent, Assistant Director of VCU Outdoor Adventure Programs and instructor of ENVS 260 Outdoor Leadership, on his appointment to the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education (AORE) Board of Directors. AORE is the premier organization dedicated to serving the needs of recreation and education professionals in non-profit settings. Through AORE, members have a mechanism to interact with and affect decisions made by public land managers and the human-powered outdoor recreation industry. AORE is committed to promoting ecologically sound stewardship of the natural environment and serves as a collective voice for its members regarding topics of regional and national concern. In addition to teaching ENVS 260, Joey has also been instrumental in the development of flagship field courses Footprints on the James and Expedition down the River of No Return, as well as our new ENVS freshman orientation weekend field trip. Joey’s appointment will further strengthen VCU’s ability to “Make it REAL!” by providing cutting edge training in the field!

Participants from first NSF RIVER Field Studies Network workshop

Report from the field: NSF River Field Studies Network workshop #1 – Camp Lotus, California

November 7, 2019

By Dr. James Vonesh, Center for Environmental Studies

Excited to be back from our first NSF RIVER Field Studies Network workshop @ Camp Lotus on the American River in California. The vision of this network is to transform undergraduate STEM education through immersive, interdisciplinary river and watershed programs. This kick-starter involved the steering committee of faculty from 7 universities across the country and leadership from River Management Society (parent group of the River Studies and Leadership Certificate we offer at VCU). We crafted vision and values statements, workshopped steps toward specific objectives, hosted expert panels on inclusion and diversity in STEM field courses and risk management for river courses, taught each other some lessons we use in our courses while spending a morning rafting the American, and cooked, camped, and laughed together while managing the PG&E power shutdown in effect. Great team building and a great start for our fledgling network. Our next workshop will be here in RVA in May and will be twice as large.

Picture of ethernet cable about to be plugged into data port

Environmental Studies Data Portal

November 8, 2019

After three years of effort, we are now live on the ENVS data portal supporting student, faculty, and class data needs. You can find a link to it here.

Six CSBC students hold award

Bioinformatics students take third place in VCU HealthHacks Challenge

November 1, 2019

Three of our Master’s students in Bioinformatics (Molly Creighton, Stephen Hepper, and Thomas Stack) recently participated in the fourth annual VCU HealthHacks medical hackathon. Teaming up with three undergraduates from Biomedical Engineering (Zahraa Al-azzawi, Wesam Elhawabri, and Samiya Majid), the team of six successfully took third place in the event.

The theme for VCU HealthHacks 2019 was Pharmaceutical Innovation for Patient Care. The challenge the team tackled was sponsored by the VCU Center for Pharmaceutical Engineering and Sciences:

“Inhaled devices are particularly expensive in their current form and are not always cost effective for patients in poor countries even though the dose (and cost) of the active ingredients is low in comparison with the device. Design a device, or process which is capable of delivering a 30 day supply (either containing the 30d supply, or is reloadable) of inhaled therapy at a cost of <$5.00 (not including drug). Remember that the device or process has to be capable of delivering the fine particle fraction of <5 micron of the active ingredient.”

In response to this challenge, the team designed The Penhaler: A reusable, spring-loaded inhaler that delivers single-dose dry powder medication. With their third place win, the team has been invited to the da Vinci Center’s Pre-Accelerator Program (Pre-X) to further develop the design.

Congratulations to the whole team! The theme for next year’s VCU HealthHacks event is Medical Imaging, Bioinformatics, Machine Learning, and Augmented Intelligence. It will take place Nov. 7 & 8, 2020.

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program logo

Oyster shell recycling comes to Charlottesville

October 31, 2019

If you enjoy oysters and live in the Charlottesville, Virginia area, you now can help return oysters to the Chesapeake Bay just by the restaurant you choose to dine at or where you drop off your oyster shells. 

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) has partnered with the McIntire Road Recycling Center to provide a location where shells from participating restaurants and the general public will be picked up by the VORSP, aged for a year at VCU Rice Rivers Center, then placed in a seeding tank filled with spat that will attach to the shells.  At that point, the shell, which can contain as many as 10 - 15 spat each, are returned to the Bay.

Some of the press coverage in the Charlottesville/Albermarle area include:

NBC 29
Oyster Shell Collection Program Comes to Charlottesville

Daily Progress
Recycling shells makes a world for oysters

Oyster shell recycling opens at McIntire Recycling Center 

CBS19 News
New oyster shell collection in Charlottesville

Augusta Free Press
Oyster Shell Collection now available at McIntire Recycling Center

Rivanna Authorities press release
Oyster Shell Recycling at McIntire Recycling Center

Greg Garman, Ph.D.

VCU Rice Rivers Center Director comments on 2018 State of the James River

October 8, 2019

Dr. Greg Garman, director of the VCU Rice Rivers Center, comments about the health of the James in the James River Association's 2019 State of the James press release. 


Read the Richmond Times-Dispatch article, "James River gets B- grade again after record rainfalls in 2018 dampened recent progress."

Tpdd Janeski with Jessica Noll and Bill Bevins on Virginia This Morning set

Shell-Raiser's Shindig featured on Virginia This Morning

October 7, 2019

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) Director Todd Janeski sat down with Virginia This Morning hosts Jessica Noll and Bill Bevins to discuss the Annual Shell-Raiser’s Shindig, which takes place on October 20 at Libbie Mill-Midtown from 2 – 5 p.m. This is the fifth year of the Shindig and it promises to be the biggest one yet.

The VOSRP has partnered with Slow Food RVA, Echelon Event Management, Libbie Mill - Midtown, WTVR CBS 6 News, and Virginia This Morning on CBS 6 to bring together top chefs in Virginia to celebrate the bounty of the Commonwealth including oysters from Virginia's diverse flavor regions and Virginia wine, beer, cider and spirits.

The afternoon will be filled with good friends, food and cheer, all to support oyster restoration in the Chesapeake. Enjoy a day featuring dishes from amazing regional chefs and sample renowned Virginia beer, wine, cider and spirits. We also are providing a unique opportunity for guests to learn more about the VOSRP’s broad ranging partner network, meet industry advocates and explore the wonderful world of Virginia oysters.

We will be joined by Chefs that all participate in the VOSRP.  Chefs will prepare dishes reflective of their style and interest, and will not be solely a seafood or oyster dish.

We will also feature a pimento cheese station from Robin Allen (Birdie's) and a ham tasting station from Keith Roberts (Edwards Virginia Smokehouse). 

Oysters can be sampled from Virginia include:

 VA wine and beer will be served from:

 New to the Shindig is a silent auction – another way to support the VOSRP!

 Tickets are $50 for a single or $90 for a pair and are all inclusive. If you don’t wish to partake in Virginia beer and wine, non-drinking tickets are available at a reduced price.  Children under 12 are free, but a ticket is required for admission.

Purchase tickets here.



AJK foraging on fiddler crab in Aruba

Whimbrel AJK returns to Aruba

September 30, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Many North American residents flee their homes during the cold winter months to spend time in Aruba.  Due to its dry climate visitors can count on having plenty of sun.  With temperatures consistently in the low 80s and miles of white-sand beaches, it is all about sun, fun, and spending money.  Aruba has become a magnet for destination travelers and cruise ships.  It has also become the winter home of a whimbrel (AJK) flagged by CCB in the fall of 2009.     

AJK was captured on 15 August, 2009 while staging on Boxtree Creek along the Delmarva Peninsula in Virginia as part of an investigation of whimbrel migration.  The bird was an adult at capture and weighed 559 grams, indicating that it was in the later days of fattening before continuing on to winter grounds.  Unlike many of the other whimbrels captured within this study area, AJK did not receive a satellite transmitter but was released on the hope that it would be encountered again somewhere, sometime.  The hope that AJK would be encountered and reported by someone out there has been fulfilled several times and all reports have come from the island of Aruba. 

Michiel Oversteegen, an accomplished local bird photographer, photographed AJK on 14 August of 2019 within a small wetland just northwest of Santa Anna.  Michiel first photographed the bird during the fall of 2018 in this same location.  AJK had been identified and reported during previous years on the island and Michiel sometimes sees the bird with other whimbrel, but also alone.  The site may support a total of 10-15 whimbrel through the winter. 

Although the white-sand beaches of Aruba draw many visitors from the north during the winter months, the availability of wetlands to support whimbrels is limited.  The vast majority of whimbrels tracked by satellites over the past decade have spent the winter on the northern coast of South America around the Amazon Delta.  Remaining birds, like AJK or Hope, winter throughout the Caribbean Basin in small, isolated pockets of habitat.  The incredible site fidelity exhibited by both Hope and AJK point to the importance of these dispersed habitats. 

David Whalen measures barn owl

Barn owl blues

September 30, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Few experiences take us back to the Halloweens of childhood like climbing up into a silo or hayloft at night and hearing the hissing and bill claps of a barn owl brood echoing off the walls. Once reaching the brood, they perform their monster sway in unison.  In coastal Virginia, these sights and sounds have become increasingly rare as nesting pairs have continued a more than sixty-year slide. 

The common barn owl is one of the most widely distributed bird species in the world and occurs throughout the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.  The species requires open grasslands to hunt.  Following the Civil War, land clearing reached a climax throughout eastern North America both to expand agricultural lands and to harvest wood products.  Several species of grassland birds, including barn owls, expanded into this breach and established successful breeding populations.  However, the fortunes of these birds would begin to shift dramatically by the 1950s when farming practices began to intensify and idle lands were reforested.  During the grassland heyday, barn owls were widespread and common in Virginia.  Like most other areas in eastern North America, the Virginia population has experienced a slow but steady decline stretching back for several decades. 

Chuck Rosenburg, a graduate student of Mitchell Byrd’s, worked with barn owls throughout Virginia in the 1980s and documented more than 110 breeding territories across the state.  During the 1980s and 1990s we established more than 100 nest boxes and trays to facilitate breeding throughout all physiographic regions in Virginia.  None of the nesting sites in the Coastal Plain known to Chuck during the 1980s are still active today.  As recently as the 1990s, barn owls nested in offshore duck blinds on the James, York, Rappahannock, Potomac, and Back Rivers and foraged within adjacent farmlands or marshes.  These populations have now collapsed.  Today, the only consistently used areas of the Coastal Plain are the outer coastal bays including Back Bay and the Delmarva Seaside. 

 Today, the bright spot for barn owls in Virginia continues to be the Shenandoah Valley or the Virginia portion of the Great Valley.  The Great Valley is a series of lowlands stretching from Quebec to Alabama and represents one of the major land features of eastern North America.  The valley was a significant north-south travel corridor in prehistoric times.  The central valley (stretching from Tennessee to southern New York) continues to be an important agricultural area supporting both crop and livestock production.  Due to the continuing focus on agriculture, the landscape has not experienced the same pressure from secondary succession and residential development as many other eastern landscapes.  The landscape has remained relatively stable since before the Civil War.  

Barn owls, American Kestrels, and other grassland birds continue to be a part of the Great Valley and this area should be a significant focus for the management of barn owls.  Because much of the foraging habitat remains intact, there continues to be good management potential.  Lance and Jill Morrow, and more recently Alan Williams, have been working barn owls in a portion of the Great Valley in Virginia and have had surprising success in managing breeding pairs.  Their work has demonstrated that successful management is possible in areas where appropriate habitat remains.





three students on rocks in the James River look at the rock pool, while others gather at a rock pool in the distance

SOE, Life Sciences awarded $447,000 NOAA grant

September 26, 2019

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded the VCU School of Education and VCU Life Sciences a three-year $447,000 Bay Watershed and Education Training (B-WET) grant titled Bivalves as Ecosystems Sustaining Treasures (BEST) in Bay Watersheds.

This initiative will transform students’ understanding of the importance of protecting their local watershed along the James River in Virginia. Bivalves will be used as the contextual theme connecting inland riverine and coastal marine ecosystems along an ecological continuum. Students will engage in hands-on investigations using NOAA Education Modules informed by aligned research from scientists and graduate students from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Life Sciences and the VCU School of Education. They will also collect data on water quality to support bivalves in their watersheds and exchange data among schools, as well as share their projects with local audiences, academic researchers, other schools and state representatives. The effort is working with middle school teachers from public school systems in Charles City County, Colonial HeightsNew Kent County and Newport News.

Every student in specific grades each year will participate in a local hands-on field investigation of their surrounding area and design and implement a stewardship action project that is informed by their findings. Example action projects may include efforts such as cleaning up a local stream, reducing run-off in storm water drains or agricultural areas through community awareness campaigns, or even assisting in oyster shell recycling initiatives.

This effort will be achieved through an in-depth and sustained year-long teacher professional learning experience for educators from each of the participating school districts beginning at the VCU Rice Rivers Center and leveraging local resources such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Center at the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery which hosts the Virginia Fisheries and Aquatic Wildlife Center.

Continue reading, "SOE, Life Sciences awarded $447,000 NOAA grant"

 Katherine Studholme scans through staging red knots while surrounded by shorebird

CCB team spends fifth spring with red knots along South Atlantic Coast

September 25, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

For the fifth spring season, Fletcher Smith led a field team working with red knots along the South Atlantic Coast.  The rufa subspecies of the red knot that migrates within the Western Atlantic Flyway has declined precipitously over the past three decades, leading to its listing as federally threatened.  The population is also listed as endangered in Canada and has been declared endangered by the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Animals.  Declines have led to a concerted effort throughout the hemisphere to identify locations with high conservation significance for the population.  Much of the work on spring migration has focused on the mid-Atlantic staging areas of Delaware Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula.  Much less is known about the staging area along the south Atlantic Coast.  

CCB led the first effort to use systematic flag resighting to better understand the role of the South Atlantic in the spring of 2013.  Since that time, tens of thousands of knot legs have been scanned and the data show 1) that a significant portion of the rufa population uses the South Atlantic Coast during spring, 2) that birds stage for an extended time period, and 3) that many birds are leaving from this area to fly directly to Arctic breeding grounds.  Birds appear to be using the 350 km coast from South Carolina through north Florida as a single staging area and move freely throughout.  Distribution within the area varies year to year depending on the distribution of preferred prey. 

Work during the spring of 2019 focused on short-distance knots that stage along the South Atlantic.  Most of the research and conservation concern over the past 20 years has focused on long-distance knots that migrate from Arctic breeding grounds to winter grounds in extreme southern South America.  Much less is known about knots that migrate shorter distances to winter within southeastern North America, the Caribbean Basin, and along the northern coast of South America.  

 Significant numbers of knots overwinter along the south Atlantic Coast during most years.  Numbers along the Georgia and South Carolina coast begin to swell in late March and early April as the overwintering birds are joined by short-distance migrants, presumably from the Caribbean Basin and the Gulf-coast of Florida.  This wave arrives well before the long-distance migrants return to stage. 

The field team worked several locations where knots were concentrated during the spring of 2019, including Turtle Island, SC, Deveaux Banks, SC, Seabrook Island, SC, Kiawah Island, SC, Ogeechee Bar, GA, and Little Tybee, GA.  They documented individuals regularly moving 100 km or more between foraging areas, supporting the notion that birds sample foraging conditions throughout the South Atlantic Coast and use it as a single staging area.  The team successfully captured knots in South Carolina and deployed 60 nanotags to allow tracking their movements up the Atlantic Coast. 

CCB’s long-term work with knots on the South Atlantic Coast has been conducted in partnership with Georgia Power, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Nongame Program, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, and The Nature Conservancy.

Male golden-winged warbler photo by Baron Lin

CES and VDGIF collaborate to learn about the decline of the Golden-winged Warbler

September 20, 2019

(Image: Male golden-winged warbler, photo credit Baron Lin)


Dr. Lesley Bulluck, assistant professor in VCU's Center for Environmetal Studies (CES), collaborated with Sergio Harding, bird conservation biologist in the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), to survey private landowners in western Virginia to find out why the population of the Golden-winged Warbler is decreasing so dramatically.

Their findings were published on the VDGIF blog. Read, "Warblers Working on Lands: Restoring Shrublands for Wildlife."


graphic of sturgeon courtesy of Duane Raver/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Sturgeon Moon

September 16, 2019

VCU Rice Rivers Center researcher Dr. Matt Balazik is featured in Chesapeake Bay Magazine's story. 

Read "Sturgeon Moon."

Bret Boyd

Bret Boyd joins faculty at Center for the Study of Biological Complexity

September 16, 2019

Bret Boyd, Ph.D., looks out his office window from Harris Hall at the heart of the Monroe Park Campus in Richmond, his new hometown.  Boyd is settling in as the new assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC), and recently arrived from another college town, Athens, Georgia. 

 Boyd’s research focuses on two different groups of organisms: insects and bacteria.  

It seems there are insects everywhere and for good reason – more than 900,000 types of species exist.  It turns out many familiar insects would not be able survive without bacteria.  These aren’t the common bacteria found on your doorknob or cell phone, these unusual bacteria only live within the bug’s cells and are passed from a mother insect to her young.  

The subject of Boyd’s research is one that is quite familiar, especially to parents of school-aged children: lice.  Human head lice live nestled between hair strands where they happily feed on blood.  However, lice cannot survive on blood alone because it lacks vitamins the lice need to grow.  Here is where the specialized bacteria become so important, as the lice rely on this bacteria to make the missing vitamins.  Boyd’s research has shown lice have been associated with these vitamin-producing bacteria for 25 million years. 

In addition to this long-standing relationship, scientists have learned that the bacteria living in lice and other insects have fewer genes than more familiar bacteria like E. coli.  Boyd’s lab at VCU seeks to understand the evolutionary process that leave the bacteria with so few genes, and to understand how these changes lead to stable relationships between the bacteria and insects. 

Studying lice and their bacterial partners comes with challenges and Boyd overcomes them by using a variety of bioinformatics techniques to tease apart and untangle the history between these two organisms.  His experiences have provided him the skills and expertise in phylogenetics and comparative genomics that will be a valuable addition and compliment the research being done at CSBC. 

Boyd’s interest in research began in high school, when he published his first peer-reviewed paper.  Later, he obtained his B.S. in Entomology and Nematology and Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics at the University of Florida.  He has also received post-doctoral training at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and University of George Athens. 

Boyd is excited to begin mentoring students through the research process and is looking for students to join his lab at undergraduate and graduate levels. Anyone interested in joining should contact Boyd directly by email. 

In addition to setting up his research lab in the Eugene P. and Lois E. Trani Center for Life Sciences, Boyd will begin teaching bioinformatics in the spring and is developing a new course that will start fall 2020.  

Bret Boyd can be found at:
Grace E. Harris Hall, Room 3111

A hand holding three baby red-cockaded woodpeckers

Hatching rates in Virginia red-cockaded woodpeckers

September 13, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Woodpecker clutches are like a box of chocolates – you never know what you are going to get.  Some years are all hat and no cattle with a large number of eggs produced early that turn out to be duds.  Other years start out slow with relatively few eggs but those eggs produce and the season ends on a high.  The whipsaw roller coaster ride is dramatic in Virginia, with hatching rates varying from less than 50% to more than 90% across years. 

The red-cockaded woodpecker is federally endangered and the birds in Virginia represent the northernmost population throughout their range.  Due to the rarity of these birds and the difficulty of tracking nests in cavities that are typically 30 to 60 feet high, we have known very little about their nesting ecology.  The development of the peeper scope has allowed us to pull back the curtain on the intimate details of clutch size, hatching rates, and nestling mortality in Virginia woodpeckers.  As part of a broader monitoring program, we have been able to follow 131 clutches through to fledging over the past few years.  Details on these breeding attempts have begun to reveal some patterns. 

Loss of reproductive potential during both the egg and nestling period is high in Virginia.

Hatching rate is the percentage of eggs laid that actually hatch.  Brood reduction is the loss of birds from the time they hatch until the time they fledge.  Mean clutch size is very high in Virginia at 3.51.  This compares to reported values of 3.27 in North Carolina and 2.9 in central Florida and supports the long-held belief that the woodpecker, like many other birds, would exhibit a latitudinal gradient in clutch size.  However, overall hatching rate in Virginia is a low 65.2% and survival of nestlings that hatch is 78.3%.  The consequence of these patterns is that brood size at fledging is only 1.79.  On average, it takes nearly two eggs to produce a single fledgling woodpecker. 

Many factors have been advanced to explain both hatching rates and brood reduction in birds.  Through various mechanisms, brood reduction allows for matching of brood size (demand) to the amount of food coming in (supply) to the cavity.  The inability of pairs to provision larger broods may have to do with their experience, the number of helpers they have to assist, or the availability of resources in their territory.  The pattern of brood reduction that we have observed in Virginia supports the notion that site quality varies between breeding groups.  Territories fall into two camps, including sites that consistently fledge more than 80% of young that hatch and sites that consistently fledge less than 65% of young that hatch.  

In a benchmark paper examining factors impacting hatching rates across many bird species, Walter Koenig identified sociality as one of the driving forces.  He shows that hatching rate declines as sociality increases and suggests that social interference may play a role in reducing hatching rates.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers exhibit a rare breeding strategy where breeding pairs often have multiple helpers that participate in cavity maintenance, brood rearing, and sometimes incubation.  The species sits on the hyper-social end of the spectrum and Virginia has some of the largest groups of helpers throughout the range, likely due to limited habitat availability.  Social interference may play a role in the exceptionally low hatching rates for Virginia woodpeckers.  The territory with the lowest hatching rate (52%) has consistently carried 8-10 individuals into the breeding season.


Jennifer Lewis holding an eaglet

"There are Still Wizards": A film

September 13, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Dolphin ecologist turned film maker Jennifer Lewis is making a new film titled “There are Still Wizards” (visit the film’s IFP site and Facebook page).  The film centers around Dr. Lee Talbot and his wife Marty and their unique role in pushing conservation during a pivotal time.  One of the unsung heroes of the environmental movement, Lee Talbot was the author of an incredible list of consequential laws including the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species, and the World Heritage Treaty.  These environmental laws are the key legal pillars on which conservation is built throughout the United States and across the globe.  They have had far-reaching impacts on scores of endangered species.  Through the film, the Talbot’s recall adventures in the wilds of Africa and Asia and what it was like to pursue a conservation agenda during the early years of the field.  

The film also reflects on the successes that these laws have enabled.  Film makers Jennifer Lewis and Muhammad Rahman travel to far-flung places to check up on progress with some of the most iconic symbols of the endangered species movement including bald eagles, gray wolves, humpback whales, and African elephants.  The film makers talk with conservation biologists working with these species and their perspective on the role that these seminal laws have had in stabilizing and recovering populations.

 Recently, Jennifer Lewis sat down with Bryan Watts to discuss the history of bald eagle recovery in the United States and the critical role of the Endangered Species Act.  She came out in the field with a CCB crew to film hands-on work with bald eagles in the Chesapeake Bay.  She had the opportunity to participate in nestling banding and the collection of blood samples for contaminant monitoring. 

Passage of the Endangered Species Act was a transformative event within the conservation movement.  After decades of watching many iconic species decline, the Act marked a social decision, a symbolic line-in-the-sand, and a clear statement by the American people that they did not want to see these species pass into memory.  Many young generations will be able to enjoy the fruits from seeds planted during this heady time in our development. 

In a time when much of our environmental safety net is under attack by special interest groups and profiteers, revisiting these consequential decisions, the people who made them, and the progress they have spawned is timely.  The film is being produced by Que Sera Sera Films and is still in production.  Films are expensive to produce and documentaries in particular are in constant need of funds.


A VCU-led study of gypsy moths and temperature received a Royal Entomological Society Award for Best Paper Published in 2017/18 in the journal Physiological Entomology. (Getty Images)

CES faculty co-authors award-winning study

August 22, 2019

Photo: Gypsy moth (Getty Images)


Salvatore Agosta, Ph.D., associate professor of physiological ecology in the Center for Environmental Studies, co-authored a study on gypsy moths that has been seleted as the best paper to publish in the journal of Physiological Entomology. 


Read the VCU News story, "VCU, UR study on spread of gypsy moths amid climate change receives prestigious award"



View from a drone of the Rice Rivers Center

Rice Rivers Center speaks to local NPR station about water resources

August 15, 2019

Dr. Greg Garman, director of Rice Rivers Center, was interviewed by Charles Fishburne about how we fare locally as countries around the world are facing the possibility of running out of water. 


Listen to the story from Richmond's National Public Radio affiliate station VPM. 

Prothonotary Warbler

Goochland School District Awards Prothonotary Warbler Project

August 13, 2019

This past year, the Goochland School District recognized the VCU Prothonotary Warbler Project as one of the superlative efforts in project-based learning, gaining the G21 Award!  This project is a continuation of work that Drs. Bulluck and Viverette has developed with the school district with Team Warbler. 

Read more about the award here from Goochland Public Schools Engage page. 

Jeff W. Atkins, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in VCU's Department of Biology, uses a lidar system to collect data in a forest at VCU's Rice Rivers Center in 2016. (Photo by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing)

Structurally complex forests better at carbon sequestration

August 13, 2019

Photo by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing: Jeff W. Atkins, Ph.D., a post-doctoral researcher in VCU's Department of Biology, uses a lidar system to collect data in a forest at VCU's Rice Rivers Center in 2016. 


The field work being done at the Rice Rivers Center contributes to the data researchers need to study carbon sequestration.

Read the VCU News article about the important study co-authored by Chris Gough, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology, "Structurally complex forests better at carbon sequestration."



State Department of Natural Resources biologist Eamonn Leonard points out an invasive species to Conner Moore, from left, Taia Blizard, and Andrea Shroba at the Coast Guard Station beach parking lot Tuesday

CES intern studies invasive plants on Georgia coast

August 7, 2019

(Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist Eamonn Leonard points out an invasive species to Conner Moore, from left, Taia Blizard, and Andrea Shroba at the Coast Guard Station beach parking lot. Photo courtesy Bobby Haven/The Brunswick News)

Center for Environmental Studies student Taia Blizard interns with Georgia Department of Natural Resources to help private landowners combat invasive plants.

Read the Brunswick News full article, "Interns arrive to tackle invasive plants."

Oyster in net

Style Weekly recognizes VOSRP during National Oyster Day

August 5, 2019

Style Weekly's food and drink and drink blog calls out the partner restaurants that collaborate with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) toward oyster reef restoration. 

Read the entire article, "Binge on a Bivalves for National Oyster Day."

Lemaire Monday night out for charity. Proceeds in August to benefit VA Oyster Shell Recycling Program

Lemaire's Monday Night Out for Charity to benefit VOSRP

August 5, 2019

Every Monday night in August, Lemaire Restaurant at The Jefferson Hotel will donate 5% of food purchased to the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP). Lemaire's Monday Night Out for Charity has raised over $100,000 for local charities and non-profits, and was the first restaurant to join the VOSRP when it began.

Learn more about Lemaire and their Monday Night Out for Charity.

VCU students in white water rafting and collecting samples on the boulders of the shoreline

VCU leads effort to launch national consortium of universities offering hands-on river education

August 2, 2019

(Center for Environmental Studies faculty push the limits of hands-on undergraduate education with new collaborations and NSF funding opportunities. One of the key RiVER Field Network workshops will be held at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.). 

By Brian McNeil, University Public Affairs

Rivers provide essential resources and support diverse biological communities. They are also among the most imperiled ecosystems. Managing fresh waters for human life support as well as biodiversity will require integrative approaches that span traditional STEM disciplines

To help address this need, a number of colleges and universities across the United States — including Virginia Commonwealth University — are using rivers as immersive, natural classrooms for interdisciplinary STEM learning across biology, hydrology, geology and the interplay of human and natural systems.

For example, VCU students traversed the James River for 19 days this summer to learn about the intersection of human and natural history of the river and its watershed. Last summer, VCU students took a similar expedition to the wilderness of Idaho’s Lower Salmon River. Last fall, VCU Environmental Studies teamed up with Lynn Crump of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to offer a course on scenic natural resource policy that involved a field assessment of the Chickahominy River. In addition, the university has partnered with the River Management Society to establish a River Studies and Leadership Certificate that offers training in river-based science, policy, conservation, education and recreation for undergraduate students who aspire to be river professionals.


Read the entire story, "VCU leads effort to launch national consortium of universities offering hands-on river education."

VCU students walking on a mountain cliff in South Africa with the valley in the background

VCU to give students traveling abroad an option to offset their carbon footprint

July 26, 2019

(Dr. Cathy Viverette, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Center for Environmental Studies, taught VCU's Panama Avian Field Ecology class where the carbon offset program idea began.  She is one of the interview subjects for this article.)



Between 700 and 800 Virginia Commonwealth University students travel internationally each year as part of VCU’s education abroad programs to participate in a variety of transformational learning experiences such as international internships, service-learning courses, semester exchange programs, research projects and more. Starting this fall, those students will have an opportunity to offset the carbonfootprint of their travel.

“Each year, hundreds of VCU students travel the world to find enriching educational experiences. But at the same time, all this travel contributes to climate change and an increasingly unstable global system,” said Wyatt Carpenter, sustainability projects and program coordinator for VCU’s Office of Sustainability. “So the question became: How can we reduce the environmental impact of [studying abroad] while continuing to provide the important educational experiences? One answer is investing in carbon offset credits.”

When registering for an education abroad program through the Global Education Office, students will have the option to purchase carbonoffset credits. The cost will vary, depending on the specifics of the study abroad program.


Read the entire article, "VCU to give students traveling abroad an option to offest their carbon footprint"

The Swedish icebreaker Oden will traverse 2,000-nautical miles across the Northwestern Passage over an 18-day journey. (Photo: Lars Lehnert)

VCU students to participate in Arctic summer research cruise

July 7, 2019

By Christopher Katella, University Public Relations

Three Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate students will set sail this week as part of a National Science Foundation-supported research expedition studying the Arctic Ocean’s impact toward life on Earth.

Ericka Schulze, Mirella Shaban and Tristan Rivera, joined by VCU associate professor Linda Fernandez, Ph.D., will take part in the Northwest Passage Project voyage set to depart from the Thule Air Base in Thule, Greenland, on Thursday onboard the Swedish icebreaker Oden returning Aug. 4 after a 2,000-nautical-mile journey.

Led by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography's Inner Space Center, researchers and students from various universities and research centers will collect water, ice and air samples to gain a clearer picture of how climate change is affecting the Canadian Arctic Archipelago’s ecosystem and how that informs understanding of changes worldwide. VCU is one of eight U.S. universities participating on the trip.

Fernandez, who studies environmental economics at VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies and is serving as a faculty coordinator for the trip, said VCU’s participation is “the ideal type of NSF research for fundamental understanding of dynamic changes in a lesser-known region of the world.” Schulze, Shaban and Rivera — all Center for Environmental Studies students — will participate in an independent study during the fall semester under Fernandez’s guidance to synthesize their findings for presentation.

Read the entire article: VCU students to participate in Arctic summer research cruise

VCU researcher holds juvenile sturgeon

Associated Press story features sturgeon research at Rice Rivers Center

July 12, 2019

Rice Rivers Center's contribution toward the resurgance of the Atlantic Sturgeon was featured in an Associated Press story that ran nationwide earlier this week. It was picked up in news outlets such as the Washington Post, Detroit Free Press, New York Post, the Christian Science Monitor and USA Today.

From the article: “It’s really been a dramatic reversal of fortune,” said Greg Garman, a Virginia Commonwealth University ecologist who studies Atlantic sturgeon in Virginia’s James River. “We didn’t think they were there, frankly. Now, they’re almost every place we’re looking.”

Read the entire AP story, “Sturgeon, America’s forgotten dinosaurs, slowly coming back.”

Fletcher Smith leads the charge for Ipswich sparrows on Assateague National Seashore

Assateague and Sable Islands – Bookends to Ipswich conservation

July 11, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Sable Island, lying some 180 kilometers off the northeast coast of Nova Scotia, and Assateague Island, straddling the Virginia-Maryland border, are connected by the unique life history of the Ipswich sparrow.  They represent bookends in the annual cycle of this small population.  Sable is their summer home while Assateague is one of their most significant winter homes.  Both will be critical to the bird’s future. 

Following years of speculation, the mystery of the breeding ground for the Ipswich sparrow would unravel in 1884 when Ridgway located a clutch of eggs in the National Museum that he believed, due to the large size of the eggs, could be from the sparrow.  The clutch had been collected in 1863 by Superintendent J. P. Dodd of the Life Saving Station on Sable Island.  Ridgway’s suspicion would be confirmed when adult specimens were taken on Sabol during the summer of 1884.  Isolation on Sable would help to explain some of the unique morphological traits and habitat associations of the form. 

Despite a very keen interest by the birding community about Ipswiches following its description by Charles Maynard in the early 1870s, it would take decades to sort out the winter geography and the special importance of Assateague Island.  Clues came from Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  For years, the crew covering the north end of Assateague for the Ocean City Count reported totals that dwarfed all other counts throughout the range, suggesting some special association with the site.  In 1971, the broader context would be provided by Ian McLaren and Wayne Stobo.  They conducted four-mile strip transect surveys within accessible dune habitat from South Carolina through Massachusetts and plotted survey results by latitude.  Their surveys showed a dramatic peak in abundance between Virginia and New Jersey, with a bullseye centered on Assateague Island.  As often happens, Maynard’s initial collections on Ipswich Beach during the winters of 1868 and 1871 were not representative of the broader distribution but would turn out to be near the northern limit of the core winter range.   

Breeding Ipswich sparrows have been studied on Sable Island mostly by researchers from Dalhousie University since the late 1960s.  Thanks to their hard work we know a great deal about the breeding ecology of this population.  Sable Island was dedicated as a reserve by Parks Canada in 2013.  Because the Ipswich sparrow is listed as federally Threatened in Canada, Parks Canada has made the Ipswich sparrow a conservation priority for the property and is funding ongoing work designed to inform future management.    

Assateague Island represents one of the largest (stretching 60 kilometers), mostly intact landscapes remaining for Ipswich sparrows throughout their winter range.  The island supports patches of dune habitat that fit Ipswiches like a glove.  Recent work by CCB suggests that this single site may support 15 to 20 percent of the global population.  Assateague Island is federally owned.  The northern and largest section of the island in Maryland constitutes Assateague National Seashore, owned and managed by the National Park Service.  The southern section of the island in Virginia is Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  These properties have an important role to play in the future of the Ipswich sparrow. 

Ipswich sparrows are perched precariously on the dunes along the Atlantic coast.  One of the central questions for Ipswiches and a host of other species is how, within the practical limits of our management universe, should we mobilize resources to sure up their future.  Understanding the extent to which we can effect change requires a clear recognition of which critical resources and ecological drivers are under our management control.  On the winter grounds, the most likely population bottleneck, we have many information gaps to fill in order to build a clear vision.  Research questions include:  What factors contribute to annual variation in the seed crops that Ipswiches depend on through the winter? What impact do winter storms have on seed availability? What other consumers compete for the winter seed crop? How is seed availability tied to overwinter survival? What level of overwinter survival is needed for population maintenance?   

As part of an international partnership including the National Park Service, Parks Canada, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dalhousie University, and Acadia University, CCB is working to answer many questions that we believe will help to inform the management of critical winter habitat.

Preparing to place color bands on nestling woodpecker

Virginia woodpeckers have record year

July 6, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Red-cockaded woodpeckers in Virginia had a record-breaking breeding season in 2019, taking another step along their path to recovery.  The population included a record 18 breeding groups for the second consecutive year, a number not documented since the 1970s.  Pairs produced 29 fledglings including 20 females and 9 males.  This is the highest number of young produced in Virginia in modern times.  Just as significantly, pairs produced young on three properties including The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve (14 breeding groups), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (3 breeding groups), and the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries’ Big Woods Wildlife Management Area (1 breeding group) for the first time since the 1990s.  This is the first breeding attempt ever documented within the newly created Big Woods WMA and a cause for great celebration. 

Similar in appearance to downy and hairy woodpeckers that are widely recognized as common “backyard” birds, the red-cockaded woodpecker has a much more specialized ecology.  Red-cockadeds require old-growth pines and are primarily associated with fire-maintained pine savannas of the Deep South.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers in southeastern Virginia currently represent the northernmost population.  Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century this population experienced a catastrophic decline, reaching a low of only two breeding groups by 2001.  Heroic efforts over the past 20 years to save the species in the state have included improved forest management, the introduction of fire for hardwood management, the use of artificial cavities as bridges to natural cavity excavation, translocation of birds from other populations, and intensive management of cavity competitors.  The fight has been a collaborative effort by a coalition of committed conservation partners.  The success in 2019 is the last in a series of advancing population benchmarks suggesting that the partnership is doing something right. 

The 2019 nesting season was the earliest we have ever recorded in Virginia, with eight pairs either completing or initiating clutches before 25 April.  Everything just seemed to come together early for the birds.  By season’s end, 17 of the 18 breeding groups made breeding attempts and 14 groups fledged young. Of 66 eggs that were followed through the breeding season, 45 (68.2%) hatched, 36 (54.5%) survived to banding age, and 29 (43.9%) fledged.  

The Center for Conservation Biology will continue the annual monitoring of this population.   The next scheduled activity will be the winter census where we will count and identify all individuals in the population to determine status and movements.



Colony of royal terns in Chincoteague Bay

Waterbird winners and losers – results of the 2018 survey

July 5, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The Center for Conservation Biology has compiled the results of the 2018 colonial waterbird survey that included 270 colonies of 23 species (aerial surveys for great blue herons and great egrets were not conducted in 2018 due to financial constraints).  The 2018 benchmark survey was the fifth in a series of surveys conducted by a consortium of partners since 1993. The surveys are designed to determine the status and distribution of colonial waterbirds across the Coastal Plain of Virginia.  In 2018, colonies supported more than 44,000 breeding pairs, with gulls being the most abundant group (19,700 pairs: 44%) followed by terns (8,360 pairs: 19%) and long-legged waders (6,390 pairs: 14%).  The barrier island/lagoon system along the Eastern Shore was the most important region within the Coastal Plain, accounting for 58.8% and 46.6% of all breeding pairs and colonies respectively.

The colonial waterbird community as a whole has declined dramatically since 1993, with 15 of the 22 species with comparable data declining from 1993 to 2018.  Fourteen species declined by more than 40% and nine species have declined by more than 60%.  Cattle egrets showed the highest loss rate (-96.7%) declining from 1,459 to only 48 pairs.  Little blue herons declined by 83%, from 374 to only 64 pairs.  Seven species increased between 1993 and 2018.  We documented dramatic expansions for white ibis, double-crested cormorants, and brown pelicans.  

Over the past 25 years, two major forces appear to be shaping the colonial waterbird community in Virginia, including 1) regional shifts in population centers that are driving population increases and 2) habitat degradation related to sea-level rise.  With the exception of great egrets, all species that have increased over the past 20 years have experienced ongoing range expansions and are riding a population wave that is progressing through Virginia.  This includes great black-backed gulls, double-crested cormorants, brown pelicans, and white ibises.  Most of the decline in medium-sized waders is being driven by habitat loss related to erosion of islands.  This erosion results from sea-level rise, is ongoing, and represents a significant threat to these populations.  Several ground-nesting seabirds are likely more directly impacted by the loss of viable habitat and demographic impacts related to frequent flooding.  The most notable example is the laughing gull that has experienced a catastrophic decline in both population and distribution.   

Many individuals and organizations contributed to the success of the 2018 survey, including the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program, The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Natural Heritage Program of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of USDA, Virginia Tech, and Old Dominion University.

Download the 2018 Colonial Waterbird Survey

View the 2018 Colonial Waterbird Survey data in the CCB Mapping Portal


Two eggs in nest built in survivor tree remaining on Grays Creek along the James River

Last of the survivor trees

July 9, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

They were what remained following the devastating land clearing that ran up to and through the Civil War.  They stood in witness to the atrocities of the war and after the waves of blue and gray receded, they remained.  As the land healed over the decades, they continued to tower like grandfathers over the landscape as their children and children’s children grew up around them.  As the bald eagle population began its recovery during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, these were the only trees large enough to support their nests.  They provided a critical bridge to the future.  

Many survivor trees were awe-inspiring giants.  There was “Big Boy,” an eagle nest tree near Greenbackville in Accomack County.  A brute of a loblolly pine, Big Boy supported a nest for decades.  A nest tree on Elsing Green Plantation doubled as one of Virginia’s champion loblollies.  A double-trunked loblolly that towered over Parrot Creek along the Rappahannock River supported the production of over 40 eaglets during the early phase of the recovery.  A great white oak on Spesutie Island in the upper Chesapeake was so large that when visited by Brooke Meanley and Charlie Rittler to collect eggs in 1932, they were stymied because they did not have a lanyard long enough to get around the trunk.

Most of the survivor trees that were so important to eagle recovery within the Chesapeake Bay are now only memories.  Big Boy was hit by lightning in the mid-1990s, losing more and more bark and limbs each year for over a decade until finally toppling over.  The champion tree of Elsing Green was killed in a bark beetle outbreak.  The spectacular double-trunked loblolly of Parrots Creek was ripped apart by a tornado in the mid-2000s.  Much longer lived, the white oak of Spesutie Island is still standing and supporting an eagle nest. 

Less than ten of the eagle nests along the James River (N=300) are now in survivor trees.  They represent the last of a generation that played an important role in eagle recovery.  Now the descendants of these trees have grown large enough to support eagle nests and the torch has been passed.   

Bald eagle in an unusual pose on a nest near Hopewell along the James River.

James River bald eagles reach symbolic milestone of 300 pairs

July 9, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University has compiled the 2019 survey results for bald eagles nesting along the James River.  The breeding population has increased to 302 pairs and the river is the most significant tributary for eagles throughout the Commonwealth.  The new milestone is particularly gratifying since the James is the only major tributary of the Chesapeake Bay where the species completely disappeared as a breeder in the 1970s.  During the 2019 breeding season, the population produced 344 young.  Strongholds along the river include Charles City County (62 pairs), James City County (50 pairs), Surry County (39 pairs), and Prince George County (36 pairs).  

The 300-pair barrier represents a symbolic milestone.  In 1990, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service Bald Eagle Recovery Team established 300 pairs as the recovery goal for the entire Chesapeake Bay.  For the James River alone to have surpassed this goal is a remarkable achievement.  The James now supports one of the densest breeding populations found anywhere throughout the species range.  Based on subsampling, the population for the tidal reach of the broader Chesapeake Bay is now estimated above 3,000 breeding pairs (ten times the initial recovery goal) and is the largest in eastern North America. 

Bald eagles breeding along the James River have been surveyed via airplane every spring since 1962.  Jackson Abbott, the grandfather of the survey, stated in 1962 that Jamestown Island on the James was the center of the Chesapeake Bay population because it supported three breeding pairs.  In 1963, an adult female experiencing convulsions was recovered from Jamestown Island and later died of DDT poisoning.  By 1975, there were no known breeding pairs remaining on the entire James River.  In 1980, the first breeding pair returned to the James on Upper Chippokes Creek and the population has continued to increase since that year.  During the 2019 breeding season, Jamestown Island supported an amazing eight occupied territories.    

Bald Eagle Timeline for the James River 

1950s – 23 pairs known to nest

1963 – An adult female was found on Jamestown Island dying of DDT poisoning

1972 – DDT was banned in United States

1975 – No breeding pairs remain

1980 – A single breeding pair established nesting territory

1990 – 18 breeding pairs found

2000 – 57 breeding pairs found

2013 – 204 breeding pairs found

2019 – 302 breeding pairs found

Graph of James River bald eagle breeding population

Prothonotary Warbler sitting on the fingers of a researcher

VCU Center for Environmental Studies faculty co-author study on declining Warbler population

July 1, 2019

A new, expansive study in The Condor: Orinthological Applications, was the result of collaboration between researchers from six states, 149 geolocators, data from 34 devices and a strong desire to find out why the Prothonotary Warblers’ survival are rapidly declining. Contributing to this research are VCU Center for Environmental Studies faculty Drs. Cathy Viverette and Lesley Bulluck.

The research generated such interest in the public, a reporter from the Washington Post wrote an article on its findings, “Songbird migration study finds a tiny, vulnerable winter range.”

Read the paper submitted to The Condor: Concentration of a widespread breeding population in a few critically important nonbreeding areas: Migratory connectivity in the Prothonotary Warbler.

From the American Ornithological Society: Study reveals key location for declining songbird.

Members of newly-formed faculty-based Champions for Change, with Dr. Allison Johnson front row, left

Two VCU Life Sciences faculty members are leaders in Champions for Change

June 11, 2019

A new learning community was formed in May during the Summer Institute on Inclusive Teaching in STEM, representing faculty from VCU, John Tyler Community College and Reynolds Community College. 16 adjunct, term and tenure-track faculty members -including two VCU Life Sciences members Dr. Allison Johnson (assistant director and associate professor, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity) and Dr. Vickie Connors (assistant professor, Center for Environmental Studies) - are part of this new initiative.


Read the entire article, "Champions for Change."

Nasita Islam in front of her presentation poster

CSBC student presents at 11th Annual SEA PHAGES symposium

June 10, 2019

Undergraduate student Nasita Islam presented a poster at the 11th Annual SEA PHAGES symposium held at the HHMI Janelia Research Campus and spoke about her project a month ago at the Rice River Center. This study, which began in the summer of 2018, examined bacteriophages in rock pools, three of whose genomes were submitted to Genbank last week.

In two new studies, VCU researchers have compiled a comprehensive profile of the vaginal microbiomes associated with term pregnancy and premature pregnancy — research that may help assess the risk of premature birth. (Art by Diego Spitaleri, with SEM image created by Kimberly Jefferson, Judy Williamson and the VCU Microscopy Facility)

VCU Life Sciences researchers part of study

May 30, 2019

Researchers from VCU Life Sciences were part of two new studies that identified specific micobes present in early pregnancy in women who experience preterm birth. This research is part of a collaboration across both campuses and other universities.  

Read the entire VCU News article: "Studies identify vaginal microbiome signatures that could help assess risk of premature birth, particularly for African American women"

Sturgeon spawning behavior includes

VCU Rice River Center's Dr. Matt Balazik in Richmond Magazine

May 27, 2019

VCU Rice Rivers Center's Atlantic Sturgeon Restoration Team's work is highlighted in a Richmond Magazine article, "Skyrocketing Sturgeon."

The team's Dr. Matt Balazik is featured.

Read the entire story: "Skyrocketing Sturgeon."


Rice Rivers Center education building with students outside preparing posters for symposium

11th annual research symposium held at Rice Rivers Center

May 17, 2019

The Walter L. Rice Education Building at VCU Rice Rivers Center was at capacity during the 11th annual Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium, held on May 10, 2019.  A picture-perfect late spring day on the James allowed the guests and students to enjoy lunch on the bluff overlooking the river, and after presentations in the center concluded, an afternoon poster session was held along the walkway which spanned the length of the building. 

The day began with opening remarks from Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman and an introduction of VCU Life Sciences faculty member Ron Lopez, who organized the symposium.  Student presentations included:


Nutrient Uptake Among Urban and Non-Urban Streams Within Virginia's Piedmont. Joe Famularo, VCU-BIO; Paul Bukaveckas, VCU-CES

Predicting climate change's impacts on predator biocontrol of native rock pool mosquito larvae (Aedes atropalpus). Andrew T. Davidson, VCU-ILS; Elizabeth Hamman, Radford University; Mike McCoy, East Carolina University; James R. Vonesh, VCU-CES 

Phinding Phages Phrom James River Rockpools. Nasita Islam, VCU-BNFO; Allison Johnson, CSBC; VCU Phage Lab, BNFO 251/252

Salinization alters nitrogen-cycling microbial communities in coastal freshwater wetland soils. Joseph C Morina, VCU-ILS; Rima B Franklin, VCU-BIO

Does Voltinism Predict Upper Thermal Limits of Native Bees (Apoidea:Anthophila)? Kálmán Csigi XIV, VCU-BIO; Karen Kester, VCU-BIO; Salvatore Agosta, VCU-ILS

Influence of Environmental Features on Spermatophore Placement and Male Fecundity in Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum). Megan Kuechle, VCU-CES; Rodney Dyer, VCU-CES

Evolutionary Consequences of Cultivar Gene Escape in Cornus florida. Jane Remfert, VCU-ILS; Rodney Dyer, VCU-CES

Witnessing our Slain Earth Protectors from Panama. Josh Geen, Victoria Farnsler assisted by Richard Bargdill, PhD, VCU- PSY

Restoration of freshwater mussels using in vitro propagation techniques. Rachel Mair1, Amy Maynard2, Ben Davis1, Bryce Maynard1, John Moore2, Michael Odom1, and Brian Watson3. 1. USFWS Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery; 2. Virginia Tech; 3. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Conservation and Management of the Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata) and Seasonal Wetland Habitats in the Eastern United States. J.D. Kleopfer, VADGIF; Lauren Jurczak, VCU-BIO

Overview of NASA and EPA Interests and Activities around Air Quality at VCU Rice Center. Bob Swap, NASA; Jim Szykman, EPA, Will Shuart, VCU-CES

Short Film: The Soul of the James. Liana Quinones, VCU-CES

Short Film: Veggies on Main. Mary Conklin, VCU-Cinema, VCU-CES


The afternoon poster presentations included:

Antibiotic resistance in wastewater-associated bacterial communities. Aoife Mahaney, VCU-BIO; Dr. Rima Franklin, VCU-BIO 

Predator avoidance decreases cigarette butt leachate toxicity in urban rock pools. Jordan Rasure, VCU-BIO; Andrew Davidson, VCU-ILS; C. Ryland Strunkle, VCU-ILS; James Vonesh, VCU-CES

DNA Analysis and the Postmortem Submersion Interval from the Microbiome of Waterlogged Skeletal Remains. Claire Cartozzo, VCU-ILS; Baneshwar Singh, VCU-FRSC; Tal Simmons, VCU-FRSC 

Demographic Trends in Breeding Populations of a Migratory Songbird. Adele Balmer, VCU-ILS; Catherine Viverette, VCU-CES; Lesley Bulluck VCU-CES; Derek M. Johnson VCU-BIO

Synthetic Refuge. Kayla Kelly, VCU-CES; Daniel Albrecht-Mallinger, VCU-CES

Spatial and temporal distributions of larval clupeid fishes in a tidal freshwater marsh. Reid Anderson, VCU-BIO; Greg Garman, VCU-RRC.

Scenic River Assessment: Walker's Dam to River's Rest Marina, Lower Chickahominy River, Virginia. Jesse Boardman, VCU-CES; Cali Carter, VCU; Lynn Crump, DCR; Kala Emory, VCU; Gabriella Francese, VCU; Elizabeth Kruegler, VCU; Rachael Moffatt, VCU-CES; Emma North, VCU; Cooper Sallade, VCU-BIO; Grace Smith, VCU-CES; Ryland Stunkle, VCU-CES; Thomas Tedesco, VCU-CES; James Vonesh, VCU-CES 

Biodiversity in riverine rock pools along the James and Potomac Rivers. Thomas Franco, VCU-BIO; Kristine Grayson, UR-BIO; Todd Lookingbill, UR-GEO & UR-ENV; Andrew Davidson, VCU-ILS; Lily Thompson, UR-BIOL; Emily Betts, RPS; Anne Wright, VCU-CES; Nadia Bukach, UR-GEO & UR-ENV; Cooper Sallade, VCU-BIO; Charles Stunkle, VCU-CES; Richie Dang, VCU-CES; Will Shuart, VCU-CES; James Vonesh, VCU-CES 

Biogeography in Richmond’s Rock Pools: Creating spatial analysis curriculum for place-based community learning across disciplines and institutions. Nadia Bukach, UR-GEO & UR-ENV; Kristine Grayson, UR-BIOL; Andrew Davidson, VCU-ILS; James Vonesh, VCU-CES; Todd Lookingbill, UR-GEO & UR-ENV 

Recognizing our slain environmentalist from around the world. Olivia Willoughy, Andie Lee, Ian McFadden, Michael Somma, Victoria Farnsler, Josh Geen and Richard Bargdill, PhD, VCU-PSY 

The Urban Forestry Collaborative. L. Wyatt Carpenter, VCU Sustainability; Ed Crawford, VCU-RRC; Cathy Viverette, VCU-CES; Jerome Legions, CACIL; Louise Seals, Richmond Tree Stewards

Carver Tree Project: The Tree Ambassador Program. Brandon Gravett, VCU-CES; Lucas Sidle, VCU-CES; Catherine McGuigan, VCU- CES and VCUArts; Alexander Eaton, VCU-CES and VCU-BIO; Catherine Viverette, VCU-CES, and Wyatt Carpenter, VCU Office of Sustainability 

Linking Thermal Tolerance and Climate in an Invasive Forest Insect. Kristine Grayson and Lily Thompson, UR-BIO; Salvatore Agosta and Sean Powers, VCU-CES & ILS; Dylan Parry, SUNY-ESF 

The Influence of Salinization on Bacterial Denitrification in Freshwater Wetlands. Joseph Morina, VCU-ILS; Drashty P. Mody, VCU- BIO; Rima B. Franklin, VCU-BIO 

Native SAV restoration in the James River: Vallisneria americana replanting at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Aaron Cyr, VCU-CES; Spencer N. Bissett, VCU-BIO 

The Reptile Database at VCU. Peter Uetz, Sami Cherikh et al., VCU-CBDS 

Influence of environmental features on spermatophore placement and male fecundity in spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum). Megan Kuechle, VCU-CES; James Vonesh, VCU-CES; Will Shuart, VCU-CES; Anne Wright, VCU-CES; Rodney Dyer, VCU- CES


Photos of the event can be found at on the VCU Rice Rivers Center Facebook page

badge stating: congratulations to the 2019-2020 VCU undergraduate research fellows!

2019-2020 VCU Undergraduate Research Fellows announced

May 15, 2019

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), part of the Office of the Provost, awards scholarships for research to undergraduate VCU students. Three recipients for the 2019-2020 academic year will be working with Life Sciences faculty.

An Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Summer Fellowship was awarded to:

Ryan Pobiak, Dept. of Biology, with Dr. Lesley Bulluck, Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences: The effects of female plumage quality, age, and clutch size on incubation effort in a monogamous songbird

The Rice Rivers Center also provides research scholarships as part of the UROP program.  Rice Rivers Center Undergraduate Research Scholarship awardees include:

Brendan Finnie, Dept. of Chemical Engineering, School of Engineering, with Dr. Rodney Dyer, Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences: Physiology as a Mechanism Driving Early Fitness Response in Cornus florida

Chelsey Johnson, with Dr. Arif Sikder, Center for Environmental Studies, VCU Life Sciences: An Assessment of the Active and Legacy Pollution of the Coal Terminal in Norfolk, Virginia.

To find a list of all of the awards recipients, go to “Announcing the 2019-2020 VCU Undergraduate Research Fellows!”

Jerome Legions Jr., president of the Carver Area Civic Improvement League, (speaking) is joined by other members of the Carver Tree Project. (Adam Caldwell/Division of Community Engagement)

Urban tree-planting project headlines annual community partnership awards

May 6, 2019

By Tom Gresham, University Public Affairs

The Carver Tree Project, the pilot project of a collection of organizations working to make Richmond a healthier and more sustainable community, was honored with the Currents of Change Award on Wednesday at the Virginia Commonwealth University Council for Community Engagement’s annual ceremony recognizing outstanding community-university partnerships.

The tree-planting project was conceived after the Carver Area Civic Improvement League identified the need for more trees in the Carver neighborhood near VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. A group of community and VCU partners subsequently collaborated to assist the Carver neighborhood with achieving its goal and create a framework for neighborhood tree programs in Richmond, forming the Richmond Urban Forestry Collaborative. Urban tree cover provides a range of environmental, economic and health benefits, such as reducing urban heat effects, improving air and water quality, reducing noise pollution, increasing foot traffic to local businesses, and strengthening community cohesiveness, according to project organizers.

Read more of, "Urban tree-planting project headlines annual commuity partnership awards"

VOSRP Director Todd Janeski holding his 'Stewards of the River' award from JRAC

VOSRP's Todd Janeski receives Guardian Award from JRAC

May 14, 2019

The James River Advisory Council announced their 2019 Stewards of the River award winners, presented to people or organizations that make measurable, positive impacts to the James River and surrounding communities.  

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program Director, Todd Janeski (pictured), received the Guardian Award.

Read the entire press release, "James River Advisory Council recognizes 'Stewards of the River'."

Youth's hand holding a small plant

A Garden for Everyone

April 15, 2019

By Virginia Commonwealth University

In an open field behind the playground at George W. Carver Elementary School, Mirella Shaban is standing on the flatbed of a rented GMC Sierra pickup truck, shoveling soil into a wheelbarrow.

It is early April, breezy and warm. Shaban and a dozen classmates at Virginia Commonwealth University are filling four elevated planting boxes with dirt. They have spent two days constructing the boxes — each about 40 square feet in size. A few yards away, trays of vegetables, flowers and seeds rest in the grass. Today is planting day. 

“We have marigolds that are going to attract some pollinators, we’re going to put those in the corners,” Shaban says, walking around one of the boxes and picking up a tray. “We have some romaine lettuce, spinach and onions — they are going to be awesome because everybody loves onions. We also have carrots, some seeds. We’re going to plant squash once it gets a little warmer. We’re going to plant enough food to feed at least 10 to 15 households.”

Continue reading, 'A Garden for Everyone'

ENVS undergrad of the year Elli Bosch talking about South African Summits to Sea course to Humanities & Sciences Associate Dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, James Mays

Large number of experiential CES courses highlighted at REAL poster session

April 11, 2019

April 5 brought faculty together from across VCU to the inaugural Doing REAL poster session. The session allowed units to highlight on-going research that engaged in experiential learning and met VCU’s goal of providing students with relevant and applied learning experiences.

58 faculty poster presentations were exhibited.  Of those, nine were from Center from Environmental Studies (CES) faculty, making up almost 16% of the total posters at the session.  CES curriculum provides one of the most robust REAL course work available to students at the university, and have found them visiting the banks of the James River in Richmond to study invasive species, hiking into the dense jungles of Panama looking for wintering Prothonotary Warblers, and climbing a chain ladder in the Drakensburg Mountains of South Africa.

Faculty from CES and collaborating faculty that participated include:

Dan Carr and Katie Schmidt:  Footprints on the James

Anne Wright:  Invasive Species Management in Urban Parks

Andrew Parent: Student Outdoor Leadership Experience (SOLE)

Dr. James Vonesh, Lynn Crump, PLA, and students Thomas Tedesco, Jesse Boardman, Ryland Stunkle:
Scenic Natural Resources- VA Scenic River Program

Drs. Catherine Viverette and Edward Crawford:  Panama/Mangrove Avian Ecology

Drs. Catherine Viverette and Edward Crawford, and Wyatt Carpenter: The Carver Tree Project (Urban Forestry Collaborative)

Dr. James Vonesh, Dan Carr and Karl Schmidt: Expedition Down the River of No Return

Dr. James Vonesh, Dan Carr and Elli Bosch: South African Summits to Sea

Dr. James Vonesh, Kristine Grayson, Richie Dang, Ryland Stunkle and Andrew Davidson:  Biogeography in Richmond’s Rock Pools: Creating spatial analysis curriculum for place-based community learning across disciplines and institutions  (WCVE’s Science Matters has featured students at the rock pools on Belle Isle as part of their Green Kids seriesScience in the Park has a movie on their site about the James River Rock Pools.)

Hope on her winter territory among the mangroves of Great Pond on 26 August 2016

Farewell to Hope

April 5, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Hope, the whimbrel that was tracked with a satellite transmitter and became a living representation of the challenges faced by migratory shorebirds throughout the annual cycle, is believed to have been one of the many casualties of Hurricane Maria.  Local ecologist Lisa Yntema photographed Hope on 26 August 2017 shortly after arrival on her winter territory on Great Pond (St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands).  Hope called as usual and came out of the mangrove onto her flat as Lisa entered the site.  Lisa had visited her territory on 15 August and Hope had yet to arrive.  St. Croix was hit by Hurricane Irma on 6 September as a category five storm experiencing heavy rain and structural damage.  Lisa was able to visit Great Pond and saw Hope following the storm on 11 September.  However, less than two weeks later on 19 September, St. Croix would be hit by Hurricane Maria, causing extensive damage with the eye wall passing directly over Great Pond.  Lisa was able to visit Great Pond on 5 October, finding a single whimbrel on Hope’s territory but not Hope.  Lisa visited Great Pond again on 26 October, finding three whimbrels on Hope’s territory but again, no Hope.  Lisa would visit Great Pond several times through the fall of 2017 but did not find Hope.  Barry Truitt also spent time searching for Hope in April and May of 2018 within her spring staging area on Boxtree Creek in Virginia, but did not find her.  Hope did not return to Great Pond during the fall of 2018. 

Hope was initially captured as an adult on 19 May 2009 while staging in Boxtree Creek and was banded and fitted with a satellite transmitter as part of a study focused on whimbrel migration.  She was tracked for more than 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers) back and forth four times between her breeding site on the Mackenzie River in far western Canada and her wintering site on Great Pond.  Her transmitter antenna was lost in early September of 2012 shortly after she arrived on Great Pond.  After some deliberation, CCB decided to remove the transmitter rather than to replace it.  Fletcher Smith and Lisa Yntema captured Hope on 20 November 2012 and removed her transmitter.  In subsequent years she would be identified by her coded leg flag (AYY).  

Hope was featured on a website that allowed the public to track her movements.  She quickly attracted a following of shorebird biologists, bird watchers, and school groups from around the world.  Over time, Hope became an ambassador for migrants making tremendous nonstop flights, moving great distances out over the open Atlantic, navigating with precision to stopover sites, and showing high fidelity to her breeding site, her wintering site, and several staging areas.  One of the most dramatic events during her tracking career was in August of 2011, when after taking off from South Hampton Island in Hudson Bay to make a nonstop flight to St. Croix she encountered Tropical Storm Gert over the open ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia.  Hope flew through the storm for 27 hours against tremendous headwinds.  When she broke through the storm, she immediately made a right turn toward Cape Cod, demonstrating a high degree of situational awareness.  After an unplanned period to refuel, she continued to her winter territory on Great Pond.  Her high fidelity to Great Pond was an important factor in preserving habitat around the site, demonstrating the value of a celebrity but also illustrating the great importance of local actions to larger conservation movements.

Connecting children to nature is a vital element of the conservation mission.  The story of Hope was immortalized in the book “Hope is Here” written by well-known children’s author Cristina Kessler of St. John.  The book tells a conservation story to children and has been used as a teaching tool on the U.S. Virgin Islands where Hope spent the winter months and in schools on the Delmarva Peninsula where Hope stopped during spring migration.  Through the book, Hope became a tangible symbol of conservation for the many species that migrate thousands of miles between breeding and winter grounds. 

Over a short period of time, by just living out her fascinating life, Hope unknowingly taught scientists important lessons about the requirements of whimbrels through the annual cycle, educated the broader community about the challenges faced by migratory birds, demonstrated that local actions can contribute to international movements, and left a legacy that will educate children for generations. 

Adult attending young eaglet on a nest in the dune of Little Cobb Island

Beach-nesting Eagles

April 5, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Sometimes no matter how long you have worked with a species and no matter how wild you let your imagination run, you just cannot anticipate what they will do next.  The Center for Conservation Biology has mapped and inspected more than 5,000 eagle nests over the past few decades but we never expected to see them taking up residence on the open beach.  A newly constructed eagle nest was discovered by the Cape Charles Christmas Bird Count crew on the north end of Smith Island on 30 December 2018.  The nest was isolated out on the open beach.  This nest would later have two eggs and on 30 March the adult was observed brooding small young.  Amazingly, on 1 March 2019 Alex Wilke would find a second beach nest with a young eaglet on Ship Shoal Island. 

The beach nests discovered in early 2019 represent the 4th and 5th ground nests constructed on the Virginia Barrier Islands in recent years.  On 26 April 2013, while flying shorebird surveys along the barrier islands, Bryan Watts and Barry Truitt discovered an eagle nest built on the ground on the north end of Little Cobb Island.  On 5 June 2013, while conducting surveys for beach-nesting birds, Ruth Boettcher discovered an eagle nest built on the ground on Cedar Island. On 1 June 2018 Bryan Watts and Bart Paxton, while flying colonial waterbird surveys, located an eagle nest built on a log on the back side of Wreck Island.  These previous ground nests were in the dunes or on the back side of the islands.  What makes the two new nests different is that they were located between the primary dune and the active surf zone, a position subject to overwash during high tides or storms and a place normally reserved for nesting plovers, terns, and oystercatchers. 

As with the other sea eagles, bald eagles are tree nesters.  Outside of the treeless Arctic, ground nests are very rare.  Only a few have been found since the late 1800s, and most of these have been on predator-free offshore islands with examples coming from British Columbia, coastal Texas, and isolated mangrove keys in Florida Bay. 

 The ground nests represent a larger movement of nesting eagles from the mainland of the Delmarva Peninsula out to the barrier islands.  On a survey of the islands conducted on 30 March 2019, Bryan Watts and Mitchell Byrd located 14 active nests on the islands including 1 nest on Fisherman Island, 2 nests on Smith Island, 1 nest on Ship Shoal Island, 1 nest on Wreck Island, 1 nest on Little Cobb Island, 2 nests on Hog Island, 1 nest on Revel Island, 2 nests on Parramore Island, 2 nests on Wallops Island, and 1 nest on Chincoteague Island.  All of these nests had either young or incubating adults.  Despite the abundant prey around the islands, there is little recorded history of eagles nesting on the islands.  Prior to 1960 we know of a single record of a pair on Parramore Island.  Beginning in the mid-2000s pairs started to nest on a couple of the northern islands, and by 2010 a pair colonized Parramore Island.  By 2011 there were 4 nests on the islands and by 2016 there were 11 nests. 

Whimbrel in flight with transmitter antennae extending beyond the tail

Seasonal variation in whimbrel mortality

April 4, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

An alarming percentage of the world’s shorebird species are declining.  Whimbrel populations using the Western Atlantic Flyway have experienced steep declines of around 4% per year since at least the mid-1990s.  Moving the balance sheet of births and deaths from the red column to the black column is a fundamental objective of population recovery and management.  But for species that range over vast areas and spend their time in remote locations, the essential questions of just how far in the red they are or when, where, and how mortality is occurring are very difficult to address.  Recently Center for Conservation Biology biologists, along with a long list of partners, published a paper entitled “Seasonal variation in mortality rates for whimbrels using the Western Atlantic Flyway.”  The study used 33 satellite-tracked adults to estimate annual mortality and to determine seasonal and geographic bottlenecks in survival.  Findings suggest a wide gap between current survival and that believed to be required for population stability, and that the greatest bottleneck in survival occurs during second half of fall migration through early winter in areas where shorebird hunting is still prevalent. 

The 33 adult whimbrels were tracked throughout the annual cycle, including 12,800 bird days and tens of thousands of kilometers.  The study estimated a dismal average annual survival of only 0.54 compared to the “break-even” rate believed to fall between 0.8 and 0.9 for these populations.  Daily hazard rates were more than five times higher during the migratory periods compared to summer and winter.  More than half of the total mortality occurred between late July and early November during fall migration.  Two clusters of mortality were identified, including the highest concentration along the northern coast of South America from Guyana to Brazil and a second cluster within the islands of the Caribbean Basin.  Mortality events during spring migration were more scattered. 

More than 60% of the fall and winter mortality occurred where both legal and illegal hunting activity is currently concentrated and during the peak time of the hunting season, suggesting a link between hunting activities and recent shorebird declines throughout the Flyway.  Although hunting continues to occur within a relatively small geographic region, the area included is very significant to shorebirds using the Flyway.  Since an initial symposium on shorebird hunting was held during the fall of 2011, an international coalition has been focused on strategic tasks including quantifying sustainable harvest levels, assessing current policies, estimating current harvest levels within key geographic areas, and strengthening enforcement of existing laws.  The success of this coalition may determine the future of several shorebird populations that depend on the Flyway.

 Mitchell Byrd (right) and Captain Fuzzzo (left) flying an eagle survey in March of 2019

Still flying at 90

April 4, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Mitchell Byrd turned 90 in August of 2018, but in early March of 2019 he toed the flight line and was back in the survey plane to begin his 43rd season of eagle work in the lower Chesapeake Bay.  Somewhere along the way he has lost the mutton chops that he wore when the survey began, but after more than 25,000 nest checks he still maintains an enthusiasm for eagles and the effort.  He, along with Bryan Watts and long-time pilot Captain Fuzzzo, have had a front-row seat to see one of the world’s most iconic species rise from the ashes.  It has been quite a ride. 

When Mitchell Byrd took over the annual bald eagle breeding survey in the lower Chesapeake Bay, President Ford had just pardoned Tokyo Rose, Apple Computer had just been incorporated, Gary Gilmore had been executed by firing squad, and Star Wars was about to premier.  Mitchell was chairman of the biology department at the College of William & Mary, had a full teaching load, a research lab that was overflowing with graduate students, and was involved with several professional societies.  With the recent passage of the Endangered Species Act, it was a heady time for endangered birds.  Mitchell was already heavily involved with the recovery of several species.  But duty called and Mitchell agreed to take over the survey as part of the long-term conservation partnership with the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries.

 As the adventure began with the first anxious flights in March of 1977, it was not possible to know that the survey would become such a long-term commitment or how eagle recovery would unfold in such a spectacular fashion.  For the first two years he found no breeding eagles on the entire James River and few on the other major tributaries, making for lonely flights that felt like eerie wakes.  But the first pair appeared on the James River in 1979, and the population began to show signs of life during the 1980s.  During the 1990s, the population would regain its footing and surpass recovery goals established during the 1970s.  During the 2000s, exponential growth had become obvious on the landscape with nests popping up on virtually every point and creek.  By the 2010s, breeding densities within some portions of the lower Bay were among the highest ever recorded throughout the range, and the population had clearly shifted from growth to the infighting and negative feedback that ultimately regulates population size.  The slow and lonely flights of the 1970s are long gone, and the stack of data sheets used to record observations has grown thicker year after year.  The flight has become intense, often with only seconds between nests and days of flying that typically stretch past eight hours. 

Dr. Byrd retired from William & Mary as Chancellor Professor of Biology in 1993.  Now, most of his graduate students have retired.  But the work with eagles has continued.  There are often no easy explanations for what factors lead to sustaining long-term projects and commitments.  What starts out as a desire to answer a set of questions becomes a committed passion to learn more, and to contribute more.  Maybe over time the committed passion becomes a sense of place or being or friendship that eclipses even the grand spectacle of eagles.  Whatever the spark, Mitchell’s commitment and energy across the decades have been astounding.

Marian Watts holds a recently-banded chick hatched on the Cobb Island Towe

Virginia peregrines set record high in 2018

April 4, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

With 32 occupied territories, Virginia supported the largest breeding population of peregrine falcons ever known to occupy the state during the 2018 season (download the 2018 report).  Since the reintroduction of captive-reared birds in the late 1970s and the first successful breeding in 1982, the population has managed slow consistent growth with an average annual rate of 8%.  As far as can be determined, the historic population of peregrine falcons that nested in the mountains of Virginia supported approximately 25 breeding pairs.  The modern population depends primarily on man-made structures for nesting. Only two known pairs in 2018 nested on natural cliff faces.

Despite the high number of occupied territories, 2018 was a mixed year for breeding performance.  Hatching rate was relatively low (67%, 45 of 67 eggs followed).  Of 17 clutches that were followed completely from hatching to fledging, 36 of 57 (63%) eggs hatched and 36 of 36 (100%) survived to banding age.  Three young were known to be lost after fledging.  The reproductive rate (1.25 young/occupied territory) was considerably lower than in recent years.

A contributing factor to poor breeding performance in 2018 was an unusually-high turnover in adult females (see our story about female peregrines under pressure).  Thirty-five percent of known females turned over between 2017 and 2018.  Exchanges often result in contests to fill open breeding slots, replacement by younger less experienced birds, and disruption in breeding.  Replacement of so many females appears to have impacted performance on a population scale.  We would anticipate that performance will normalize as pairs settle. 

We continued dedicated efforts in 2018 to identify breeding adults via field-readable bands to better understand dispersal and demography.  We determined the banding status of 46 (73%) of the 64 adult peregrines known within the breeding population.  The alpha-numerics were read for 29 adults.  Of the banded birds where state of origin could be determined, 22 were from Virginia, 3 were from New Jersey, 4 were from Maryland, and 1 was from Pennsylvania.  The natal territories were determined for 27 adults.  Breeding adults ranged in age from 3 to 18 years old.

Baby sturgeon on researches gloved hand

Researcher finds rare fish in the James River

March 21, 2019

By Walter Chidozie Anyanwu, Commonwealth Times Contributing Writer

Matt Balazik, along with his colleagues at the Rice Rivers Center, has been trawling the James River for years trying to find traces of the Atlantic sturgeon, a species of fish that was declared endangered in 2012.

The researchers were working on this project for eight years before they began making progress last fall with the discovery of baby sturgeon in the James River — significant because of their scarcity.

“We had no idea what we were doing, but we went out with some other researchers to see if we could catch them. That was back it 2007,” Balazik said. “Through persistence and effort, we got pretty good at catching them. We were catching plenty of adults, but the important thing was to catch the young ones — the babies.”

Read more of: "Researcher finds rare fish in the James River"


Professor Brian Byrd of Eastern Carolina University inspects rock pool on upper Chattooga River at Bull Pen rapid

VCU and ECU collaborate to offer Rock Pool Community Ecology course

March 11, 2019

VCU Center for Environmental Studies Professor James Vonesh is teaming up with epidemiologist Brian Byrd of Eastern Carolina University to offer a new summer field course out of Highlands Biological Station in North Carolina on the community ecology of riverine rock pools. Fieldwork will involve characterizing the macroinvertebrate communities of rock pools along an elevational gradient with a particular focus on the distribution of native and non-native disease vectoring mosquito species. The course is developed with NSF ROA collaboration support.

The course runs from June 17 - 28, 2019.  

Find more information and apply at:

Two researchers at Rice Rivers Center

Rice Rivers Center Summer Scholars Program will fund research awards

March 11, 2019

We are happy to announce that the VCU Rice Rivers Center will fund a limited number of undergraduate student research awards for projects mentored by VCU faculty. Successful student applicants will receive a cash stipend of $1400 to defray expenses associated with the research project. The Center’s mission is to support relevant research, innovative instruction, and community engagement in areas including conservation biology, ecological restoration, water resources, and applications of environmental technology. The Rice Rivers Center Summer Scholars program complements that mission by supporting student research in these broad disciplines. Research located at the Center and environs (Charles City County; James River) is encouraged but not required.

The full application site can be found at

Application instructions are also included below:

> Eligibility – Full time VCU undergraduates with at least 1 full academic year left to complete before graduation.
> Application Process – The application consists of three elements:


Application Requirements

1. The student and faculty mentor will collaborate on a written proposal (maximum of five pages, double-spaced), detailing:

  • The significance of the proposed work, based on a brief review of the published literature
  • A detailed research question, objective(s), and hypotheses (if appropriate)
  • A detailed description of the methods and approach that will be used to accomplish your research objectives
  • Expected outcomes from the completed project, including how the work will contribute to the knowledge and skills of the student
  • A detailed work plan and schedule with specific tasks that translate to a significant amount of time (roughly 20 hours per week for the Summer) dedicated to your project.
  • A statement wherein the student pledges to submit a mid-term project report by July 15 and to participate in the VCU Undergraduate Symposium and the Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium the following Spring.

2. The student must write a one-page personal statement addressing the student’s experience and qualifications to accomplish the proposed work. 

3. A letter of support from a faculty mentor addressing the following questions:

  •  How long and in what capacity has the mentor known the student applicant? Have you mentored this student before?
  • What experience, knowledge, skills, or capacities does the mentor believe the applicant possesses that qualify the student to conduct the proposed work?
  • A brief statement describing the mentor’s support for, and involvement in, the work plan.

Applicants must upload their materials (marked as RICE CENTER) to by the deadline of April 12th for review.

Faculty Mentors should email their letter of support to with the title “RICE CENTER Scholarship Letter/(name of student)” by the deadline of April 12th for review. Awards will be announced by April 30.


VCU's Think on This featuring Dr. Dan McGarvey

CES faculty member part of VCU's new 'Think on This' video series

March 7, 2019

VCU Center for Environmental Studies associate professor Daniel McGarvey, Ph.D., is featured as part of VCU's new video series, "Think on This."  Dr. McGarvey discusses how important it is to teach students to communicate the findings of their scientific research in ways that the public can understand and find engaging.

Via VCU News:

Virginia Commonwealth University professors are passionate about many things, including passing on valuable knowledge and skills to their students. A new video series called “Think on This” allows viewers to get to know professors and their passions as they talk about some of the big-picture ideas they hope their students will learn from them while at VCU.

Read more: New 'Think on This' video series provides a peek into the minds of VCU faculty

Four students who are the recipient of the 2019 Life Sciences Black History in the Making awards

Life Sciences students honored at Black History in the Making ceremony

March 6, 2019

Four students from three units within Life Sciences were named 2019 Life Sciences Black History in the Making Scholars.  The awards were given out as part of VCU’s Black History in the Making ceremony, under the Department of African American Studies.

Nominees for this annual award must meet specific criteria in the Life Sciences to be considered, and include: recognition as an important contributor to the community, maintaining a stellar academic record, and obtaining real-world experience where the student is at the forefront of his or her career.    

The 2019 Life Sciences Black History in the Making Scholars are (pictured above from left to right):

Nana Twumasi-Ankrah, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity, Bioinformatics undergraduate
Felisha Walls, Center for Life Sciences Education, Integrative Life Sciences doctoral student
Raven Dudley, Center for Environmental Studies, Environmental Studies undergraduate
Azeem Holland, Center for Environmental Studies, Environmental Studies undergraduate

The Black History in the Making Awards were founded in 1983 by Dr. Daryl Dance, to highlight and recognize the achievements of African American students at VCU.  More than 550 students have been recognized by over fifty departments across VCU’s Monroe Park and Medical Campuses, as well as organizations outside of the university.

Learn more about the Black History in the Making awards.

Discovered by a Rice Rivers Center researcher while trawling the James River, the five-foot-long 19th century anchor will go on display overlooking the river

VCU researcher discovers 19th-century anchor while hunting for juvenile sturgeon

February 27, 2019

By Brian McNeill, Univesity Public Affairs

In search of juvenile sturgeon, Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Matt Balazik, Ph.D., was pulling a trawl along the bottom of the James River near the VCU Rice Rivers Center when the large conical net he was pulling behind the boat hit a snag.

It’s not unusual for the trawl to get stuck. But the reason for this particular snag was highly unusual. It was stuck on a 5-foot-long, wrought-iron anchor that most likely once belonged to a two, three or four-mast commercial cargo vessel that traversed the James River during the 1800s, possibly prior to the Civil War.

“It was a pleasant surprise because usually when we snag something big it turns out to be a tree or large piece of metal,” Balazik said. “Even though technically this is just an old piece of iron that we had to pull up by hand, and caused damage to our gear that took days to repair, I’m very happy we snagged it.”

Read the the entire VCU News article, "VCU researcher discovers 19th-century anchor while hunting for juvenile sturgeon."


ILS students at their poster presentations

ILS Research Showcase held at VCU Student Commons

February 19, 2019

The annual Integrative Life Sciences (ILS) Doctoral Program research showcase, presented by the ILS Student Organization, was held in the VCU Student Commons on February 12, 2019 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  Over 40 students, mentored by research faculty from over a dozen departments and units across VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV Campuses, participated in oral and poster presentations.  Participants were able to showcase their posters during a lunch-time social session, attended by over 100 faculty and students representing both campuses.

The ILS Doctoral Program is part of the Center for Life Sciences Education (CLSE). For more information about the program, contact CLSE Director Dr. Brian Verrelli at


To view more photos from the event, go to the Life Sciences' Facebook page.

Students from the Steward School look at the bagged oyster shells at the Rice Rivers Center

Rice Rivers Center part of The Steward School's Community Week

February 19, 2019

Cary Jamieson, director of the Bryan Innovation Lab at The Steward School and a VCU Rice Rivers Center Board of Trustees member, organized an experiential learning program for students with area environmental partners as part of the Steward’s Community Week. The group of seventh graders immersed themselves on and along the river, canoeing, observing animals in their natural habitats, and learning about the James River and the importance of wetlands.

The Rice Rivers Center hosted the students for a day, where they were able to explore the grounds of VCU’s river campus and environmental field station, and participate in bagging oyster shells for the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP). Cindy Andrews, VOSRP Richmond Region Coordinator, was on-hand to explain the process of oyster restoration and reintroduction in the Chesapeake Bay and how the students were a part of that process. Virginia Master Naturalist volunteers from the Riverine chapter also were on hand to guide the students in the bagging recycled oyster shells for future sanctuary reefs. The students wrote messages on the oyster shells that are now curing at Rice Rivers Center in those bags, awaiting to be seeded with spat and returned to the Chesapeake Bay.



A panel of five experts are ready to take questions from the audience at the ICA

CES presents "Run Wild Run Free" and panel discussion as part of the RVA Environmental Film Festival

February 8, 2019

The Center for Environmental Studies (CES) was proud to be a sponsor of the film “Run Wild Run Free” as part of the 2019 Richmond Environmental Film Festival. VCU’s Institute of Contemporary Art played host to the screening to an almost capacity crowd. This film provided an opportunity to share with the Richmond-area community some of the topics covered in the CES's newly developed courses, Scenic Natural Resource Assessment & Policy and Wilderness and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts along the River of No Return.

“Run Wild Run Free” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which provides protection for the remaining free-flowing rivers that meet specific criteria based on their values and unique characteristics.  The Act was signed into law on October 2, 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Following the film, an expert panel was on hand to answer questions from the audience. Participants included Thomas Tedesco, Environmental Studies graduate and River Studies and Leadership student; Karl Schmidt from VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program; Ralph Hambrick, Professor Emeritus at VCU; Lynn Crump from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation; and Risa Shimoda from River Management Society.


Learn more about the Rivers Studies and Leadership Certificate.


Photos can be found on the Center for Environmental Studies Facebook page.

Ellen Stuart-Haentiens at the VCU State of the University Address

ILS doctoral students featured in VCU President’s University Address

February 5, 2019

VCU President Dr. Michael Rao presented the State of the University Address to the VCU community on January 31, 2019.  A video created specifically for the event highlighted the research of Dr. Chris Gough (Biology) and two of his lab members, Integrative Life Sciences doctoral students Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens (pictured) and Lisa Turner. The video was filmed at the Rice Rivers Centers carbon flux tower and addressed how global change and disturbance affect ecosystem processes.


Adult white ibis with a brood in Virginia.

White ibis explode in Virginia

January 17, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Some species creep forward across the landscape.  They fortify their troops and slowly take ground with the restraint of a calculated military campaign.  Other species jump with wild abandon across the landscape, consuming new ground and seemingly unconcerned about the basic supports that will be needed to sustain their advance.  White ibis fall into the latter category.  Unconcerned with species norms, white ibis have been documented to pick up entire colonies supporting tens of thousands of pairs and move completely in a single year.  What triggers these moves is unclear but they have left unsuspecting graduate students with no date to the prom and thesis projects citing “unanticipated events.” 

In the beginning, the white ibis story in Virginia appeared to be a dud.  Breeding was confirmed on Fisherman Island during the summer of 1977, but the species sat idle within this toe hold for more than 20 years.  We thought that they had been constrained by ecological requirements during early brood rearing that would limit colonization of heronries on the offshore barrier islands.  During the 1980s, research in South Carolina had shown that salt glands in young ibis did not develop until three weeks of age, forcing adults to move long distances to mainland sites to gather fresh-water prey until the young were able to tolerate their favorite but salty fiddler crabs.  Distance to the mainland might limit the formation of the more isolated colonies and hold the species in the state to curiosity status.  But in the early 2000s, small numbers colonized the Cobb and Wreck island heronries in a breakout move that would foretell the future.  

Over the past decade, the white ibis has become the most visible wader in the marshes throughout the Delmarva seaside.  For those of us accustomed to seeing the elegant, well-mannered flocks of snowy egrets, little blues and tricolors coming and going from their usual tide pools and ponds, the bold entry of ibis into the area has been a shock to the system.  They appear to be everywhere.  The most consequential development that appears to have ignited the population has been the colony along the Chincoteague Causeway.  Whatever the cause, the Virginia population has exploded, increasing from less than 400 pairs in 2013 to more than 1,500 pairs in 2018.  Given the demographics, this explosion could not have been driven by good productivity alone but represents a flow of birds into the state from populations to the south.  We should expect further expansion in Virginia and likely states to the north over the next few years.

Chance Hines (rt) and Laura Duval (lft) extract a woodpecker from a pole net after capture

Moving woodpeckers 4

January 16, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

For the fourth consecutive year, CCB and a multi-state, multi-agency coalition rallied to capture red-cockaded woodpeckers from source populations in the Carolinas and Virginia for reintroduction within the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (GDSNWR).  The objective continues to be the establishment of a second viable breeding population in Virginia.  As with all of the past translocations, a large number of man days was required during the late summer and early fall to identify candidate birds along with their backups and backups to backups, identify roost trees so that the birds could be captured, and then roost them again for confirmation during the run-up to movement night. 

Eight hatch-year woodpeckers, including four males and four females, were moved during two nights.  Four birds were moved from Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina and two birds were moved from Palmetto-Peartree Preserve in North Carolina on 18 October. Two birds were moved from Piney Grove Preserve in Virginia on 7 November.  All birds were placed in artificial cavities and released the following morning at dawn.  All birds emerged fine and interacted with other woodpeckers.  In all, 36 woodpeckers have been meticulously monitored, captured, transported, and ultimately released from artificial cavities within the refuge since 2015.  All birds have been released successfully.

Update on the status of GDSNWR woodpeckers:

CCB biologists and refuge staff began a survey of woodpeckers on the GDSNWR in early December 2018.  The survey systematically roosted all recruitment clusters and artificial cavity trees over a period of several days and identified all birds using the sites.  2018 was a reasonable retention year, as three of the eight birds that had been moved earlier in the fall found roosting.  The 11 birds identified included four males and seven females setting up the possibility of four breeding pairs for the spring.  We will conduct another headcount in April to assess who is still standing as the birds move into the breeding season.


Ipswich sparrow just after banding. Band combination is Left- Blue-Red, Aluminum, Right- Pink-blue-red.

Have you seen me?

January 16, 2019

By Bryan Watts and Chance Hines, Center for Conservation Biology

The Center for Conservation Biology is asking bird watchers to be on the lookout for and report banded Ipswich sparrows.  The Ipswich sparrow is a specialized subspecies of the savannah sparrow that spends its entire life cycle within the narrow ribbon of dune habitat along the Atlantic Coast. The entire population breeds on Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia and winters along the coastal dunes primarily from the Carolinas through Massachusetts.  Birds are being marked as part of a collaborative investigation of demography.  Winter mortality is believed to be the principal limiting factor that regulates the population.  Parks Canada, Dalhousie University, and Acadia University are investigating breeding ecology on the Sable Island breeding grounds, marking birds to estimate survival, and using nanotags to study migration ecology.  The National Park Service and CCB are marking birds on the winter grounds to better understand patterns in winter survival and habitat use. 

Several hundred birds have been banded with unique combinations of color bands so that individuals may be distinguished and tracked through time.  A bi-color band has been paired with an aluminum band on one leg to indicate location of banding.  To date, blue/red and yellow/orange have been used during winter from North Carolina through Delaware and a yellow/green band has been used in New Jersey.  White/red and white/black bi-color bands have been used during the breeding season on Sable Island.  In all cases, the opposite leg has been banded with three color bands. 


We are requesting that bird watchers record: 

  1. Date and location of observation.
  2. Band combination – which bands on which legs and in what order read from top to bottom.  Example – Left leg: Blue/Red bi-color over Aluminum, Right leg from top to bottom Red-Yellow-White.
  3. Observer or observers present. 

Ipswich sparrows spend most of their time foraging or running along the ground making it difficult to read band combinations.  Photographs are helpful in obtaining and confirming band resights.


Please report resights and photos to and


Green Meditation intro slate to film

Rice Rivers Center, Virginia DGIF partner on short film

January 15, 2019

Ron Lopez, a member of Rice Rivers Center's faculty and an award-winning videographer, shot and directed Green Meditation. We are proud to have partnered with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries on this film, and look forward to continued collaborations.



Vials of blood collected as part of a collaborative effort between CCB and the National Park Service to monitor contaminant exposure for bald eagles

Clean blood for eaglets within lower Chesapeake Bay

January 15, 2019

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Between 2016 and 2018 CCB in partnership with the National Park Service collected blood samples from 25 eagle broods distributed throughout the lower Chesapeake Bay to measure their exposure to environmental contaminants.  Exposure to key contaminants during the 1940s and 1950s is believed to have caused the population crash in the Bay and by the early 1970s levels in addled eggs were some of the highest recorded throughout North America.  The recent effort was a periodic “checkup” to monitor exposure for breeding pairs under the care of the park service.

Blood samples were analyzed for a range of contaminant classes including heavy metals (cadmium, lead, mercury), polychrlorinated biphenyls (PCBs – 91 congeners) and organochrlorine  pesticides (OCPs – 11 compounds).  Blood concentrations of heavy metals were generally low and varied between metals examined.  Cadmium did not exceed the level-of-detection for any sample.  Detection frequencies for Lead and Mercury were 86 and 100% respectively.  Lead concentrations were low and no sample exceeded the level believed to represent background for raptors.  Blood concentrations of mercury were toward the lower to middle range of values reported from other studies of nestlings.  Broods reared around lakes or tidal-fresh reaches of tributaries had higher concentrations of mercury than broods reared around high-saline waters.  This is consistent with studies of eagle nestlings elsewhere within the breeding range.  No samples approached the general threshold believed to result in possible reproductive impacts.  Total PCB concentrations estimated during this study were on the low end of values reported from other regions.  A cluster of the highest values were found within the lower James River.  However, the highest values represented approximately 10% of the threshold suggested for reproductive impairment and 50% of the threshold suggested for no-observed-adverse-effect-level.  Total OCP concentrations were lower than those reported from most other populations.  p,p'-DDE was the most widespread pesticide compound and accounted for 93% of the total OCP values.  Concentrations of  p,p'-DDE were all below the level suggested for reproductive impairment and below the no-observed-adverse-effect-level for productivity. 

Due to the endless parade of possible man-made products that may one day find their way into the Chesapeake Bay, vigilance for contaminants will always be a key component of management moving forward.  However, the results of the blood tests conducted over the past three years are good news for the bald eagle population and for the improving health of the Chesapeake Bay. 


High School students look look into the rock pools at the James River

Community Idea Stations showcase VCU/Open High School partnership

January 11, 2019

The Community Idea Stations' Science Matters shines a spotlight on "Science Outside," a class developed between CES Associate Professor Dr. James Vonesh and Open High School Biology teacher Emily Betts.

Read about "Science on the Rocks"

A look back at VCU's top moments from 2018

Discovery of baby sturgeon tops VCU News stories from 2018

January 8, 2019

A lot can happen in a year at Virginia Commonwealth University, and 2018 was no different. The year was full of changes — both joyous (the opening of the much anticipated Institute for Contemporary Art) and sad (the passing of former provost Grace E. Harris, Ph.D., whose leadership transformed VCU). It was also full of the kinds of events, discoveries, collaborations and creativity that make VCU such a vibrant place to be.

Looking back, 2018 may seem like a blur. Here are the top stories, social media posts and videos to help remind us of the strides made and the moments prized at the university.

Top 10 VCU News stories from 2018

1) Discovery of baby sturgeon in the James River marks potential milestone for restoration efforts


Read the entire VCU News story, "Year in review 2018: A look back at VCU's top stories, Instgram pics, videos and more"


Screen shot from The Scientist website story,

Life Sciences center directors collaborate on article for The Scientist

January 3, 2019

Wonderful article in The Scientist on urban evolution that showcases the work we do under the Life Sciences umbrella. Life Sciences center directors Dr. Brian Verrelli (Center for Life Sciences Education), Dr. Rodney Dyer (Center for Environmental Studies) and Dr. Michael Rosenberg (Center for the Study of Biological Complexity) contributed to the project in this collaborative effort.

Read in full, "Cities Can Serve as Cauldrons of Evolution"

VCU's Todd Janeski tending to the oyster spat tank

VOSRP featured in Virginia Living magazine

December 18, 2018

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program is featured in December's Virginia Living.

Read Valerie Hubbard's story, "Don't Chuck That Shuck."

Lindsey Hendrick standing in front of her poster

CES M.S. graduate accepts position at U.S. EPA

December 13, 2018

Positions with the United States Environmental Protection Agency are always coveted, and often very hard to land. Meet Lindsey Hendrick, the U.S. EPA’s newest biologist, and recent Virginia Commonwealth University graduate. 

Hendrick received her Master of Science from the Center for Environmental Studies in spring 2018. Her travels to Panama to study the prothonotary warbler as part of Dr. Catherine Viverette’s  “Team Warbler”, and her participation in Dr. Daniel McGarvey’s Inforgraphics class provided Hendricks different experiential learning opportunities to complement her already impressive educational resume. 

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., Hendrick is assigned to the Science Information and Analysis Branch of the Biological and Economic Analysis Division, which is a part of the Office of Pesticide Programs. This particular branch is responsible for monitoring pesticide use and usage analysis. As an EPA biologist, she will be assessing the quality of data submitted by organizations that have applied to register a pesticide with the EPA. Once the analysis is complete, the data will be used for risk assessment. 

Learn more about the Environmental Studies Master of Science program

Snow at Rice Rivers Center

Rice Rivers Center December open house canceled

December 12, 2018

The melting and refreezing of snow from our recent storm have made the road to the center challenging to drive on.  We regretfully must cancel our December open house at Rice Rivers Center scheduled for Thursday, December 13.  

Nicholas Pendleton, student from VCU Life Sciences

VCU's newest graduates reflect on the moments that mattered

December 5, 2018

(Photo credit: Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Love outdoors and travel? One of our own upcoming graduates, Nicholas Pendleton, shows how he integrated these into his career trajectory. 

Read about his journey in: "VCU's newest graduates reflect on the moments that mattered"




Rachael Moffatt, an environmental studies major graduating this month, is one of the first four students to complete the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program at VCU.

These four VCU students aim to help navigate the future of the nation’s rivers

December 4, 2018

By Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

(Photo: Rachael Moffatt, an environmental studies major graduating this month, is one of the first four students to complete the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program at VCU. Credit: James Vonesh, Ph.D.)

Growing up in Richmond, Reid Anderson spent his childhood on and around the James River. Now at Virginia Commonwealth University, Anderson is pursuing a master’s degree in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and researching fish ecology in the lower James.

So when he heard that VCU was launching a new certificate to prepare future leaders with an understanding of the fundamentals of river sciences, river-related policy and management, and river-based recreation and education, he quickly signed up.

(Photo, below: River Studies and Leadership Certificate program student Reid Anderson) 

River Studies and Leadership Certificate program student Reid Anderson presented his research, "Spatial and temporal distributions of larval clupeid fishes in a tidal freshwater system," at the River Management Society's 2018 symposium in Vancouver. (Courtesy photo)

“I thought it would be an excellent way for me to connect my passion for rivers with my research,” he said.

Anderson, who graduates in December, is among the four VCU students in the inaugural cohort of the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program.

Read the entire article: "These four VCU students aim to help navigate the future of the nation's rivers"


Inger Rice, A.M., in front of the sign to the Inger Rice Lodge

Rice receives AFP Lifetime Achievement Award

December 3, 2018

Inger Rice, A.M., one of VCU’s most charitable donors and namesake of the Rice Rivers Center, was honored with the Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy Award November 16 at the Greater Richmond Convention Center, site of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ National Philanthropy Day. 


VCU co-nominated Rice for the honor, along with the Science Museum of Virginia. Rice's gift of 342 acres of land in Charles City County in 2000 led to the creation of the Rice Rivers Center, where students and faculty study environmental issues such as water quality and restoring the endangered Atlantic sturgeon. Her generosity to VCU exceeds $13 million. "With kindness, commitment, and a passion for making a difference, not just in our region but across the world, she is most deserving of this award," said VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., as he presented Rice with her award. "Inger, you are an inspiration to us all." National Philanthropy Day is an annual national event dedicated to recognizing the impact that acts of philanthropy have had in the community and the world. 

River in the Zingela Game Reserve

Dr. James Vonesh part of University of Richmond's lecture series

November 23, 2018

(Photo: Vonesh and his class visited the Zingela Game Reserve, seen here, during "South Africa Summit to Sea." Photo courtesy Dr. James Vonesh)


VCU Center for Environmental Studies Assistant Director Dr. James Vonesh spoke at the University of Richmond's Global Environment Speakers Series/African Week public lecture. His November 13 presentation was showcased in The Collegian, the student newpaper at the University of Richmond.  

Read "VCU professor finds similiarites between James River and African waterways"

Dr. Matt Balazik in the water holding an Atlantic sturgeon

NPR Podcast "The Environment in Focus" highlights Rice Rivers Center sturgeon program

November 21, 2018

VCU Rice Rivers Center's sturgeon restoration efforts are highlighted in NPR member station WYPR's podcast, "The Environment in Focus."


Listen to: "The Environment in Focus: Once Thought Nearly Extinct, Sturgeon Found Reproducing in James River"


Children in canoe on the river

Summer 2019 youth program sneak peak

November 19, 2018

Winter may be fast approaching, but we are already preparing for our summer camps!   VCU Rice Rivers Center, in partnership with VCU Rec Sports’ Outdoor Adventure Program, will be bringing back our popular day and overnight camps, as well as adding additional opportunities for a younger audience and those who wish to spend their Spring Break outdoors. 

As an introduction to VCU Rice Rivers Center and the Outdoor Adventure Program, please join us for our Spring Family Day on Saturday, March 23 from 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.  The entire family can participate in some of the activities students will enjoy while at camp, and staff and researchers will be there to answer questions.   

Spring Break Camp (NEW!):

We are excited to offer a spring break camp for middle school students at the Rice Rivers Center! We will explore the natural world through science and spend plenty of time outdoors at VCU’s 350 research campus on the James River.

For grades 4-8
Dates: April 1-5, 2019

Nature Camp:

Our summer Nature Camp at the Rice Rivers Center returns! We will explore the natural world through hands on science at VCU’s river campus and spend plenty of time adventuring outdoors. Along with learning about the James River watershed, we will meet researchers from the prothonotary warbler team (Team Warbler) and the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program. Join us at our beautiful 350 acre campus on the James River.

For rising 6-8th grade students
Dates: June 17-21; July 15-19, 2019

Jr. Nature Camp (NEW!):

By popular demand, we are able to offer the same summer Nature Camp at the Rice Rivers Center to younger aspiring scientists!  We will learn about plants and trees in our watershed, check out bald eagle and osprey nests, and learn to explore by canoe.

For rising 4-5th grade students
Dates: June 24-28, 2019

LEAP on to the James:

Join the OAP for LEAP (Leadership Environment and Adventure Program) on the James River. This four-day overnight program is for adventurous high school students who are ready to push their leadership skills and develop their outdoor competence. We will paddle down the James from Richmond to the Rice Rivers Center, stopping at conservation areas along the way. Students will learn about river ecology, cultural history, and develop leadership and outdoor skills that will stay with participants beyond their time on the river. No prior paddling experience is necessary, and there will be an informational meeting before the start of the trip to introduce students and instructors.

For rising 9-11th grade students
Dates: July 8-11; July 22-25, 2019


Day camp information:

Camps are at Rice Rivers Center and begin promptly at 9 a.m. and will end at 3 p.m., Monday through Friday.

A courtesy shuttle will be available between the Monroe Park campus and Rice Rivers Center.  Students can be dropped off at Monroe Park at 8:00 a.m. to be transported to Rice Rivers Center, and will leave the center at 3:00 p.m. to return to the Monroe Park campus by 3:45 p.m.

Early drop off/late pick-up:
Arrangements are available to provide parents access to drop their camper off as early as 7 a.m. and pick them up as late as 5 p.m. 

Registration will begin early spring 2019.

For more information visit
or email Katie Schmidt at

Baby sturgeon swimming in a container

Baby sturgeon discovered in James River highlight Rice Rivers Center research

November 16, 2018


Dr. Matt Balazik’s discovery of 148 baby sturgeon in the James River has received a lot of attention. Below are some of the stories in local, regional and national media that have raised awareness about the Virginia Sturgeon Restoration Team and the work done at Rice Rivers Center.

VCU News: Discovery of baby sturgeon in the James River marks potential milestone for restoration efforts

VCU Alumni: Discovery of baby sturgeon in the James River marks potential milestone for restoration efforts

VCU You Tube: Rice Rivers Center researchers locate baby sturgeon in James River

NBC 12 (Richmond): VCU researchers find baby sturgeon in the James River

Chesapeake Bay Magazine: Baby sturgeon count skyrockets in James River

Fox News: Baby Atlantic sturgeon found in Virginia river for first time in nearly a decade

WAVY 10 (Norfolk): VCU researchers find baby sturgeon in the James River

13 News Now (Norfolk): Baby sturgeon discovered in James River renew hope in restoration efforts

Picture of VCU student with tattoo of bird on left shoulder

Bodies of Work

November 9, 2018

A VCU Life Sciences researcher and Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. student are featured in an article in VCU Exposure.

Read: "Bodies of work"

Dr. Matt Balazik holds baby sturgeon found off the Rice Rivers Center pier

Discovery of baby sturgeon in the James River marks potential milestone for restoration efforts

November 7, 2018


For the past eight years, Matt Balazik, Ph.D., and other researchers from the Rice Rivers Center at Virginia Commonwealth University have conducted trawl surveys in the James River in hopes of finding Atlantic sturgeon, the once-plentiful ancient fish that was listed as an endangered species in 2012.

During that time, Balazik and his peers have identified more than 600 different adult sturgeon. Among the hundreds of thousands of fish they found on their research trips, however, not once did they ever spot any baby sturgeon — and only twice did they find any juveniles of the species.

Then, last week, baby sturgeon started showing up in researchers’ nets. In the course of a week, Balazik and his fellow researchers identified 24 baby sturgeon during a series of especially productive trips on the river.

Read entire story, "Discovery of baby sturgeon in the James River marks potential milestone for restoration efforts"


VCU researchers studied tree canopy cover across the city of Richmond as part of the Urban Forestry Collaborative

Taking root: Project to plant trees connects VCU and Carver

November 2, 2018


A project to plant dozens of trees this month in Carver will make the neighborhood a greener and more walkable community, while offsetting the carbon footprint of Virginia Commonwealth University as the trees grow.

The Carver Tree Project, the pilot project of the Urban Forestry Collaborative, has brought together resources from VCU, nonprofits and state agencies to plant and maintain 75 trees in the neighborhood, located just north of VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. VCU will be the first university in Virginia, and one of the first in the nation, to claim carbon offset credits for the new trees under a peer-reviewed program developed at Duke University.

Read the VCU News article, "Taking root: Project to plant trees connects VCU and Carver."

Welcome table, with people around it signing up to get in the 2018 Shell-Raiser's Shindig

2018 Shell-Raiser's Shindig benefits VOSRP

November 2, 2018

A beautiful fall day framed the 2018 Shell-Raiser’s Shindig, which took place October 21 at Libbie Mill-Midtown.  A record number of guests enjoyed Virginia oysters, dishes from some of the best chefs and suppliers in the state, and a wide-range of local beverages.  Proceeds from the Shindig generates a significant portion of funding to support VCU's oyster restoration initiative, the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP)Due to success of this event and from the generosity of our partners and sponsors, we will ensure we continue to grow the VOSRP to help restore the Chesapeake Bay, provide educational opportunities and to engage our community in active restoration.

The VOSRP annually recycles approximately 125,000 pounds of waste shell. That shell is age-cured at the VCU Rice Rivers Center for up to a year, hauled to Gwynn’s Island where it is seeded with juvenile oysters at our public-private partnership spat setting facility and then returned to the Chesapeake Bay on reef restoration projects in the Piankatank and Rappahannock Rivers. The VOSRP works closely with the seafood industry and restoration partners and returned approximately seven million oysters to the water in 2018 with a 2019 goal of 12-15 million oysters being returned.

Some of the selections at the Shindig included:  

Alewife (Richmond): Seafood Gumbo (oysters and crab supplied by Reliant Seafood and J&W Seafood)
Aloha Snacks VB (Virginia Beach): Tuna Poke and Ruby Salts oysters topped with tuna tartar and lemon hot sauce (Tuna supplied by Sam Rust Seafood)
Dutch and Company (Richmond): Bratwurst from Autumn Olive Farms pork, apple butter mustard and kraut
Lemaire at the Jefferson Hotel (Richmond): Fried J&W Seafood oysters with sautéed seasonal greens
Longoven (Richmond): Grilled squid, white beans and seasonal mushroom ragout (squid supplied by Tuckahoe Seafood)
Shagbark (Henrico): Autumn Olive Farms pork with Shooting Point Oyster Company’s Hog Island clam pozole verde with heirloom hominy
Upper Shirley Vineyard (Charles City): Shrimp and grits
Edwards Virginia Smokehouse: Cured ham tasting station
Birdies Pimento Cheese: Tasting station

Virginia oysters from: 

Shooting Points Salts and Bullseye Oysters 
Big Island Aquaculture Pearls
Windmill Point Skipjacks
J&W Seafood Oysters
Ruby Salts Oysters
Tangier Island Oysters 

A signature cocktail prepared by The Jasper with Viagro Four-Point Rum highlighted the beverage lineup that included: 

Williamsburg Winery
Upper Shirley Vineyards
Early Mountain Vineyards
White Hall Vineyards
Stinson Vineyards
Ankida Ridge Vineyards
Ox-Eye Vineyards
The Veil Brewing Company
Fair Winds Brewing Company
Alewerks Brewing Company 

To see photos of the event, please visit the VCU Rice Rivers Center Facebook page.


Todd Janeski speaking with Jessica Noll on the set of Virginia This Morning

VOSRP director Todd Janeski on Virginia this Morning

October 8, 2018

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) Director Todd Janeski sat down with CBS6 Virginia this Morning's Jessica Noll to talk about the 2018 Shell Raisers Shindig.

The 4th Shindig is held on October 21, 2018 at Libbie Mill-Midtown to benefit the VOSRP.  Some of the area's finest chefs and oysters from the eight regions will be featured.  Be sure to get your tickets here.


Watch VOSRP Virginia this Morning segment


 Laura Duval, Sydney Bliss, and Lucas Berrigan process captured sparrow

CCB collaborates on study of winter ecology of ipswich sparrows

October 4, 2018

By Fletcher Smith and Sydney Bliss (M.Sc candidate at Dalhousie University)

Ipswich sparrows spend their lives on the wild edge where the Atlantic Ocean meets land. The entire population breeds on one small sandy island (the aptly named Sable Island) off the coast of Canada, and in migration and in winter they occupy sandy coastal habitat. These sparrows have evolved in this constantly changing environment, their plumage blending in perfectly with the open sand and tones of mid-winter vegetation. The dunes in which Ipswich spend their winters are susceptible to high-intensity nor’easters that strip seeds from plants and flatten or rearrange entire swaths of habitat. Heavy snow storms on the outer coast can bury most of the available seed crop. Severe cold temperatures on the northern end of their winter range likely cause some degree of facultative migration to warmer climes. But still these birds persist, and the degree to which they have adapted to this harsh environment is nothing short of amazing.

The dynamic nature of the dune/ocean interface makes for dramatic changes in annual occupancy. For instance, during CCB’s surveys of Metompkin Island in 2012 and 2016 we found over 20 birds/km of beach. To put that density into perspective, the seminal winter survey work conducted by Stobo and McLaren in 1971 found peak densities in the mid-Atlantic of 3 birds/km. This winter, with the dune habitat remaining unchanged to the human eye on Metompkin Island, we only recorded 1 bird/km. The annual variation in habitat used is likely summed up in one word: food. The birds likely have site fidelity between years if the seed base doesn’t change much, but our counts on Metompkin Island this past winter likely reflect a crash in dune grass seed production since our 2016 survey. The focus of our surveys during the winter of 2017-2018 was to determine the density and distribution of the sparrows across the mid-Atlantic from Delaware to North Carolina. We surveyed approximately 237 total kilometers of dune habitat throughout the field season from January through mid-March. We found a range of densities of the sparrows across the landscape, with the highest densities unsurprisingly recorded in wild natural dunes. We plan on expanding these surveys during the upcoming winter to better understand the distribution of sparrows across the winter range.

To better understand the processes that affect Ipswich Sparrow population size, researchers have begun a long-term study of the population using mark-resight techniques. To mark the sparrows, birds are affixed with unique combinations of colored leg bands. To date, 639 sparrows have been banded on Sable Island, Canada breeding grounds and on Delmarva Peninsula, USA wintering grounds. Sparrows will continue to be banded at these locations over the next several years and resighting surveys (i.e. finding the birds after banding) will occur in multiple locations along the eastern seaboard. The history and location of birds that are resighted can be used to make inferences about the demography of the marked population. For instance, researchers will be able to determine which life cycle stages (breeding, migration, or overwintering) incur the highest mortality in the population, estimate population size, and understand how various ecological factors affect population size.

The difficulties associated with following individual animals have long been a barrier to studying migrations. With the recent miniaturization of radio-transmitters, plus an extensive array of telemetry receivers in eastern North America (Motus Wildlife Tracking System), it is now possible to track small songbirds from start-to-finish during migrations. To better understand Ipswich sparrow migration, we affixed sparrows with radio transmitters on the Delmarva Peninsula in winter 2018. These small transmitters weigh 0.7 g and are attached to sparrows using a backpack-style harness. Using the Motus array, these sparrows were tracked thousands of kilometers from the Delmarva Peninsula to Sable Island during spring migration. Data from these transmitters will help us understand the migration of these birds, including what routes they take to Sable Island, where and for how long they stop to rest along the way, how long the journey takes, and constitutes the most dangerous legs of migration. Further, researchers can identify key areas that support migrating sparrows for management and conservation.

The 2017-2018 winter work was conducted with the help of many partners, land managers, and funding agencies, including the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dalhousie University, Acadia University, Delaware State Parks (Cape Henlopen, Delaware Seashore, and Fenwick Island), Delaware Department of Natural Resources Division of Fish & Wildlife, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, The Nature Conservancy, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. Ned Brinkley, Zak Poulton, and Courtney Check all contributed significant volunteer time and effort in support of this study.  

Eagle nest on the Patuxent Naval Air Station where great blue heron tarsus was recovered

A heron’s tale

October 4, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

On 1 May, 2018 while banding on the Patuxent Naval Air Station in Maryland, we found a great blue heron tarsal bone in one of the eagle nests.  The bone was clean but fresh and had an aluminum band.  After sending the band number to the Bird Banding Lab, we were informed that the heron had been banded on 5 July, 2001 as a nestling in Quebec, Canada, making it in its 18th year when it was killed.  Upon further correspondence with the Canadian Wildlife Service, it was determined that the bird was hatched in a colony on Steamboat Island in Wayagamack Lake by Louise Champoux.  The bird was included in a study monitoring contaminant exposure of great blue herons throughout the region around the St. Lawrence River.  This chance encounter helps to shed additional light on two lingering questions about great blue herons within the Chesapeake Bay including 1) what is the migratory status of great blue herons using the Chesapeake Bay and 2) what is the interaction between great blue herons and eagles?

Due to the latitudinal position of the Chesapeake Bay, the migratory status of many bird species is transitional such that populations north of the Chesapeake Bay are migratory and those south of the Bay are non-migratory.  To make things even more confusing, some of the species that we have assumed to be year-round residents because we see them here in the Bay all year actually go through a “changing of the guard” where our breeding birds migrate out for the winter only to be replaced by birds from northern breeding grounds.  Other species show a mixed strategy.  For example, through tracking our peregrines with satellite transmitters, we have determined that some of our birds migrate south and some remain resident through the year.  Although we know that great blue herons near the northern limit of their breeding range migrate south to open water for the winter, we have not known if or how these populations might use the Chesapeake Bay.  It appears from this recovery that at least some of these birds winter here in the Bay.  We know very little about the possible movement of Chesapeake Bay breeding birds out of the Bay to spend the winter.

The remarkable recovery of bald eagles within the Chesapeake Bay has had a clear downside for species that are included in eagle diets.  Increasingly, some of these prey species are other waterbirds such as ducks, gulls, cormorants, and some herons.  Over the past 20 years, we have suspected that the colonization of great blue heron breeding colonies has led to the splintering and movement of colonies, possibly due to predation on heron nestlings.  Adult great blue herons are large birds to take, even for bald eagles.  Despite their size, we have received periodic observations, photos, and videos from the public showing eagles hunting great blue herons.  Some of these hunts have been successful.  Finding this bird in the nest is further evidence that great blue herons are included in eagle diets during the breeding season.


Peregrine flying in the air

Female peregrines under pressure

October 3, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

The 2018 breeding season was a rebuilding year for peregrine falcons in Virginia.  Of 39 slots within established territories where breeding adults could be identified in both 2017 and 2018, 23% of individuals had changed between years.  Although this annual turnover rate is one of the highest that we have recorded since initiating intensive identification efforts, the more interesting aspect is that males and females had markedly different rates.  Only 10.5% of males were lost compared to 35.0% of females.  This disparity between the sexes, although extreme in 2018, continues an ongoing trend and is opposite of the pattern of survival documented within the peregrine population breeding within the Midwest.

Peregrine falcons are dimorphic in size with females in many populations weighing 40% or more than males.  In addition to size differences, the genders have different roles during the breeding season with the female performing most of the brood rearing and the male responsible for much of the hunting.  Both sexes will defend the eyrie from intruders.

Although we have documented some mortality factors (car strikes, collisions, West Nile Virus, etc.) operating within the population, much of the annual losses remain a mystery and none suggest a gender bias.  We have rarely documented adult losses during the breeding season after egg-laying.  Most of the mortality we document is occurring before egg-laying and as with most peregrine populations, competition and fighting for prominent territories is intense.  It seems likely that a significant portion of the annual mortality may result from contest fights, but why this activity would exert greater pressure on females is unclear.

Laughing gull in flight over a marsh along the seaside of the Delmarva Peninsula

Losing ground to sea-level rise

September 27, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology


They have names like Big Easter, Gull Marsh, and Egging Marsh – places where the early settlers of the Virginia Barrier Islands would go each spring to gather fresh eggs by the bushel baskets to carry over and sell to mainlanders.  Like a loud traveling party, the laughing gulls would return to their marshes each April with their raucous calls and showy flights.  There is nothing shy or demure about a laughing gull.  They nested in such dense colonies that it was easy work to collect hundreds of eggs in a morning.

The unique voice and constant calls of laughing gulls have been a familiar part of life on the Eastern Shore.  But over the past 15 years, many of the nesting marshes have gone silent.  Like neighborhoods called “Bear Creek” or “Eagle Point” in the heart of our cities, the early attributions have become empty place names – names that seem oddly out of sync in the context of today.

I first had the opportunity to survey these historic colonies from the air in the early 1990s.  On 27 May, 1993 Mitchell Byrd, Fuzzzo Shermer, and I flew for seven hours back and forth over the expansive marshes of the seaside mapping and counting colonies. It took a day and a half to complete the survey.  The larger colonies were beehives of activity that could be seen from miles away.  From above, the colonies nearly glowed with nests and birds contrasting against the deep green marsh grass.  On marsh islands the colonies were ringed like donuts where the birds built nests on rafts of wrack that had washed up along their perimeter.  On the larger marshes colonies were on high shelves and had a worn look as though they had been used for hundreds of years.  In a single round of surveys we tried to capture the series of colonies that had been known by generations of locals.  In the moment, with the drone of the engine and the chaos that comes along with surveying in the air, we had no sense of an approaching cliff.  Somehow things seemed as expected and the birds were going about their business as they had done for centuries.

We have had the privilege of conducting aerial surveys of the gull colonies approximately every five years since 1993 and have witnessed a rapid change since 2003.  Virtually all of the historic marsh colonies where residents once collected eggs no longer support nesting gulls.  From the air, I can still see the worn, high shelves in the marshes that are reminders of what once was.  They appear like ghost towns where time and the beehive of activity have moved on.  Between 1993 and 2018, the footprint of gull colonies on the lower marshes of the Eastern Shore coastal bay has declined from 326 hectares to only 15 hectares, a 95% decline.  It is staggering to recognize that these historic colonies have disappeared over such a short period of time.

Rising water and the increased frequency of inundation during high tides appear to have made these marshes unusable as breeding sites.  Equally concerning is the fact that the marshes have supported a community of breeding species.  Laughing gulls are visible occupants of the marsh patches and are easy to survey from the air.  Other, more secretive marsh species including clapper rails, black rails, seaside sparrows, saltmarsh sparrows, willets, and American oystercatchers are no doubt suffering from the same tides and may also be increasingly vacating these historic habitats.


VCU Rice Rivers Center

September 13 Open House at Rice Rivers Center canceled

September 12, 2018

Due to the impending storm, our open house at Rice Rivers Center on Thursday, September 13 will be canceled. VCU will be closed Thursday, September 13 through Sunday, September 16 and classes (including online) will also be canceled.

Please visit for full details.

VCU students and instructors pose on the edge of a river for VCU River Studies Leadership Certificate program

VCU offers River Studies and Leadership Certificate program

September 6, 2018



Rivers play a central role in shaping landscapes and creating biologically diverse and unique ecosystems; they also form the foundation of cultures, economies, and communities.  Rivers connect us to nature, to our past, and to each other.

Leaders of the future with an understanding of the fundamentals of river sciences, river-related policy and management, and river-based recreation and education will be best equipped to make sustainable decisions about future uses, studies, and management of river systems around the world.

VCU is proud to be partnering with the River Management Society (RMS) and a cohort of eight other universities and colleges to offer the River Studies and Leadership Certificate program, awarded upon completion of river-focused coursework and a river-related professional project by RMS. VCU is the only school east of the Mississippi to offer a path to the certificate.

The certificate requires the completion of one course from each of four core areas -- GIS, River Safety, River Science, and River Policy, and then two additional courses in the student's area of specialization -- River Science, River-based Policy and Management, or River-based Recreation, Education, and Tourism. The student then completes a river capstone/professional experience. The certificate can be complete at either undergrad or graduate levels.

Is the River Certificate right for you? If you are passionate about rivers and could imagine a river or water resource related career like the answer is, yes!

To learn more, visit the RMS River Studies & Leadership web page or contact VCU coordinator, Dr. James R Vonesh, Assistant Director, Center for Environmental Studies.

seven freshman VCU students that represent the 2018-2019 school year

First look

September 4, 2018


Meet Suha Minai - a bioinformatics major in the Center for Biological Data Science in Life Sciences - one of 6,000 new students at VCU.

Read "First look."

Students kayaking through rapids on the Salmon River, water droplets in the air

The river of no return

August 24, 2018

Story by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs
Photos by James Vonesh, Ph.D., associate professor and assistant director for the Center for Environmental Studies

In the wilderness of Idaho’s Lower Salmon River this summer, Virginia Commonwealth University student Abby Wright pushed herself to do things she’d never done before.

Along with her classmates in a new experiential course series at VCU, Wright — a sophomore biology major in the College of Humanities and Sciences — camped in backcountry with no contact to the outside world for a week, learned how to paddle down a river in an inflatable raft, and cooked for all 22 students, faculty and guides on the expedition.

“I made friends with people with similar interests to mine that I otherwise would have never met,” Wright said. “I feel incredibly inspired to push myself further now in my life outside of this class, trying to do more things that scare me every day.”

The series of classes, The River of No Return: The Lower Salmon River Experience, launched this summer as a collaboration of the VCU Outdoor Adventure Program, the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences, and the Department of Biology.

Read and see more from "The river of no return."


Watch the video,  "An expedition education on the river of no return."


Female anhinga incubating on a nest in York County, Virginia

Anhingas march north

August 24, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

During the summer of 2018, CCB biologists conducted a three-day, cursory search for anhinga breeding locations that resulted in the location of six breeding sites, including fifteen active nests scattered across five jurisdictions in coastal Virginia.  Although these do not represent the first breeding records for the state, their number and distribution clearly demonstrate that the species is well-established as a breeding species in Virginia.  The nest site located in Charles City County is now the northernmost breeding area known throughout the species range.  Anhingas appear to be rapidly expanding their breeding range to the north.

Anhingas are birds of the Deep South.  They are known for silently slipping through the coffee-colored, tannic, shallow waters of the humid swamps that are such visible components of the southern landscape.  They dive and swim through the murky waters to catch fish.  Their low buoyancy (the result of wettable feathers and dense bones) helps in the pursuit of fish through submerged vegetation but also causes them to ride low in the water.  With only their head and neck extending above the surface they have been referred to by generations as “snakebirds.”

Since the discovery of a nesting site in the late 1800s on Orton Pond near Wilmington, North Carolina has been the northern range limit for breeding in the species.  During the 1930s, a wave of anhingas apparently moved north into North Carolina and nesting sites were documented within several counties.  In more recent decades, breeding has expanded north toward the NC/VA border.  Since 2010, sightings of anhingas in Virginia have increased dramatically.  Dave Youker documented single breeding attempts in 2009 and again in 2017.  Both of these attempts were on Harwoods Mill Reservoir in York County.

Given the significant number of sightings made during the breeding season, the likelihood that breeding is more widespread than the single known location would imply has been difficult to ignore.  During the summer of 2018, CCB biologists decided to explore several locations that support habitat suitable for breeding in an attempt to better understand current distribution.  Thirteen sites were surveyed including the Harwoods Mill Reservoir site.  Although no breeding was documented on Harwoods Mill in 2018, active nests were found within six of the remaining twelve sites.  All nests included either eggs or young.  Occupied sites were found within five jurisdictions scattered throughout southeastern Virginia, including Virginia Beach City and the counties of Isle of Wight, Prince George, York, and Charles City.

Southeastern Virginia supports a large number of sites with habitat that appears to be suitable for breeding anhingas.  The cursory survey conducted during 2018 suggests that the population is well established and much larger than previously appreciated.  Anhingas appear to be expanding their breeding range north on a rapid pace. 


OAP rafting rafting excursion, summer 2017. (Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Adventure Program)

VCU and the James, a love story

August 17, 2018

(Photo: OAP rafting excursion, summer 2017. Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Adventure Program)


By Leah Small, University Pubilc Affairs

Virginia Commonwealth University and the James River flow together. Students kayak, raft, canoe and wade in the waterway, researchers study its ecosystems, and artists permanently capture its natural beauty. The long-standing relationship between the university and the river in its backyard has proven mutually beneficial. Here are a few examples of how VCU and the James River are inseparable.

Continue reading, "VCU and the James, a love story."

Some of the students from the LFSC 591 Topics: Conservation Filmmaking Class at the VCU Rice Rivers Center pier

Conservation Filmmaking in Life Sciences

August 10, 2018

Students in the new one-credit course, LFSC 591 Topics: Conservation Filmmaking, spent the summer session learning how to merge art and science into compelling – and visually appealing –storytelling.  Taught by Ron Lopez, a VCU Rice Rivers Center faculty member and award-winning filmmaker, topics include deforestation, food waste, the benefits/ importance of public parks, and a study of the fish populations in Curles Neck.

Visit our Facebook page to see more photos from the course.   

A group of people from VCU and RMS pose for a picture

VCU's RSLC featured in Summer 2018 RMS Journal

August 14, 2018

The VCU River Management Society River Studies and Leadership Certificate (RSLC) program was featured in the Summer 2018 RMS (River Management Society) Journal. Scroll down to page 18 to read about the program and learn more about our Wild & Scenic Film Festival fundraiser this past spring.

Read RMS Journal

A photo of VCU at night

50 reasons to love VCU

August 3, 2018

Note: This article originally appeared in the spring 2018 VCU Alumni magazine. Learn more and engage with VCU Alumni at


We know there are more, but here are the top 50 reasons that make VCU such a great place. Rice Rivers Center is one of them.


Read the full article, "50 reasons to love VCU."

Rachael Moffatt, a senior environmental studies major, is the James River Association’s water quality intern this summer, helping to oversee 66 volunteers who collect and upload samples each week

How much E.coli is in the James River? Just ask this VCU environmental studies major.

August 2, 2018


(Rachael Moffatt, a senior environmental studies major, is the James River Association’s water quality intern this summer, helping to oversee 66 volunteers who collect and upload samples each week - courtesy photo)


By Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

When swimmers, boaters or fisherman want to know the E.coli levels of the James River, they check the James River Association’s James River Watch website, which provides river condition data collected by volunteers on water temperature, turbidity, river height and bacteria.

This summer, a Virginia Commonwealth University student is playing a key role in providing that essential data to recreational users of the James River, stretching from Buchanan in the west to Norfolk in the east.

Rachael Moffatt, a senior environmental studies major, is serving as the James River Association’s water quality intern, a role in which she is coordinating the association’s 66 trained citizen-scientist volunteers — known as the “James RiverRats” — and supporting their work to collect samples and upload data on a weekly basis.


Read the full article, "How much E.coli is in the James River? Just ask this VCU environmental studies major."


Artist rendering of 14-square-foot research at Rice Rivers Center

VCU Rice Rivers Center completes fundraising campaign for new research laboratory complex

July 26, 2018

The VCU Rice Rivers Center has completed a fundraising campaign that will finance nearly all construction of a $7 million research facility meant to bolster river-related research and the training of environmental scientists.

The 14,000-square-foot facility will bring much-needed laboratory, office and meeting space to Rice Rivers Center, a nearly 500-acre research station on the James River in Charles City County. Scientists and researchers from VCU and collaborating institutions will have access to specialized equipment and work areas.

Fundraising efforts culminated with the completion of a million-dollar challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation. Gifts and pledges to meet the match came from more than 200 individuals, corporations and foundations. The Mary Morton Parsons Foundation is a private entity founded in 1988 to support the capital needs of charitable organizations.

Continue reading article

Matt Balazik catches a sturgeon in a net. Photo credit: Jamie Brunkow

Matt Balazik Is Working to Restore Prehistoric Sturgeon to James River in Virginia

July 26, 2018

(Photo credit: Jamie Brunkow)



Hopewell and Prince George, Virginia (PRWEB)

Matt Balazik, PhD, is helping to restore the Atlantic sturgeon to the James River in Virginia. Balazik works for the Army Corps of Engineers and is a research assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center, just south of Hopewell, Virginia.

Balazik grew up in a house in Prince George County. “I could throw a baseball from my lawn into the James,” he said. “We knew of sturgeon, but it was more like folklore.” The sturgeon has disappeared from the James River. When Balazik went to Virginia Commonwealth University to earn a master’s degree in biology, he decided to write his thesis about the disappearing sturgeon. He continued that study for his doctoral dissertation.

Continue reading article


Buckets of shell ready to be placed into the Piankatank River

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program gathers media attention

July 19, 2018

VCU Rice Rivers Center's Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is very excited to partner with the The Nature Conservancy in Virginia, Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research Chesapeake Bay Office to construct more oyster reefs in the Piankatank River. Recycled shells, as part of the VOSRP, will be a veneer on top of these new sites to jump-start the restoration process once those shells are set with larval oysters!

We are thankful for the abudance of publicity we have received for this partnership.  Some recent stories include:

WRIC Richmond (video)
"A tide of change: Oyster reef restoration projects get funding from General Assembly


The Free Lance-Star (print)
"Rocking on in effort to add oyster reefs in the Piankatank River, and elsewhere"


Daily Press (print)
"World's largest oyster reef restoration continues on the Piankatank River" - (story)
Pictures - Oyster Reef Restoration - (photos)


Bay Journal (print)
"Virginia's Piankatank River gets 15 new acres of oyster reef"






Jeff Corwin, Bryan Watts and Marie Pitts stand on the boat below an osprey nes

Expedition Chesapeake

July 19, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

The Chesapeake Bay is one of the largest estuaries in North America and one of the most productive aquatic ecosystems on the planet.  Its watershed covers portions of six states and is home to more than 18 million people.  The economic benefit flowing from the Bay to these six states is estimated to be 30 billion dollars annually.  In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order designating the Bay as a national treasure and recognizing its importance to the entire country.  An intended outcome of this designation was to rally the resources needed to protect the unique constellation of species that rely on the Bay.  The Bay is subjected to an unrelenting assault from the people and industries that live and operate within its watershed.

Expedition Chesapeake is a multi-media project funded by the Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts that is designed to educate and inspire the residents of the watershed to become better stewards of the Bay.  It focuses on the interconnections found within the complex ecosystem and how activities within one portion of the Bay may have unintended consequences in others.  The anchor of the program will be a 44-minute, giant-screen documentary film that highlights the ecology and ongoing conservation research focused on six iconic species including the blue crab, oyster, striped bass, osprey, river otter and hellbender.  The film will be hosted by Emmy award winning TV personality, Jeff Corwin. 

CCB’s ongoing work with osprey on the upper James River will be featured in the documentary film.  Recently, a film crew from VIA Studios traveled down to the James along with Jeff Corwin to film nesting osprey and CCB biologists working on the river.  The film opening is scheduled for 19 March, 2019 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  The film is intended to be distributed worldwide to reach museum audiences.


A healthy brood of woodpeckers with new bands.

Up and down year for Virginia woodpeckers

July 18, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The 2018 breeding season was a roller coaster for endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers in Virginia.  Moving into the breeding season the state supported 17 potential breeding groups (clusters with at least a male and a female), including 14 within Piney Grove Preserve and 3 within the Great Dismal Swamp, NWR.  This is the largest breeding population supported by Virginia since the 1970s.  By 29 April the Piney Grove birds had already produced four clutches and by 4 May this rose to eight clutches, giving one of the earliest starts to the breeding season in recent memory.  By mid-May, 13 of the 14 Piney Grove groups had made breeding attempts.  However, after mid-May the tide of good nesting news had turned.  The one holdout pair had not laid a clutch and two of the existing clutches had failed.  Ultimately, three of the 13 pairs that made attempts would fail and the no show never showed.  In addition, the three pairs in the Great Dismal Swamp never laid clutches. 

Overall, the Virginia population fledged 22 woodpeckers resulting in a mediocre reproductive rate of 1.29 young per potential breeding group.  This compares to an average rate of 1.56 for the previous three years.  Only 23 (58%) of 40 eggs laid eventually hatched.  All 23 young hatched survived to banding age and all but one of these fledged from nest cavities.  The single young that did not fledge was grossly underweight at banding, weighing only 13.5 grams compared to 24 and 25.5 grams for its siblings.  Fledged birds included 12 females and 10 males.

A pair of adult eagles feed three young on Curles Neck Swamp along the James River

Eagle productivity continues slide

July 18, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The 2018 breeding season along the James River continued a trend that has been documented for the past 15 years.  The breeding population continues to increase while productivity continues to decline. The 2018 survey documented a modern record population of 289 breeding pairs along the James River compared to 274 in 2017 and 262 in 2016.  However, the number of young produced per territory sank to 1.09, a value not seen on the survey since 1982. The two opposing trends appear to continue the population’s path to stability.  

The shift in productivity can be seen in the details of breeding performance.  During the 2000 breeding season, only 15% of pairs that laid eggs failed to produce young compared to 34% in 2018.  Brood size has also become smaller over time. In 2000, 2-young broods represented 56% of all broods. In 2018, 2-young broods had fallen to 48% of all broods and 1-young broods had risen from 29% to 42%.  If this trend continues, 1-young broods will become the most common brood size. Three-young broods have declined from 15% to 10% and have become increasingly uncommon.


 Colony-wide metabolic demand peaks in July when the young are large but still growing

The fish factory

July 17, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The brown pelican and double-crested cormorant nesting colony on South Point Marsh is like a shape shifter where fish are harvested, consumed and magically converted to bird flesh.  Located within an old marsh pasture on the south end of Smith Island, the colony is strategically positioned within the heart of the Bay and is one in a series of seabird colonies that stretch from Tangier Island north to Poplar Island.  But South Point stands high above all of the others.  In mid-July, when the metabolic engine revs up to its highest pitch, the colony is estimated to consume 4,900 kilograms (10,800 pounds) of forage fish per day, including staples like menhaden, bay anchovy and silversides.  During the course of the season, the colony is estimated to consume 950 metric tons of fish.  Many questions remain about the details of how the colony interacts with the various fisheries. 

The development of South Point Marsh into one of the great natural fish factories in the Chesapeake has happened over a short period of time.  In June of 1993, Gary Costanza was working black ducks on the Bay islands when Mitchell Byrd and Bryan Watts hitched a ride out to Fishbone Island to check on a tern colony and then up to South Point to survey the emerging colony that they had seen from the air.  The tide was ebbing fast, threatening to strand the boat for several hours on the expansive flats around Cheeseman Island as Gary put them off on the beach.  They had only minutes to scramble up over the low dunes and work through the colony.  Fifty-three pelican nests were scattered through the vegetation.  In a small cluster just on the crest of the dunes was a group of six cormorant nests with fresh eggs. 

As part of the state-wide colonial waterbird survey, CCB has had the opportunity to monitor the South Point colony over the years.  The most recent count conducted on 31 May, 2018 found 1,753 brown pelican nests and 4,606 double-crested cormorant nests.  After a dramatic increase through the 1990s and early 2000s, pelicans appear to have stabilized and come off of their peak of 1,857 pairs counted in 2013.  Cormorants continue to demonstrate explosive growth, nearly doubling since 2013 and now dominating the colony.  Collectively the breeding pairs represent the largest seabird colony within the mid-Atlantic region.

During the peak season, the South Point colony is a beehive of activity with fish-laden adults arriving from all directions.  The movement and sounds of adults and young rival that of Times Square during rush hour.  But the smells of addled eggs, dead young, rotting fish and guano are more like the rising stench of a landfill on a hot summer day.  The specific relationship between the colony and the fisheries it depends on is still poorly understood.  What is the size and shape of the net the colony casts on the Bay?  During the summer of 1999, Bryan Watts, Dana Bradshaw and Marian Watts made observations of the colony for more than a month.  Pelicans rose out of the colony on thermals nearly out of sight overhead and moved off great distances to forage.  Pelicans are now observed up the Potomac River as far as Colonial Beach during the summer, suggesting that the pelicans are harvesting fish from a large portion of the Bay.  But details on their foraging behavior and what impact the seabirds may be having on the various fisheries remain to be explored.

Male yellow-crowned night heron with a stick collected for nest building

Urban herons hold their own

July 17, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology


CCB biologists have monitored breeding herons within residential neighborhoods of tidewater Virginia (including the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Portsmouth) since the mid-1980s.  As part of the 2018 Virginia colonial waterbird survey (funded by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program and CCB), residential neighborhoods, parks and other urban areas were once again surveyed for breeding herons.  Despite the relentless efforts of homeowners to encourage the birds to move off of their properties, the birds continue to hold their own.

Although 11 species of herons, egrets and ibises nest in Virginia, only three including yellow-crowned night herons, great egrets and green herons are tolerant enough of humans to nest in urban settings.  Yellow-crowned night herons are the most widespread, nesting in neighborhoods that have stands of loblolly pines between 40 and 80 years old that are positioned around productive cordgrass marshes where they feed on crabs.  Their breeding locations appear like halos around these marshes. Great egrets nest in the crowns of loblolly pine stands that are greater than 100 years old. Great egrets feed on fish and because they are capable of flying up to 20 miles to feed, their colonies may form just about anywhere in tidewater.  Green herons typically nest in dense, low trees such as live oaks, willow oaks or crepe myrtles. Although they often nest in small colonies, isolated pairs also nest making them difficult to survey.

Over the past 30 years, urban herons have held their own in Virginia.  The population of yellow-crowned night herons has more than doubled over this time as pine trees in many neighborhoods have matured and now provide nesting substrates close to more marsh patches.  Although the number of great egret colonies has declined and colonies are associated with fewer estuaries, the overall number of pairs has declined by only 20%. The number of known green heron pairs has declined by more than 40%, but this species is particularly difficult to survey and monitor.

Driving through the dozens of neighborhoods during the spring of 2018 has been like traveling down memory lane with the ghosts of herons past perched on many corners.  Many of the nesting areas from the past are no longer being used. Since the 1980s, we have lost nine great egret colonies, some of which had been known for more than 50 years.  Many of these had occurred on vacant lots that are now developed. Others were nesting over houses leading to the removal of all nest trees. Unwanted, the birds have been bounced from neighborhood to neighborhood with the end result that colonies are now restricted to fewer estuaries.  For unknown reasons, yellow-crowned night herons prefer to build their nests over man-made structures including roofs, decks, driveways and cars. This behavior places the birds in direct conflict with homeowners, often resulting in owners removing trees or limbs to prevent nesting. Green herons fly under the radar and virtually all homeowners that host them never know they are present.  

Despite all of the opposition of homeowners to their nesting, herons have been resilient and have found ways of persisting.  Over the past 30 years, homeowners have come and gone. Many people who removed nest limbs or used other approaches to prevent nesting have died or moved away.  They have passed through neighborhoods like the summer rain. But the herons still return each spring, building their nests, raising their young and foraging in the rich estuaries that are their homes too.


Michael Rosenberg, Ph.D. announced as new director for Center for Biological Complexity

July 1, 2018

Dr. Robert M. Tombes, Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently announced that Dr. Michael Rosenberg will become the new director of the Center for Biological Complexity (CSBC). Dr. Rosenberg has held the position of associate professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University since 2008.  He received his Doctor of Philosophy in Ecology and Evolution from the State University of New York in Stony Brook in 2000, and his Bachelor of Arts in Biology, Geology and Anthropology from Northwestern University in 1994.

Rosenberg’s vision as director is that of biological data science: the use of computational and statistical approaches to collect, organize, analyze, and interpret life sciences data at all scales, from molecular and cellular levels through individuals, populations, and communities, thus encompassing scale-dependent subdisciplines such as bioinformatics, ecoinformatics, phyloinformatics, and biodiversity informatics. He seeks to recruit a set of independent tenure-track faculty with complementary expertise in computational methodologies who will collaborate and connect with diverse units and scholars across both campuses to tackle questions spanning all aspects of life sciences. He envisions his faculty offering core competency courses and/or workshops in bioinformatics for the VCU community at large.

“I am confident that Dr. Rosenberg has the experience and enthusiasm necessary to lead faculty and students, and to be an excellent collaborator,” stated Dr. Tombes.  “His use of modern bioinformatics tools to assess a full spectrum of problems from human disease to invertebrate evolution will benefit students and the entire research community.”

Examples of the diversity of his recent projects include comparative primate genomics, rattlesnake population genetics and the evolution of human diseases including HIV, tuberculosis and leprosy.

Dr. Rosenberg has published 47 peer-reviewed articles, is co-author of chapters in publications including Handbook of Meta-analysis in Ecology and Evolution and Handbook of Statistical Bioinformatics, as well a creator of meta-analysis and spatial statistical software. He will continue his position as associate editor for Molecular Biology and Evolution.

William Shuart, environmental technology coordinator with Virginia Commonwealth University, launches his Cumulus drone to map wind speeds, terrain as part of the study to measure fluctuating ozone levels.

Will Shuart featured in Bloomberg article

June 29, 2018

(Photo by Amena H. Saiyid/Bloomberg Environment)


Will Shuart from VCU's Center for Environmental Studies, is featured in an article from Bloomberg Environment highlighing his collaborative work measuring fluctuating ozone levels.

Read the full article, "Answering Why Ozone Forms Over Water Could Help Control Pollution."


A rainbow arches over a bridge that crosses the James River

Dr. Paul Bukaveckas published in Science Trends

June 25, 2018

Dr. Paul Bukaveckas, associate professor for VCU's Center for Environmental Studies, provides a synopsis of his recent article on climate change and the James River for the website Science Trend.

Read, "Climate Change and Estuaries: C, N, and P Retention Fluxes."


Oyster in net

VCU receives funding for oyster restoration work

June 13, 2018

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program has partnered with Toadfish Outfitters of Charleston, South Carolina, to advance its efforts to replenish oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Toadfish Outfitters, a manufacturer of coastal lifestyle products, has designated the VOSRP as the sole recipient of proceeds from the sale of Toadfish products in Virginia. VOSRP will use the funding initially to acquire 20 million oyster larvae that will be planted on recycled oyster shell placed in Chesapeake Bay waterways. This will allow VCU to plant more than 2 million oysters in the watershed, and coincides with Chesapeake Bay Awareness Week.

“Oysters are the ultimate friend of the coast as they help to keep our waters clean,” said Casey Davidson, founder of Toadfish Outfitters. “Since day one, we’ve promised to give back a portion of every product sold toward oyster habitat restoration, so working with VCU was a natural fit.”

VOSRP, part of VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, is a collaborative, community-based oyster restoration program that works closely with the Virginia seafood industry. The VOSRP currently collects recycled oyster shells from more than 50 restaurants and 30 public drop-off locations statewide to use in the creation of sanctuary oyster reefs. The shells are seeded with juvenile oysters before they are planted. These efforts are direly needed because the Virginia oyster population is currently estimated to be at two percent of peak numbers.

Read the entire article, "VCU receives funding for oyster retoration work."

students present outside at the VCU Rice Rivers Center

10th annual VCU Rice Rivers Center Symposium

June 5, 2018

The Walter L. Rice Education Building at VCU Rice Rivers Center was standing room only during the 10th annual Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium, held on May 11.  A perfect day on the James allowed the guests and students to enjoy breakfast and lunch on the bluff overlooking the river, and after presentations in the center concluded, an afternoon poster session was held along the walkway which spanned the length of the building. 

The day began with opening remarks from Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman and an introduction of VCU Life Sciences faculty member Dr. Cathy Viverette, who organized the symposium.  Presentations included: 

Characterizing hydrologic and water quality conditions of urban and non-urban streams of central Virginia. Rikki Lucas*, Paul Bukaveckas, VCU BIO/CES.

Climate change and mountaintop removal mining: a MaxEnt assessment of the potential dual threat to West Virginia fishes. Lindsey R.F. Hendrick* #, VCU-CES; Daniel J. McGarvey, VCU-CES. 

Salinization affects nitrate reduction in a coastal freshwater wetland. Joe Morina * #, VCU-ILS; Rima Franklin, Scott Neubauer, Bonnie Brown, Nicole Holstein, VCU-BIO.

Environmental DNA as a conservation tool for the endangered James spinymussel (Parvaspina collina). Bonnie A. Roderique*, Rodney J. Dyer, Daniel McGarvey, VCU-CES; Brian C. Verrelli, VCU-ILS; and Brian Watson, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF).

Landscape-scale factors influencing Golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) occupancy in western Virginia. Elizabeth K. Schold, VCU-BIO, and Lesley Bulluck, VCU-CES/BIO.

Winter assessment of non-breeding grassland birds at Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. Adele Balmer, VCU-ILS; Matthew DeSaix * #,  VCU-CES; Brooke Goodnow, Zachary Grasso, VCU-BIO; Jack Hopkins, VCU-CES; Benjamin Nickley, Mo Sweany, L. Abigail Walter, Stephanie Warshawsky*, VCU-BIO; Catherine Viverette*, VCU-CES; and Lesley Bulluck, VCU- CES/BIO.

High-resolution genetic markers reveal migratory patterns and genetic structure in a wetland-dependant species of conservation concern. Matt DeSaix*#, VCU-CES; Lesley Bulluck, VCU-CES/BIO, Rodney Dyer and Catherine Viverette*, VCU-CES.

Communicating TeamWarbler. Emma Davis, VCU-BIO/ANTH/CES; Kaela Gossett VCU-CES; Mckenzie Joseph, Nicholas Beiler, VCU-BIO; Panama Avian Ecology 2011-2018 VCU-CES/BIO;  Lesley Bulluck VCU-CES/BIO; Edward Crawford, VCU-RRC; Catherine Viverette VCU-CES; Thomas Woodward, VCU-AltLab; and Team Warbler.

The Urban Forestry Collaborative. L. Wyatt Carpenter, VCU-OOS; Jane Remfert*, VCU-ILS; Edward Crawford, VCU-RRC; and Jerome Legions, Carver Area Civic Improvement League (CACIL).

Carbon credits are for the birds  Elizabeth Keily, VCU-BIO; Zachary Palmore, Harikrishna Parasu, Hannah Coovert, Sedrek Kovar, Nathan Salle, VCU-CES; Jordan Rasure, VCU-BIO; Wyatt Carpenter, VCU-OOS;  Edward Crawford, VCU-RRC; Cathy Viverette, VCU-CES; and Team Warbler 2018.

Building STEM through community partnerships: Alice in Wonderland. Anne Moore, Goochland County School System (GCSS).

Grasses for the Masses: A short film. Ronaldo Lopez, VCU-RRC.


The afternoon poster session included:

An assessment of toxic metal pollution due to the transportation of coal. Elizabeth H. Bosch*, Liz Keily, Xin-Chen Liu, and Arif Sikder, VCU-CES.

Oh deer, don’t tick them off! White-tailed deer activity and tick biodiversity in the James River Park System. Emma R. Davis, VCU-BIO; Anne B. Wright, VCU-CES; Christina A. McGrath, VCU-ANTH.

Phenology mismatch and the consequences of unpredictable spring temperatures on resident and migratory bird species. Brooke Goodnow, VCU-BIO; Lesley Bulluck, VCU-CES/BIO. 

Groundwater quality assessment of the piney point aquifer. Elizabeth Keily*, VCU-BIO; Arif M. Sikder, VCU-CES; Mohammad Alauddin, Physical Sciences Department, Wagner College; S. Leigh McCallister, VCU-CES/BIO; and Daniel Boehling, VCU-CES. 

Regional and interspecific variation in crown feather reflectance in two hybridizing warblers. Valerie R. Galati, UR-BIO; Lesley P. Bulluck, VCU-BIO; and Kristine Grayson, UR-BIO. 

Identification of taxonomic and functional ichthyofaunal zones within the James River Basin, Virginia. Joseph L. Noel* and Daniel J. McGarvey, VCU-CES.

Assessing the relative influences of abiotic and biotic factors on American Eel (Anguilla rostrata) distribution using hydrologic, physical habitat, and functional trait data. Taylor Woods* and Daniel J McGarvey, VCU-CES. 

Gathering high resolution images of sieve elements in arabidopsis thaliana using confocal laser scanning microscopy (CLSM) and transgenic A. thaliana expressing green fluorescent protein (GFP) under a phloem specific promoter, in order to obtain geometric measurements of sieve elements and plates. Addisan Pound and Sierra Beecher, VCU-BIO. 

Projecting habitat of breeding and non-breeding Prothonotary Warbler (Protonotaria Citrea) under various climate scenarios. James Briggs VCU-CES; Ernesto Gagarin, VCU-BIO, VCU-CES, VCU-ANTH, Christina McGrath, VCU-ANTH, VCU-BIO, VCU-CES;  Autym Shafer, VCU-CES;  Michael Vassalotti, VCU-CES;  Mathew DeSaix*, VCU-CES;  Lindsey Hendrick , VCU-CES; , Jesse Reese, VCU-BIO, Catherine Viverette, VCU-CES.

Plasmodium infection rates in Anopheles darlingi mosquito populations under a scenario of malaria elimination using RADseq high throughput sequencing of mosquito DNA. Megan Mair, VCU-Life Sciences-CSBC; Anne Meireles, Instituto Oswaldo Cruz Rondonia; Genimar R. Juliao, Instituto Oswaldo Cruz Rondonia; Luiz Herman G. Soares, Instituto Oswaldo Cruz Rondonia; Tony H. Katsuragawa, Centro de Pesquisa em Medicina Tropical  - CEPEM-SESAU-RO; Mauro Tada, Centro de Pesquisa em Medicina Tropical  - CEPEM-SESAU-RO; Luiz Hildebrando Pereira da Silva (in memoriam), Instituto Oswaldo Cruz Rondonia; David Weetman, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine; and Luiz Shozo Ozaki, VCU-Life Sciences-CSBC. 

Comparison of soil organic carbon in disturbed and established wetlands at the VCU Rice Center. Sheryl Bradford​, Ellen Stuart-Haëntjens*, VCU-ILS; Scott Neubauer and Christopher Gough, VCU-BIO. 

Building a SMARTer Birdhouse. Amanda Fountleroy, Alexander French, Alex Kokich, Afroditi Fillipas, VCU Electrical and Computer Engineering (VCU-ECE); Lesley Bulluck, VCU-CES/BIO;  Adele Balmer VCU-ILS; and Catherine VIverette, VCU-CES. 

Physiological investigations of the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica).  Alyssa A. Darling*, Maame Konadu-Ampratwum, Christopher L. McLaggan, Bonnie Brown, VCU-BIO; and S. Leigh McCallister, VCU-CES/BIO. 

The Urban Forestry Collaborative: A community-engaged research project in Richmond, Virginia. Wyatt Carpenter, VCU-OOS; Edward Crawford, VCU-RRC; Jane Remfert, VCU-ILS; Jerome Legions, The Carver Area Civic Improvement League (CACIL); Louise Seals, Richmond Tree Stewards (RTS);  Jeanette McKittrick, Capital Trees (CT); and Catherine Viverette, VCU-CES.

Memorializing fallen earth defenders. Eslie Djemmal, Precious Skinner, Elena Kidwell, Josh Geen, Victoria Farnsler, and RIchard Bargdill, VCU-Department of Psychology (VCU-PSY).

The percentage of agriculture lands in riparian buffer zones and its effect on MBSS stream health points. Colleen O’Brien, VCU-CES. 

Comparing two methods of quantifying an invasion-restricting component Allee effect in the defoliating pest Lymantria dispar. Alexandra Barry and Derek Johnson, VCU-BIO. 


*denotes the student is a past recipient of a VCU Rice Rivers Center Research Award

# denotes the student is a recipient of a VCU Rice Rivers Center Fellowship 


Team Warbler visits The Steward School

Team Warbler visits The Steward School

May 23, 2018

Last month, members of Team Warbler were invited to The Steward School to talk about their adventures in Panama earlier this year. Elementary, and high school science students learned about what it was like to track and study the prothonotary warbler as they wintered in Central America, and were some of the first to learn about and view a new smart birdhouse that will be introduced to track the warblers’ movements and migration.

Team Warbler is a collaboration among VCU students from the Center for Environmental Studies, Biology Department, and College of Engineering, and are led by Life Sciences’ faculty members Dr. Cathy Viverette, Dr. Ed Crawford and Dr. Lesley Bulluck.  

“The Steward School students and faculty were blown away by the passion of the VCU students and professors.  The students that heard about the project have been putting their inspiration to action. The second grade students have been taking leadership roles at our school in helping save the oak seedlings on the playground to carefully following the birds nesting on campus since hearing from the VCU students. Our inspired Middle School students are going to benefit next year as they will have an opportunity to explore Kimages Creek and the habitat on the James River with the Rice Rivers Center students and faculty.”  -Cary Jamieson, Director of the Bryan Innovation Lab at The Steward School

Team Warbler members Emma Davis from VCU and Liz Ames from Ohio State University demonstrate bird banding to members of  Sociedad Audubon de Panamá

Team Warbler participates in bird banding demonstration in Panama

May 18, 2018

(Pictured, sitting from left to right: Team Warbler members Emma Davis from VCU and Liz Ames from Ohio State University)

A group of students left the bitter cold of Richmond behind to study abroad in Panama and follow the prothonotary warblers to their winter habitat. Dr. Catherine Viverette and Dr. Edward Crawford’s ENVS 515 Panama Avian Field Ecology class spent January 2 – 15 in mangroves and other tropical habitats tracking the small, yellow bird.  Beyond gathering data, one of the course requirements was to work with Panama Audubon Society and participate in community outreach in the host country.

VCU’s Team Warbler, accompanied by a graduate student from the Ohio State University, traveled to Panamá Viejo – the last remaining part of Old Panama City –  and partnered with the Sociedad Audubon de Panamá to hold a demonstration about bird banding and the importance of mangrove ecosystems to resident and neo-tropical migratory birds. They also educated local residents about migratory birds, local birds, and how banding allows scientists to study avian habits and health both locally and abroad.


Gary Machlis

VCU and University of Richmond introduce new speaker series

May 18, 2018

Last month, the VCU Center for Environmental Studies collaborated with the University of Richmond Department of Geography and the Environment, International Studies Program and Environmental Studies Program to host the first seminar in the newly-created Global Environment Speaker Series. 

Dr. Gary Machlis (pictured), professor of environmental sustainability at Clemson University, conducted a seminar based upon his new book, “The Future of Conservation in America: A Chart for Rough Water” to a classroom full of students and faculty from VCU and UR. Dr. Machlis served in the Obama Administration as a scientific advisor to the Director of the National Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, who also serves as co-author of the book.

Immediately following the seminar, a student-led poster session was held in the Trani Center for Life Sciences. Students from both schools answered questions and showcased their works.  Presentation topics included the creation of a sustainability minor, biodiversity management on campus, solar power initiatives, and an analysis of the impact of riverfront access on student experience.

Dr. Rodney Dyer, director of VCU Center for Environmental Studies, and Dr. Peter Smallwood, associate professor of biology and coordinator of the Environmental Studies Program for the University of Richmond, were responsible for putting together this partnership.

rainbow chameleon

Rainbow-colored chameleon from Madagascar named after Dr. Peter Uetz

May 17, 2018

A newly identified species of chameleon found in the forests of northern Madagascar has been named in honor of the Virginia Commonwealth University professor who created the Reptile Database, a catalog of reptile species and classification that is relied upon by scientists and hobbyists around the world who study reptiles.

The spectacularly rainbow-colored chameleon, Calumma uetzi, has been named after Peter Uetz, Ph.D., an associate professor of systems biology and bioinformatics in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity in VCU Life Sciences.

Read the entire article, "Meet Calumma uetzi, a rainbow-colored chameleon from Madagascar that was just named after a VCU professor."


VOSRP's Cindy Andrew and director Todd Janeski, along with Rice Rivers Center deputy director Dr. Ed Crawford

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program honored with VCU Community Engagement Award

May 16, 2018


(Pictured, from left to right: Cindy Andrews, VOSRP Richmond Regional Coordinator; Todd Janeski, VOSRP Director; Dr. Ed Crawford, VCU Rice Rivers Center Deputy Director)


The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) was honored for Exemplary Partnership in Outreach from VCU's Division of Community Engagement. The Award was presented as part of VCU's annual celebration of community partnerships earlier this month. 

Read the VCU News article about the VOSRP and other community engagement award recipients, "Partnership aiding low-income seniors highlights community engagement award honorees."


rainbow chameleon

New species of chameleon named after CSBC's Dr. Peter Uetz

May 16, 2018

A new species of chameleon was recently discovered by researchers in Madagascar.  The rainbow chameleon, now called Calumma uetzi, was named after Dr. Peter Uetz, associate professor of systems biology and bioinformatics from VCU's Center for the Study of Biological Complexity.

Read the full article by Mongabay's Shreya Dasgupta, 'Rainbow chameleon among three new species desrcibed from Madagascar.'

Woman filming outside

New VCU Life Sciences course on conservation filmmaking

May 10, 2018

Ron Lopez, award-winning filmmaker and VCU Life Science faculty, will be teaching budding conservation filmmakers how to make science more accessible to the public through video.

The course, LFSC 591 Topics: Conservation Filmmaking, is a one-credit course offered during VCU’s summer session, June 20 – August 1. Student will learn how to break down a scientific topic/study into its communicable elements, create a narrative to tell the “story” of the research, and shoot and edit a film to communicate the science. 

Included in the course is an overnight fieldtrip to learn shooting techniques and drone applications in the field at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.  Accommodations will be provided on-site at the Inger Rice Lodge.

 This course is designed to complement student-based research and provide basic skills to pursue new, dynamic methods of communicating research.

To find out more information, contact Ron Lopez at


Below is Ron’s film, “An Oyster’s Eye View of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program,” which won grand prize at the 2018 Environmental Film Festival.  Ron’s works have also appeared on Richmond and Charlottesville’s local public broadcasting stations. 


Lauren Wood, ILS Ph.D. candidate, part of VCU Make It Real Campaign

May 8, 2018

If you are traveling through Richmond International Airport, be on the lookout for one of our Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. candidates, Lauren Wood, as part of VCU's Make It Real Campaign.

Read more about Lauren and how she challenges the norm, and also how the Integrative Life Sciences program works units across the unversity in, "I'm listening to the secrets of the plants." 

2018 Team Warbler in Panama

Team Warbler featured on Panama website

May 8, 2018

Students from Team Warbler were featured on the Adopta Panama Rainforest website.  They were following and banding Prothonotary Warblers in Central America as part of their Panama Avian Field Ecology class, lead by Dr. Cathy Viverette (VCU Center for Environmental Studies) and Dr. Ed Crawford (VCU Rice Rivers Center). 

Read more on: Adopta Panama Rainforest.


Katie Schmidt guides kayakers over Hollywood Rapids on the James River. (Photo courtesy of Katie Schmidt)

Love of the wild: Graduate student blends adventure and science through outdoor recreation programs

April 24, 2018

Schmidt leads outdoor recreation initiatives made possible by a partnership between the VCU Rice Rivers Center and the Outdoor Adventure Program, part of VCU Recreational Sports.

These initiatives include the addition of two new summer camps to Rice Rivers Center’s programs for children, courses in wilderness first aid that focus on first-response techniques in remote areas, and opportunities for VCU students and the public to explore nature through organized programs.

Continuing reading, "Love of the wild: Graduate student blends adventure and science through outdoor recreation programs"


A woman pretends to be injured during one of VCU's Wilderness First Responder courses

VCU offers a Wilderness First Responder course

April 9, 2018

If you are out in a remote location with a group and medical intervention becomes necessary, would you know what to do? VCU’s Outdoor Adventure Program presents Wilderness First Responder, a course that provides medical training for leaders in remote areas including outdoor educators, guides, military, professional search and rescue teams, researchers, and those involved in disaster relief.

The hands-on, in-depth curriculum is comprehensive and practical. The Wilderness First Responder course covers response and assessment, musculoskeletal injuries, environmental emergencies, survival skills, soft tissue injuries, medical emergencies and CPR training.

This course will be held at VCU Rice Rivers Center May 12 – 20, 2018 and lodging is available for the length of the course on-site at the Inger Rice Lodge.

The schedule is as follows:

May 12 – 18
8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

May 19
8:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.

May 20
8:30 – 5 p.m.

For more information and to register, visit

Despite the storms, some eaglets made it through safely and are seen in a nest with their parent

Eagle struggle with late Nor’easters

April 6, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

For the Northeast coast, the winter of 2017-2018 went out with a dramatic train of powerful storms during an intense two-week period in early March.  The trio of storms in quick succession included Winter Storm Riley, Winter Storm Quinn, and Winter Storm Skylar.  The storms killed several people, knocked out power for millions, and frustrated travelers throughout the Washington D. C. to Boston corridor.  For eagles in the Chesapeake Bay, the timing could not have been much worse.  Early March is late in the incubation period and the window when most eaglets hatch in the region.  Eaglets are most vulnerable to cold and wet conditions within the first two weeks after hatching.  It would have been extremely difficult for adults to manage a clutch or young brood during torrential rains and 60 mph winds.

Following the Nor’easters, CCB biologists had the opportunity to fly and examine more than 300 nests along the James River.  The storms had a clear impact on many breeding pairs.  Nearly 25% of active nests (N = 280) had failed their first breeding attempts.  This early loss rate is a multiple of that observed during most years.  One of the most telling indicators of how pairs struggled with the storms was the observation of ten abandoned clutches.  Although abandoned eggs are observed every year, they are relatively rare.  CCB will fly a productivity flight in late April to record young in the nest and see how many of the failed pairs will recycle and make a second breeding attempt. 

CCB has examined the impact of high winds on eagle nests in the past following Hurricanes Isabel and Irene.  In 2007, Bryan Watts and Mitchell Byrd published a paper titled, “Impact of Hurricane Isabel on bald eagle nests and reproductive performance in the lower Chesapeake Bay.”  The paper documented that 40% of nests were damaged or lost during Hurricane Isabel and that pairs losing nests were both less likely to breed and less productive the following spring.  Productivity for these pairs improved two years following the storm and was back to normal levels during the third breeding season.  A similar rate of nest damage was documented following Hurricane Irene.

Despite the sustained high winds, the impact of the Nor’easters on the eagles was different than the hurricanes examined.  Only four nests that appeared to have been active were damaged or lost compared to 40% during the two hurricanes.  The impact of the storms was on the loss of eggs or young and this is likely the consequence of timing.  Even though many nests appear to have been disrupted by the storms, many broods of small young made it through the storm intact.



CCB technician Beth MacDonald resighting red knots on a sand flat near Tybee Island, Georgia in spring 2016

Georgia coast critical for migrating red knots

April 5, 2018

By Bryan Watts and Fletcher Smith, Center for Conservation Biology

The coast of Georgia plays a significant role as a migratory staging area for the rufa population of red knots.  The population experienced a precipitous decline over the past 40 years leading to its eventual listing as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  Although researchers have worked for decades with the portion of the population that stages along the mid-Atlantic coast, much less has been known about birds using coastal Georgia.  During the fall of 2017, CCB, along with project partners the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Georgia Department of Natural Resources Non-game section, and Manomet, Inc., released a report entitled “Investigating Red Knot Migration Ecology along the Georgia Coast.”  The report summarizes a multi-year effort to examine knots using Georgia primarily during spring migration. 

Fletcher Smith of CCB led fieldwork that focused on the chain of barrier islands within Camden, Glynn, McIntosh, Liberty, Bryan, and Chatham Counties.  Seven barrier islands were selected for intensive resighting efforts during the 2016 season: Gould’s Inlet, Pelican Spit, Rainbow Beach (on Little St Simons Island), Sapelo/Cabretta/S. Blackbeard Island, Ogeechee/Raccoon Key Bar, Little Tybee/Beach Hammock, and Tybee Island/Bar. The CCB crew and volunteers surveyed knots within these specific sites and scanned birds for coded leg flags.  During the spring of 2016 alone more than 43,000 knot encounters were recorded and more than 10,000 of these were scanned for flags resulting in the identification of 1,255 flagged birds.  A total of 158 marked to unmarked ratios were recorded during the season, with an average of 3.8% of birds encountered throughout the spring being marked.  Jim Lyons of USGS evaluated encounter histories within a Jolly-Seber modeling framework to estimate the population size using the Georgia coast and the duration of stopover.

The two most significant findings of the study include the number of birds using the Georgia coast during the spring and how long these birds are staging.  During the spring of 2016, just under 12,000 total knots were believed to have used Georgia as a stopover or staging area.  The current estimate of the rufa population is 42,000, suggesting that more than 25% of the population was present in Georgia during the spring.  A model-based estimate of stopover duration during the 2013 spring season was 3.4 weeks, suggesting that a portion of the birds are using the Georgia coast for an extended period and likely flying from Georgia directly to the breeding grounds in the Arctic.  These results follow a recent paper published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and led by Jim Lyons that evaluates the use of the Georgia coast by the rufa population during fall migration and estimates that more than 23,000 birds staged there in 2011.

Migratory staging sites play a critical role in the life cycle of many shorebird species and maintaining conditions that allow for rest and refueling is an important conservation priority.  The Georgia coast appears to be a key node within the broader network of conservation sites for the rufa population.

Funding and support for the project was provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gulf Power and Southern Company’s Power of Flight Program through National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey, Manomet, Inc., The University of Georgia’s Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe, the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, the staff of St. Catherine’s Island, Little St. Simons Island, Ossabaw Island, and Cumberland Island, the staff of, and The Center for Conservation Biology. This study would not have been possible without the significant effort of all of the researchers tagging Red Knots along the flyway.


The first young woodpeckers produced in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge as part of the ongoing establishment projec

A good year for woodpeckers

April 5, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

2017 was a good year for red-cockaded woodpeckers in Virginia.  The combined spring, breeding, and fall surveys within The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve (PGP) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (GDSNWR) identified 96 individuals during the calendar year.  This is the largest number of woodpeckers known to occur in the state since the early 1980s and includes 61 resident birds, 27 birds fledged during the 2017 breeding season, and 8 birds that were moved into the state from Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge.  Ongoing management efforts by The Nature Conservancy, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, and The Center for Conservation Biology are increasingly pushing the population toward recovery goals.

The 2017 breeding season included 15 potential breeding groups (13 in PGP; 2 in GDSNWR) that fledged 27 young (18 females; 9 males).  Fourteen of the 15 breeding groups actually made breeding attempts and 12 actually fledged young.  Of 45 eggs that were followed through the breeding season, 24 (53.3%) hatched and 23 (51.1%) fledged.  Seventeen (73.9%) of these fledglings were still present within the population during the winter count.  Based on the results of the winter census we are hopeful that the Virginia population will support an increase in the number of potential breeding groups for the 2018 breeding season. 


Nestling eagle fitted with satellite transmitter

Networking eagles

April 3, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Nonbreeding bald eagles are highly social and form communal roosts around profitable foraging sites.  We have known for decades that eagles frequently switch back and forth between different communal roosts but have lacked the movement information to evaluate the basic structure of roost networks.  The relatively recent development of GPS transmitters and other tracking devices that have enabled the remote tracking of large samples of eagles has opened a new era of data collection with the potential to view individual roosts within a network context.  Bryan Watts from CCB and Rodney Dyer from the Center of Environmental Studies at VCU have used movement data from 56 eagles outfitted with satellite transmitters to evaluate the roost network within the upper Chesapeake Bay.  The study entitled “Structure and resilience of bald eagle roost networks” was recently published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin. 

The researchers used 14,464 midnight locations to determine the use of communal roosts and 2,634 movements between roosts on successive nights to evaluate the pattern of connectivity between roosts.  Among other findings, the study revealed that the structure of the 212-roost network was consistent with the well-known scale-free network.  The scale-free network is a common form where the majority of nodes (roosts in this case) have few connections to others and very few nodes (referred to as hubs) have many connections.  Hub roosts serve as bridges between large numbers of other roosts, have the shortest travel times to other roosts and the greatest overall influence on network functioning.  More than 50% of roosts were connected to fewer than 10% of other roosts and only seven had connections to more than 50% of the roost network.  Incredibly, the Sod Run roost on Aberdeen Proving Ground was connected to 204 (96.7%) of the possible 211 other roosts.  This roost was Grand Central Station and the central hub of the entire network.

Bald eagle communal roosts are protected by federal law.  Understanding the structure of roost networks helps us to make better decisions about roost protection and management.  One feature of the study was to evaluate the effect of losing individual roosts on the functioning of the overall network.  Not surprisingly, the effect of roost removal on overall network function was directly proportional to the connectivity of the roost being removed.  Removal of the majority (>90%) of individual roosts would have relatively little impact on the network.  The study identified 18 highly connected roosts that are important to network function and that should be the focus of any management strategy.

Results from the network study provide insight into the basic ecological question of why eagles gather together.  One of the proposed advantages of sociality in nonbreeding eagles is food finding through following behavior from communal roosts.  Some eagles have been shown to gain an advantage from associating with roosts by increasing their likelihood of finding or stealing food.  This benefit is believed to be particularly great for young, inexperienced eagles that have yet to master hunting skills and often resort to stealing or scavenging to meet their energy needs.  Hub roosts may represent concentrated information resources that may be visited periodically by eagles from throughout the network to stay in the information loop.



Whimbrels with tremendous fat reserves from feeding on blueberries take off from the Acadian Peninsula headed out over the Atlantic

Flying to Mecca

April 2, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Fletcher Smith and I had been working birds on the Acadian Peninsula for ten days.  We had been flying surveys of blueberry fields and heath barrens, driving survey transects, observing the work of the berry wardens, and watching the birds coming into fields at dawn to get a sense of how foraging flocks worked the landscape.  We were spending evenings following birds out of fields to locate communal roosts.  Most of the birds on Miscou Island and the northern portion of the peninsula were concentrated in Petit-Shippagan, a simple crossroads with a dozen houses, many of which have private blueberry fields in back.  More than 300 birds had been feeding in one field for the past four days to the chagrin of the farmer who made hourly drives around the field firing a shotgun to protect his only cash crop from the birds.  The birds had come from western breeding areas to their late summer staging grounds in the Canadian Maritimes.  They would spend three gluttonous weeks here eating, resting, and putting on fat - their last tastes of summer before moving on for the winter. 

We sat in stake-out position along the southern corner of the field watching for birds to fly out for the evening to roost.  The birds were unusually skittish, rising and resettling every few minutes.  Finally, 32 birds rose with purpose and flew southeast, a sector with no known roosts.  I started the car and hurried after them hoping to maintain contact and get a bearing that we could follow up on in the coming days.  To my surprise, the birds were following the two-lane road to the small town of Lameque and I drove directly under the flock making just under 48 kph for11 kilometers.  As the flock flew over the Lameque fire department, I turned off, parked, and ran out to the end of the commercial dock to set up a scope and watch the birds emerge out over the water.  They were flying toward a treeless island in the back corner of the bay and I was excited that they were about to reveal their secret roost.  But the birds overflew the island, and as they gained air over the far tree line I realized that they were not going to roost.  They were leaving.

I walked back to the car realizing that it was too late to get back to the berry field to pick up another flock and sat in the parking lot to watch the sun lay down on the water toward the Gaspe Peninsula.  I had unknowingly given the flock a send off from Berryville.  They were heading out over the open Atlantic into the unknown.  It would be impossible for the flock to know what storms might be brewing in Hurricane Alley.  They would fly nonstop for six days and cover more than 6,000 kilometers.  You have to respect any animal with the bravado to fly out over the open ocean with no safety net.  I knew that the next ground they would touch would be in Brazil and the next meal they would eat would not be blueberries, but tropical fiddler crabs.  Bem-vindo ao Brasil!  They were going to the land of plenty.

The gravitational pull of the delta reaches throughout the entire hemisphere, gathering birds of many stripes.  They come from all corners.  To date, we have tracked 26 whimbrels from the Mackenzie River and Hudson Bay Lowland breeding areas to their winter range and >90% have wintered within the Amazon Delta.  Some of these birds fly directly to the delta while others make landfall in Venezuela.  Early in the tracking project we thought that the latter birds would overwinter in these locations, but during the late fall they would slowly skip east along the shoreline to join the others in Mecca and pay their respects to the delta. 


We all know of the vast Amazon rainforest (lungs of the word; greatest assemblage of species on the planet) and the Amazon River (largest drainage basin in the world; holds more than one-fifth of the world’s fresh water).  Much less is known about the critical importance of the Amazon Delta.  In addition to carrying a tremendous supply of fresh water, the river produces the largest sediment discharge of any river.  The enormous plume of sediment and nutrients that is spewed from the mouth of the river is pushed hundreds of kilometers out into the Atlantic.  The plume collides with the North Brazilian Current and is directed west, fertilizing more than 1,500 kilometers of the South American coastline.  The nutrients spread over this vast area create a productivity bonanza.  It is this natural gusher of productivity that attracts the whimbrels each winter along with throngs of other waterbirds.

The power of the Amazon is drawn from its wildness - the unfettered flow of water, the forested drainage basin, the sheer power to wield its way on the entire coast.  Plans for infrastructure transformation within the Amazon basin threaten this wildness, including a cross-national highway system, river and sea-ports, a sequence of dams for transportation river-ways, and hydro-electric plants.  Will we see this great river be made impotent by dams like the whimpering Mississippi or be smothered by agriculture and contaminants like the Mekong?  Will we consider this frontier something to be conquered and exploited or something to be preserved and protected?  The river is still wild and its future is in our hands.  We should all ask ourselves if we have learned anything from how we have treated many of the world’s iconic rivers.  Do their fisheries still thrive and do they still serve the many consumers that once depended on them? 

Watching the flock leaving the Acadian Peninsula, it is hard not to be concerned about the perils they may face out over the open Atlantic.  Perils like storms and winds that we have no control over and that have shaped the evolution of their migration pathways.  Harder still is wondering what they will find when they arrive after their long flights in the coming decades.  We can hope that they will still find their land of plenty.



VCU Life Science faculty Will Shuart speaks during a slide presentation at the 2018 Ersi Federal GIS Conference

Shuart presents at 2018 ESRI Federal GIS Conference

March 28, 2018

VCU Life Sciences faculty Will Shuart spoke at three separate sessions at the 2018 ESRI Federal GIS Conference that took place in Washington D.C.  March 20 – 21.  Roughly 300 people attended his session​s.  In two sessions, Shuart teamed up with ESRI to provide guidance on the collection of drone data to produce mapping products and highlighted several projects at VCU.  In a third presentation, Shuart teamed up with co-presenter John Nelson, ​an Esri cartographer on a technical session titled, ​“Selecting the perfect Basemap.”  Shuart showed attendees how to incorporate ad-hoc drone imagery into basemaps.

 Drones have quickly become mainstream as a source for detailed mapping in smaller geographic areas. The imagery and contents gathered by drones translates into 3D data that can assist in solving real-world problems.  Shuart’s expertise as a drone operator and geospatial analyst and developer allowed participants to learn how to best achieve high quality and accurate results.

Grid magazine features Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program

March 6, 2018

Megan Wilson, a journalist from Richmond's Grid digital and print magazine, sat down with Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program Director Todd Janeski.

Read the article, Back to the Bay: restoring oyster populations in Virginia

Wild & Scenic Film Festival logo

CES, Rice Rivers Center part of Wild & Scenic Film Festival

March 5, 2018

March 14th is International Action Day for Rivers and 2018 is the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

In celebration, the VCU chapter of the River Management Society's River Studies & Leadership Certificate Program, with support from Patagonia, Vasen Brewery, and the James River Outdoor Coalition, is hosting the Wild & Scenic Film Festival featuring 10 short films spanning the watershed from the summit to sea. The Center for Environmental Studies and Rice Rivers Center are part of the program and researchers will be in attendance.

The event starts at 7 p.m., March 14 at Vasen Brewery, located at 3331 W Moore Street in Scott's Addition, in Richmond, not far from VCU’s Monroe Park Campus. Updates and links to ticketing are here. Tickets are limited.

The River Studies and Leadership Certificate (RSLC) Program is an interdisciplinary program that combines learning about river science, geographic information systems (GIS), policy and river field experience with a chosen emphasis in one of three areas: river science, river-based policy, or river-based education, recreation and tourism.  RSLC students demonstrate “real-world” application of their knowledge and skills through professional experience or an internship with a river project.

Proceeds from ticket sales and a silent auction will be used to support the professional development of VCU river certificate students in the form of small grants for novel river-focused service and scholarship.

View the films to be screened at the Wild & Scenic Film Festival.

Sturgeon footage from VCU included in WUSA9 story

August 30, 2017

Scott Broom from WUSA9 (Washington, D.C.) files a story about an Atlantic Sturgeon caught in Marshyhope Creek in Federalsburg, Maryland. VCU Rice Rivers Center contributed some footage to the report. You can see our researchers at work at 1:08. 



Slide from VCU presentation Geochemical Analysis of the iron-enriched soil of Meherrin, VIrginia

Four Center for Environmental Studies reseachers co-author paper

February 17, 2018


Four researchers from VCU's Center for Environmental Studies (CES) co-authored the published paper, Geochemical Anaysis of the Iron-Enriched Soil of Meherrin, Virginia

The paper was presented at The Geological Society of America's Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington last fall. 

Representing CES on the paper are:

Sara Irena Chojna, Research Assistant
Arif M. Sikder, Assistant Professor 
Xin-Chen Liu,  student
Elizabeth Keily, student


You can also read the conference abstract


Integrated Life Sciences Doctoral Program research showcase poster session

ILS Research Showcase featured 40 students

February 15, 2018

The annual Integrative Life Sciences (ILS) Doctoral Program research showcase was held in the VCU Student Commons on February 8, 2018 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  40 ILS students, mentored by research faculty from over a dozen departments and units across VCU’s Monroe Park and MCV Campuses, participated in oral and poster presentations.  The ILS students were able to showcase their posters during a lunch-time social session, attended by over 100 faculty and students representing both campuses.


To view more photos from the event, go to the Life Sciences Facebook page.

A still of an oyster harvester in the short documentary film “An Oyster’s-Eye View of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program

VCU Rice Rivers Center documentary wins prize at RVA Environmental Film Festival

February 8, 2018

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

A short documentary by a VCU Life Sciences faculty member is the winning entry for local environmental subjects at the annual RVA Environmental Film Festival.

“An Oyster’s-Eye View of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program,” by Ronaldo Lopez, showcases the work of VOSRP, an initiative of the VCU Rice Rivers Center. The recycling program, headed by Todd Janeski, aims to restore oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed through the creation of sanctuary oyster reefs. VOSRP recycles waste oyster shells from partner restaurants to use as the substrate of these reefs.

Lopez, a faculty research associate at the Rice Rivers Center, used inventive camera work to communicate the work of VOSRP through the “eyes” of an oyster. A combination of wide shots and shots from the perspective of an oyster being harvested, plated, eaten and finally recycled, tell the life story of the bivalve.

Continue reading VCU Rice Rivers Center documentary wins prize at RVA Environmental Film Festival. 

Watch the award-winning documentary.  

Blue Sky Fund Students prepare chocolate pancakes during a camping trip in October at the Rice Rivers Center. Blue Sky Fund and Rice Rivers Center have collaborated to help Richmond's youth explore the outdoors and learn environmental science.  Contributed photos courtesy Blue Sky Fund

Students in Richmond Public Schools experience the outdoors through Rice Rivers Center partnership

February 1, 2018

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

Many adolescents who have spent their lives in Richmond’s high-poverty areas are not able to explore the natural wonders this river city and surrounding areas have to offer. Lack of transportation, money and time are the main barriers of access to the natural world for low-income families.

VCU Rice Rivers Center aims to get more kids outside despite the obstacles through a collaboration with the Richmond-based nonprofit Blue Sky Fund.

Rice Rivers Center is one of multiple sites throughout the state used by Blue Sky Fund for weekend, school-day and after-school programs.

The center is a nearly 500-acre environmental research facility located in Charles City County along the James River, which makes it an invaluable resource for Blue Sky Fund youth programs. Blue Sky Fund takes Richmond Public Schools students to the center to receive real-world environmental science instruction and to experience activities such as camping, volunteering and canoeing on the river.

Read the rest of: Students in Richmond Public Schools experience the outdoors through Rice Rivers Center partnerhsip with local nonprofit.

Group shot at Kosi Bay, South African, for the 2018 VCU study abroad class South African Summits to Sea

VCU South African Summits to Sea explores connections between freshwater biodiversity and society

January 23, 2018

Students in Dr. James Vonesh’s VCU study abroad class rang in the 2018 new year hiking to the source of the Tugela River below the Mont-aux-Sources high in the Drakensberg mountains of KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. Reaching the Tugela source involved a strenuous hike and scaling a series of chain ladders to gain the top of the Drakensburg escarpment, but rewarded the class with outstanding views of the Tugela Falls which plunge nearly a kilometer over the Drakensburg Amphitheater escarpment and are one of the highest falls in the world.

The course – South African Summits to Sea: Watershed-scale Perspective on the Human and Natural History of KawZulu-Natal – focused on major river watersheds of the KwaZulu-Natal Province, specifically the Tugela and Pongola rivers.  Students explored the relationships between freshwater resources, biodiversity, and South African history and modern society as they followed gravity and the flow of water from the peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains to the marine protected areas of Kosi Bay. 

Field work, hiking, rafting and kayaking, with primary accommodations being tents, were part of student life as they began the journey in Johannesburg and made their way to the rivers.

The class partnered with African Insights Academy, a company that tailors programs for a unique education experience showcasing the diversity of ecosystems in South Africa.  The video below, produced by African Insights, highlights some of the students’ hike through the Drakensberg. 

To see photos from this years’ expedition, visit their Facebook page, South African Summits to Sea and course Flickr album

Trevor Frost and his father on the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya, on a trip to see the annual migration of wildebeest across the plains.

Center for Environmental Studies alumnus captures the world for National Geographic

January 22, 2018

Trevor Frost has made his mark as a wildlife photographer and filmmaker with National Geographic.  Prior to working a job that takes him around the world, Frost spent his undergraduate years at VCU.  He earned his BS from the Center for Environmental Studies in 2006, while spending time working on coastal ecosystems at Rice Rivers Center. 

Read more about Frost: Worth a thousand words



Two Team Warbler alumni co-authors of Nature article

January 19, 2018

Ryan Weaver and Anna Tucker are two of five co-authors of an article published in Nature, the international journal of science.

Weaver was a environmental studies undergrad who graduated in May 2013. He was also part of Team Warbler joining the spring 2012 class in Panama, then returning as a teaching assistant in spring 2013.

Tucker received her Master in Biology in May 2014 and was the Panama teaching assistant in spring 2014.

Read Carotenoid metabolism strengthens the link between feather coloration and individual quality.

A pair of breeding eagles on breeding territory in Norfolk, Virginia

Gender divide in bald eagles

January 17, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Unlike many familiar bird species, male and female bald eagles have identical plumage making them difficult to distinguish in the field, but they are not the same.  In the hand, females have distinctly larger feet and this character alone may be used successfully to separate the sexes.  Females are 30% heavier than males with a nearly 20% longer tarsus (lower leg bone).  Females also have longer wings and deeper bills than males.  When standing together, males and females of a mated pair are nearly always easy to distinguish.  However, geographic variation confounds separation on the basis of size alone when birds are alone or in mixed groups.

Beyond the measurements, males and females cut a different line across the sky.  Differences in weight result in subtle differences in the proportions of body to wings that with experience may be observed in flight.  It is like watching a quarter horse and a draft horse running across a field.  The differences in weight and build influence movement.  Female eagles express a more labored flight style.  Watch closely for these differences the next time you see a group of eagles in active flight.

During the breeding season there is a division of labor between the sexes that extends to incubation.  Females have a much larger brood patch, making them more suited to incubate clutches and brood small young, particularly during poor weather.  Females cover more of the incubation duties and incubate when they choose.  In effect, males fill in for the female when she wants to be relieved.  This dynamic is readily apparent when observing shift changes.  If the male returns to the nest to relieve the female without being called she may or may not accommodate the male regardless of how vigorously he attempts to replace her.  By comparison, if the female returns to the nest she will supplant the male regardless of how long he has been incubating. 

Although patterns may vary between pairs, for nests within the Chesapeake Bay, females observed on video accounted for 73% of the incubation duties on average.  The gender disparity was driven primarily by the female taking the night shift.  In all cases recorded (>150), the female covered incubation for the night.  Night shifts averaged 13 hours and 20 minutes, or more than half of the 24-hour cycle.  During the daylight hours between 6:00 AM and 4:00 PM, the pair split incubation duties relatively evenly. 

One of the more interesting aspects of the team effort is that the length of the night shift imposes a basic structure on the daily pattern of incubation.  The most predictable shift change occurs around dawn after the long shift performed by the female.  The male is punctual in relieving the female and often performs his longest shift of the day.  Covering the early morning shift allows the female to leave the nest and take care of self-maintenance activities such as feeding and preening.  When she returns, the female typically performs her longest shift of the daylight sequence.  The afternoon is the most dynamic period within the 24-hour cycle, with multiple exchanges and short shifts.  The day typically concludes with the male performing his shortest shift of the day just before the female settles in for the long night shift.

A male Virginia peregrine

Virginia peregrines have mixed year in 2017

January 16, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Virginia supported a known population of 29 pairs of peregrine falcons during the 2017 breeding season (download 2017 report).  Two new breeding sites were documented but three long-standing territories were unoccupied.  The population had a relatively high hatching rate (81%, 56 of 69 eggs hatched) but some losses both before banding (16.1%, 9 of 56 young lost) and after fledging (3 young known to be lost post-fledging).  Of 21 clutches that could be followed completely from laying to fledging, 41 of 53 (77.4%) eggs hatched and 35 of 41 (85.4%) young survived to banding age.  The reproductive rate (1.62 young/occupied territory) was considerably lower than in recent years. 

Efforts continued in 2017 to identify breeding adults via field-readable bands to better understand dispersal and demography throughout the mid-Atlantic region.  The banding status of 47 (81%) of the 58 adult peregrines known within the breeding population was determined.  Ten (21%) of the 47 birds were unbanded.  The alpha-numerics were read for 29 adults and of these the USGS bands have been recorded for 26.  Of the banded birds where state of origin could be determined, 22 were from VA, 5 from NJ, and 3 from MD.  Birds ranged in age from 2 to 17 years old. 

In addition to adults breeding in Virginia, bands for 12 additional falcons were read and reported over the past year.  Seven of these birds (all females) originated in Virginia and were found breeding in other states, including 3 birds in Pennsylvania and 4 birds in New Jersey.  A second-year female was photographed multiple times on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  A hatch-year male from Richmond was photographed in Lyndhurst, NJ and a hatch-year female that had been hacked in Shenandoah National Park was photographed near Silver Lake in Rockingham County, VA.  A 5-year-old female was identified in Westchester, NY during the early breeding season and may have been on a territory.

The translocation of falcons from the coast to the mountains in an effort to re-establish the historic mountain range continued in 2017.  Ten young falcons (including five females and five males) were moved to Shenandoah National Park and hacked.  All birds were from bridges that have experienced poor fledging success except two birds that were found on the ground under the Possum Point stack around the time of fledging.  All birds fledged and dispersed successfully. 

The Virginia population continues to benefit from a tremendous community of dedicated agencies, corporations, and individuals including the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense, Dominion, and The Nature Conservancy.

Young male red-cockaded woodpecker ready for transport for Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge

Moving woodpeckers 3

January 16, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

“She’s a peeker,” I whispered over the radio to let Bart Paxton know that the bird was looking out of the cavity entrance.  Bart was hidden in camouflage near the base of the cavity tree within The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve (PGP).  We had arrived on site around 4:30pm to measure the cavity height, position the net pole near the roost tree and set up for the capture.  The bird flew to the tree from the north at 5:05, did some maintenance work on resin wells, and entered the cavity at 5:13 with no inkling of the capture plan. 

Bobby Clontz and I were set back in the woods like a sniper with a spotting scope to monitor her activity and to direct Bart when the coast was clear.  The bird popped back up to the entrance every few seconds to peer out and scan the surroundings, but eventually settled down for the night.  Bart eased into position and slowly raised the net pole to 38 feet and placed the net over the cavity.  In seconds the bird shot out calling into the net, fluttered down into the bag and was lowered to the ground.  A collective sigh of relief after we confirmed the ID and had the bird safely in the transport box.

Less than a mile away, Fletcher Smith, Kevin Rose, Jen Wright, and Audrey Boraski were in another breeding site attempting to extract a young male from its roost cavity.  By 6:20 they had the bird secured and by 6:40 we were on the road to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge (GDSNWR).  We would walk through the woods, climb the trees, place birds in artificial cavities, screen the birds in, and clear the gear out of the site by headlamp.  Before dawn we would quietly walk back into the site, wait for signs of the birds stirring, pull the screens and release the birds into their new habitat.

The successful movement of these two birds represents the first translocation of red-cockaded woodpeckers from PGP (itself a small recovering population) and the last birds to be moved to the GDSNWR in 2017.  Three weeks earlier, with a much larger group of biologists, we successfully moved eight woodpeckers (including four males and four females) from the Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge to the GDSWNR.

2017 is the third consecutive year that woodpeckers have been moved into the GDSNWR in an effort to establish a second breeding site in Virginia.  Eight birds were moved in 2015 and ten birds were moved in 2016.  In all, 28 woodpeckers have been meticulously monitored, captured, transported, and ultimately released from artificial cavities within the refuge.  All birds have been released successfully.


Update on the status of GDSNWR woodpeckers

CCB biologists and refuge staff began a survey of woodpeckers on the GDSNWR in early December 2017.  The survey systematically roosted all recruitment clusters and artificial cavity trees over a period of several days and identified all birds using the sites.  2017 was a good retention year with six of the ten birds that had been moved earlier in the fall found roosting.  A very good sign was that both of the females produced within the GDSNWR during the breeding season were still present.  The 11 birds identified included four males and seven females, setting up the possibility of four breeding pairs for the spring.  We will conduct another headcount in April to assess who is still standing as the birds move into the breeding season.


It takes a village

The successful movement of woodpeckers is an enterprise with a lot of moving parts that requires a large effort.  The work begins in the early fall when target and backup birds are identified and roosted to determine target trees for capture.  In the run up to movement night, birds and trees are reconfirmed.  Artificial cavity trees within GDSNWR must be cleared and screened to prepare them for receiving birds.  Over the past three years the effort has included the work of dozens of biologists and volunteers associated with a large consortium of agencies and organizations including the Great Dismal Swamp NWR, Carolina Sandhills NWR, SD Hamilton Noxubee NWR, Okefenokee NWR, two USFWS ecological services offices, Jay Carter and Associates Inc., Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, The Nature Conservancy, and The Center for Conservation Biology.  The effort has been lead by the national red-cockaded woodpecker recovery coordinator, Will McDearman.



A sample of more than 40 pounds of cedar waxwings killed along less than 100 meters of Interstate 64 in Virginia

Using the sword of Damocles to decapitate The Migratory Bird Treaty Act

January 3, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

On 22 December as the nation was gearing down for the festive Christmas holiday, the Department of Interior quietly released a memo redefining the terms of how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) will be enforced.  The document, written by the agency’s new Principal Deputy Solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, will have far-reaching impacts on bird conservation throughout the United States and represents the culmination of a decades-long fight by lobbyists to undermine the Act.  The action effectively removes (by interpretation) a key prohibition and constrains the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from pursuing the original intent of the Act.   

The MBTA (and its predecessors) has been the legal cornerstone of bird protection in the United States for more than 100 years.  The Act represents the legal first-line-of-defense for more than 1,000 species and its mere existence and long history is a reflection of how our society has valued bird populations.   By drawing a line in the sand defining acceptable conduct, the Act has educated generations of conservation-minded citizens and set a standard for corporate behavior.  The memo released on 22 December shifts the line and by doing so represents a sea-change in the value that our society places on bird populations.

Wildlife laws are often vague and include terms that are open to interpretation.  From a practical standpoint, implementation of these laws requires that regulatory agencies formulate working definitions that may be used to clarify prohibited activities to telegraph intended prosecutorial boundaries.  Changing the definitions effectively changes which behaviors will be prosecuted under the law.  The MBTA clearly states a prohibition on “killing” protected birds.  Over the past several decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized killing to include “intended take” (e.g. shooting and capture) and “incidental take” (unintended killing) as prohibited behaviors under the Act.

In practice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long recognized two forms of “incidental take,” including accidental killing where the mortality could not have been reasonably anticipated or avoided and unintended killings where the mortality could have been reasonably anticipated and prevented.  No one wants to prosecute every homeowner who has had a bird fly into a window or every driver who has hit a bird flying across the road, and no prosecutions of this type have been brought forth.  However, situations where a party knowingly places large numbers of birds at risk of being killed should be avoided (see example below following the main story), and it is in the public’s interest to have legal deterrents to these activities.  In the past, the USFWS has used the MBTA to work toward resolving these types of incidental takes to protect bird populations.  The 22 December memorandum eliminates the legal avenue to find a reasonable solution.

The MBTA was passed during a time when very large numbers of birds were being taken for commercial enterprises for collections or to prevent perceived impacts to game or farm animals.  However, the intent of the MBTA was not merely to restrict recreational collecting and other activities, but instead to preserve bird populations in perpetuity.  In his long and winding memorandum, Solicitor Jorjani abandons the original intent and redefines “killing” as only including acts with the “intent” to kill birds.  Birds that are killed during activities where the primary intent is other than to specifically kill birds are no longer subject to the Act. 

In making this change, Jorjani invoked the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “the value of the sword of Damocles is that it hangs – not that it drops.”  Marshall used the anecdote to refer to the chilling effects that power or the overbroad interpretation of laws may have on the liberties of those subject to the law.  Without question, balance is the key to effective implementation of wildlife laws.  However, bird populations belong to the public, and reasoned measures should be taken to protect our shared heritage.  In making this change, Jorjani has in effect hung the sword over the heads of many bird populations and left them without a legal advocate.

I have worked in the bird conservation business long enough to have seen many, many examples of how the MBTA has been used reasonably and effectively to avoid unnecessary impacts to bird populations.  In the majority of cases, birds could be protected with minimal impacts to business.  One example from the past comes to mind.

In June of 1994, while surveying for piping plovers on the north end of Wallops Island in Virginia, I could see an unusually white wrack line in the distance as the tide ebbed out.  The mystery was not resolved until I actually reached the line, examined the white objects, and realized that they were the bleached keels of red-throated loons.  The line of keels stretched more than a mile to the north and represented 10,000+ loons.  Sometime during the winter there had been a significant kill and the keels piled up by the surf were what remained.  Later investigation revealed that the loons were bycatch from the nearshore gill netters, the same group that had been responsible for scores of sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins that had been washing up on the islands for years.  The netters were not charged, but with full consideration of the implications of MBTA, they were convinced to move farther off shore beyond the normal foraging area of the loons.

Under the MBTA that Jorjani envisions, the loons killed by gill netters would not be subject to any legal violation.  After all, the gill netters were there to catch fish, not birds. Yet since they had to remove the loons from nets, they had to be aware of the hazard they were creating for a federally protected species.  But here killing the loons was a mere nuisance.  Removing any legal liability from parties who recklessly kill large numbers of protected birds, despite being able to avoid doing so, is a clear perversion of the original intent of MBTA and serves no one but those in special interest groups.



Students bag shells for the VOSRP at VCU Rice Rivers Center

VOSRP featured in VCU 2016-17 University Annual Report

December 13, 2017

VCU Rice Rivers Center's Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is one of 10 things VCU did to challenge the norm and make a real difference.

Read all about it in VCU's 2016-17 University Annual Report.

Peter Uetz, Ph.D.

Recent papers co-authored by CSBC’s Peter Uetz, Ph.D.

December 8, 2017

Peter Uetz, Ph.D., has co-authored five papers that have been published this fall.  Dr. Uetz is an associate professor of systems biology and bioinformatics at VCU’s Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC).

Global landscape of cell envelope protein complexes in Escherichia coli
Nature Biotechnology
Published online November 27, 2017
Babu et al., including Jitender Mehla, J. Harry Caufield, Peter Uetz (2017)

This is the first comprehensive analysis of membrane protein complexes in baxcteria. Dr. Jitender Mehla, postdoc in the Uetz lab, mapped the interactions among proteins of a subset of these complexes in more detail. In addition, Harry Caufield, an ILS grad student, analyzed the evolutionary conservation of these complexes across hundreds of bacterial genomes.


Virus-host protein-protein interactions of mycobacteriophage Giles
Scientific Reports 7: 16514
Published online November 28, 2017
Mehla J, Dedrick RM, Caufield JH, Wagemans J, Sakhawalkar N, Johnson AA, Hatfull GF, Uetz P (2017)

Like any other virus, bacteriophage interact with their host by protein-protein interactions. This is the first host-virus interaction map of a mycobacteriophage, the best studied group of bacteriophages. 

The nitrogen regulatory PII protein (GlnB) and N-acetyl-glucosamine 6-phosphate epimerase (NanE) allosterically activate glucosamine 6-phosphate deaminase (NagB) in Escherichia coli.
Journal of Bacteriorology 
Published December 11, 2017
Irina A. Rodionova, Norman Goodacre, Hohan Babu, Andrew Emili, Peter Uetz, , Milton H Saier Jr.

Although this sounds like a very drab title, it is another follow-up to an observation made in the Babu et al. 2016: we show that protein-protein interactions regulate a large number of enzymes, including several in glucosamine metabolism.

The global distribution of tetrapods reveals a need for targeted reptile conservation
Nature Ecology & Evolution 1, 1677–1682
Published October 9, 2017 
Roll, U. et al. (2017)

This paper is a landmark study in biogeography that compiles and analyzes the distribution map of all reptiles in the world. Reptiles are the last group of terrestrial vertebrates (after mammals, birds, and amphibians) that are studied that way and complete the large-scale biogeographic analysis of tetrapods. This study informs us which species-rich regions need protection to maximize conservation efforts. Dr. Uetz kept track of reptile taxonomy in this study.


Extinct, obscure or imaginary: The lizard species with the smallest ranges
Diversity and Distributions
Published online November 23, 2017
Meiri, S. et al. (2017)

As a side project to the previous paper, this study identifies about 1000 lizard species which are only known from their type locality, i.e. literally only from one locality at all. Many of these species have never been seen again after they were discovered, so they represent the most threatened of all species.



Dr. Ed Crawford leads a workshop at VCU Rice Rivers Center for ENVS 201

ENVS 201 2017 Rice Rivers Center Field Day

December 6, 2017

(Photo credit: Larkin Petrelles)


Each year, Dr. Vickie Connor’s Introduction to Earth System Science class (ENVS 201) visits the VCU Rice Rivers Center to experience a few typical field research activities at the center. Dr. Ed Crawford, deputy director of Rice Rivers Center, and teaching assistants Alissa Nicholsson, Hannah Coovert, Rebecca Dahlberg, and Lindsay Schneider, joined Dr. Connors and 35 students on an overcast and windy Saturday in November.  

The day began with an orientation presentation by Dr. Crawford, where he shared the history of the ongoing evolution of the center. Following the presentation, the students broke into four groups of 8-10, which then rotated through different activity stations hosted by the teaching assistants.

This year’s activities included:

Canoeing and Prothontary Warbler Research — (Alissa Nicholsson)
The canoeing was difficult because of the strong winds and choppy waves on the James River. Yet, several groups did manage to enjoy the opportunity to see the Rice Rivers Center from the perspective of the river. From one of the student’s essay: “On the canoeing expedition, Alissa talked about the species that lived around the area and in the water. She also explained how the creek is tidal, meaning there is a high tide and a low tide. We canoed during the low tide time and it was very easy to touch the bottom of the water. We also got to see a blue heron and two bald eagles fighting over food during the time on the water.”   

Plant (Identification) Bingo — (Rebecca Dahlberg)
Rebecca led the plant identification activity with a Plant BINGO game that was created for the 2016 Rice Rivers Center Field Day. The packet contained identification guidelines and pictures of a variety of plants found at the center.  Students were asked to locate as many plants as they could find and collect samples if possible.  When the students found plants either on a diagonal or straight across they were to say “BINGO!”

Rock Identification — (Hannah Coovert)
Hannah guided the rock identification activity with the assistance of a rock sample kit generously provided by Dr. Arif Sikdar, assistant professor at the Center for Environmental Studies. She had the students examine and identify several different rock types.  Lindsay shared an amazing rock that her grandfather had found in Europe 80 years ago.

Measure Tree Attributes (DBH) and examining Soil Horizons from Upland to Wetland Zones— (Lindsay Schneider)
Lindsay led a nature walk to look at some trees. The students took turns measuring how much carbon each tree was taking out to the atmosphere by measuring up the tree about one meter and then taking the circumference of the tree using a DBH tape. Lindsay also encouraged the students to identify what types of trees that they passed. She then showed the students how to examine the soil horizons from the dry, upland area, down to the wetland area near Harris Creek.



CSBC Director search open until February 1, 2018

December 4, 2017

VCU Life Sciences has the following position open until February 1, 2018:

 Director, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity

VCU Life Sciences invites applications or nominations for the position of Director of the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC). VCU Life Sciences promotes transformative learning and integrative scholarship through an interdisciplinary, systems-based approach. Its university-wide matrix structure provides a framework for borderless academics, and promotes collaborative learning opportunities among students, molecular biologists, mathematicians, computational scientists, ecologists, physicians, and artists. The Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC) engages a broad community of scholars in advancing institutional capabilities in genomics, proteomics and computational systems biology and bioinformatics and offers rich learning and research opportunities, including BS, MS (both thesis and professional) and a PhD track in Bioinformatics.

The Director will guide the CSBC through an expanded realization of its mission by promoting collaborative research across the university in basic and applied science, and by growing the Center’s educational programs. The Director will mentor and support the professional growth of faculty and staff in an inclusive environment for collaboration and student learning. Through proactive recruiting strategies, the director will identify new faculty to complement the Center’s teaching and research activities. The new director will have a tenured faculty appointment in Life Sciences and will bring an active research program with a history of multidisciplinary applications and external funding. The successful candidate must have demonstrated experience leading and fostering a diverse faculty, staff, and student environment.

Virginia Commonwealth University is a public research university that has been designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as very high in research activity and as community-engaged. VCU is committed to creating a campus community that embraces diverse perspectives, cultures, experiences and people. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. VCU serves an integral role in the economic health of the city of Richmond and the region by educating the current and future workforce, advancing research, and enhancing patient care. Learn more about Richmond:

Application Process Interested candidates must apply online at and include a cover letter that includes a brief description of research interests, future research directions, and a vision for the Center, a CV, and contact information for three references. Review of applications will begin immediately. This position offers a competitive salary, start-up, and relocation package. For additional information, please contact Dr. Gregory Triplett (

Virginia Commonwealth University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action university providing access to education and employment without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, political affiliation, veteran status, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or disability.


A cloud of smoke from an e-cigarette gets close to a pregnant woman

ILS graduate Dr. Allyson Kennedy contributes to VCU study on vaping while pregnant

November 28, 2017

Allyson Kennedy, Ph.D., a graduate of VCU's Integrative Life Sciences program, helped gather data to provide evidence suggesting e-cigarettes pose health risks during pregnancy. 

Read the VCU News article, "Vaping while pregnant could cause craniofacial birth defects, VCU study shows."


Research facility

Help us meet our goal!

November 20, 2017

As the end of 2017 quickly approaches, NOW would be the perfect time to suppport the VCU Rice Rivers Center, where the impact of your gift will be doubled. 

VCU was awarded a one-million-dollar challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation which, when met, will complete all fundraising for our critically needed research building.  We continue to focus on water resources and restoring critical habitats and the fish and wildlife that depend on rivers while training the next generation of environmental scientists...but the center needs to increase the impact of the good science that we do to inform effective environmental policies and build conservation capacity both locally and globally.  We expect much of our present global outreach to grow into significant collaborations where those scientists we are already working with can come on-site to further their research. And this will happen once our critically needed research building comes on line. 

We hope you will take this opportunity to support us when any amount you can give will be matched.  Please help us reach our goal with your end-of-year gift by clicking on this link and choosing VCU Rice Rivers Center from the drop-down menu.  Your gift will make a difference. 


Flight Safety

November 15, 2017

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

A Virginia Commonwealth University scientist is demonstrating that drone photography can be used for more than creating fantastic aerial shots and panoramas of landscapes. It has real-world applications in a variety of areas — from environmental science to defense and emergency response planning.

William Shuart, environmental technology coordinator for the VCU Rice Rivers Center and the Center for Environmental Studies, is currently using aerial imagery to create 3-D models of parts of the Monroe Park Campus. The models will be used in a mapping project by researchers funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Continue reading "Flight Safety."

Dr. Prom-Wormley honored as one of VCU's 2017 Alumni Stars

November 8, 2017

Pictured: Dr. Elizabeth Prom-Wormley (front row, middle), with other VCU Life Sciences faculty and students (back row, from left to right), Dr. Robert Tombes, Dr. Brian Verrelli, Dr. Sarah Rothschild, Mariam Sankoh, and Kevin Leslie.

On Friday, November 3, Virginia Commonwealth University honored 15 of its most accomplished alumni at the 2017 Alumni Stars ceremony.  The biennial event, held at the Dewey Gottwald Center at the Science Museum of Virginia and hosted by VCU Alumni, celebrated alumni from across the university’s academic units for their extraordinary personal and professional achievements.

Among the honorees was Elizabeth Prom-Wormley, who earned a Masters of Public Health from the School of Medicine in 1999, and a Doctor of Philosophy from VCU Life Sciences in 2007.

Read more about Dr. Prom-Wormley’s accomplishments.

VOSRP featured on Virginia Sea Grant website

October 31, 2017

VCU is one of seven partner universities collaborating with Virginia Sea Grant. The organization advances the resilence and sustainability of Virginia's coastal and marine ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them.  

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is featured in the lead story on the Virginia Sea Grant website.

Read "Seventy-five percent of the menu. Fresh, local and sustainable - one chef's goal."

Study shows commercial harvest of snapping turtles is leading to population decline

October 26, 2017


(Photo: Ben Colteaux, Ph.D., in the Integrative Life Sciences program holds a snapping turtle in the field. Photo credit: Courtesy of Team Snapper)

By Leah Small, University Pubilc Affairs

Crawling through neck-high mud on riverbanks is a dirty job, but someone has to do it for the sake of Virginia’s snapping turtles.

That task falls on Benjamin Colteaux, a Ph.D. candidate in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Integrative Life Sciences program, and other members of “Team Snapper” working in the lab of Derek Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

For four years, the researchers spent several weeks at a time trekking through muddy turtle turf to catch and tag the animals, and record indices of health and growth for multiple studies on the impacts of wild turtle harvesting. 

Read the full article, "Study shows commercial harvest of snapping turtles is leading to population decline"

VOSRP on Virginia This Morning

October 18, 2017

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) Director Todd Janeski sat down with Virginia This Morning Host Bill Bevins to talk about the Shell-Raiser's Shindig.  The third annual Shindig is Sunday, October 22 from 2 - 5 p.m. at Libbie Mill-Midtown.

There is still time to purchase tickets to this popular event supporting VOSRP.


Study abroad in Panama

October 16, 2017

(Photo: last year's Team Warbler)

The popular Panama Avian Field Ecology class is back, and time is running out for students to apply.  Wednesday, October 25 is the last day that applications and letters of recommendations will be accepted.

Students will study abroad in Panama January 2 - 15, 2108, and will meet weekly during the spring semester.  Dr. Cathy Viverette and Dr. Ed Crawford will lead 18 new members of Team Warbler. The ENVS 515/BIO 415, 4 credit hour program can fulfill ENVS and BIO capstone requirements. 

For more information on the course, visit the Panama Avian Field Ecology ram page.

To submit your letter of interest and recommendations: Yes, I am interested in going to Panama!

For more information, contact Dr. Viverette or Dr. Crawford.  

Rice Rivers Center Director interviewed by Sierra Club

October 12, 2017

(Photo: VCU's Matt Balazik holds an Altantic sturgeon. Photo courtesy of Matt Balazik)


VCU Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman was interviewed for Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club.  

Read: The South's Very Own Sea Monster

New assistant director of Center for Environmental Studies named

October 11, 2017

Dr. Rodney Dyer, director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES), recently announced Dr. James Vonesh as assistant director of CES. Dr. Vonesh held the position of associate professor at VCU’s Department of Biology.

As assistant director, Dr. Vonesh will play a key role in the management and development of the ENVS undergraduate curriculum, bringing with him more than 10 years of teaching experience and a commitment to experiential and global education.

“Dr. Vonesh’s skill and expertise provide fundamental support to the ongoing transitions this unit is undertaking in both its research and curricular missions,” stated Dr. Dyer.  “I am tremendously excited to have him onboard and look forward to his help in guiding this unit forward.”

A broadly trained population and community-level ecologist and author of more than 50 scientific papers, Dr. Vonesh’s research has spanned from understanding how habitat fragmentation has affected forest chameleons in East Africa and frogs in North America, how predators shape the timing of metamorphosis in Central American tree frogs, to using mosquitos’ natural habitat preferences against them for more effective management. The current focus of his research is understanding how changes in predator biodiversity from extinction or species introduction will impact prey populations and ecosystem function and services.  

Dr. Vonesh was instrumental in the development of the “Footprints on the James” course which explores the interaction between history and the environment as students paddle down nearly 200 miles of the river. Recently, following a Fulbright Fellowship, he developed a similarly themed “South African Summits-to-Sea”, an expedition-style course in which students explore the intersection of freshwater resources, society, and biodiversity. He has also led field courses in Uganda, Tanzania, Taiwan, and Madagascar. “Ideally”, Vonesh says, “research and teaching are not compartmentalized but reinforce each other. A good example of this is our current work studying predator-prey ecology in the rock pools of the James River. This collaboration includes a world class team of ecologists, undergraduates from courses at VCU and University of Richmond, and Richmond Public High School students from Open High School and aims to advance STEM education and basic science.”

Dr. Vonesh’s work can be found at voneshlab.

“Autumn on the James” debuts at VCU Rice Rivers Center

October 6, 2017

(Pictured, from left to right: artist Guy Crittenden, VCU Life Science Director of Development Catherine Dahl, Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman)

A major painting was unveiled that captured the impact and beauty of the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

 “Autumn on the James,” by renowned Virginia wildlife artist Guy Crittenden, will hang in the reception area at the Rice Rivers Center Education Building. The 4 x 6 foot painting is from a birds-eye – or drone’s – view; Crittenden used drone photos to give perspective of the property from the air. The use of drone footage was a natural fit during the creation of the piece, as a course on the scientific application of drone technology is taught at the center.

Crittenden shares his thoughts on this important piece. “The project began with my first drive down the wooded lane off Route 5 which leads to the Rice Rivers Center. I was intrigued immediately with the landscape as I took twists and turns through the living forest. On that first visit, I was hooked. As talks about a painting progressed, I began to see this piece as a historically significant opportunity to render the land and water around the center. I wanted to give the viewer an eagle-eye perspective, and provide for them that sense of place, with all the relativity of the area’s landmarks.  Like the works of the 18th and 19th Century landscape artists I admire, this painting takes an interpretive approach to the traditional composition challenges, and uses light and color to hold the strong positive and negative shapes together. The landscape, river and marsh make a visually interesting composition, and if you look closely you will see native wildlife, the Benjamin Harrison Bridge, the town of Hopewell and the City of Richmond.”

The aerial view of the painting captures VCU’s River Campus in its totality. Although viewers cannot see the research being conducted in the James River or at the restored wetlands, the importance of the work done at the center contributes to the recognition of the facility and grounds as a nationally-significant academic research center.

“This remarkable piece of art places the Rice Rivers Center within a broad landscape context that includes natural systems like woods, wetlands, and water, while adding cultural elements such as the Benjamin Harrison Bridge and Richmond’s skyline. That composition is a great metaphor for the Center’s research and teaching mission,” says Greg Garman, Center Director.

We are delighted to be able offer limited edition prints of this painting, from a series of 150 numbered and signed by the artist, for a donation of $200 or more.  Please contact Catherine Dahl at or 804-827-7372 if you would like to make a donation to the Rice Rivers Center for this exclusive piece of art, or to obtain more information.  

A tough year for Chesapeake Osprey

October 9, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

 (Photo: Female osprey on nest with three-chick brood on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  2017 was a poor year for osprey in the Bay.  Photo by Bryan Watts.)

The grumblings have gotten louder and louder over the past three years and have increasingly come from more corners of the Chesapeake.  By the end of the 2017 breeding season, the voices were loud and clear and singing the same tune.  The breeding season had been a dismal failure for osprey in the Chesapeake Bay.  Not just in one location but in all locations that were under observation.  Jan Reese reported that only 3 of 18 nests (17%) around Tilghman Island produced any young. Pam D’Angelo, observing on the Little Wicomico River, reported that the area produced almost no young. Reese Lukei reported that only 30 of 73 nests (41%) produced young on the Lynnhaven River, Pete McGowan reported that half of 23 nests monitored on Poplar Island failed, Greg Kearns working on the Patuxent River reported a 50% success rate, and CCB working on the upper James River recorded 26 of 57 nests (46%) that produced young.  The general sense of a poor season did not stem from the low success rate alone but also the reduced brood sizes.  On the upper James River surviving broods were mostly 1-2 young where in the past most successful nests produced 2-4 young.       

When Bob Kennedy monitored breeding osprey in the lower Chesapeake Bay as a student working with Mitchell Byrd during the early 1970s, hatching rates were only 36%, productivity rates were unsustainable, and the Bay-wide population had reached an all-time low of 1,400 pairs.  However, by the mid-1980s productivity had tripled and the population was experiencing rapid growth.  This growth would continue to the present time, reaching our current estimate of 10,000 breeding pairs for the tidal reach of the Bay.  Andy Glass, working in 2006 in the same study area as Bob Kennedy 35 years earlier, recorded 95% hatching rates.     

Observations and concerns over the past few years have led to questions about causation.  What is behind the success rates that are lower than what we have become accustomed to seeing?  Most biologists working with the population believe that failures are being driven by three factors, including 1) food stress from reduced fish stocks, 2) predation, and 3) poor weather.  Broods that are not provided enough food by adults to fuel growth form dominance hierarchies where high-ranking young get most of the food and low-ranking young get leftovers.  If the food shortage increases, the lowest ranking young will die in a process that we refer to as brood reduction.  In severe cases, all young will die and the nest will fail.  Lower brood sizes generally are indicative of brood reduction and are accompanied by low young weight or other behavioral signals.  As the populations of bald eagles and great horned owls have recovered from the DDT era and the number of mouths to feed has soared, the energy demand has spilled out onto species that would not be considered traditional prey.  Osprey fall into this category and there have been numerous documented broods lost to both predators.  Lastly, most raptors are susceptible to cold rains during the critical development period when eggs are near hatching or chicks are too young to thermoregulate on their own (first two weeks).  It is certainly possible that poorly timed storms could have caused some of the failures in 2017 and other years. 

All of these factors have likely been acting within the Chesapeake in recent years and have contributed to poor performance.  We do not currently know which of these factors may be dominant or how they may be distributed throughout the Bay.  You can help answer some of these questions by joining OspreyWatch and recording your observations about productivity of your nest.


Clutch Size in Chesapeake Bay Bald Eagles: An unexpected history

October 6, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

(Photo: Two-egg bald eagle clutch along James River.  This clutch size is by far the most common for bald eagles throughout their breeding range.  Photo by Catherine Markham)

There was a time during the late 1800s through the mid-1900s when bird eggs were collected and sold or traded like stamps or coins.  During this period, bald eagle eggs were valuable and in demand.  The price for a single bald eagle egg was listed as $15.00 in the 1922 American Oologist Exchange Price List of North American Eggs.  Due to the general interest in eagles and the value of their eggs, eagle egg collectors were widespread throughout North America.  Several major collectors including Harold Bailey, Fred Jones, Edward Court, Richard Harlow, and Willet Griffee were active in the Chesapeake Bay through the 1940s.  Each had their own collecting area that seemed to be respected by gentlemanly agreement but all were highly secretive about the location of prized nests where they collected.

Although eagle egg collecting has now gone the way of the stagecoach, compilation of clutch sizes from egg collections provides exciting new insight into the ecology of eagles during a time period before the introduction of DDT into the estuary.  Compared to all other accounts throughout the species range, clutch size within the Chesapeake Bay during this early time period was extraordinarily high, averaging 2.46 eggs.  In his remarkable book, The Bald Eagle, Mark Stalmaster summarized 16 studies from throughout the breeding range that reported clutch size and indicated that 17% of clutches contained only one egg, and only 4% contained more than two eggs.  In stark contrast to this finding, 3.3% of clutches collected in the Bay contained only one egg and 43.0% contained three or more eggs. 

Amazingly, eagle egg collections from the Chesapeake included three four-egg clutches and two five-egg clutches.  Although rare, four-egg clutches have been documented in recent times within the Chesapeake including three four-young broods.   The five-egg clutches are an oddity and have not been reported previously within the bald eagle literature.  The clutches were collected by E. J. Court, who was a prolific collector for more than 30 years along the upper Potomac River below Washington, D.C.  Examination of the collection notes provides confidence that these clutches were real.  The possibility that these clutches resulted from contributions of two females cannot be resolved.  Incredibly, the two clutches were collected from the same territory just two years apart.  The territory was on the Virginia side of the Potomac in a site known commonly as Crow’s Nest, which continues to be a center of eagle activity to the present day.  The circumstances that lead to these clutches are unclear, and because they were collected we are left to wonder if the pair could have hatched all five eggs and raised the young to independence.

One of the most surprising discoveries from looking back through the historic clutch record is that bald eagle clutch sizes have changed dramatically over the past century.  By the time the aerial survey was initiated in the early 1960s, the average clutch size had been reduced by nearly half compared to the period of egg collecting that closed merely 20 years before.  During the 1960s and 1970s, 20 (66.7%) of 30 documented clutches were single eggs and only one (3.3%) contained three eggs.  By the 1980s and 1990s, clutches were trending larger with only 26.8% (N = 56) single egg and 16.1% containing three eggs.  Although recovery is not complete, after the year 2000 clutches have begun to resemble those in the early 1900s, with only 4.0% (N = 99) single eggs, 66.7% two-egg clutches, and 29.3% three-egg clutches. 

The impact of legacy contaminants such as DDT on egg hatching rates, young survival, and even adult mortality from the 1950s through the 1970s has been reasonably well documented.  A retrospective assessment of clutch size within the Chesapeake Bay suggests that contaminants likely caused a direct suppression of clutch size as well. 


No good news for Eastern Black Rails in NC and GA

October 4, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

(Photo: Eric Sibbald records data during a survey along the North Carolina coast.  Photo by Rob Colquhoun.)  

The eastern black rail is listed as endangered in six states and is currently under review for federal listing.  In 2016, The Center for Conservation Biology worked with many partners to produce a status assessment in support of the federal process.  Among other things, this assessment identified gaps in survey coverage.  During the 2017 breeding season, CCB worked with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to help fill information gaps within the two coastal states.  Survey teams were deployed in both states to survey a network of sites within designated high-priority areas and assess black rail occurrence during the breeding season.  The surveys continue ongoing efforts by the Eastern Black Rail Working Group to collect information on status and distribution.  Since 2014, the partnership has surveyed more than 6,000 locations for black rails within coastal habitats.

A network of 691 point locations was surveyed for black rails during the 2017 breeding season, including 284 in North Carolina and 409 in Georgia.  The network was surveyed three times between 18 April and 21 July using a standard call-back protocol, resulting in the execution of 1,983 point counts.  Surveys in North Carolina targeted coastal regions that were not included in the 2014-2015 effort conducted by CCB.  The only exception to this was Cedar Island, which has historically been the center of activity in the state.  No formal surveys of black rails have been conducted in Georgia so the network covered the entire Coastal Plain in an attempt to determine status and distribution.

Black rails were detected within only 4 (0.6%) points and during only 5 (0.3%) of the point counts conducted across both states.  Detections were only made in North Carolina and only on Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, an area already known to support these birds.  The extensive survey effort resulted in the detection of no new occupied sites.  The effort has provided closure to some of the identified information gaps.

Results from the 2017 effort are discouraging and are consistent with observations across much of the Atlantic Coast over the past decade.  Black rails have experienced a catastrophic range contraction from northern breeding areas that is progressing southward.  Efforts are continuing within the Eastern Black Rail Working Group and other appropriate committees to identify management options that will stabilize remaining strongholds and slow the ongoing decline.    Survey efforts will continue in both North Carolina and Georgia during the 2018 breeding season to fill remaining information gaps.





Students demonstrate validity of models that use free, publicly accessible climate data

October 4, 2017

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs 

(Photo: A sunrise over Crown Point at Columbia River Gorge. Students of Daniel McGarvey, Ph.D., used widely available climate data to model fish distributions in the waterway.)

As concern about the consequences of climate change grows, researchers are thinking hard about the data and models that drive their understanding of these changes.

Graduate students in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Environmental Studies recently contributed to this effort by proving that free, publicly accessible climate data can predict habitat quality within river networks with as much accuracy as data from more complex and expensive sources. Climate data includes variables such as precipitation and air temperature. Scientists place these variables into models created to make predictions regarding environmental changes such as species distributions.

Many of the data sources needed to model climate change effects are available online at no cost to both the scientists and lay users, which alleviates the financial burden associated with many scientific inquiries, said Daniel McGarvey, Ph.D., associate professor in the Center for Environmental Studies in VCU Life Sciences.

Continue reading "Students demonstrate validity of models that use free, publicly accessible climate data"

Reese Lukei, Jr.

October 3, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

(Photo: Reece rescuing a bald eagle nestling after nest fell out of a tree at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge)

One half hour before dawn we walked the trail in darkness with no conversation, placed the supply of lure birds behind the blind and began the work of setting up the trapping station.  A strong cold front the day before had resulted in a push of raptors into the lower Delmarva and we knew that birds would be roosting in the shrubs around us.  They would soon be out and hunting for breakfast.  The front had continued through the night, the air was crisp and full of the electricity that would bring more waves of raptors through the day. Reese fixed a pigeon to the high pole and a starling to the low pole, set the bow traps and checked all of the pull lines while Marian and I opened the mist nets and arranged the equipment within the blind.  The site was of Reese’s design, reflecting his trapping style and years of tinkering to improve efficiency.  It was now a fine, hand-made instrument that could be played on demand.

We sat in the blind squinting out into the dim for any movement until a Cooper’s hawk circled out to the west.  Reese immediately turned the bird with a single pull of the pigeon, letting it resettle, then drew the bird across the site and into the central mist net with the starling. The ice was broken.  Over the next two hours we processed 25 birds as quickly as we could manage, alternating between retrieving and processing birds while keeping the site open for incoming.  By 10:30 the stream began to slack and we had reached the midday doldrums.  Reese turned on an obscure concerto on the boom box hanging in the blind and began to conduct with vigor, summoning the French horns and violins to the lead and then driving the entire orchestra to a dramatic climax.  The piece ended with a peregrine floating over the site.  She glanced down at the pigeon but turned her nose up, a sure sign that she had dined elsewhere.  We trapped through the day, catching mostly accipiters but also two late merlins, two early red-tails, and one cautious harrier.  We closed the day as we began with two Coops hunting for a meal as they settled into the shrubs for the night.  In all, more than 50 raptors banded.

The dawn to dusk schedule was a hallmark of Reese’s effort, running the trapping site for 20 years as a research associate of The Center for Conservation Biology.  During that time, he banded more than 10,000 raptors, documenting the recovery of eastern peregrines, a changing of the guard between Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, the passage phenology of several species, and many other details of raptor migration ecology.

Those of us who work in the conservation industry eventually have to confront the big question – Why are we doing this?  Reese never seemed to struggle with this dilemma.  Reese retired early as a partner in an accounting firm not to end a career but to begin his life’s work.  Many of us retire to focus on ourselves with a sprinkling of service.  We volunteer enough to ease our good-citizen minds but not so much that it cramps our golf schedule.  Reese retired to spend his life in service.  Not just to bird conservation but to making the broader community better.  He has lived the past 30 years working through an endless list of good acts.  His dedication has exemplified what it means to be a global citizen.

Reese’s work has focused on three enduring passions including hiking, conservation, and people.  He has hiked in all 50 states and in more than 70 countries. He has completed the entire Appalachian Trail and 1,500 miles of the American Discovery Trail.  Reese has not just hiked trails, but has established, designed, built, and maintained them, as well as served on the boards of many trail organizations.  He was the co-founder and national coordinator for the American Discovery Trail for 12 years, testifying before congress and helping to get the trail established.  He has received many awards for his trail work including, in recent months, a lifetime achievement award from the National Trails System and a lifetime service award from the American Discovery Trail Society.  I suppose that both the work and the awards reflect the fact that Reese has never shied away from taking on the big roles when called upon.

Reese has always had a passion for raptors, an affliction that wife Melinda has called “an incurable disease.”  His introduction to banding was with famed migration banders Walter Smith, Charlie Hacker, Mitchell Byrd and Fred Scott.  He began trapping passage peregrines in the late 1970s in an effort that would expand to include running the Wise Point Raptor Station, breeding-season osprey, and bald eagle banding.  He has monitored nesting osprey and bald eagles in the urban areas of lower Tidewater, Virginia for decades, assisting with the state-wide efforts conducted by CCB.  In recent years as the populations have grown, this has become an all-consuming effort during the breeding season.  Reese has volunteered for an estimated 30,000 hours on planning, construction, and maintenance projects for national wildlife refuges and national parks across the country.  This lifelong commitment to these properties has resulted in many awards and acknowledgments over the years.  

Reese never met a stranger.  Beyond the trail work and raptor monitoring, his most enduring legacy will be his dedication to and passion for bringing people closer to nature.  He has used his own passion for nature to infect others with the incurable disease and by doing so has recruited others to the conservation cause.  He has rarely refused a speaking request and has given over 700 public talks about birds and trails.  In short, he has shown up on game day whenever the call has gone out.  He ran the commentary for the Norfolk Botanical Garden Eagle Cam and continues to operate the eagle blog for CCB.  For many people, their first introduction to raptors or to conservation service has been through Reese.  He has been a tireless ambassador for nature.

The day in the trapping blind and many others echo a general message of success.  If you are going to do something then do it well, with passion and style.  The answer to the big question that Reese seems to have always known is that we work in conservation to leave the world a better place for other species and by association ourselves.  The Center for Conservation Biology wants to join many other organizations in thanking Reese for his lifelong commitment to bring people and wildlife together, and for raising the awareness of conservation issues and making the world a better place.  Thanks, Reese.


VCU Life Sciences alumna is one of VCU's 2017 alumni stars

September 20, 2017

Elizabeth Prom-Wormley, Ph.D., is one of 15 alumni who will be recognized as one of VCU's 2017 Alumni Stars at ceremony on November 3. The event will take place at the Science Museum of Virginia.

Dr. Prom-Wormley recieved her masters of public health from the School of Medicine in 1999, and in 2007 her doctor of philosophy as part of the Integrative Life Sciences program in VCU Life Sciences. 

Read more about Elizabeth Prom-Wormley, Ph.D. from the VCU Alumni blog


Join us October 22 for the VOSRP’s Annual Shell-Raiser’s Shindig

September 15, 2017

Libbie Mill-Midtown is the place to be for an afternoon of good friends, food and cheer.  The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program’s (VOSRP) Annual Shell-Raiser’s Shindig will be held Sunday, October 22 from 2 - 5 p.m., and it promises to be bigger than last year’s successful event!  The VOSRP is a collaborative program of the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

The VOSRP, Slow Food RVA and Echelon Event Management will bring together top chefs in Virginia to celebrate the bounty of the Commonwealth, which will include oysters from Virginia's oyster regions and Virginia wine, beer and cider.

Tickets are limited and go quickly; $75 for an individual, $135 for a pair, all inclusive.  Children under 12 are free.  Reserve yours now.

We will be joined by Chefs:

  • Walter Bundy (Shagbark RVA)
  • Brittany Anderson (Metzger Bar and Butchery and Brenner Pass)
  • John Hoffman (Fossets Keswick Hall & Golf Club)
  • Mike Ledesma (Kabana Rooftop and Belle & James)
  • Andrew Manning and Stephen Farr (RVA Brasa) 
  • Dale Reitzer (The Bar at Acacia mid-town)
  • Joe Sparatta (Heritage and Southbound)
  • Patrick Willis (Lemaire Restaurant)

The Virginia oyster lineup includes Virginia oysters from:

  • Shooting Point Oyster Company 
  • Ruby Salts Oyster Company
  • Windmill Point Oyster Company 
  • Cedar Pointe Oyster Company
  • Big Island Aquaculture
  • Tangier Island Oyster Company

Virginia beer, wine and cider will be available from: 

  • Garden Grove Brewing Company
  • Fair Winds Brewing Company
  • The Veil Brewing Company
  • Early Mountain Vineyards
  • Williamsburg Winery

To find out how you can sponsor this event, contact

Find out more about the Shell Raiser’s Shindig.


Hope survives

September 14, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Irma, the storm that began as a puff of wind off the western coast of Africa and became a monster over the warm waters of the Atlantic, left a path of devastation stretching more than 2,000 miles.  Irma was the strongest storm ever to exist in the Atlantic Ocean outside of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and sustained 185 mph winds for 37 hours, the longest of any storm ever recorded.  Irma hit the Leeward Islands during the peak of her strength causing loss of life and historic destruction of property.  This pattern would continue through Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida, and the Carolinas.  Now, as Irma whimpers off to the north as a tropical depression, people are venturing out to assess the damage and to begin the process of recovery.  Our thoughts are with all of those who have been impacted.

Hope is a whimbrel that breeds in western Canada on the Mackenzie Delta and spends the winter months at Great Pond on St. Croix.  She is well-known to the public as a bird that was tracked using a satellite transmitter by The Center for Conservation Biology for more than 50,000 miles between 2009 and 2013, and to many children as the hero of the children’s book written by Cristina Kessler titled “Hope is here.”  Hope was on her winter territory when Irma hit St. Croix and many have wondered about her condition after the storm has passed.

Local ecologist Lisa Yntema visited with Hope on Great Pond on the morning of 26 August, 2017 and photographed her on the mudflats.  She had only recently arrived from her Arctic breeding grounds.  Just 11 days later on 6 September St. Croix was hit by Irma.  Many of us wonder how birds and other wildlife cope with extreme storms.  Lisa ventured out to check on Hope on the morning of 11 September and found her to be her usual “noisy self.”

Hope has taught the research community a great deal about the migratory pathways and habits of whimbrels.  She has made tremendous nonstop flights, moved great distances out over the open Atlantic, confronted storms while at sea, navigated with precision to stopover sites, and shown high fidelity to her breeding site, her wintering site, and several staging areas.  She has encountered a great deal living a life on the edge but continues to be a survivor.


Learn more about Hope the whimbrel:

Sharing the story of Hope

Whimbrel tracked into tropical storm Erika

Tracking a shorebird to the ends of the earth


The leaving ecology of whimbrel

September 13, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

We have spent years standing on Box Tree Dock listening for their rallying calls through the chorus of laughing gulls and clapper rails and looking south for them to rise over the horizon of marsh.  For many whimbrels, this is the last time they will touch the ground until they land on their Arctic breeding territories.  As flock after flock have passed overhead, we have logged their numbers in the hope of better understanding their “ecology of leaving” and how this event figures into their annual cycle.  The Delmarva Peninsula in Virginia represents a refueling site for whimbrels moving from winter areas in Brazil to Arctic breeding grounds.  What time of the day do most of the birds form up flocks and take off?  What is the distribution of flock sizes that leave?  What is the spring departure schedule?  These questions provide a glimpse into the many factors that have shaped their migration.  Like all ecological projects, it has been a journey of discovery.  At the close of each day we have hung onto each bit of information trying to make out the grander view.

Recently, we have compiled WhimbrelWatch data collected between 2009 and 2014 and published a paper entitled Departure patterns of Whimbrels using a terminal spring staging area in the journal Wader Study.  During the six-year period, we recorded 727 whimbrel flocks leaving the lower Delmarva that contained 39,720 birds.  Amazingly, the peak leaving date varied only three days (23 to 25 May) across six years.  During these peak leaving times, flocks were recorded every six minutes on average and the leaving rate exceeded 600 birds per hour.  Departures peaked approximately 2.5 hours before civil twilight with 82% of individuals leaving within the two-hour period between 1.5 and 3.5 hours before twilight.  Flock size ranged as high as 270 individuals and average flock size varied throughout the afternoon, with the largest flocks leaving during the onset of exodus.  The distribution of departing flock sizes approximated a negative exponential as smaller flocks were more common.  The result of this pattern is that although 50% of all flocks recorded contained less than 35 individuals, 50% of all individuals occurred in flocks that contained 80 individuals or more. 

Group travel in shorebirds is believed to provide benefits to flock members such as collective navigation and energetic savings related to flock aerodynamics.  These possible benefits for flocking have not been tested in whimbrel.  The highly synchronous and consistent departure pattern may help to facilitate synchronous arrival on the breeding grounds and reinforce mate fidelity.  Nesting season in the high Arctic is very short, placing a premium on preparations that allow birds to take advantage of breeding opportunities as they arise. 

Over the years, Box Tree Dock has become a window on whimbrel migration and a gathering place for many offering educational opportunities for school groups and a venue for birding groups and individuals.  We thank all of those observers who have contributed to the success of WhimbrelWatch.



Regina Jefferson retires from VCU

September 6, 2017

There aren’t too many people who can say they spent their entire career with one organization, but 42 years and eight months later, Regina Jefferson can make that claim.

On Thursday, August 31, Ms. Jefferson’s long tenure at VCU was celebrated as friends from all over the university and family gathered in one of the salon rooms at the University Student Commons.

Ms. Jefferson started her employment with VCU in 1974 as a clerk typist in the School of Dentistry’s Faculty Practice. After almost two years, she moved to the School of Nursing and became one of the first employees in the newly-established pediatric nurse practitioner program. Ms. Jefferson completed seven years of service in that growing unit, but decided to return to the School of Dentistry when an administrative position became available.  For 21 years, she was a familiar face to students and faculty while working with Dr. Marshall P. Brownstein, assistant dean of admissions and student affairs.

Upon Dr. Brownstein’s retirement, Ms. Jefferson moved to Life Sciences, where she has held the position of executive assistant to the vice provost since 2003. She has provided invaluable support to Dr. Thomas F. Huff, Dr. Leonard A. Smock, and Life Sciences’ current vice provost, Dr. Robert. M. Tombes.

“I am happy that I was able to be there on her day of celebration and honor her contributions to VCU and Life Sciences,” said Dr. Tombes. “She not only anchored many of our schedules and events, but her wisdom and experience served as a steady influence on all of our operations. I will miss her, but fortunately, her kids and grandkids will get more time to enjoy her infectious laugh and smile.”

Ms. Jefferson is already making plans on how to spend her well-deserved retirement, with a lot of traveling, relaxing, spending time with her grandchildren, and not setting her alarm to wake up.  


August 29, 2017

When Heather Spencer Lansdell began her externship at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences in the Office of Data Science, she didn’t realize the enormity of the project she was about to undertake. Over three months, her charge was to wrangle and manage data to support a greater project, the upcoming NIEHS Data Commons initiative. The results of her findings were shared in her final presentation to complete her Master of Science in Bioinformatics, "NIEHS Metadata Catalog: Developing a foundation for bioinformatic analysis and data management."

Lansdell’s journey into the world of scientific metadata didn’t begin with a background in science – she holds a BA degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from William & Mary with a focus on Literary and Cultural Theory.  It was while she was working at the Ellen Shaw de Paredes Institute for Women’s Imaging when a colleague noticed her analytical skills and penchant for working with data.  VCU’s bioinformatics program was discovered as a possible pathway to build on that ability, and after taking a few undergraduate prerequisite courses, Lansdell fully entered the Professional Science Master’s program in Bioinfomatics in spring 2015. This degree program features an externship at an industry or government lab, which Lansdell completed this summer.

Once she started to immerse herself in the project, Lansdell quickly found there were some common denominators as to why it can be so difficult to grapple large amounts of data. One of the biggest obstacles continues to be the lack of a common language used for storing data. Metadata is input by individuals and categorized by words, but if there isn’t a universal protocol on how to best use the words for tracking and storing, searching for data can become laborious. This project will allow many different types data, including legacy data, to be easily discoverable through the use of metadata tagging of datasets.

Another challenge is making the data available to all.  Presently, Lansdell’s work is a pilot program internal to NIEHS.  Lansdell is an advocate for sharing data, and the goal is to make it open source. “The goal is that data ownership remains with researchers and labs, but they participate in collaboration with others,” she said. “We hope to be a resource for the entire environmental health services industry.”

Lansdell’s externship required her to evaluate new technologies for managing metadata, create a prototype tool for implementing the optimal features, and extract and store data from a variety of sources.  While these skills aren’t specifically taught in courses, Lansdell’s ability to quickly learn new technologies and approaches and to effectively solve problems led to her success on the project.  Lansdell is just one of VCU’s Professional Sciences Master’s candidates that have benefitted from the program’s flexible curriculum that can be customized towards the student’s abilities and interests.  Students are closely advised to help chart their educational course, and are asked to complete “bridge courses” to fill in any areas of weakness.  Faculty from the program work with students from a variety of STEM backgrounds, as well as other students who might not have the core requirements for immediate entry into the program, but are highly motivated to begin their career in this rapidly growing field.  

Learn more about VCU’s undergraduate and graduate bioinformatics program.

Wandering Warblers

August 24, 2017

Our own Dr. Catherine Viverette explains about the prothonotary warbler to the readers of Virginia Living.

Read the story here

Garden Grove Brewing Company to host sustainable and invasive species dinner benefit for Rice Rivers

August 23, 2017

By Leah Small, University Relations

Most local diners haven’t feasted on fried snakehead fish or drank beer infused with spice bush leaves that have a summery, citrus taste. Food and beer aficionados will be introduced to these and other adventurous offerings during a Rice Rivers Center benefit, part of the Garden Grove Brewing Company’s monthly Taproom Dinner Series.

The event will be held Monday, Aug. 28, at the Garden Grove Brewing Company. Tickets can be purchased on Garden Grove’s website.

Garden Grove head brewer Michael Brandt and Southbound restaurant chef Craig Perkinson will offer beer, wine and food selections paired or created to capture the Rice Rivers Center’s mission to conserve and study Virginia waterways. Each offering will consist of either a native or invasive plant or animal species found in Virginia.

Read the full article here.

Rice Rivers Center recipient of first Garden Grove benefit dinner

August 21, 2017

On August 28, Garden Grove Brewing and Urban Winery will be hosting a unique dinner menu where guests will be able to dine on selections made with Virginia invasive and sustainable ingredients. Chef Craig Perkinson of Southbound will be preparing the delicacies for the multi-course meal. 

Guests will also have an opportunity to meet and enjoy a presentation from VCU Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman.  Dr. Garman will discuss the Rice River Center’s work restoring Virginia sturgeon populations, wetlands, Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program, and improving water quality. Deputy Director Dr. Ed Crawford and Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program Director Todd Janeski will also talk about their work at the center.

Each course will be paired with one of Garden Grove’s beers or wine.  Some of the selections from the five course dinner include:

  • Autumn Olive Saison (made with berries from the invasive Autumn Olive shrub/tree) with a whole hog dish utilizing Autumn Olive Farms Pork
  • Garden Grove’s award winning Belgian Dubbel, Minor Threat and the Funkadelic 4, with the invasive fish species Blue Catfish
  • Spice Bush Belgian Gold, paired with J.C. Walker Virginia Clams and the invasive fish species, Lionfish.  The spice bush leaves used to make the Belgian Gold were collected locally by VCU Rice Rivers Center Deputy Director Dr. Edward Crawford.

Unlike previous meals in the Taproom Dinner Series, a sixth course will be served as a thank you to those supporting the VCU Rice River Center and Garden Grove’s first Charity Dinner. That course will feature a surprise dessert paired with Garden Grove’s house made Thai inspired lemongrass ginger ale.

Reservations are required and tickets are limited, with only a few remaining. Learn more and register here.

VCU has a river campus? 10 things to know about the Rice Rivers Center

August 14, 2017

The Richmond Times-Dispatch's Rex Springston highlights 10 things about VCU Rice Rivers Center. How many of them do you know? 

Read the story here, or find it in the August edition of Discover Richmond. 

Lemaire's 'Monday Night Out for Charity' supports VOSRP

August 11, 2017

When you dine at Lemaire Restaurant Monday evenings through the month of August, you will also be supporting VCU Rice Rivers Center's Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VORSP).  

The VOSRP is this month's beneficiary of Lemaire's 'Monday Night Out for Charity,' where 5% of all food purchased that evening from their dinner, bar or dessert menu will be donated to the program. 

Learn more about the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program here.



VCU alumni recognized for outstanding presentation

July 28, 2017

Earlier this year, Spencer Tassone, a 2017 master’s graduate in Biology, gave an oral presentation at the spring 2017 Atlantic Estuarine Research Society (AERS) meeting at St. Mary's College in Maryland.  Part of Tassone’s Master’s work and research that appeared in the presentation was conducted at VCU Rice Rivers Center. 

Titled "Seasonal and Interannual Variation in Metabolism of the Tidal Freshwater James River", it was awarded “Outstanding Graduate Student Presentation” of the conference.  Tassone told how he examined the total amount of gross primary production (photosynthesis) and ecosystem respiration (decomposition) every 15 minutes across an eight-year span using data collected off of the Rice Rivers Center pier, resulting in a staggering 280,000 data points.  

This wasn’t the only achievement Tassone received this year. He was recently named “Outstanding Biology Masters Student in Ecology” by Montserrat Fuentes, Ph.D., Dean of VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. Nominees for this award are evaluated based on their GPA, courses taken, research experience, professional preparation, publications, presentations at meetings and service to VCU. 

Tassone now brings his talents to VCU as a new staff member in the Department of Biology working under Paul Bukaveckas, Ph.D. on river and estuarine ecology in the York, Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers, which will complement ongoing work in the James River Estuary.

View Tassone’s AERS presentation "Seasonal and Interannual Variation in Metabolism of the Tidal Freshwater James River” below.


Science Matters spotlights the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program

July 24, 2017

Science Matters, a multi-media educational initiative of the Community Idea Stations, turned the spotlight on our Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP).  The Community Idea Stations include Richmond's PBS and NPR affiliate stations.  

Ron Lopez, a 2017 master's graduate of VCU's Center for Environmental Studies, created a three-minute film explaining the journey of an oyster shell through the view of the shell. The film also explains how the VOSRP works, from the time the oysters are harvested to when the shells are returned to the Bay.  The three-minute version is highlighted on the Community Idea Stations' website, with additional information available about the VOSRP. A shorter, one-minute version of the film was accepted to air between programs on WCVE and WHTJ television.  

Read the story and watch the film on the Community Idea Stations page here

You can also watch the video below.  


National Park Service and CCB continue to assess exposure of eagle nestlings to contaminants

July 14, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The National Park Service (NPS) is the keeper of our most precious crowned jewels.  It manages the places that hold the essence of our history, culture, and natural wonders, the spectacles that we describe with pride to visitors that travel from other nations, and the inspirational vistas that we all run to for solitude and contemplation.  In addition to their cultural importance, this portfolio of lands is also the infrastructure that supports our most imperiled wildlife. We, as a people, entrust all of these most valuable possessions to the staff of the National Park Service - a charge that they accept with pride and commitment.

National parks have been instrumental in the recovery and maintenance of many threatened species and often support the best remaining examples of intact ecosystems.  They have played a critical role in the recovery of bald eagles.  Within the Chesapeake Bay, colonization rates and subsequent breeding densities of eagles on park lands have far outpaced those on private lands.  Parks now support a significant number of breeding pairs.  Although these parks are managed with a mandate to provide habitat for existing territories, breeding pairs should not be considered secure due to the continuing risk of exposure to environmental contaminants emanating from external sources. Park Service biologists understand that managing wildlife populations often requires mitigating risks coming from outside park boundaries, and that park properties often represent some of the best opportunities to monitor the health of larger systems that contain them.

For a second breeding season, CCB and NPS biologists collected blood samples from nestling bald eagles from park lands within the Chesapeake Bay to monitor for contaminant exposure.  The 2017 effort focused on park lands along the Potomac River, including The National Capital Region.  Blood and other tissues were collected from 11 eagle broods.  The ongoing study is a collaborative effort with eagle biologists from the Great Lakes and will compare contaminant exposure experienced by eagle broods in the Chesapeake Bay to those reared on NPS lands within the Great Lakes Region.

James River eagle recovery enters final chapter

July 12, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

One of the enduring questions in population ecology is: what determines the size of a population?  Stated another way:  what are the factors that regulate population size?  One of the classic approaches of investigating regulatory mechanisms is to study a population over time that has either recently colonized a new habitat or is rebounding from a catastrophic event.  Investigating a population that is growing within an effective “vacuum” allows us to observe its behavior as it increases and approaches capacity. 

During the height of the DDT crisis, the James River supported no breeding bald eagles for a period of five years during the 1970s.  The once-thriving population was diminished as productivity sank to levels below that needed to offset adult mortality.  Over an 11-year period during the 1960s and early 1970s, eagles on the river produced only three young.  After DDT was outlawed in the United States, the James River was recolonized by breeding eagles and productivity rose through the 1980s, leading to dramatic population growth.  Annual surveys have documented the phenomenal recovery that continues through the 2017 breeding season.  The breeding population has experienced tremendous momentum over recent decades, increasing from 18 pairs in 1990 to 57 pairs in 2000 to 272 pairs in 2017. 

As we have witnessed the population advance every year since the late 1970s, the central questions remain:  How high will the population rise and what are the underlying regulatory mechanisms that will constrain it?  Although the population continues to increase, the long-term trend in productivity gives the first real signal that we have entered the last chapter of the recovery.  The average number of young produced per breeding pair reached a peak during the late 1990s and has shown a gradual decline since this time.  The rate has now contracted back to levels not seen since the 1980s.  The continued decline of productivity back down to or near maintenance levels is the demographic response that will ultimately constrain the population and bring it to some form of equilibrium.

Why is productivity declining?  The recovery in productivity throughout the 1980s and 1990s drove exponential growth in the breeding population.  Beginning in the late 1990s, actual growth of the population began to diverge from that expected based on the number of young produced.  This divergence created an increasingly large population of floaters (breeding-age birds that do not hold territories) setting up a class war between the haves and the have-nots.  We believe that the disruption of breeders by floaters represents the negative behavioral feedback that is pulling down productivity and will ultimately bring the population into equilibrium with available breeding space.

Late arrival and breeding in juvenile-plumaged night herons

July 11, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Age to first breeding is a relatively consistent trait across heron species and typically coincides with the attainment of adult plumage.  For most migratory herons, juvenile-plumaged birds oversummer on the winter grounds and are infrequently observed around breeding colonies.  Yellow-crowned night herons transition into adult plumage in the summer of their third year (fourth calendar year) and presumably migrate to breeding grounds the following spring to breed for the first time.  Past surveys of yellow-crown colonies have documented that juvenile-plumaged birds account for less than 3% of breeding individuals.  However, very little is known about the circumstances of breeding in younger age classes.  As part of the ongoing investigation of yellow-crown breeding phenology, particular attention has been given to birds in juvenile plumage, their arrival times, and gender, in order to increase what we know about the rare young birds that breed.

Young night herons arrive late, lay eggs late, and are predominantly females.  In recent years, weekly monitoring of yellow-crowned night herons has focused on 10 colonies supporting 95 pairs.  During the 2017 breeding season, seven pairs contained juvenile-plumaged birds and all juveniles were mated with adult-plumaged individuals (<5% of breeders were juveniles).  Two individuals (both females) were in first-year plumage and the remaining birds were in second-year plumage.  Pairs containing young individuals were the last to arrive and the last to complete clutches.  Seven of the nine juveniles observed to breed were females, based on behavior. 

Little is known about the ecology and distribution of juvenile yellow-crowned night herons between the time of independence and the time they return to the breeding grounds in adult plumage.  Unlike many species where early breeding has been reported, juvenile yellow-crowns are not associated with breeding areas as nonbreeders.  Because of this, it seems unlikely that conditions on the breeding grounds would trigger the migration and breeding of young birds.  No definitive information is available on the formation and maintenance of pair bonds.  The arrival of paired juvenile and adult birds on the breeding grounds suggest that pair bonds likely form on the winter grounds and that demographic conditions during winter may induce juvenile migration and breeding.

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program featured on Virginia's River Realm

July 10, 2017

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program is featured on the Virginia's River Realm website blog.

Read more about this program

Cliff swallow population explosion continues in coastal Virginia

July 6, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

Cliff swallows are a wonder to see up close.  Adults are richly colored in a combination of deep chestnut, cream, blue, and salmon that is reminiscent of the earthy colors of their winter grounds in the lowlands of Argentina, Paraguay, and southern Brazil.  Following spring arrival on the breeding grounds, pairs gather mud by the mouthfuls and craft unmistakable gourd-like nest structures.  Historically, these structures were built on exposed cliff faces under overhangs.  With the expansion of artificial structures throughout the continent the swallows rapidly adapted, attaching their nests to barns, dams, culverts and bridges, and expanding their range beyond the western mountains.  Over the past 150 years cliff swallows have marched across the continent, disappeared from some regions, and more recently mounted a selected resurgence.

The Coastal Plain of southeastern North America is experiencing a swallow boom.  The most recent colonization of this physiographic region began 50 years ago when birds moved across the Piedmont and began to establish footholds on bridges of the inner Coastal Plain.  In Virginia, Fred Scott of Richmond recorded the first breeding record within the Coastal Plain in 1979, when he documented 12 nests on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge along the James River near Hopewell.  In 1995, The Center for Conservation Biology conducted a systematic survey of breeding areas throughout the Coastal Plain of Virginia to establish a population benchmark and to document geographic expansion.  During the breeding seasons of 2016 and 2017, this effort was repeated in order to establish a second benchmark.

Since 1995, the cliff swallow population has increased nearly seven-fold in coastal Virginia from 454 to 3,052 pairs within 11 colony sites.  The largest colony site, supporting more than 1,000 pairs, continues to be on the Benjamin Harrison Bridge.  Since their discovery in 1979, the population has grown exponentially with an average doubling time of just 4.8 years and has continued to expand geographically. 

Breeding cliff swallows require surfaces protected from the weather and predators, a source of mud to construct their nests, and swarms of flying insects to raise broods.  Bridges are ideal places for nesting because they provide both protected surfaces and access to mud along their banks.  However, only 10% of the bridges surveyed currently support swallow colonies.  One of the most interesting aspects of the current breeding distribution is that all occupied bridges occur within tidal-fresh reaches of rivers where salinity is low, presumably facilitating high insect production.  Work is needed to clarify the link between salinity and insect production that may help to clarify constraints on distribution as the ongoing colonization plays out.

Rice Rivers Center part of Ellwood Thompson's Wooden Nickel Program

June 30, 2017

VCU Rice Rivers Center is excited to be one of two nonprofits to benefit from Ellwood Thompson's Wooden Nickel Program during the months of July, August and September. 

When you shop at Ellwood's and use resuable shopping bags, you will be offered ten cents for every bag or two wooden nickels. The wooden nickels can be deposited in a glass jar designated for Rice Rivers Center.  At then end of the quarter, the wooden nickels donated will represent real nickels for Rice Rivers Center.   

Ellwood Thompson's is a local market with strong roots in the Richmond community. Learn more about the Wooden Nickel Program.  

Rice Rivers Center overnight lodge helps scientists devote more time to research

June 29, 2017

The undergraduate and graduate students are led by Cathy Viverette, Ph.D., assistant professor in VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, and Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D., assistant professor in ENVS and the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. They are collecting data to inform conservation efforts on the warbler, which is of conservation concern.

Read more about the overnight lodge

The resurgence of ospreys along the Lynnhaven River

June 26, 2017

The Associated Press recently published a story about the abudance of new osprey nests along the Lynnhaven River in Virginia Beach. Bryan Watts, director for the Center for Conservation Biology, is featured.

Read more about the ospreys 

Woodpecker partnership records first success within the Great Dismal Swamp

June 26, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology  

Conservation partners are celebrating the first successful breeding of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker within the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.  Two young woodpeckers were banded on the 20th of May and flew from the nest cavity during the second week of June.  This event represents a milestone in an ongoing effort to establish a breeding population within the refuge.  A total of 18 woodpeckers were moved into the site during the falls of 2015 and 2016 by a broad coalition including several units of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, The Center for Conservation Biology, The Nature Conservancy, and many volunteers. 

Similar in appearance to downy and hairy woodpeckers that are widely recognized and common “backyard” birds, the red-cockaded woodpecker has a much more specialized ecology.  Red-cockadeds require old-growth pines and are primarily associated with fire-maintained pine savannahs of the Deep South.  The shift to shorter rotation forest management and fire suppression virtually eliminated their historic habitat and ultimately led to their federal listing as endangered in 1970.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers in southeastern Virginia currently represent the northernmost population known.  Throughout the latter half of the twentieth century this population experienced a catastrophic decline, reaching a low of only two breeding pairs by 2002 (read more about their population decline in Virginia, Watts and Bradshaw 2005).  Heroic efforts to save the species on the only remaining site (the Piney Grove Preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy) have stabilized and increased the population to 14 breeding groups.  However, there has been ongoing concern from the conservation community about the risks of relying on a single site that could be destroyed by a hurricane or other natural disaster.  Establishing a second breeding population within the state has been a stated priority for more than a decade (read more about Virginia recovery objectives, Watts and Harding 2007).

Early in the year the likelihood of breeding within the swamp seemed like a long shot for 2017.  During the run up to the breeding season only five of the eighteen birds that had been moved from other populations remained within the refuge, including two males and three females.  All of these birds were isolated from each other in scattered sites.  By early May birds had formed two breeding pairs and soon each had laid three-egg clutches.  All three of the eggs from the first clutch hatched on 13 May, but only two of these young survived to be banded on 20 May.  One of the two birds was grossly underweight, weighing just over half as much as the other bird.  A check on these birds when they were 20 days old revealed that they were both doing fine and both were females.  The young birds were observed with the adult pair flying tree to tree foraging when they were approximately ten days out of the cavity.  The three-egg clutch laid by the second pair disappeared just before hatching (likely taken by a predator).    

Successful breeding of red-cockaded woodpeckers within the Great Dismal Swamp during the 2017 season represents a small but significant step in the long recovery of the species along the northern fringe of its breeding range.  Having the two locally-produced females making their way in the habitat of the swamp increases the population and is a real win for the conservation partnership dedicated to recovering this unique species.  

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program wins grant

June 23, 2017

Keep Virginia Beautiful has awarded our Virginia Oyster Shell Reycycling Program a $2,000 30 in Thirty grant.  We are honored by their continued support of our mission.

Learn more about the award and Keep Virginia Beautiful  

Rappahannock Record covers Ellery Kellum Rock dedication

June 22, 2017

The VCU Rice Rivers Center Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program's partnership with W.E. Kellum Seafood and Friends of the Rappahannock to restore the Ellery Kellum Rock made the front page of the Rappahannock Record.  

Read more about the dedication

WTVR CBS6 shows why the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program is powering Virginia

June 20, 2017

WTVR CBS6's Jessica Noll interviewed Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program founder Todd Janeski on the June 2017 episode of "Powering Virginia."

The segment followed Janeski as he and volunteers planted more than 300 bushels of spat-seeded shells on the Piankatank River. The shells were collected from area restaurants and businesses, and aged for nearly a year at VCU Rice Rivers Center.

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program and VCU Rice Rivers Center can be seen at 10:33 into the program.  


VCU Rice Rivers Center and partners to dedicate a Virginia Treasures oyster reef

June 14, 2017


By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

State officials have added Ellery Kellum Rock, an oyster reef in Irvington, Virginia, to the Virginia Treasures list, thanks to a partnership between the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program of the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center, the Friends of the Rappahannock and W.E. Kellum Seafood. Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation leads the Virginia Treasures initiation to preserve, protect and highlight Virginia’s most important ecological, cultural, scenic and recreational assets.

Read more about the oyster reef

A place to learn for generations to come

June 13, 2017

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., on the opening of the Inger Rice Lodge at VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Read President's Posts here.

Style Weekly highlights 'Animal Land'

June 13, 2017

Style Weekly's Karen Newton makes a visit to Candela Books + Gallery to view 'Animal Land,' an photography exhibit by VCU Rice Rivers Center artist in residence, Alyssa Salomon.

The show will run through June 24.

Read the article here

A new breed of falcons soars back from brink of extinction in Virginia

June 1, 2017

(Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)


Bryan Watts, director of the Center for Conservation Biology, is the focus of a recent Washington Post story, "A new breed of falcons soars back from brink of extinction in Virginia."

Read the entire article here

Celebrating 10 years of Black Lights and Owls at VCU Rice Rivers Center

June 1, 2017

Hurricane-like rain and a fierce electrical storm didn't keep many away from the VCU Rice Rivers Center on the evening of May 27.  Beginning at 7 p.m. Saturday through 9 a.m. Sunday,  Rice Rivers Center hosted Black Light and Owls, also known BLO.  Entomologist Dr. Art Evans and VCU Life Science Outreach Director Anne Wright led the tenth annual all-night celebration documenting the noctural riches of Charles City County, Virginia.  

When the skies cleared, the group was able to move outside to view the insects that were attracted to ultraviolet and mecury vapor traps, and walk the grounds in search of owls. A side-visit to the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery featured a thunderous and mighty frog chorus.

The participants that chose to stay the night enjoyed a pot luck dinner and a chance to camp out on the bluff overlooking the James River, or inside the VCU Rice Rivers Center Education Building, Virginia's first LEED Platinum building.  


VCU Rice Rivers Center ninth annual Research Symposium

May 26, 2017

On Friday, May 12, 2017, VCU Rice Rivers Center hosted our ninth annual Research Symposium.  After opening remarks by VCU Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman, student presentations followed. 


What's the solution? Reconsidering assays of extracellular enzyme activity to better represent in situ condition.  Joseph Morina, VCU-ILS

The effect of chronic nutrient addition for wastewater on forest ecosystems at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Michael A. Beck, VCU-CES

Seasonal and interannual variation in metabolism of the tidal freshwater James River. Spencer J. Tassone, VCU-BIO (pictured)

Surface layer climatological analysis of meterological data at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. Joseph C. Robinson, VCU-BIO and VCU-CES

Evidence of diffuse migratory connectivity for prothonotary warblers from geolocator and isotope data.  Jessie Reese, VCU-BIO

Wanted dead or alive: the importance of oaks in winter roost site selection by red-headed woodpeckers in a fire-affected forest stand.  Ben Nickley, VCU-BIO

Assessing fish assemblages on and off restored oyster reefs.  Danielle N. McCulloch, VCU-CES

Behavioral responses of sub-adult Atlantic Sturgeon to electomagnetic and magnetic fields under laboratory conditions. Andrew McIntyre, VCU-CES

Achieving environmental equity: environmental and socioeconomic analysis of urban heat island effect in Richmond, Virginia.  Kaitlin Savage, VCU-CES and VCU-URSP

"An oyster's-eye view of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program." A short film.  Ron Lopez, VCU-CES

"VCU - Panama - 2017." A short film. Brendan Wang, VCU-BIO

VCU Life Sciences spring commencement

May 22, 2017

On Saturday, May 13, 2017, 84 degree candidates became VCU Life Sciences' newest alumni.  

The Commencement Ceremony began at 1:30 p.m. at VCU's Academic Learning Commons to a standing-room only crowd of family and friends.  The graduates enjoyed a post-commencement reception.

Please visit our Facebook page for additional pictures of the day.


Fulbright scholar Ellen Korcovelos uses computer science and speech analysis to combat dementia

May 18, 2017

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

When recent VCU graduate Ellen Korcovelos emailed her idol, a researcher who is one of the best and brightest in his field, she didn’t imagine he would fulfill her request to meet him, let alone invite her to travel to Toronto to conduct research in his lab.

Korcovelos, who earned an undergraduate degree in bioinformatics from the School of Life Sciences’ Center for Biological Complexity and a minor in computer science in the School of Engineering, couldn’t believe she had the opportunity to learn from Graeme Hirst, Ph.D., a leading researcher in the field of computational linguistics in the University of Toronto’s computer science department. Computational linguistics involves the use of computer algorithms to analyze aspects of speech such as sentence structure, parsing and word frequency, with the knowledge that speech is an indicator of cognitive health.


Read the entire story here.

May is American Wetlands Month

May 1, 2017

May is American Wetlands Month.  VCU Rice Rivers Center Deputy Director Dr. Ed Crawford is leading a major wetland and stream restoration effort at the Center.

Learn more about the work being done at Kimages Creek here

Team Warbler awarded grant from Dominion Foundation

April 25, 2017

VCU’s Team Warbler, led by Dr. Catherine Viverette, Center for Environmental Studies (CES), Dr. Lesley Bulluck, CES and Department of Biology, and Dr. Ed Crawford, CES and the VCU Rice Rivers Center, is one of the recipients of this year’s Dominion Foundation environmental stewardship grant.  More than 100 organizations share $1.2 million in funding, with Team Warbler receiving $40,000 towards building a SMARTBirdHouse.

Prothonotary Warblers (PROW) are a migratory bird that has experienced population declines due to habitat loss.  SMARTBirdHouses have the potential to provide ecological and environmental data to track timing or events such as nest initiation, which can be a particularly sensitive indicator of climate change.

In addition, Team Warbler will work with Wyatt Carpenter (M.S. ENVS, 2017) in VCU’s Office of Sustainability to investigate the feasibility of adopting a forest carbon offset program in the Richmond region. Increasing tree canopy can improve local air and water quality while also restoring habitat for migratory birds. 

During the academic year, VCU Engineering students will design and test SMARTBirdHouses using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology which has the potential to track individual birds, record environmental data, capture sounds and images, and transmit data remotely using cell technology. In summer 2017, VCU Environmental Studies and Biology students will deploy RFID tags on PROW at Deep Bottom Park in Henrico County and in 2018 deploy and test SMARTBirdHouse prototypes.

In fall 2017 students in a new Urban Ecosystems course will develop spatial data layers, reports, and assessment tools to model future carbon sequestration through investment in planting trees. In spring 2018 students in Panama Avian Ecology will use the assessment tools to estimate Team Warbler’s carbon footprint, develop a strategic plan to mitigate carbon emissions, and participate in tree planting programs with community partners in Richmond and Panama.

Final products (spatial data layers, reports, assessment tools, DIY instructions for building SMARTBirdHouses) will be made available through a variety of social media platforms.


To learn more about Prothonotary Warbers, visit here.

To view the Dominion Foundation release, visit here

Black and gold (and green)

April 24, 2017

Brantley Tyndall, B.S. Environmental Studies and Community Outreach Manager for Bike Walk RVA, is one of VCU's greenest alumni.


By Patrick Kane, University Public Affairs

Whether working to protect the James River, documenting wildlife and wild places around the world or transforming Richmond into a safer place for cyclists, Virginia Commonwealth University alumni are making Earth Day every day. 

To read full article, click here.

Real Research: Daniel Mohammadi works with zebrafish to unlock clues to fighting cancer

April 18, 2017

Mohammadi is currently assisting Rothschild in a study that uses zebrafish as a model organism to investigate the development of leukemia in humans. The project, on which Rothschild serves as co-investigator with Seth Corey, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Hematology and Oncology in the VCU School of Medicine, and Robert Tombes, Ph.D., vice provost for VCU Life Sciences, was funded by a $50,000 Massey Cancer Center Pilot Project grant.

Read more about this study

A lot is being done to protect freshwater marshes in Virginia

April 17, 2017

Tee Clarkson, special correspondent for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, atttended VCU Rice River Center's Wetlands and Waterfowl Symposium last month. 

Read his story here. 

How rubber ducks, songbirds help scientists study Louisiana wetlands loss

April 11, 2017

A recent story about prothonotary warblers in Louisiana's The Advocate highlights how VCU collaborates with other researchers to track this migratory songbird.

Read the full article here

Assisting with conservation of the Steppe Whimbrel

April 7, 2017

By Fletcher Smith, Center for Conservation Biology  

The Steppe Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris) is one of the least studied forms of migratory shorebirds on earth. The form was first described in 1921, and was thought extinct by the mid-1990s. A first “rediscovery” of Steppe Whimbrel was made in 1996 and 1997 on their breeding grounds near the Ural Mountain steppe habitats. No accepted sightings of the form were made on the wintering grounds until the 1950s. If ever a bird population was flying “under the radar,” this was it.  

The recent rediscovery of Steppe Whimbrel made by Gary Allport of BirdLife International was of huge interest to the shorebird conservation community. Finding new species of birds, or rediscovering birds presumed extinct, quite frankly does not happen very often. Gary found a likely candidate for the form within a flock of nominate race Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus phaeopus), and examination of photographs taken of the bird showed clear indications that one whimbrel in the flock was of the Steppe form. A subsequent second Steppe Whimbrel was found nearby on the same stretch of beach, and both records were well documented.  

You simply cannot help but wonder about the status of this whimbrel. So few records exist of the Steppe form that it is safe to say the population must be low, but what that means exactly is unknown. The population was likely always low compared to the nominate race (N. p. phaeopus) that breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Europe and Russia, and there is evidence for a range contraction and population reduction of the Steppe form. One can only hope that through dedicated conservation and protection that this form will persist and the population will rise, rather than going the way of other Numenius species that winked out and are presumed extinct at this point.

A next step in conservation of the Steppe Whimbrel is to find out where they breed and where they stop in migration. Conservationists also need to know about the breeding population and the breeding range, and the only way to answer large scale questions is through satellite tracking. In February 2017 CCB attempted to capture and deploy a satellite tag on one of the Steppe Whimbrel in Mozambique. We were unsuccessful in tracking the bird, and though the primary goals were not met during the expedition, we are fully committed to assisting in tagging and tracking a Steppe Whimbrel from wintering grounds to breeding grounds next winter. Reports have been trickling in to Gary from other sites in East Africa, and there is reason to believe that more than just a few exist.  

Gary Allport and family were excellent hosts during the expedition, Phil Atkinson of the British Trust for Ornithology helped with all aspects leading up to the capture attempt, and the African Bird Club assisted with logistical support.

Another raptor kill in Argentina

April 6, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology  

José Sarasola has reported another large raptor kill in the La Pampa Province of Argentina.  José is the director of El Centro para el Estudio y Conservacion de las Aves Rapaces en Argentina (CECARA), the primary raptor research and conservation group in Argentina.  CECARA has been monitoring raptor electrocutions in the region for several years.

In July, CECARA found 96 raptors killed along 40 kilometers of electric lines between Chacharramendi and La Reforma.  Surprisingly, the electrocuted birds included 85 black-chested buzzard-eagles.  Their surveys over the next month located an additional 70 electrocuted raptors.  Nearly 95% of the eagles found dead and observed live were juveniles.  Birds appear to have converged on the location from a much larger region and were drawn there by a massive rodent outbreak.      

Black-chested buzzard-eagles are not common breeders in La Pampa but typically nest in the foot hills and mountains.   José believes that the young birds may have dispersed from northern Patagonia or the hills of Córdoba province.  Documentation of this event highlights important conservation concerns.  Hazards such as unprotected electrical lines may cause significant demographic impacts to wildlife.  These hazards may sit idle causing relatively little impact until some trigger such as a rodent outbreak brings a population into contact with them.  Finally, the impact itself may not be local but may be focused on distant populations as is the case here.

Overhead electric lines are a global conservation challenge.  Since the 1970s an international consortium of agencies, corporations, and NGOs has developed simple raptor-safe standards for power lines.  These standards should be used worldwide to reduce avian mortalities.  CECARA continues to investigate the population-level impacts of electric lines on raptor populations in Argentina including the endangered crowned solitary eagle.  

Big Mud

April 6, 2017

Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology  

One day after our arrival in Panama City, we stood on the shoreline looking in awe over the mudflats that stretch out into the blue haze of the Pacific.  As the tide reached its low, the flats extended more than a mile out to the horizon and more than thirty miles down the coast toward Columbia.  We had all worked birds on mudflats.  It was not just the scale of the flats here that was so imposing but the fact that if you stepped off the hard shoreline you could immediately be up to your waist in mud that had the consistently of chocolate pudding.  Standing on the edge conjured up childhood images of the Le Brea Tar Pits trapping saber-toothed cats and short-faced bears to their deaths.  But even on that first day we knew that we would have to venture out onto those flats.

The mudflats here are enriched by both sea and land.  They are bounded on the ocean side by the edge of the shelf that drops off quickly into the deep.  Onshore winds during the winter months create upwellings that bring nutrients from the ocean depth up to the flats.  Rains and tides wash nutrients from the land onto the flats.  Twice a day the tides reach back to the shanties and pull out the leavings of the city.  The debris flows out in a plume that is pushed toward land by the wind and long-shore current, ultimately piling high along the shoreline.  The great garbage dune is a mirror of life in the city.  Anything that floats ends life here unless given a reprieve by shoreline pickers; thousands of dolls lost by school girls, old knick-knacks and discarded figurines, car parts and valuable wood, but mostly plastic drinking bottles.  With the debris is the raw sewage from one million people that flows out into the Bay and mixes with the mud.  There are also tons of leaves from the fringing mangroves that are washed by the tides out onto the flats.  All of these inputs are part of a complex food web that supports the birds that congregate here.

Over the next three months we worked throughout the upper Bay with scores of waterbird species.  We conducted weekly aerial surveys, surveyed miles of transects through non-tidal habitats, and captured, measured, and marked more than 1,000 shorebirds.  We sat along the shoreline and observed how birds used the mudflats.  We recorded the time it took for birds to move out over the flats on a falling tide and how an incoming tide pushed and crowded birds together, causing species with different tactics to abandon foraging and go to roost at different times.  We quantified foraging and movement rates and categorized foraging modes.  We were collecting information that would be used by the United States Department of Defense and State Department to make recommendations to the Panamanian government about the significance of the Panama Canal and surrounding waterways to waterbirds.  The year was 1997 and recommendations were being prepared in advance of the historic transfer of the canal and surrounding lands from the U.S. to Panama.

After three months of working day and night, we had documented many important dimensions of the waterbird community and we had reinforced what we knew the first day.  The spectacle of waterbirds that congregate here all come to exploit an enormous concentration of energy. Here, the mudflats are the provider, the giver of life.  If you want to understand the waterbird community you must confront and address the mudflats directly.  What is hidden in the mud that is so valuable to birds?  Why are some species of shorebirds confined to the edge and never venture out onto the flats?  Why do the mudflat species not move out with the tide line as in most tidal systems?

In early November, we set the date for our mudflat adventure.  As the day approached we all went to the market on Avenida Central to buy high-topped tennis shoes in the hope that they would outlast the mud.  Our plan was to follow the tide out and collect sets of benthic cores every fifty meters out to three hundred meters.  We would place the samples in coded zip-lock bags and pull them in crates across the mud on flat boards like sleds.  We would move out with the tide because we knew that we had a limited window and did not want to be caught out in the mud as the eighteen-foot tide roared back in to shore.

We arrived before high tide in shorts and high tops and began to prepare the field gear.  Alberto Castillo, our local technician, emerged from his truck dressed in yellow rain pants duct tapped around the ankles.  After our visit to the shoe store he had returned to the market with a plan.  Alberto had been sheepish about venturing into the mud from the first time it was mentioned.  He had lived his entire life here along the Bay but had never been on the flats. He said that he did not want to get the mud on his skin.  As we prepared the gear he seemed thrilled with the improvised solution to his dilemma.

We stood ready along the shoreline in teams of two as the tide turned.  Its retreat is like a metronome, slow and steady.  We followed.  Alberto was with me and within thirty meters his well-crafted plan began to fall apart.  The intense suction of the mud shredded and stripped the rain pants leaving him to get the full experience of the mud in his undies for the next two hours.  There are few things that focus the mind and free the soul like being all in on a new adventure.  We collected the fifty-meter samples and when we reached the one hundred-meter sampling station we paused to let the tide move out ahead.

Over the next ten minutes, we would begin to understand some of the patterns we had observed sitting along the shoreline.  The mud surface around us was covered with a silky sheen.  We had observed the sheen for weeks and knew that the birds shunned it.  What we could not tell was that the silky texture was just the surface of a wet, soupy layer that was several inches thick.  Birds could not stand in this layer.  As the tide continued to recede, this layer would collapse down to the more firm surface of the mud and lose the silky sheen.  As this happened, shorebirds appeared in waves all around us.  They moved across the surface and foraged within feet of us as if we were lifeless dolls stranded in the mud.

Being embedded within the mud with shorebirds probing around our field gear was like being set down in a different world.  We were only meters from the shoreline where we had sat for weeks looking out but the experience was wholly different.  The odd contrast of the world class mudflats juxtaposed with the skyscrapers of Panama City was not just visual.  The bustling city with all of its traffic jams, shopping areas, restaurants, and nightlife was a world away.  We could just as easily have been standing in the middle of the Sahara.  Here, birds and people exist in different dimensions.  Standing out on the flats was like being given the opportunity to gaze through a window from the other side.  

We have returned to the Upper Bay of Panama several times over the years to study waterbirds and Panama Audubon now has a program focused on the conservation of shorebirds using the flats.  There are many things that can be learned while sitting along the shoreline.  But there is something about seeing the world through the eyes of another species if only for a passing moment that goes a long way toward framing the questions worth pursuing.


VCU faculty, graduate students' paper selected as Runner-Up for Best Paper of 2016

April 5, 2017

A paper written by two VCU faculty and co-authored by three graduate students was selected as Runner-Up for Best Paper of 2016 from the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology. It was one of 1600 articles published in the journal.

Titled “Biotransport of Algal Toxins to Riparian Food Webs,” the paper was the first to show that algal toxins can be spread into terrestrial food webs. This study was part of a larger effort addressing potential threats from harmful algal blooms in the James River.


Faculty authors:
Dr. Paul Bukaveckas, joint appointee VCU Center for Environmental Studies and VCU Department of Biology
Dr. Lesley Bulluck, joint appointee VCU Center for Environmental Studies and VCU Department of Biology

Graduate student co-authors:
Nicholas J. Moy, Master of Science in Biology
Jenna Dodson, Master of Science in Biology
Spencer J. Tassone, Master of Science in Biology candidate, Spring 2017


Read the full article Biotransport of Algal Toxins to Riparian Food Webs.

Eagle photographers contribute to science

April 5, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology  

In addition to supporting a thriving population of bald eagles, the Chesapeake Bay is fortunate to have a talented community of photographers who enjoy getting out in the field, experiencing wildlife in a responsible manner, and recording these experiences in spectacular images.  Photographers are increasingly coming into contact with eagles marked with field-readable bands and sharing their images with CCB researchers.  These encounters with known individuals are contributing to what we know about eagle life history.

Beginning in 2007, CCB began banding bald eagles within the Chesapeake Bay population with purple bands that included unique alpha-numeric characters.  Unlike basic USGS aluminum bands (used for decades in the Bay) with long number codes that may only be read in the hand, these characters may be read with spotting scopes or with high-resolution images.  Since 2007, CCB has used these bands on more than 260 eagles.  Many of these birds have been resighted or photographed by the public across multiple states.  However, the three eagle photography hotspots in the Chesapeake include Conowingo Dam on the lower Susquehanna River, Belmont and Pohick Bays on the upper Potomac near Washington, D.C., and the lower Tidewater cities of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Chesapeake.

Encounters between photographers and banded eagles are being used by CCB biologists to estimate vital demographic rates, to track dispersal and movement patterns, and to describe changes in plumage over time.  Encounters are particularly valuable for estimating survivorship, a parameter for which information is difficult to collect and critical to understanding the population.  Toward this end, essential information to collect during an encounter includes date, location, and bird identification. 

We very much appreciate the generosity of photographers in sending photographs.  If you have taken images of a marked eagle, please consider sharing so that the encounter may be added to our growing database.  Contact



Photograph by Brian Lockwood

Rice Rivers Center part of VCU's annual April Fools' Day video

April 3, 2017

Dr. Greg Garman, director of VCU Rice Rivers Center, was interviewed as part of VCU's annual April Fools' Day video.  

Research report: The numbers behind the innovation

January 19, 2017

Those are a few of the ongoing accomplishments made with $218.9 million in VCU research expenditures, according to the National Science Foundation’s Higher Education Research and Development Survey, which outlines higher education expenditures in the U.S. for fiscal year 2015.

Read more about the report

The Universe within, how our microbes shape our health

January 23, 2017

By Elizabeth Ferris, Richmond Magazine

When Jennifer Fettweis stepped on the stage at The Byrd Theatre for a TEDxRVA talk in October, she had news that may have left some in the sold-out crowd squirming. 

The message? You’re not entirely human.

Rather, our bodies are host to a complex network of bacteria, fungi and viruses — trillions of them. These micro-organisms and their products, which are known as the human microbiome, play an important part in bodily functions, from digesting food to warding off infection. Researchers say they may also hold the key to better understanding many diseases.

Research into these microbes and their impact on our health has exploded in the last decade. While traditionally the study of microbes has considered their role as pathogens — disease promoting organisms — the focus of this new research is more holistic.

Read more here.

Story Maps from topics in Environmental Studies fall class

January 13, 2017

Students who attended the Topics in Environmental Studies (ENVS491) fall 2016 class were asked to create Esri Story Maps to showcase their final projects.  Students used a combination of database and spatial analyses to conduct environmental analyses which the students then shared with the class by creating Story Maps.  Project ideas were diverse and included such topics as the development of a TDR model for central Virginia, an impact analysis of the effects of sea level rise on the City of Virginia Beach, patterns of water consumption, identification of prime oyster restoration sites in the Chesapeake Bay, and placement of trail cameras to assess white tailed deer population in the James River Park. 

Links to all the final project Story Maps can be found on the course website at

Direct links to the mentioned projects include:

Kaitlin Savage – Proposed Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Model.  Link:

Huy Phan – Assessing sea level rise potential damage in Virginia Beach. Link:

Richie Dang – Impacts on water consumption. Link:

Joanne Benavides – Preferred oyster restoration sites in the Chesapeake Bay:

Jack Ryan – Placement of trail cameras to assess white-tailed deer population in the James River Park System, Richmond VA.  Link:  

SER@VCU partners with VOSRP

March 31, 2017

A beautiful, sunny day on March 25 provided the perfect backdrop for the student chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER@VCU), Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) volunteers, and a representative from Northern Neck Oyster Truck and Tangier Island Oyster Company, as shells were bagged from the shell pile at VCU Rice Rivers Center.  The bags of recycled shells will be seeded with spats prior to their being planted on oyster reef restoration projects in the waters of eastern Virginia.

See additional photos

Learn more about VOSRP

Learn more about VCU@SER

People and shorebirds flock to beaches

March 29, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Let’s face it, people love to spend time on sandy beaches.  We love the combination of sun, sand, and water.  In the United States, travel and tourism is the nation’s largest industry, employer and foreign revenue earner, and beaches are the leading tourist destination.  Each year 180 million Americans make 2 billion visits to beaches – more than twice as many as to all national and state parklands combined.  The revenue generated by these visits is greater than the combined export value of agricultural grains, aircraft, computers, and telecommunications equipment.  The revenue supports one in every ten jobs in the country and represents the economic foundation of many coastal communities.    

Several species of migratory shorebirds depend on beaches for a portion of their annual cycle.  For some, beaches along the Atlantic Coast represent terminal refueling sites where shorebirds must forage to build up the energy reserves needed to make their final flight to arctic breeding grounds.  Many of these species are sensitive to human disturbance.  Human activities may force them from beaches to less profitable foraging areas, may alter their foraging behavior or foraging times and ultimately reduce food intake and energy storage.  For some species, human and shorebird use of beaches is not compatible.  Our love and use of the beach effectively renders extensive swaths of the coastline off-limits to some shorebird species.

Beaches along the south Atlantic Coast of North America are critical to both the regional economy and to migratory shorebirds.  How to accommodate these two important user groups is one of the great conservation challenges faced by coastal land managers.  During the springs of 2011 and 2012, CCB conducted aerial surveys of the entire coast of North Carolina to evaluate the interrelationship between human use of beaches, beach ownership, and shorebird distribution during the spring staging period.  A paper focusing on the federally threatened red knot titled “The influence of land ownership on the density of people and staging red knot on the coast of North Carolina” is being published in the journal Wader Study.  North Carolina is particularly well suited for this investigation because in recent decades the outer coast has reached “terminal build out,” where more than 98% of the coastline is either privately owned and developed or owned by government agencies focused on natural resources.  There is virtually no remaining opportunity for conservation acquisition. 

Land ownership had a dramatic influence of the distribution of both red knots and people.  Average knot density was more than four-fold higher on government compared to privately-owned lands.  Conversely, human density along the shoreline was more than ten-fold higher on private lands compared to government lands.  Along the coast of North Carolina, private lands include resort hotels that support extreme human densities and residential developments that support permanent residents or vacation rentals.  More than 80% of knots surveyed occurred on shoreline segments that supported less than five people per kilometer of shoreline.  These conditions were most frequently found on government lands with active beach closures.  Migrant red knots appear to benefit from beach closures imposed to protect nesting piping plovers and sea turtles.

For coastal landscapes that have reached terminal build out, some of the best opportunities for red knot conservation revolves around managing human behavior and access to critical sites on government-owned lands.  This may include seasonal closures of the most critical sites, limiting the number of access points to less critical sites and providing education system-wide to change human behavior during critical times of the year.  A great challenge will be to strike an appropriate balance between access that may be important for local economies and restrictions that are essential to shorebird conservation.   

Getting their feet wet

March 27, 2017

By Virginia Commonwealth University

As their classmates listen for the bell to ring at Armstrong High School, one group of students is listening instead to the gentle flow of water in Kimages Creek in rural Charles City County.

They are visiting this bucolic scene to learn more about water use and pollution in the concrete environs of Richmond, and what impact pollution has flowing down the James River and into the Chesapeake Bay.

The students, enrolled in VCU alumna Lauren Kern’s biology class, are partners in the Community Greening Project, which studies storm-water runoff issues in Richmond neighborhoods. They are developing an online multimedia map where community members can log problem areas, and are hosting community meetings to gather input and suggestions.

“In the classroom, students learned how their actions could impact urban runoff, which flows into the James River and makes its way south, to the Rice Rivers Center,” said Jennifer Ciminelli, research and data coordinator for the center and faculty in VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies.

Read the rest of the article here.

First Wetlands and Waterfowl Symposium held at VCU Rice Rivers Center

March 23, 2017

The first annual Wetlands and Waterfowl Symposium was held at VCU Rice Rivers Center on March 22, 2017. Over 60 participants were welcomed by Bob Duncan, executive director of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Dr. Rob Tombes, vice provost for VCU Life Sciences. 

Presentations included:

Bryan Watts (Center for Conservation Biology)
Influence of salinity on consumer density within Chesapeake Bay

John Devney (Delta Waterfowl)
Virginia ducks-where do they come from-A review of recent harvest derivation and banding data

Gary Costanzo (Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries)
Overview of VDGIF migratory game bird programs

Jamie Rader (Ducks Unlimited)
Ducks Unlimited conservation delivery in Virginia with a focus on river corridors

Greg Garman (VCU Rice Rivers Center)
Overview of the VCU Rice Rivers Center


Field Demonstations from VCU Rice Rivers Center faculty included:

Drones for wetland assessment (William Shuart)

Avian conservation methods (Cathy Viverette)

Tidal wetland restoration tactics (Ed Crawford)

Electrofishing (Steve McIninch and David Hopler)


Bridge Birds

March 21, 2017


By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Bridges often occupy a dominant position on the landscape overlooking extensive areas of open water or land.  Due to their height and exposure they receive nearly constant winds.  In many ways they mimic the conditions that attract nesting peregrines to coastal cliff sites throughout much of the world.  In coastal Virginia where cliff formations are completely lacking, bridges have played a significant role in the recovery of the breeding population.

Since 1993, bridges have consistently supported more than 30% (ranging up to as high as 50%) of the known breeding population of peregrine falcons in Virginia.  The association began in the early spring of 1988 when a single peregrine was resident on the Coleman Bridge across the York River.  Between 1988 and 2016, peregrines have been documented to use 15 different bridges including five that have been used for 18 years or more.  During the 2016 breeding season, peregrines nested on 11 bridges.  

Supporting breeding peregrines on bridge structures has not been a completely benign relationship. Peregrines are protected by seasonal and spatial restrictions designed to improve breeding success.  Restrictions have increased operational costs for bridges and caused concerns for bridge management and maintenance planning.   Risks may be mitigated by knowing the occupancy status of a bridge in advance of bridge maintenance projects and by managing nesting birds away from operational areas or areas that require regular maintenance.  Managing peregrine falcons on bridge structures has been a collaborative effort between the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, The Center for Conservation Biology, and the Virginia Department of Transportation.  

During the 2016 breeding season CCB biologists, in collaboration with the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research and the Virginia Department of Transportation, surveyed 83 bridges in coastal Virginia for occupancy by peregrine falcons (download report).  The primary objective of the project was to determine bridge occupancy that would reduce uncertainty in planning operations and maintenance activities.  Additional objectives included the testing of a rapid survey protocol that may be used in future bridge surveys, the identification of bridge characteristics that attract falcon pairs that may be used in identifying bridges with high potential for colonization in the future, and a retrospective study of the effectiveness of falcon management techniques that have been and continue to be used on bridges in Virginia.  

Eleven of the 83 bridges were determined to be used by peregrines in 2016, including two bridges that were previously unknown to support pairs.  Response of birds to the taped calls used to survey bridges was dramatic with a more than 90% response rate by known pairs.  Most birds responded to tapes immediately with 60% responding within 5 seconds and 80% responding within 10 seconds of tape initiation.  Territorial birds called repeatedly and often circled around the tape.  Occupied bridges were longer, embedded within more open landscapes, and had more potential nest sites compared to bridges that were not occupied.  Lift or draw bridges were particularly sought after by peregrines, with eight of ten available moveable bridges being used for nesting over the past ten years.  These bridge types have the highest availability of potential nest sites with overhead structures allowing peregrines to nest with protection from the weather.

One of the most satisfying findings of the retrospective investigation of peregrine management techniques used on Virginia bridges is how effectively they have improved breeding performance.  When breeding performance is compared before and after nest boxes or trays were installed on bridges, peregrine pairs were more than twice as successful while using boxes, and successful pairs produced more than twice the number of young.  The often overlooked benefit of using boxes to manage pairs is that they may frequently be used to entice pairs away from areas of the bridge that require regular maintenance.  One of the clear conclusions of the study is that active pair management is beneficial to both the birds and to bridge operations.  

Radio IQ interviews director of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program

March 9, 2017

Radio IQ sat down with Todd Janeski, director of the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP), to learn more about how VOSRP and VCU Rice Rivers Center work to help restore the wild oyster population.

Listen to the interview

Learn more about the VOSRP

Armstrong HS students, VCU researchers to develop community stormwater map

March 6, 2017

“Down the street from Martin Luther King Middle, at the store,” one Armstrong student said. “It fills up when it rains!”

“The bottom of the hill, where it just floods,” another said.

“It floods right here,” said a student pointing out the window.

“You guys are the experts. Tell us where you want to put stuff to reduce runoff,” said Jennifer Ciminelli, research and data coordinator for the Rice Rivers Center and faculty in VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies.

Read the rest of the article here.

Integrated Life Sciences Research Showcase

February 28, 2017

The Integrative Life Sciences (ILS) Research Showcase was held on February 9, 2017 at the VCU Commons on the Monroe Park Campus. Students from the Integrative Life Sciences Student Organization (ILSSO) presented their work in conjunction with the Graduate Organization in Biology (GOBS) 18th annual Darwin Day.  

The Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program is a flexible, interdisciplinary program designed for students seeking new ways to answer emerging research questions. While still centered on a core academic curriculum, this program offers opportunities to draw from the varied disciplines that comprise VCU Life Sciences.  

See a full listing of ISL Research Showcase presentations

Learn more about ILSSO

Learn more about our Ph.D. in Integrative Life Sciences program or contact Brian C. Verrelli, Ph.D., director of the Integrative Life Sciences Ph.D. program at

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program volunteers featured

February 16, 2017

Two volunteers from our Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) were featured in a Richmond Times-Dispatch article titled, "Annual 'Water Day' has steady flow of ideas."

You can read the full article here.

To learn more about how the VOSRP and Rice Rivers Center help to restore wild oyster populations, improve water quality and provide new fish habitat, or to inquire about becoming a volunteer, visit the VOSRP page


VCU student produces video of Panama experiences

February 10, 2017

Brendan Wang, a student in VCU Life Sciences' Panama Avian Field Ecology study abroad program, captured the sights and adventures the class experienced in the Central American country. Students traveled to Panama  January 2 - 12 of this year, to visit and learn about four major ecosystems important to migratory birds including Panama Bay, coastal mangrove wetlands, tropical rainforest, and tropical cloud forest.



Learn more about the cloud forest site the students visited during the trip.

Chesterfield County's Cosby High School introduces oysters into classroom

February 9, 2017

By Sarah Vogelsong, The Progress-Index

CHESTERFIELD - Even good vibrations can cause an oyster to clam up.

As students move around Anthony Palombella's biology classroom at Cosby High School in Midlothian, carrying out experiments and talking scientific shop, the nine oysters that inhabit a simple rectangular tank on the room's edge sense their presence through sound waves and go still.

It's only when the vibrations diminish that the creatures feel secure enough to open the protective lips of their shell to feed and, in so doing, filter the surrounding water.

This scientific observation - one that reveals much about the role and behavior of this prized bivalve within Virginia's rivers and coastal waters - is just one of many that Palombella's students have made this year as part of Chesterfield County Public Schools' collaboration with the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program.

Read more here.

A Bird's Eye View - STEM Integration

February 9, 2017

Anne Moore,  a teacher at Goochland Middle School and one of VCU Rice Rivers Center's community partners, was asked to write an article for the Winter 2017 edition of The Science Educator. The article describes her association with VCU's "Team Warbler," and how she integrates the project into her middle school STEM curriculum. The publication is distibuted by the Virginia Association of Science Teachers (VAST).

Ms. Moore's article, "A Bird's Eye View - STEM Integration," can be found on page 21 here

The VCU students that attended the Panama course also spoke to Ms. Moore's classes about their experiences studying abroad and bird conservation on the wintering grounds. They also worked with the middle school students through the Spring Semester on the yearly project.  


VCU to host annual events promoting environmental awareness

February 3, 2017

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

 Interested in learning how global warming impacts the hundreds of miles of Greenland’s ice sheet? What about how urbanization impacts the western black widow spider? The environmentally conscious can learn about these and other concerns next week during a two-day roster of events hosted by either VCU biology and integrative life sciences student associations, local environmentalists or other academic and community partners. All events are free and open to the public.

“This is the week we get our science out to the public,” said Lindsay Miles, Integrative Life Sciences Student Organization member and event organizer. “That’s our main goal. Anyone is welcome.”

Read more about these events



New Director of Center for Environmental Studies named

February 1, 2017

Dr. Robert M. Tombes, Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently announced Dr. Rodney Dyer as director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES). Dr. Dyer held the position of assistant director of the Center for Environmental Studies for the past two years, and has been a member of the VCU faculty since he began in 2004 as assistant professor in Biology.

Dr. Dyer’s vision for CES is to produce quantitatively skilled practitioners of environmental sciences.  Approximately 70 CES students graduate annually, with graduates enjoying one of the highest rates of job-related placements.

 “Dr. Dyer is a world-renowned quantitative population geneticist whose creative teaching and scholarship are pioneering and perfectly aligned with the integrative nature of CES and Life Sciences,” stated Dr. Tombes.  “I am grateful for the groundwork laid by his predecessor, Dr. Greg Garman, who will now focus on the growth of research at our field station, the Rice Rivers Center.” 

A botanist by training, Dr. Dyer’s research focuses on population genetics and the impact that intervening landscape features have on genetic connectivity.  He has mentored 11 graduate students in Masters programs in CES and Biology, and the Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program.  The vast majority of that graduate work has been conducted at the Rice Rivers Center.

Dr. Dyer continues his phylogeographic work in Baja California, examining how coevolving plant and insect systems respond after climatic changes following the Pleistocene. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). He also has received NSF funding to study terrestrial genetic connectivity along urban gradients from Richmond, Virginia, to Rice Rivers Center in Charles City, Virginia, using flowering dogwood as a model system.  Dr. Dyer is a strong believer in Open Source research and publishing; his authored textbooks, “Landscape Genetic Data Analysis” and “Applied Population Genetics,” are both available without charge at his website,

VCU highlights "Team Warbler" in Annual Report

January 27, 2017

Dr. Cathy Viverette and Dr. Lesley Bulluck -- Rice Rivers Center's "Team Warbler" -- have been highlighted in VCU's Annual Report. Their work with the prothonotary warbler is just one way Rice Rivers Center contributes to solving our future environmental challanges.

Read more about Team Warbler under the partnerships section in the 2015-16 Virginia Commonwealth University Annual Report.

First oyster shell collection of 2017 breaks record

January 24, 2017

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) in the Richmond region continues to break records with a haul of 8.5 tons of recycled oyster shells. 

Since 2013, VCU Rice Rivers Center has facilitated the collection of waste oyster shells from restaurants and returned them to the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay to help restore wild oyster populations, improve water quality and provide new fish habitat. The VOSRP collects shells from over 50 restaurants and public drop-off locations in Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Suffolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and on the Northern Neck of Virginia.

Learn more about this program, participating restaurants, and VOSRP public recycling sites

Dominion Foundation gift helps support environmental sciences training

January 17, 2017

A new “enviro-techniques” class will use the VCU Rice Rivers Center as an outdoor laboratory for environmental sciences research training, thanks to the generosity of a $50,000 gift from the Dominion Foundation to VCU Life Sciences. The two-course series for undergraduate and graduate environmental science and biology students will use modern research tools to quantify carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions in wetlands and forests, and evaluate the connection between plant and animal biodiversity.  The first three-week session will take place this summer.

The course is being developed and directed by Ellen Stuart-Haentjens, M.S., with Scott Neubaurer, Ph.D., and Chris Gough, Ph.D., participating in training module development and co-instruction. The program will become a permanent offering in the university’s Environmental Studies and Biology curriculum.  Once completed, course materials will be made available to the VCU community and public via open access.

Financial support from the Dominion Foundation will provide essential equipment and supplies, including software for real-time data analysis and visualization, measurements of tide, greenhouse gas-trapping chambers, and field laptops and tablets. Additional support from the Dominion Foundation provides a cohort of student researchers with supplies to conduct independent research projects after the completion of the enviro-techniques course.  Students will be challenged to formulate hypotheses, execute research activities, and analyze data onsite at Rice Rivers Center.

“The breadth of ecosystems and state-of-the-art instrumentation at the VCU Rice Rivers Center make for a perfect outdoor classroom,” stated Dr. Chris Gough. “We are uniquely positioned to teach and assist students in the development of skill sets they can apply to their research and careers.”

The second part of the series will have students return to Rice Rivers Center and collaborate in teams to address real-world environmental science questions by use of critical thinking, team work and instrumentation.

Story Maps from topics in Environmental Studies fall class

January 13, 2017

Students who attended the Topics in Environmental Studies (ENVS491) fall 2016 class were asked to create Esri Story Maps to showcase their final projects.  Students used a combination of database and spatial analyses to conduct environmental analyses which the students then shared with the class by creating Story Maps.  Project ideas were diverse and included such topics as the development of a TDR model for central Virginia, an impact analysis of the effects of sea level rise on the City of Virginia Beach, patterns of water consumption, identification of prime oyster restoration sites in the Chesapeake Bay, and placement of trail cameras to assess white tailed deer population in the James River Park. 

Links to all the final project Story Maps can be found on the course website at

Direct links to the mentioned projects include:

Kaitlin Savage – Proposed Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) Model.  Link:

Huy Phan – Assessing sea level rise potential damage in Virginia Beach. Link:

Richie Dang – Impacts on water consumption. Link:

Joanne Benavides – Preferred oyster restoration sites in the Chesapeake Bay:

Jack Ryan – Placement of trail cameras to assess white-tailed deer population in the James River Park System, Richmond VA.  Link:  

Moving Woodpeckers 2

January 13, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Following the historic and successful move of eight red-cockaded woodpeckers into the Great Dismal Swamp during the fall of 2015, the multi-state and multi-agency coalition gathered again in October 2016 to execute the second of a scheduled three-year commitment to move woodpeckers.  The effort was successful despite the wrath of the weather gods.

The Great Dismal Swamp, the northernmost of the great humid swamp forests of the South, received more than 20 inches of rain in the run up to the 2016 move.  In late September, Tropical Storm Julia moved north along the Atlantic Coast and stalled over Hampton Roads, dumping more than 12 inches of rain on the swamp.  Just one month later Hurricane Matthew, one of the most destructive hurricanes in recent memory, made its way up the coast dropping another 12 inches of rain on the swamp.  Slow to drain, the swamp held a tremendous amount of water in the week before the scheduled woodpecker move, with many of the trails requiring waders to slosh through.  In addition to the standing water, there was just enough time following the rains to create a dramatic hatch of mosquitoes throughout the swamp.

After much deliberation about the post-storm conditions, Will McDearman, National Recovery Coordinator, and Nancy Jordan, maestro of the Carolina Sandhills woodpeckers, decided in true field biologist fashion to move forward and “get ‘er done.”  This decision triggered a convergence of woodpecker biologists on Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge from throughout the Southeast on 18 October to “roost” targeted birds.  Roosting went as planned and the decision was made to capture and transport birds on the 19th.  Four hatching-year males and four females were captured, boxed, and transported north on the evening of the 19th.  The drive north was longer than usual due to road closures and detours related to Hurricane Matthew, but all birds arrived and were placed in artificial cavities for release by 4:30 AM.  Screens were removed and birds were released into their new habitats at 7:00 AM.  

A second translocation was conducted during the fall in order to even out the sex ratio and to give the population the maximum likelihood of forming new breeding pairs.  On 14 November, a Virginia crew traveled to Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge and roosted, captured, and transported two hatching-year males for release in the swamp.  The transport and release went off without any problems and both birds were released the next morning.  With the successful conclusion of the second translocation of 2016, the refuge held seven males and eight females.  A survey will be conducted in early spring of this year to determine retention of birds and follow-up breeding monitoring will be conducted in late April and May.

OspreyWatch Anniversary

January 13, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

In 2012, The Center for Conservation Biology launched OspreyWatch, an online global community making observations of breeding osprey.  The intent on a local scale was to connect people to the breeding pairs around them, to have them engage in the daily lives of these birds, and to learn more about their breeding ecology.  Observers have included school groups, master naturalist chapters, bird clubs, and homeowners.  The intent was to harness the power of many observers to collectively examine large-scale patterns of breeding phenology and productivity.  The osprey is an ideal sentinel species of aquatic ecosystems.

The 2016 breeding season is the fifth since the establishment of OspreyWatch and we have been overwhelmed by the response and generosity of observers.  More than 5,600 nests have been registered across several countries with most of the activity concentrated in North America.  Nearly 3,000 full-season nesting accounts have been entered.  All of these efforts are making a contribution to what we know about ecology across the breeding range.

Among other findings, the data submitted has highlighted the latitudinal shift in nesting date.  The onset of incubation shifts more than 150 days (nearly 5 months) across 30 degrees in latitude.  The most dramatic shift occurs from the resident population in south Florida, which has the earliest breeding season in North America, to the migratory populations in Georgia and South Carolina.  Over a span of only 10 degrees north, the onset of incubation shifts nearly 100 days.  North of South Carolina, the rate in the delay in nesting declines to 2.5 days per degree in latitude compared to 10 days per degree south of North Carolina.  This important data serves as a benchmark for comparison of future patterns as the climate continues to warm.

Tracking eagles in 3D

January 13, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Aviation safety depends on knowing the location of hazards within the airspace.  A great deal of time and effort has been spent to carefully map and mark stationary hazards such as tall buildings, towers, and mountains to inform pilots about their location and height.  But all hazards are not stationary.  Birds are one of the most significant categories of non-stationary hazards within the airspace and represent a potential hazard to aviation.  One of the most dramatic events in recent years that brought public attention to this problem was when flight 1549 ingested Canada geese in both engines just after takeoff on 15 January, 2009 and was forced to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River.  

Globally, wildlife strikes have killed more than 262 people and destroyed over 247 aircraft since 1988.  Factors that contribute to the increasing threat are the increasing populations of large birds and increased air traffic by quieter, turbo-powered aircraft.  In the United States, strikes have increased nearly 7.5 fold since 1990, reaching 13,795 in 2015.  During that year the estimated cost was nearly 70,000 hours of aircraft downtime and $229 million in equipment and operational costs.  Birds were involved in 98.5% of strikes and in terms of damage and risk, size matters.  For every 100-gram increase in body mass there is a 1.3% increase in the likelihood of aircraft damage if a strike occurs.  In eastern North America bald eagles, various species of geese and swans, and large gulls represent some of the greatest threats.    

More than 70% of bird strikes occur below 500 feet and most happen around airports during takeoff or landing.  As with the incident on the Hudson, because strike risk is highest during low-altitude flights around airports, understanding the spatial patterns of bird distribution and movement in the vicinity of runways is a high priority to improve aviation safety.  Due to their large body size and the tremendous increase in their population within the Chesapeake Bay, bald eagles represent a growing concern to airport operators.  Understanding their distribution and movement patterns around runways may help to inform pilots of potential hazards and contribute to flight planning.

During the spring of 2016, CCB assisted the U.S. Department of Defense to deploy 12 transmitters on bald eagles near airports.  The Microwave, Inc. transmitters used provide a very high data rate and were programmed to deliver altitude.  The accumulation of bird movements and positions over time has revealed areas that are consistently used by eagles, as well as the vertical distribution of activity associated with the sites.  Mapping these bird hazard sites is similar to mapping fixed hazards like towers, with altitudes to avoid.  The information will hopefully be helpful in planning flight operations around the airfields.

Master's student studies at the Cary Institute

January 12, 2017

Spencer Tassone is one of a handful of students from across the globe awarded an opportunity to study at the prestigious Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York.  The course is taught by some of today’s top ecosystem ecologists during the winter intersession, January 3 – 13, 2017.

 A large part of foundational work for Tassone’s master’s thesis in Biology – examining what proportion of ecosystem metabolism is made up by pelagic metabolism and how the abundances of the dominant zooplankton species in the tidal freshwater segment of the James River respond to changes in primary production – has been built on or conducted by ecologists at the Cary Institute.  The course will expose Tassone to the latest research areas in ecosystem ecology, allowing him to identify key areas of interest as he develops a Ph.D. thesis project.

The VCU Rice Rivers Center provides Tassone invaluable resources towards his thesis research, including continuous water quality monitoring of the James River from the Rice Rivers Center’s pier, and data from the weekly water quality monitoring program.

“The Rice Rivers Center has been transformative in my education and research career,” says Tassone.  “I would not be where I am today without it.”

Plovers navigate the dangers of Hurricane Matthew

January 11, 2017

By Fletcher Smith, Center for Conservation Biology

For over a century, people have wondered what exactly happens when birds encounter hurricanes.  Even into recent decades, the behaviors of birds in hurricanes were purely speculative, or based on few direct observations.  Resident breeding birds along the Atlantic Coast have adapted to periodic hurricane events, though even localized storm damage can impact populations of some bird species.  The impact of large storms on barrier island or beach systems isn’t always negative, and some birds (piping and snowy plovers, for instance) have adapted to nesting in the overwash areas created by cyclones, nor’easters, and other large storm events.  Migratory birds have a different relationship with hurricanes, with the probability of encountering a storm overlapping with only a small window of time of their annual cycle.  Though the odds are unlikely, the chance encounters have drastic implications for smaller land birds that face a storm over the open ocean, and many passerines likely perish within the winds of large tropical systems.  Pelagic birds can ride the winds and find themselves inland, hundreds or even thousands of miles away from typical open-ocean locations.  Some birds find themselves “stuck” in the center of storms unable to break through the wall of wind to reach safety.       

Until recent years, it was generally an accepted theory that most birds that migrated into large hurricanes over the open Atlantic perished.  Through the amazing remote tracking technologies available to scientists, we now know that at least some types of birds are able to navigate directly through these storms and beyond.  Remotely tracking a migratory bird into a Category 3 hurricane and seeing the bird safely make it through the other side of the storm has the power to captivate anyone.          

With all of this in mind, we watched in near-real time as six black-bellied plovers settled into their migratory stopover sites or wintering locations in Jamaica, Cuba, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, just as Hurricane Matthew picked up intensity and made towards the region in early October 2016. All of these plovers were tagged in the High Arctic breeding grounds in 2015 and 2016.     

Amazingly, all of these birds made it through the storm, and we were able to look at the strategies the birds used to avoid the worst of the storms as the hurricane strafed the region.  When we zoom in on the plover in Florida, we can see the bird move from the marshes and beaches of New Smyrna to the nearby airport, a likely refuge from the storm surge that Matthew brought with the winds.  This plover appears to have set up shop in the airport now and may continue there through the winter.

The technological breakthroughs in tracking birds have given the scientific community the ability to see behaviors and migrations with incredible detail.  With each breakthrough in the reduction of size and weight of transmitters, more bird species become available to track.  The deployment of transmitters on black-bellied plovers is a collaborative effort between Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) and The Center for Conservation Biology, and was initiated by CWS in 2014.  The goal of the tracking study is to understand the connectivity of arctic nesting shorebirds to stopover sites and wintering grounds.  Understanding the linkages of the plovers and other shorebirds is critical to the conservation of these birds along the flyway.  The tracking of the plovers is an ongoing project and they can be followed at

Breeding birds of Virginia

January 11, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

On 21 May, 2015 the Virginia Academy of Science held a symposium on the campus of James Madison University entitled “State of Virginia’s Environment.”  The full-day symposium included sessions on all taxonomic groups, as well as many prominent habitats, geology, water quality, and land use.  The meeting provided the opportunity for scientists to gather and discuss current conditions.  A forthcoming symposium volume will be available to provide an enduring benchmark.  For the various taxa included, the symposium represents the fourth in a series of benchmarks since the late 1970s that have offered historical “point-in-time” treatments.  The updated treatment of Virginia’s breeding avifauna produced by Bryan Watts (download available) provides 1) a historical context of information on breeding birds in the state, 2) an update on recent status assessments, and 3) a retrospective analysis of breeding birds of conservation concern.   

The ornithological record in Virginia stretches back more than four centuries.  From the time of settlement at Jamestown in 1607, residents of Virginia and visitors to the state reported on the birds they encountered or were told about by Native Americans.  William Strachey, Captain John Smith, Raphe Hamor, Edward Topsell, George Percy, and John Clayton, Vicar of Crofton reported on birds they observed during the 1600s including immense flocks of passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets.  As time passed, early local accounts began to coalesce and were compiled into growing lists that began to provide a more complete assessment of the avifauna within the state.  Thomas Jefferson gave an early list of 125 bird species for the “Virginias.”  These early treatments led to two significant works that gave a more complete assessment of the breeding birds including William Cabell Rives’ “A catalogue of the birds of the Virginias” and Harold Bailey’s “The Birds of Virginia.”  Throughout the early 1900s, a community of bird enthusiasts including academics and citizen volunteers formed, eventually leading to the establishment of the Virginia Society of Ornithology in 1929.  One of the stated missions of the organization was “to gather and assemble data on the birds of Virginia.”  The long period of “ornithological exploration” in Virginia would eventually come to a close with Murray’s production of “A check-list of the birds of Virginia” in 1952.  This benchmark work would be updated in 1979, 1987, and 2007.  Incredibly, virtually all of the breeding species that have been added to the avifauna since Murray’s initial checklist have been the result of range expansions into the state rather than new discoveries of long-existing species.

Virginia supports an impressively diverse community of breeding birds.  This diversity reflects the latitudinal position of the state and the fact that the border extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains.  A total of 224 species have been recorded breeding in Virginia, 214 of which are extant. Twenty species have colonized the state since 1900, including 14 since 1950.  Of all extant species, 102 (48%) are considered common at least somewhere in the state and 64 (30%) are rare to very rare.  Diversity varies by physiographic region with 179 (83%), 168 (78%), and 141 (66%) in the Coastal Plain, Mountains, and Piedmont respectively.  Two major landscape features make significant contributions to the state-wide diversity, including tidal waters along the coast and isolated spruce-fir forests of the Appalachians that represent Pleistocene-era relicts.  In all, nearly 25% of the state-wide avifauna is either wholly or nearly confined to tidal water and 10% is confined to “sky island” refugia.

Since 1978, 25 species of birds throughout Virginia have been identified as requiring immediate conservation action.  A retrospective assessment shows that five of these species including osprey, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, brown pelican, and piping plover have recovered to or beyond historic numbers.  Three species including Bewick’s wren, Bachman’s sparrow, and upland sandpiper have been lost from the state, and the black rail, loggerhead shrike, and Henslow’s sparrow are in imminent danger of extirpation.  Several species including the peregrine falcon, piping plover, Wilson’s plover, and red-cockaded woodpecker are the focus of intensive monitoring and management programs. 

Breeding bird populations in Virginia are dynamic.  Many have changed in size and distribution over recorded time along with shifts in habitats and other factors both within and beyond the state’s borders.  The ever-changing nature of these populations and the underlying causes are what make bird study in the region so challenging and exciting.  

Virginia peregrine falcons leap forward

January 5, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Virginia supported 31 pairs of peregrine falcons during the 2016 breeding season (download 2016 report).  With a historic pre-DDT population estimated to be 25 breeding pairs, the 2016 population is the largest ever recorded in the state and represents the fourth consecutive year exceeding the historic mark.  As with all years since reintroduction efforts began in the late 1970s, birds were concentrated on the coast including 28 pairs on the Coastal Plain, 1 pair in the Piedmont, and 2 pairs in the mountains.  The dramatic success story is dampened only by the lack of recovery in the mountains.  Virtually the entire historic population nested on open cliff faces in the mountains.  The two pairs currently known from this region represent a recovery of less than 10%.

Despite the record number of pairs, 2016 was a difficult breeding season for peregrines and many other species.  The relentless rains during the heart of the breeding season appeared to have an impact on productivity.  Only 49 of 85 (57%) eggs hatched and several pairs made very late breeding attempts.  Productivity (1.58 young/pair) was considerably lower than observed in recent years. 

Efforts continued in 2016 to identify breeding adults using field-readable bands to better understand dispersal and demography throughout the mid-Atlantic region.  The banding status of 45 of the 63 (71%) adult peregrines known within the breeding population was determined.  Twelve (26%) of the 45 birds were unbanded.  Among the banded birds where state of origin could be determined, 20 were from Virginia, 6 were from New Jersey, and 2 were from Maryland.  Birds ranged in age from 1 to 16 years.  In addition to adults breeding in Virginia, bands for 12 additional falcons were read and reported over the past year.  Six of these birds originated in Virginia and were found breeding in other states including a male and female in Pennsylvania and four females in New Jersey.

The Virginia population continues to benefit from a tremendous community of dedicated agencies, corporations, and individuals including the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense, Dominion, and The Nature Conservancy.

Eastern black rails in free fall

January 5, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The black rail is the most secretive of the secretive marsh birds and one of the least understood species in North America.  Referred to by Alexander Sprunt as a “feathered mouse,” black rails rarely venture out from the rankest vegetation available.  Because of their extremely secretive habits, the species was not recognized by the ornithological community as occurring in North America until Dr. Thomas Rowan captured an adult male with four young on 22 July, 1836 on his farm in Philadelphia and brought them live to Titian Peale.  Later that fall, Peale would send the specimens to Audubon and they would be the basis of his plate on the species and a declaration of their occurrence on the continent.  As additional specimens and observations were collected, a rough outline of their distribution would slowly unfold over the next century.  Even today, what we know about this little rail is scattered in bits and pieces throughout more than 150 years of literature, museum specimens, and unpublished observations.  One of the recurring themes echoed from the time of their initial discovery to the present is how frustratingly little we know about their distribution and ecology.

Concern for the eastern black rail population in North America began to build in the late 1980s and early 1990s, eventually leading to the formation in 2009 of the Eastern Black Rail Conservation and Management Working Group that has successfully brought biologists and agencies together around a common goal of collecting and sharing information for the purpose of developing a conservation strategy.  Since the establishment of this group, targeted surveys (2014-2018) have been initiated on an unprecedented scale including new work in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas.  A high priority activity identified by the working group has been to locate, collect, and compile all information pertaining to the population with the intention of developing the historical context needed to inform conservation efforts moving forward.  The Center for Conservation Biology completed this assessment in October of 2016.  The treatment includes all states along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts (view report). 

The historic breeding range of the eastern black rail appears to have included coastal areas from south Texas north to the Newbury Marshes of Massachusetts and interior areas west to the eastern slope of the Appalachian Mountains.  Credible evidence of occurrence was found for 21 of the 23 states, including 174 counties, parishes, and independent cities and 308 named properties.  Many of the named properties are well-known conservation lands including 46 national wildlife refuges, 44 state wildlife management areas, 26 state and municipal parks, and many named lands managed by non-governmental conservation organizations. 

Black rails within northern areas have experienced a catastrophic decline including a contraction of the northern range limit from Massachusetts to New Jersey, a distance of 450 kilometers.  Study areas in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina that were surveyed in the late 1980s and early 1990s and again over the past two years have documented a 64% decline in occupancy and an 89% decline in birds detected equating to a 9.2% annual rate of decline.  Maryland has experienced a 13.8% annual rate of decline.  South Carolina has experienced a 4.7% rate of decline for the same period.  No information is available to assess trends for areas south of South Carolina.

In addition to these broad-scale declines, one of the more disconcerting discoveries has been the virtual loss of the species from global strongholds.  Elliott Island in Maryland has the distinction of representing the largest concentration of black rails ever documented when on 2 June, 1954, Terborgh and Knudson reported more than 100 calling birds.  The site would attract bird watchers and biologists for the following 60 years.  Counts have declined consistently and since 2010 peak counts have been one calling bird.  In 2016 no birds were heard from Elliott Island.  A similar pattern has been documented from Saxis Marsh, the historic stronghold in Virginia, where birds have not been detected since the summer of 2014.  On Cedar Island in North Carolina where Rowlette and Wierenga recorded more than 80 calling birds on 27 May, 1973 only 4 calling birds were recorded in 2014.

The eastern black rail is listed as endangered in six eastern states and is a candidate for federal listing.  The eastern working group has been actively pushing to fill information gaps throughout the range, to establish benchmarks, and to identify possible factors contributing to declines.  The working group held a symposium during the Waterbird Society meeting in New Bern on 23 September that included six papers on recent findings from biologists working throughout the range.  

Panama Avian Field Ecology program takes over VCU's Instagram page

January 3, 2017

VCU Life Sciences' Panama Avian Field Ecology study abroad program will be in the Central American country through January 15. During the first week, VCU master's student Jessie Reese takes over the VCU Make It Real Instagram page and shares photos during their journey.   


Follow their adventures here


The Progress-Index interviews VCU River Rivers Center's Matt Balazik

December 12, 2016

VCU Rice Rivers Center's Matt Balazik speaks to The Progess-Index about his capture last month of two juvenile sturgeon in the James River.  


Read the full story here.

Vulcan Materials donates construction materials for VCU Inger Rice Lodge project

December 9, 2016

The VCU Rice Rivers Center has received tons of support — 475 tons, to be exact — from Vulcan Materials. A donation of rock aggregate has created a stable foundation for a new overnight lodge, a project that will allow up to two dozen students and researchers to stay on-site for intensive fieldwork and instruction.

The 5,000-square-foot lodge, and planned 14,000 square-foot research laboratory, will bolster the center’s research capabilities and teaching mandate. 

Read more about the donation                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Oysters in the classroom

December 8, 2016

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) was recently awarded a grant from the Dominion Foundation to implement a detailed curriculum to raise awareness of the biological, social, economic and ecosystem benefits provided by oysters in two area high school classrooms.  The project includes the placement of oyster reef tanks in the class, as part of the curriculum.

The project is a collaboration between our VORSP, the Math Science Innovation Center (MSiC) in Richmond, Chesterfield County Public Schools (Cosby High School), Richmond Public Schools (Armstrong High School) and VCU Center for Environmental Studies students.

The curriculum includes designed classroom activities which meets the requirements under the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL). Students are able to explore the physiological and ecological processes of oysters and oyster reefs that help create healthy and thriving bays, and the cascading positive effects they can have on an ecosystem.

A one minute look at the redeployment of our smart buoy

December 6, 2016

The newest member of the VCU Rice Rivers Center research team is standing tall in the James River, thanks to help from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Frank Drew and crew.


Students can soon obtain a River Studies Certificate

December 2, 2016

VCU Life Sciences recently signed a memorandum of agreement with the River Management Society (RMS) that will allow students in Environmental Studies, Biology, and other VCU programs to participate in a River Studies Certificate. RMS is a national nonprofit professional organization whose mission is to support professionals who study, protect, and manage North America's rivers.

Students will complete academic coursework in river science, management, policy, spatial data analysis, and water safety to receive the Certificate. In addition to VCU coursework, students will be encouraged to study at cooperating colleges and universities in Colorado, Idaho, Washington, and other states in the Pacific, Northwest and Southwest region. VCU is the first school on the east coast to become part of the River Studies Certificate collaborative. For more information, contact Dr. James Vonesh (Biology) or Dr. Greg Garman (Environmental Studies).

Dr. Leonard A. Smock retires as director of VCU Rice Rivers Center

December 1, 2016

In 1979, Dr. Leonard A. Smock joined the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University as an assistant professor in the Department of Biology.  His thought was to stay for a “little while” at VCU; that “little while” spanned 37 ½ years.

Dr. Smock began his journey as a student at the University of Illinois, where he received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Biology and Zoology. He continued on to receive his doctoral degree from the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill. It was then he made his way to Richmond, Virginia, to join the faculty at VCU.

He soon rose to the rank of professor, and served as the Department of Biology’s chairman from 1990 to 2009.  In 2005, Dr. Smock became the first director of the Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Life Sciences, VCU’s environmental field station on the James River in Charles City County. Also known as the Rice Rivers Center, this ecologically rich, approximately 500-acre site provides VCU faculty and students a place to conduct research, education and outreach activities. Dr. Smock served as the director of the Rice Rivers Center until July 1, 2016. Since then, Dr. Smock has remained active at the Rice Rivers Center and plans to stay connected after his official retirement on January 1, 2017.

Looking back on his career, Dr. Smock remarked, “Being a part of the faculty at VCU has been a wonderful experience. I am thankful VCU allowed me to teach the classes that aligned with my interests, and to conduct the research I wished to pursue. I enjoyed interacting with everyone in biology, life sciences and throughout the university.  I look forward to continuing to be involved at the Rice Rivers Center as it grows into a world-class, fully-immersive research facility.” 

Dr. Smock established and was the initial director of the Ph.D. program in Integrative Life Sciences and served as the Interim Vice Provost for VCU Life Sciences and Research.  He was the former president of the North American Benthological Society, the foremost scientific society focused on the ecology and assessment of streams and rivers. In addition, he is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was a council member for the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

First SER@VCU Ecological Restoration Conference at VCU Rice Rivers Center

November 30, 2016

The VCU Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER@VCU) hosted the first Ecological Restoration Fall Conference and Workshop on November 12 at VCU Rice Rivers Center. Those who attended were introduced to restoration practitioners from VCU and the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Natural Heritage program.  Participants also were part of laying the groundwork for the first native plant nursery at VCU Rice Rivers Center. 

The SER@VCU chapter was formed in the spring of 2016, when a group of Life Sciences graduate students interested in ecological restoration approached Dr. Ed Crawford to become their faculty mentor.  The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) is an international organization, with members and partners in over 70 countries. SER@VCU is the first student chapter in Virginia, and one of only three on the East Coast.  The students join a team of researchers and scientists committed to SER’s mission to promote ecological restoration as a means of sustaining the diversity of life on Earth and re-establishing an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture.

SER@VCU has attracted significant campus and community interest since its general interest meeting in February 2016.  In March, the first contingent of VCU students ever to participate in a regional SER conference traveled to New Jersey, where undergraduate Christopher Gatens’ poster took first place in the audience choice awards.

The group hopes to make the Fall Conference and Workshop an annual event, and are planning additional workshops both on and off campus this spring. 

Center for Environmental Studies Dr. Rodney Dyer teaches applied analysis workshop in Scotland

November 29, 2016

Dr. Rodney J. Dyer, Assistant Director for VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, has recently returned from Scotland where he taught a five-day course, Landscape Genetic Data Analysis Using R, at the Scottish Centre for Ecology and the Natural Environment (SCENE).  SCENE is the University of Glasgow’s leading field station. 

The course covered the basis of both quantitative landscape ecology and populations genetics, with a focus on developing and evaluating spatial/genetic analyses using the R platform. Graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and primary investigators interested in learning how to integrate landscape ecological and population genetics tools using the R software attended the class.  The international group came from countries such as Uruguay, Israel and Croatia. 

SCENE provided a perfect setting, located within Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park with on-site buildings for education and research. The rich habitat provides a unique place for teaching, training and research in ecology and environmental sciences.  “This is what we envision Rice Rivers Center to be, as we work towards building the overnight lodge and research facility,” remarked Dyer.

Dyer’s expertise in landscape genetics will take him to China in November 2017, followed by a trip to South America. The problem of landscape conversion has become an urgent concern worldwide, given the tempo and extent of human-mediated disturbance.  “During the next 50 years there will be more urbanization,” states Dyer, “and for long-lived organisms, changes are happening at such a pace that species will not be able to mount adaptive responses.  As a result, we must look to managing genetic variation and diversity now, as it is only going to decline for the vast majority of species around us as we go forward.”

Read more about Dyer’s work

How are Drones Being Used in the Classroom?

November 28, 2016

By Jeremiah Karpowicz, Commercial UAV News 

Understanding how professionals are actually using UAVs is a critical consideration for anyone wanting or trying to properly leverage the technology. What does it actually mean for someone to use a drone in the field? Will utilizing a UAV create efficiencies that can be quantified? How is all of that impacting the bottom line for the project? These are questions professionals want and need to have answered, but the challenges associated with doing so stem from the fact that all of this is new technology. It’s not as if working professionals learned about how they could or should be using the technology when they were in school.

That won’t be the case in the near future though, as various programs and universities are working to integrate drone technology in an active way into what students are learning in the classroom. Doing so isn’t just about using drones though, because the reality is that UAVs will soon be thought of as just another tool. Before that happens professionals will need to have a nuanced understanding around how the technology can be leveraged, and that’s exactly what’s happening in courses at West Point and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Read more about drones in the classroom

Blending science and creative writing

November 22, 2016

Alia Hamdan never would have predicted that her scientific background gained at VCU, and her experiences as part of VCU Life Sciences’ 2013/2014 Panama Avian Field Ecology study abroad program, would earn her a place and fellowship at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Arkansas this past summer.

The return from Panama years ago found Hamdan spending the semester analyzing the data gathered, learning how to effectively present science to wide audiences, and communicating the importance of her work. She believes this, as well as several independent study and research courses she took while in Life Sciences, contributed greatly to her current success as she embraces her role as a first-time novelist. She wrote many project proposals, dossiers, and multiple drafts of scientific reports during her time at VCU. “My skills as a writer would be far less developed if I didn’t know how to communicate effectively to my perceived audience, a necessary component in any aspiring scientist’s work,” said Hamdan.

Hamdan’s experiences in Panama directly influence the shape and message of her novel, recalling the capability and self-awareness she found while in the field collecting vegetation data, handling songbirds, and getting constantly stuck in thoroughfares of sinking mud.  This out-of-the-classroom experience made her stronger and more resilient to life’s perceived challenges, however big or small. She learned how to keep going, especially when she had a goal in sight. It also influenced her to change her undergraduate research, focusing on Osprey and Bald Eagles with her research mentor, Dr. Cathy Viverette, who is credited as a great influencer on the course Hamdan has taken as a scientist. This led to her senior thesis project, poster publications, and presentations at the 2014 and 2015 VCU Rice Rivers Center Conferences.

“These events and persons, which I never would have experienced or encountered if I wasn’t a part of VCU and supported by everyone in the Center for Environmental Studies and Biology Departments, gave me the confidence to know what I want and learn how to approach it,” stated Hamdan. “I went to Panama to expand my knowledge base, to engage in the field that I pursued, and prove to myself that I could do this kind of work. I did, and after all these years, I realize that it made me into the person I am today.”


Dr. Greg Garman, director of VCU Rice Rivers Center, interviewed on WCVE Public Radio

November 22, 2016

Dr. Greg Garman speaks to WCVE Public Radio's John Ogle about the recent relaunch of our smart buoy.  

The 850-pound, nine-foot-tall buoy settled into its new home on the James River the morning of October 26, 2016.  The buoy contains sensors that will measure atmospheric and water conditions, as well as the ability to track fish in the James River, including the Atlantic Sturgeon.   

The Rice Rivers Center buoy is one of 16 that make up the Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System.

Listen to the story on WCVE

Participants in Richmond Teacher Residency program make an impact

November 18, 2016

By Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs

For the past five years, a partnership between Richmond Public Schools and the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education has prepared 77 new teachers who have made an immediate impact in 24 of the city’s most challenged public schools.

The Richmond Teacher Residency program is a highly selective urban graduate teacher residency program that aims to create a sustainable pipeline of highly effective teachers who are committed to the students of Richmond Public Schools for the long term.

Lauren Kern is one of those teachers. Read more about how she incorporates research from VCU Rice Rivers Center into her biology class at Armstrong High School.


Rice Rivers Center researchers locate two juvenile Atlantic sturgeon

November 18, 2016

By Patrick Kane, University Public Affairs

When Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., told colleagues he planned to sample fish from the James River right before an important presentation at the Rice Rivers Center, they pressed him to be back on time.

Cutting his trip short, he set his nets to find fish closer to the center. There, Balazik found something he has spent the last decade searching for: a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.

“I was pulling the net over the side of the boat. I went down to grab it, thinking it was a blue catfish,” he said.  “Once I saw what it was I just stood there and stared at it for probably 10 seconds.”

Read more about this endangered species

Rice Rivers Redeploys a Smart Buoy

November 6, 2016

By Virginia Commonwealth University

The newest member of the VCU Rice Rivers Center research team is standing tall in the James River, thanks to help from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Frank Drew and crew. 

Topped by solar panels, the smart buoy is packed to the gills with sensors measuring a variety of atmospheric and water conditions, plus the ability to track fish. 

“It will immediately begin to generate these very large databases we use for education and research,” said Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the center. “We can see what water quality and chemistry in real time, weather conditions in real time and what fish species of interest may be in the river in real time.”

Check out the entire photostory here:

Tackling Urban Run-off

November 6, 2016

By Patrick Kane, University Public Affairs

When the rainclouds open up, the built environment of Richmond moves rainwater away from buildings and streets — but at the same time sweeps surface pollutants into the James River. Oil, gasoline, fertilizer, pesticides and animal waste are swept into the city’s stormwater drains by water flow.

Read more about urban runoff

VOSRP Fall Event 2016

October 17, 2016

It was a beautiful fall day in Richmond as a crowd gathered to enjoy food, cheer, and fun, at this year’s Shell Raiser’s Shindig.  The event, which took place on October 16 at Libbie Mill-Midtown, supported the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP), a collaborative program of the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Guests were able to sample dishes from some of the top chefs in Virginia, and also enjoyed regional beer, wine and cider.  

The program is active in Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Suffolk Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Lancaster County, with almost 60 participating businesses and nearly 30 public drop-off locations. Volunteers also actively collect from oyster roasts and special events.

Annually, the program gathers more than 75,000 pounds of waste shell that is age-cured at the VCU Rice Rivers Center before being seeded with juvenile oysters. Those seeded shells are then returned to the Bay on reef restoration projects, working with restoration partners and the industry. Once all the shells collected from the prior year are seeded with juvenile oysters, more than 10 million oysters will be returned to the Chesapeake.

Peregrines and Bridges

October 8, 2016

By Bryan Watts

In the flat lands of the Coastal Plain, bridges check two of the “like” boxes for peregrines, and many of the most famous bridges across the globe have been colonized as peregrines have recovered over the past forty years. In Virginia, the relationship began in 1992 when a pair of falcons settled on a bridge across the York River and produced two young.  Since that time peregrines have used fourteen different bridges in the state and those bridges have made a significant contribution to the recovery of the population.  Over the past ten years, bridges have accounted for 26% of the young peregrines produced in the state. 

The Virginia Department of Transportation has been an essential partner in the recovery of peregrine falcons in Virginia.  Both environmental and operational staff has adjusted maintenance schedules to accommodate falcon breeding, helped to maintain and relocate nesting structures, participated in annual monitoring, and assisted biologists in accessing and banding young.  In 1998, the agency received the Federal Highway Administration’s Excellence Award in the category of Environmental Protection and Enhancements for their work to place peregrine nest boxes on bridges.

Although bridges serve as surrogates for natural cliffs on the Coastal Plain, they are lacking one feature compared to the real thing.  Winds that flow onto cliff faces produce updrafts that young peregrines just on the wing use to buoy them back up to their eyries.  Winds flow through the infrastructure of most bridges and do not produce updrafts.  The difference appears to increase the chance that young, inexperienced falcons will circle down into the water or onto lower bridge structures.  Beginning in 2000, a program was initiated to move some of the young from bridges to the mountains for release.  The effort has the dual objectives of increasing survival and recolonizing the historic mountain range.

Peregrine falcon work in Virginia is a large partnership effort led by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, The Center for Conservation Biology, Virginia Department of Transportation, National Park Service, Dominion, The Nature Conservancy, NASA, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

Whimbrel Conservation on the Acadian Peninsula

October 8, 2016

Fletcher Smith, Center for Conservation Biology

Atlantic Canada was documented as a major shorebird stopover location over a century ago. Very little regional population data was gathered on whimbrels since the market gunner/sport hunting days.  Those migrant shorebirds relied upon invertebrates and berries in bogs, heathlands, and mudflats to fuel their flights to wintering grounds. 

Beginning in the fall of 2014, The Center for Conservation Biology, along with collaborators at the Canadian Wildlife Service and Mount Allison University, surveyed the habitats available to whimbrels on the Acadian Peninsula of New Brunswick. During the fall migration of 2016, seven whimbrels were trapped and outfitted with small solar powered satellite transmitters.  The purpose of this study is to track the birds throughout their annual cycle, documenting habitat use while on the Acadian Peninsula, as well as to discover the wintering and breeding grounds of the birds that migrate through the region.

Funding, collaboration, and logistical support for this project was provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation as part of the Atlantic Flyway Shorebird Initiative, the Canadian Wildlife Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mount Allison University, the University of Moncton Shippagan Campus, and The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University.  We thank the blueberry farmers that allowed access into select blueberry fields and assisted with logistics. 

Spring weather dampens woodpecker season

October 8, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The 2016 spring season was challenging for both birds and biologists.  The consistent rain throughout the heart of the breeding season appeared to have an impact on breeding performance for many species throughout the mid-Atlantic region.  Bald eagles had small broods, osprey in the lower Chesapeake Bay had a very high failure rate, and peregrines had both small broods and a high failure rate.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers did not escape the impact with the lowest reproductive output in recent memory.  In terms of productivity, this year is comparable to the 2008 breeding season.

Eight woodpecker pairs produced 16 birds to fledging age, including 11 females and 5 males.  Three additional pairs made breeding attempts but produced no young.  Additional pairs were present within the site but did not attempt breeding.  No four-chick broods were produced in 2016.  Three pairs produced three-chick broods, two pairs produced two-chick broods and three pairs produced single chicks.  Despite low productivity during the breeding season, woodpeckers within Piney Grove Preserve continue to hold their own.  We can only hope that productivity will rebound in 2017.

Four birds remained within the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge during the spring of 2016.  All birds were released into the site during the fall of 2015.  Retained birds included three females and a single male.  The single male was paired with a female and the young couple prepared and maintained a nesting cavity through the spring, but eggs were never documented.  Additional birds will be moved into the refuge during the fall of 2016 to bolster the population with the hope of producing the first breeding attempts in 2017.

VCU Sturgeon Team Funded

September 29, 2016

VCU fish biologists working out of the Rice Rivers Center have focused for several years on understanding the biology and ecology of the federally endangered Atlantic Sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay. Their work has put VCU on the forefront of endangered species research, including the development and testing of new technologies, such as acoustic telemetry and environmental DNA, for conservation and restoration efforts aimed at this iconic migratory species. In July, the VCU sturgeon team was funded for an additional three years by NOAA, the federal agency responsible for sturgeon recovery. Objectives for the competitive grant renewal will focus on the biology of early life history stages, the quantification of in-river threats, and development of GIS-based tools and data applications for state and federal managers. 

Addition to the VCU Rice Rivers Center Instruments

September 29, 2016

On August 19, 2016, a new instrument system was installed at the VCU Rice Rivers Center Pier.  Pandora 35 was contributed to VCU Center for Environmental Studies by Dr. Jay Hermann from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center by the generous sponsorship of Dr. Jack Kaye at NASA Headquarters.  The Pandora instrument system, which uses sun tracking to keep its upward-looking orientation, is an integral component of ground validation measurements for remotely-sensed atmospheric NOand ozone profiles. Nitrogen dioxide is an important trace gas to measure because of its role in the formation of photochemical smog which adversely affects human respiratory system. Ozone (near the ground) is also important to measure because it is produced from industrial and urban pollution.

Rice Rivers is honored to join the global Pandora system which includes sites from Harvard Smithsonian in Boston, MA, to Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, to Innsbruck, Austria and many more. We are anticipating new partnerships and collaborations for both CES faculty and students as the result of the addition of the Pandora instrument system to the array of interdisciplinary instrument systems at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Citizen scientists work to fill the nightjar information gap

September 29, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Over the past four decades there has been a growing concern within the conservation community that some species of nightjars are experiencing rapid declines over much of their breeding ranges.  Their ecology is poorly understood.  Because national monitoring programs are conducted during daylight hours and nightjars primarily call after dark, we have had very little information to assess changes in distribution and abundance.    

In 2007, The Center for Conservation Biology called on citizen scientists to help fill the information gap with nightjars by initiating the Nightjar Survey Network.  The response has been both gratifying and overwhelming.  An army of birdwatchers, agency biologists, and nightjar lovers have volunteered during the wee hours of the night to conduct standardized surveys of routes across North America.  The effort has resulted in the most comprehensive database to date on the group.

A total of more than 23,000 nightjars of nine species have been recorded during surveys.  We would like to express our gratitude to the many observers across the continent who have given of their time and expertise to make this effort possible.  Over the next year, CCB biologists will begin to explore the database for spatial and temporal patterns that will help with future nightjar management.  Moving forward, we hope to expand the volunteer base and survey network into additional areas that have received little coverage.

Mapping bald eagle movement corridors in the Northeast

September 29, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

With the establishment of many commercial-scale wind installations throughout the eastern United States and Canada has come a growing concern about the potential impact to migrating eagles.  Raptor migration corridors form around narrow ridgetops and coastlines that produce updrafts the birds use to facilitate soaring and gliding.  These same sites support the best wind profiles for commercial wind power generation.  Development of turbine fields within migration routes has the potential to cause population-level impacts.  One of the most effective strategies for reducing eagle and other raptor mortalities is to place turbines away from areas of high activity.  An impediment to implementing this strategy has been our inability to identify movement corridors.

In a recent paper published in Plos One, CCB biologists used satellite tracking data to delineate eagle migration corridors in the Northeast and overlay these corridors on maps of existing wind facilities and areas of viable wind-energy development.  A dynamic Brownian bridge movement model was used to process 132 individual migration tracks to create a utilization surface that delineated the movement corridors.  The work was funded by the American Wind Wildlife Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the intent of informing the placement of future wind facilities in the Northeast.

Delineation of the movement corridors will be important for future wind development.  More than 2,000 existing wind turbines were within the highest two categories of eagle use.  However, only 6% of the area supporting the most commercially viable wind power classes overlapped with these eagle use areas, suggesting that a great many locations exist where wind may be captured outside of eagle movement areas.

Fruit availability and consumer demand within a migration bottleneck

September 27, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

During the fall of 2014, The Center for Conservation Biology, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, conducted a study to examine the availability of fruit and which fruits were important to passerine migrants on the lower Delmarva Peninsula (download fruit availability report).  CCB technicians Sarah Rosche and Arianne Millet performed more than 2,000 vegetation assays to evaluate the composition and density of fruiting plants and the density of fruit production within selected forest and shrub patches.  They monitored nearly 500 fruiting branches of 12 species that supported more than 24,000 fruits weekly during the study period to assess patterns in fruit ripening.  These branches were included in an exclusion experiment (covered versus exposed) that we used to evaluate rates of fruit loss, fruit consumption, and fruit preference.

The seasonal schedule of fruit ripening varied dramatically between plant species such that the availability of ripe fruits changed during the migration period.  Some of the fruits, including American holly and hackberry, matured too late to have relevance for most migrants.  Based on the exclusion experiment, an index of consumption varied significantly between fruit species.  Sassafras, devil’s walkingstick, fox grapes, and autumn olive had consumption rates of more than 15% per week compared to hackberry, beautyberry, and bayberry that were less than 5% per week.  Fruit species fall into three preference categories including high demand, medium demand, and low demand.  Migrants stripped virtually 100% of fruits in the high demand category during the height of the migration season. 

Mature forest and shrub patches differ dramatically with respect to the composition of the fruiting plant community, plant density, fruit density, and the extent to which they support preferred fruit species.  Although fruit density within shrub habitat was more than ten-fold higher than forest patches, 95% of the crop is of low demand or is produced by an exotic invasive species.  Shrub patches should be managed to broaden out the fruiting plant community to include preferred fruit species.  Management prescriptions should be developed that drive the footprint of the less desirable plants down and expand the more desirable elements.

This field study follows a previous study by CCB that examined metabolic demand by migrants stopping over on the Lower Delmarva Peninsula and conservation limits (download conservation limits report). These projects have been completed to inform land management within this important staging site.  

CES Assesses Ecological Value

September 19, 2016

Saving green space and protecting healthy waters while balancing the need for economic development can be challenging for local governments.  In 2010, with the help of the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and other partners, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's Coastal Zone Management Program (CZM), released the Virginia Ecological Value Assessment (VEVA) to help show where important ecological areas are located in the coastal zone of Virginia.  This major breakthrough gave local governments a tool to assess the ecological value of potential sites, and hopefully to protect ecological resources.  

Now, CES has been awarded a contract from CZM to update this model and incorporate new data.  "This data set is important to the community because it provides localities with information on local, unique, and potentially highly valuable ecological resources." says Mr. William Shuart, a faculty member within CES.   The project will run for almost a year and the final products will be visible on CZM's data portal, Coastal Gems ( that CES supports.   

For more information on the project, please go to:

New Director of Rice Rivers Center

September 8, 2016

There continues to be change and growth in the VCU Life Sciences program. Dr. Robert Tombes, the Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently announced Dr. Greg Garman as Director of the Rice Rivers Center (RRC). Dr. Garman has served as the Director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) for the past 16 years as well as serving as the founding Research Director for RRC. Approximately CES 70 students graduate annually with one of the highest rates of placement to their related job market. Dr. Garman, who has been a tenured member of the biology faculty since 1994, has agreed to remain as acting director of CES until his replacement is found. Special gratitude is extended to Dr. Len Smock for not only serving as Rice Rivers Center Director, but also Interim Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research during the past 18 months. 

New Vice Provost for VCU Life Sciences

September 2, 2016

We have had an exciting summer in the VCU Life Sciences building with the appointment of new leadership in our quest to continue forward in our interdisciplinary collaborations. 

The announcement from our provost and vice president for academic affairs, Dr. Gail Hackett: 

I am pleased to announce the appointment of Robert M. Tombes, Ph.D. as vice provost for life sciences and research. Dr. Tombes has been serving as the interim executive associate dean in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences.

Dr. Tombes has been a leader in VCU’s interdisciplinary life sciences community for 22 years. He is a professor in the Department of Biology with affiliate appointments in the Department of Biochemistry and the Massey Cancer Center. He is also a former director of the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education as well as the integrative life sciences doctoral program. He maintains an active lab in the Department of Biology focused on cell and developmental biology research. Prior to his current position he served as associate dean for research in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Dr. Tombes received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Washington and a dual B.A. in Chemistry and Biology from the University of Virginia. 

CES Faculty nominated to Renewable Energy Task Force

August 31, 2016

Todd Janeski, VCU Center for Environmental Studies, was recently nominated by the Governor McAuliffe Administration to serve on the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Virginia Intergovernmental Offshore Renewable Energy Task Force. The BOEM is responsible for supporting offshore renewable energy development through grants, leases, easements, and rights-of-way for safe, orderly and environmentally responsible renewable energy development activities. 

In his role, Mr. Janeski, will share his experience working with the commercial fishing industry on the Collaborative Fisheries Planning for Virginia's Offshore Wind Energy Area project. This project included the development of Best Management Practices for operating a commercial wind facility. On this current task force, he will represent VCU in addressing issues relating to future offshore renewable energy leasing and development in a way that supports Virginia’s clean energy goals.

Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive Collaboration

August 30, 2016

The Ancarrow Wildflower Digital Archive builds on the Rice Rivers Center’s relationship with Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden to support outreach and research to the community.

Newton H. Ancarrow, Richmond’s earliest environmental activist, battled to improve water quality of the James River in the late 1960s.  Our founding river suffered from raw sewage and industrial waste and oil overflows that coated his boat ramp and the bottoms of his high quality speedboats after a heavy rain. He walked the banks of the James looking for sewage outflows and, on his journeys, documented over 400 species of wildflowers in what is now the James River Park System. The digital capture of his slide collection gives us a unique snapshot from the past to compare with the riparian flora of the present, a story of a crusade for clean water and conservation that still echoes today.

Learn more about this collaboration

EPA Urban Waters Program Grant

August 29, 2016

The VCU Center for Environmental Studies (CES) in partnership with the Rice Rivers Center, Office of Sustainability, the Division of Community Engagement, and the City of Richmond Armstrong High School received funding from the U.S. EPA Urban Waters Program to conduct a community greening and green infrastructure project in our own RVA community.  The goal of this partnership is to identify prime areas for urban greening to address the urban runoff pollution issues that are impacting our community.

Both the CES students and high school students will work together to build and deploy an online Geographic Information Systems (GIS) application to collect and analyze data. The high school students will be able to provide feed-back regarding usability and usefulness of the application to the community. As the culminating event, the high school students will take a field trip to Rice Rivers Center to experience on-site water quality data management and methodology. 

The Writer's Colony Moondancer Fellowship

August 28, 2016

Alia Hamden, who traveled as a student to Panama for VCU's Education Abroad-Ecology and Outreach, was awarded the Moondance Fellowship for 2016 at the Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow for her writings inspired by the Panama trip.  According to the press release,  "the Moondancer Fellowship is awarded to an author writing in any genre who expresses their love of and concern for the environment through their writing." Read the full press release  





Record Breaking Haul for the VOSRP

August 11, 2016

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) has had a busy spring and summer in the Richmond area. Recently, the program hauled the largest single volume of shell from Richmond at over 16,000 pounds, or more than 8 tons. Spat cages were deployed in the Piankatank to collect wild spat to be used on restoration sites. A reef was created in the lower Rappahannock with 1500 bushels of shell. The restaurants and public drop off locations who have partnered with this program can be found on the VOSRP Map. Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery is one of these partners, and in addition to recycling, has partnered with the VA Oyster Shell Recycling Program to release the Seven Region Oyster Saison. This refreshing saison-style ale features farm-raised oysters from companies that partner with the VOSRP and represent seven of Virginia's oyster regions. Proceeds from the sale support oyster restoration and shell recycling. October 16 is the annual Shell Raisers Shindig that celebrates these partnerships that make the VA Oyster Shell Recycling Program successful. The public is welcome to join this event at Libby Mill Midtown for an afternoon of Virginia oysters, wine, beer, cider, and top chefs that participate in the Program such as Walter Bundy of Shagbark and Andrew Manning of Lucca Enotecca and Longoven.

Nature Walks

August 5, 2016

By Rachel Machcek, Elinor Frisa, Julia Rendelman, and Hannah Sutherland, Division of University Relations

VCU writers Rachel Machacek and Elinor Frisa, photographer Julia Rendelman, and videographer Hannah Sutherland spent some time out at Rice Rivers to provide a look at what research and education is being done. Check out the article here: and the video here:

VCU Rice Rivers Center Design Award

August 3, 2016

BUILD magazine recognized Rice Rivers Center with the 2016 Award for Innovation in Sustainable Design for Virginia and Best Eco-Friendly Institutional Project. This award recognizes Train Architects for their exceptional work on this project.  BUILD, which “endeavours to bring the latest need-to-know content and updates from across the global construction and property industries” describes the award as follows:  “The 2016 Architecture Awards have been put in place to highlight the amazing work done by the talented designers, artists and visionaries whose talent and innovation have created talking points that will span generations.”

Bioinformatics student wins Fulbright Fellowship

August 3, 2016

Ellen Korcovelos, from Richmond, Virginia, received her Bachelor of Science degree in bioinformatics in May 2016 from Virginia Commonwealth University and currently works at Commonwealth Computer Research Inc. (CCRi) as a data scientist. Though she now specializes in natural language processing and machine learning, Korcovelos spent her undergraduate years researching various facets of dementia. During this time, Korcovelos began developing computational means of analyzing the speech of patients with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment. Korcovelos has presented her work at multiple conferences, including the National Council of Undergraduate Research, Capital Region Celebration of Women in Computing, and the Alzheimer's Association International Conference. Besides her research, Korcovelos also enjoys participating in activities that couple technology and medicine; she and her team won first place at HackDC for their mobile application for veterans with PTSD and third place at RamHacks for their mobile application tracking flu epidemics across the US. After her year spent completing a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Toronto under Dr. Graeme Hirst and Dr. Frank Rudzicz, Korcovelos will return to the US to pursue a Ph.D. in computational linguistics and continue working at CCRi.

CES Represented at 2016 ESRI® User Conference

July 20, 2016

The Center for Environmental Studies (CES) was well represented at the 2016 ESRI® User Conference in San Diego, California.  ESRI®, the world’s largest geospatial software company, holds an annual user conference with 16,000+ attendees and invites users to present maps, posters, and oral presentations to an international audience focused on geospatial technologies.  ESRI® is the world’s leader in geographic information systems (GIS) software, and CES has been using the technology since 1993 to analyze spatial data.  CES faculty members Mr. William Shuart, Ms. Jennifer Ciminelli, and graduate student Mr. Wyatt Carpenter, who is also employed by VCU’s Office of Sustainability, attended the conference. 

Mr. William Shuart presented some of his research, “Evaluating Point Clouds - LiDAR and UAV's,” that was performed at the VCU Rice Rivers Center and used unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV's). UAV's can be used to collect aerial imagery that is useful in assessing the quality and health of wetland vegetation. CES and the VCU Rice Rivers Center will begin to implement the technology into their research and curriculum for students to provide them with a real world experience in near real-time data collection and processing. Mr. Shuart states, “Having access to industry leading UAV platforms is only part of the puzzle; understanding the data generated from them is where the answers lie.  Being able to produce 4 cm aerial imagery that is of a known quality in a couple of hours is the key to mitigating impacts to the environment.”  

Mr. Wyatt Carpenter's presentation “Worth it? Relating Landscape Composition & Residential Property Value” used GIS to focus on the potential financial benefit to real estate developers to preserve forested areas and wetlands in housing communities. Mr. Carpenter sums up the benefit of the conference to him personally this way: "One of my favorite parts of the conference was being in a huge group of people, all with different jobs, but connected by the common thread of GIS. Sharing that interest made it really easy to connect with other people and opened my eyes to the far-reaching applications of GIS."‌‌

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Making History at the VCU Rice Rivers Center

July 11, 2016

History was made at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.  The first SET (Surface Elevation Table) was installed at 12:33 PM on Wednesday, May 25th 2016, and became a contributing partner investigating coastal wetland response to sea level rise in the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Site Cooperative.  With the help of A.W. Demeo (VIMS), Claudia Deeg (a VIMS intern), Ron Lopez (M.S. ENVS 2017), Melissa Davis (M.S. ENVS 2016), Chris Gatens (ENVS 2016/BIOL 2016) and Dr. Ed Crawford (VCU, Biology), two SETs were successfully installed within Harris Creek, initiating our long-term study.  These two SETs (and others to follow) represent the first SETs installed in tidal forested wetlands within the James River watershed.  

Ron Lopez, one of the graduate students for this project, offers the following explanation on what exactly this project will provide:

Why SETs?

Accelerated rates of relative sea-level rise (RSLR) are predicted as a result of climate change.  While tidal freshwater wetlands have been able to keep pace with RSLR via self-regulating mechanisms of sediment accretion in the past, it is not certain that they can continue to keep pace.  Tidal forested freshwater wetlands, in particular, are understudied, and the understanding of their accretion dynamics is in its infancy.  With this study, researchers hope to gain insight into rates of elevation change, and influencing factors, in tidal forested freshwater wetlands in the James River watershed, as well as to gauge the success of the Kimages Creek restoration in terms of sediment accretion.

What are SETs?

The SET is a device for measuring elevation change relative to a fixed benchmark.  The instrument consists of a horizontal arm attached a vertical rod that is inserted into permanent benchmarks that have been installed in the substrate.  Through the horizontal arm run nine pins that are lowered to the sediment surface to take measurements.  Often used in conjunction with SETs are feldspar marker horizons, which are layers of white feldspar clay placed on the sediment surface that become buried as sedimentation occurs; sediment accretion can be measured by taking a core through the feldspar layer and measuring from the clay marker horizon to the sediment surface.  Using the array of SETs coupled with feldspar marker horizons, researchers will be measuring elevation change, sediment accretion, and shallow subsidence occurring within the wetland sites.  To date, 15 of the 18 first SETs (with the final three to be installed in James River National Wildlife Refuge July 12th) have been installed. The intention is to further expand the array of SETs to continue the advancement of this long-term study.

Where are the SETs?

For this research, observations and data collection will occur in three tidal forested freshwater wetlands:  Harris Creek (at the Rice Rivers Center), Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, and James River National Wildlife Refuge.  Additionally, researchers will be taking measurements in Kimages Creek (an ongoing restoration that previously existed as tidal forested freshwater wetland) in order to measure the success of the Kimages Creek restoration in the context of sediment accretion by comparing accretion measurements with those of the reference/ benchmark site at Harris Creek.  

In order to gain insight into some of the factors that may govern variability in our measured rates of accretion and elevation change, researchers will be measuring predictor variables at each site to include: aboveground vegetation density, aboveground surface roughness, distance to sediment source, tidal inundation parameters, and suspended sediment concentration within each channel.  Real Time Kinematic (RTK) base stations will be used to attain actual elevations at each site.  The state-of-the-art RTK units are capable of sub-centimeter accuracy in the z-coordinate, allowing for precise elevation measurements.  

Collaborative Research

In addition to bolstering the understanding of accretion dynamics in mature and restored tidal forested freshwater wetlands and allowing observation of elevation change in these ecosystems, this study marks a historical milestone for VCU Rice Rivers Center, as these SETs are the first installed in tidal forested freshwater wetlands in the James River watershed.  Furthermore, the partnership with the national wildlife refuges and the incorporation of data into the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Sentinel Sites Cooperative sets a precedent of cooperative information sharing and adaption to sea-level rise.  

Blood Work

July 8, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Blood is a universal diagnostic tissue used to monitor a dizzying and expanding array of health indicators in humans.  Blood is particularly attractive as an indicator tissue because it is relatively easy and non-invasive to collect and it contains a host of constituents that have been shown to reflect a wide range of health conditions such as organ function, disease exposure, nutritional status, and cancer activity.  The ongoing increase in the number of health questions that may be addressed using only a blood sample is astounding.

Aside from the value of blood for veterinarian diagnostic purposes in pets and wildlife, bird blood has been used for decades to address a long list of ecological questions and to monitor environmental health.  Over the years, CCB biologists have collected blood from a long list of species often in collaboration with partners to monitor contaminant exposure in species of conservation concern or to investigate ecological questions.

 During the spring of 2016, CCB, in collaboration with the National Park Service, began a two-year investigation of contaminant exposure in eagles breeding on park service lands within the Chesapeake Bay.  Blood samples were collected from nestling eagles to investigate exposure to heavy metals and organic compounds.  The study is a sister project with a similar investigation on park service lands in the Great Lakes.  During their 100th anniversary year, the National Park Service continues to pursue an ethic of land stewardship that is a model for all.

Black-bellied Plovers Complete Annual Cycle

July 8, 2016

By Fletcher Smith, Center for Conservation Biology

Three black-bellied plovers have been tracked from their wintering grounds back to their breeding grounds, completing the annual cycle of this species.  These birds were originally tagged on Bathurst Island during the breeding season of 2015 by The Center for Conservation Biology and Canadian Wildlife Service staff.  These birds were tracked to a broad range of wintering locations, and recently migrated back to their breeding grounds.  This annual migration cycle of black-bellies was previously unknown and the study has begun to shed light on the behaviors and habitats of the plovers. 

The locations of the wintering grounds were somewhat surprising in that the plovers were spread along a 40 degree longitudinal gradient of the tropics (from Honduras to Brazil).  The majority (78%) of tracked shorebirds showed little variability in wintering location, especially in one breeding population/area.  This large winter range suggests that black-bellied plovers may be able to withstand local and potentially large scale pressures better than other shorebird species that concentrate in large numbers in narrow migration corridors (i.e. Whimbrel, Lesser Yellowlegs).

The plovers arrived on stopover grounds near Swanquarter, North Carolina, in Beaufort, South Carolina, and the north shore of Lake Erie, near Windsor, Ontario, in late April and early May.  One plover flew non-stop 3,400 miles from Brazil to North Carolina in roughly five days, which is both amazing and now expected.  After three weeks of feeding and resting at those stopover sites, the plovers were back on the wing, stopping along Lake Manitoba, and in the far northern reaches of Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Canada.  These stops lasted between a week and ten days with the pull of the breeding season winning out.  All three plovers arrived on breeding grounds in early to mid-June.  Understanding the linkages between these far-flung stopover sites will be critical in conservation of these and other shorebirds moving forward.

The Canadian Wildlife Service crew is back at Bathurst Island this summer and hopefully they observe good nesting success from the tracked plovers and the other birds of Bathurst Island.  The satellite tracking of black-bellied plovers is a collaborative effort between The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William & Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University and the Canadian Wildlife Service, who initiated the tracking project in 2014. Logistical support for the Bathurst Island field expedition was provided by the Polar Continental Shelf Program in Resolute, Nunavut.  The tracking of the plovers is an ongoing project and the birds can be followed at

Yellow-crowned night herons adjust to changing climate

June 30, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Yellow-crowned Night Herons are showing a clear response to the earlier and earlier appearance of spring temperatures in Virginia.  The 2015 breeding season was the earliest recorded with pairs arriving and laying eggs more than 20 days earlier than pairs recorded in the same breeding areas during the 1960s.  This trend continued in 2016 with pairs arriving and laying eggs (on average) a full week earlier than 2015.  The birds are proving to be a sensitive barometer of shifts in regional temperatures. 

The yellow-crowned night heron is primarily a tropical species with four of the five living forms being sedentary and confined to tropical latitudes.  All forms are crab specialists, exploiting a wide range of crabs adapted to their locality.  A study of crab use in Virginia during the 1980s (Watts 1988) collected and identified more than 2,000 crab claws from under nests and determined that three species including the mud fiddler, the red-jointed fiddler, and the white-fingered mud crab accounted for 94% of the diet with the sand fiddler, ghost crab, blue crab, mole crab, toad crab, and common mud crab accounting for the remainder.  The three dominant species occur in salt marshes and associated shallows.

Yellow-crowned night herons that breed in Virginia are migratory and their arrival on the breeding grounds is closely tuned to the emergence of crabs in the spring.  Emergence of crabs is very sensitive to temperature.  When the temperature rises above 15°C (59°F), they emerge from their burrows and become active.  Crabs retreat to their burrows and move underground when the temperature drops below 15°C.  The date in spring when temperature passes the 15°C threshold is advancing, extending the season of fiddler availability.  Yellow-crowns appear to be adjusting to the shift in season.    

The 2016 season is the second in a multi-year study to compare the breeding ecology of the yellow-crowned night heron to a study conducted within the same colonies in the 1960s.  The ten-year dataset from the 1960s was collected by Constance DuPont Darden.  Mrs. Darden (former first lady of Virginia) was passionate about yellow-crowns, and her information has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the species.  Her dataset is housed within The Center for Conservation Biology.

Climate change is a change in the statistical properties of the climate system over long periods of time.  Regardless of the underlying causes of this change, the earth has been experiencing a documented shift in climate for decades.  How wild species respond to changes in climate will determine many aspects of their ecology including their geographic distribution, the timing of significant events in their annual cycle, and for some their survival.  Understanding the implications of these shifts is a growing focus of conservation biology.  Because of both their migratory status and specialized diet, yellow-crowned night herons represent a model system for investigating how species respond to a changing climate.   

Conservation in conflict: peregrines and shorebirds in the mid-Atlantic

July 7, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The outer coast of the mid-Atlantic region has become an important site for the conservation of both breeding peregrine falcons and migratory shorebirds.  The region is a terminal, spring staging area where several shorebird species stop for an extended stay to build fat reserves for their final flight to arctic breeding grounds. The region has served this role for thousands of years and includes designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserves with both “hemispheric” and “international” status as well as many conservation lands dedicated to shorebird protection.  The region is also the site where, during the 1970s, a decision was made to establish a breeding population of peregrine falcons to advance the cause of peregrine restoration in eastern North America. 

The eastern peregrine falcon was a casualty of the DDT era.  With no alternatives, the recovery team decided on a bold plan to stand up a captive breeding program and release birds into the wild.  After some experimental releases a fateful decision was made in 1975 to release birds on the outer Coastal Plain, a geographic area with no natural cliffs for nesting and no historic breeding population.  The hope was that a breeding population would be established that would ultimately colonize the historic Appalachian breeding range.  Between 1975 and 1985, 307 captive-reared peregrines were released on the Coastal Plain (VA to NJ) on artificial towers.  A breeding population was rapidly established that has blossomed to more than 70 pairs (read more about establishment of the coastal breeding population).  All of these pairs nest on man-made structures.

Migratory shorebirds make up the bulk of the prey used to feed peregrine broods on the outer coast and peregrines have adjusted their breeding season to capitalize on staging shorebirds.  Two independent studies of diet including one in Virginia and one in New Jersey have shown that shorebirds account for more than 70% of the prey used to feed young.  As the peregrine population has grown over the past 30 years, the annual take of staging shorebirds is now estimated to be several thousand.  Several shorebird species seem to receive the most attention including dunlin, short-billed dowitcher, black-bellied plover, willet, and some red knots.  A sample of video footage from 2016 on one pair for seven days included 12 dunlin, 4 semipalmated plover, 1 American oystercatcher, 1 willet, 1 black-bellied plover, 1 ruddy turnstone, 1 short-billed dowitcher, and 1 spotted sandpiper.

The establishment of a robust breeding population of peregrine falcons within one of the most significant shorebird staging sites along the Western Atlantic Flyway represents a conflict between opposing conservation objectives.  Of the 35 shorebird populations that use the flyway, 65% are declining.  Some believe that the establishment of the peregrine breeding population may be contributing to these declines.  For some shorebird species, the estimated take by the peregrine population may approach sustainable mortality limits (read more about sustainable mortality limits for shorebirds), suggesting that the population may be contributing to declines.       

One possible management solution may be to translocate young peregrines from the outer coast to the mountains for release.  The Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the National Park Service and CCB have had a long-term partnership of moving birds to mountain hack sites (read more about this hacking program).  The focus of this program has been to re-establish breeding falcons within the historic mountain range while increasing the survival of young peregrines reared in hazardous locations.  A third objective of moving birds from the outer coast would be to provide relief to migratory shorebirds by greatly reducing the number of mouths to feed.

The win-win-win program of moving young peregrines to the mountains would mitigate some of the conservation conflict between breeding peregrines and staging shorebirds.  A modest amount of funding is needed to expand the hacking program to accommodate the young peregrines.

Virginia bald eagle breeding population exceeds 1,000 pairs

July 1, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

(Williamsburg, VA)---The Center for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary and Virginia Commonwealth University has compiled 2016 survey results for the Virginia bald eagle population.  After more than 160 hours of aerial surveys, ground efforts in residential areas of lower Tidewater, and observations from inland volunteers, the survey documented 1,070 occupied breeding territories.  This result continues the dramatic year over year recovery documented over the past 40 years.  The population had fallen to a low of 20 pairs by 1970.  A federal ban on the use of DDT and like compounds in 1972 initiated a recovery by the late 1970s.  By 2007, the population had reached 500 pairs for the first time in the modern era.  The 2016 survey mapped eagle territories within 57 counties and 12 independent cities.  The highest breeding densities continue to be in counties situated around major tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay with highest numbers including 75 pairs in Westmoreland County, 73 pairs in King George County and 71 pairs in Essex County.

 In addition to the historic breach of the 1,000-pair barrier, this season marks some notable survey anniversaries.  2016 represents the 60th year of the annual eagle survey initiated by Jackson Abbott and volunteers of the Virginia Society of Ornithology.  In addition to this incredible milestone, the 2016 survey represents the 40th year of Mitchell Byrd’s tenure, the 25th year of Bryan Watts’ tenure conducting the survey, and the 25th year of Captain Fuzzzo Shermer piloting the survey.  Together, this young team has logged more than 3,500 hours of eagle survey flights, more than 24,000 nest checks, and documented the production of more than 15,000 eaglets.  It has been one amazing ride.

 The Virginia Bald Eagle Survey is a national treasure. The survey has become one of the most significant serial data sets in the world. More than population information alone, the effort has produced a wealth of ecological information on a population recovering within an increasingly human-dominated landscape. It has become one of the best records of arguably the greatest conservation accomplishment in our nation’s history. Since 2009, results of the survey have been made available on CCB’s website via an interactive mapping portal where users are able to view known nest locations throughout the state. The web application receives more than 30,000 visits per year and has become a critical resource for land planners.

 The 2016 survey was sponsored by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the National Park Service, Dominion, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and The Center for Conservation Biology.  Reese Lukei managed the ground survey in lower Tidewater, Bart Paxton assisted with aerial surveys on the upper Potomac and many observers throughout the state provided observations of nesting activity.  We thank all of these organizations and great observers for their commitment to eagle conservation in Virginia.

First-ever drone course to be offered at Rice Rivers Center

June 30, 2016

This summer, the Center for Environmental Studies will begin the first course on the scientific application of drone technology held at VCU. ENVS-591: Environmental Applications of Drone Technology will be a one-credit, two-day intensive course, and will be held at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

The use of drone technology is well-suited to the ecological and environmental sciences, and emerging sensor technologies will allow scientists to gather higher resolution data faster.  In this course, students will receive exposure to technical software related to the operation of the UAVs, and also will learn how to create elevation point clouds, elevation models and compute vegetation indices. Training will be on industry-leading fixed-wing and multi-rotor platforms. Real-time kinematic GPS and control, along with web application display, will enable each student to create usable output from the data collected in flight. Students also will be exposed to flight planning, safe operation, and regulations regarding use of UAVs.

This cutting-edge technology will equip students with a marketable skill that will dramatically further their potential as researchers.

Assessment of shorebird hunting policies published

June 29, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

One of the greatest challenges in managing migratory birds is that they exist within a legal quandary. As a recognized principle of international law, states have sovereign rights over all wild animals that fall within their jurisdictional boundaries but no jurisdiction over animals outside of these boundaries. The practical result of this principle is that animals that migrate from one jurisdiction to another are subject, in succession, to the sovereign rights and policies of all states along their migration route. According to conventional international law, there is nothing to prevent a jurisdiction from overexploiting a migratory species to the point of extinction while other jurisdictions expend considerable resources to protect it. Because a migratory population represents a single biological unit, cooperation among range states is critical to successful management.

Shorebirds are among the bird groups of highest conservation concern in the world with three times as many species declining as increasing.  In recent years, unregulated hunting has been identified as a possible driver of declines particularly within the Western Atlantic and East Asia-Australian Flyways.  A significant barrier to progress toward holistic management is that we currently have no comprehensive overview of the patchwork of policies that regulate shorebird hunting across the Western Hemisphere.

In 2015 with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CCB conducted a comprehensive assessment of hunting policies pertaining to shorebirds for the 57 jurisdictions within the Western Hemisphere.  The assessment (Watts and Turrin 2016) was recently published in “Wader Study” the international journal devoted to shorebird ecology and conservation.  We focused on participation in international treaties and the existence and terms of domestic legislation with respect to the subsistence, commercial and sport hunting of shorebirds.

Most (91.2%) jurisdictions fall into two policy categories, including those that protect all or nearly all (>90%) and those that protect very few (<10%) migratory shorebird species.  The former includes 39 (68.4%) jurisdictions, 29 of which have complete prohibitions on shorebird hunting. One of the most interesting findings of the study was that ten of 11 jurisdictions where sport hunting of shorebirds is legal and practiced are exclusive to the Atlantic Flyway.  Shorebird hunting jurisdictions are concentrated within the Lesser Antilles where hunters capitalize on waves of shorebirds that are “put down” on the islands by tropical storms in the late summer and early fall period.

The presumptive objective of hunting policy is to ensure the future health of hunted populations by limiting take to or below the limits of what populations are capable of withstanding.  An immediate conservation priority for migratory shorebirds within the Western Hemisphere is to make policy adjustments that will prevent the collective harvest from exceeding sustainable limits.  A recent paper (Watts et al. 2015) published in Wader Study estimates sustainable mortality limits for shorebird populations within the Western Atlantic Flyway.  Estimates of sustainable mortality limits in combination with the recent assessment of current policies points the way forward. 

Fisheries meeting held at Rice

June 28, 2016

Virginia Commonwealth University recently hosted the annual meeting of the Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. The Fisheries GIT is a consortium of federal and state agencies that manage important Chesapeake Bay commercial fisheries, including Blue Crabs, Oysters, and Striped Bass. During the two-day meeting, over fifty academic scientists, agency biologists, and resource managers from throughout the Bay Region took part in technical presentations and heard about VCU's own applied research initiatives related to water quality, ecosystem restoration, fishery ecology, and environmental technology.

Researcher investigates environmentally friendly mosquito management

June 27, 2016

By Rachel Machacek, University Public Affairs

Virginia Commonwealth University alumna Katie Bellile has always been very clear about what she wants. From a young age she knew she wanted to go to VCU and immerse herself in environmental studies.

Bellile, 28, grew up in Richmond around the university where her mom was working toward a master’s degree in urban planning. She remembers being inspired by the Eugene P. and Lois E. Trani Center for Life Sciences building, which was new at the time.

Last year, Bellile graduated with a master’s degree in environmental studies in Life Sciences after completing her undergraduate degree in the same discipline, and started her career at Stantec as an environmental planner, protecting limited freshwater resources. Now, the research she conducted as an undergraduate student has been published — a unique achievement. And she has done it all as a single mom.

Bellile’s paper is an investigation of environmentally friendly mosquito management. Specifically, she looked at the combination of biological pesticides and leaf litter in controlling the emergence of adult mosquitoes from the egg and larval stages. The paper was published this month in the Journal of Vector Ecology, and is the culmination of research Bellile conducted with her faculty mentor James Vonesh, Ph.D., associate professor in the VCU Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

We caught up with Bellile recently to talk about her work and the newly published paper.

How did you become interested in pesticides and mosquitoes?

My original interest was chemical pesticides from agricultural use getting into the freshwater system. I began to look at some of the problems associated with these pesticides and it led me to an interest in biological pesticides, which are better for the environment in general.

How so?

So far, research shows that biological pesticides like Bti [Bacillus thuringiensis serotype israelensis] primarily target mosquitoes and don’t have large effects on the rest of the community. So frogs, for example, aren’t directly inhibited by products like Bti.

So why wouldn’t everyone use Bti?

Well, I started looking into the existing literature only to find that even though Bti has been examined by many scientists, there was not consistency in its efficacy. Sometimes it reduced adult mosquito emergence 99 percent and, other times, less than 30 percent, so there must be an agent increasing or decreasing its efficacy. But what? 

And the sleuthing begins. What did you find out?

When I read through all the literature, I realized quantity of leaf litter around mosquito breeding grounds is a constantly changing factor. I thought perhaps there is a relationship to the amount of leaf litter and the changing efficacy of Bti.

What did you observe in your research?

That leaf litter in combination with Bti created an ovitrap. Essentially, the leaf litter encouraged the mosquitos to come to the site and lay their eggs rafts there and Bti would have greater effect because there was a larger mosquito population present.

So you tricked the mother mosquitoes into depositing their eggs in an egg-friendly amount of leaf litter and then used Bti to kill the larvae?

Yes. Instead of deterring mosquitoes from laying eggs in your yard, stream or river, you gather a larger population at your site and therefore you’re able to get rid of more of them. My observation showed that they were less likely to colonize an area that only had Bti or low leaf litter than they are to colonize an area that has high leaf litter.

That must have been a lot of mosquito egg counting to verify your results.

That was actually the highlight — exploring the communities that established in my mesocosms. I loved collecting the data. I loved keeping count of every egg raft. I loved the feeling of accomplishment after I spent six hours with my face one inch above the water counting egg rafts or using a turkey baster to suck adult mosquitoes from the emergence trap. I loved that it was hard. 

It’s a lot of work. Were you working on your own?

I did decided on the plan on my own and kept detailed records, found volunteers, set up the experimental area, monitored my mesocosms and collected data. My research assistant, who is now my husband, helped with the heavy lifting of mesocosms and tasks that required someone to take measurements while someone else wrote data down.

What were you surprised to learn?

How hard it is to spend a year developing an idea, a year performing the experiment and then trying to squeeze all the hard work you’ve done into something someone will actually read. If I had it my way, my paper would have been 30 pages long. Dr. Vonesh and I worked really hard to use concise language and it’s less than 10 pages now. I really wanted readers to know all the work that had gone into it and all that I had learned, but instead I learned how to stick to the facts that are pertinent to your main idea and eliminating everything else. 

What was your biggest challenge? 

This was a complex project with multiple factors. I was looking at Bti presence and absence, leaf litter presence and absence, as well as mosquito emergence numbers in over 28 mesocosms. Presenting the data so it displays in a way that is accurate and defensible are factors that go into statistical analysis. Wrapping my head around all the math that had come from my own idea was wild. 

And what was the highlight?

Really it’s being a scientist for the first time because it’s something I’ve wanted for so long and worked so hard for the privilege of doing an experiment at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. I was excited the whole time I was doing fieldwork. I truly love the time I spend alone studying the woods and water. It allows me to put space in my soul. 

You were raising a young daughter alone the entire time you were in school. How did you stay motivated and on track?

I have a strong supportive family who never let me feel like being a young single mom should stop me. My daughter has been my constant motivation. I knew I had to study really hard to be the best I could be for her. I read a lot of my textbooks to my daughter as bedtime stories so she has benefited tremendously. She, too, is a straight-A student.   

Read Bellile’s paper at

This article was originally published in VCU News on June 23, 2016.

Evolving science: VCU Rice Rivers Center hosts seventh annual research symposium

June 13, 2016

By Rachel Machacek, University Public Affairs

A new frog species, a look at songbird population dynamics in the nonbreeding season, a device to simulate sea-level rise, and how urbanization could be affecting inchworms were among the topics presented at the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center Research Symposium last month.

More than 80 scientists and researchers filled a room overlooking the James River to hear 10 presentations and watch two short films at the symposium. The afternoon included a poster session and a tribute to Leonard Smock, Ph.D., director of VCU Rice Rivers Center and interim vice provost of VCU Life Sciences, who is retiring this year.

Smock noted the evolution of life sciences research over the years. “When we started the wetland restoration, the only research going on out there was plant ecology,” Smock said. “Now, it has matured considerably to take in global climate change and rising sea level impacts on the wetlands.”

He credits an investment in environmental technologies for expanding the scope of what researchers can do.

Dong Lee, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has been building electronic devices to assist biologists in their work. In his presentation he emphasized that commercial devices often do not answer the needs for a researcher’s specific work, may be cost prohibitive or could be both. Lee’s solution is to make your own. He demonstrated his DIY approach with a project to build a water pump that simulates sea-level rise in tidal freshwater wetlands.

“I’m thinking a lot of these students and faculty are saying, ‘Hey wait a minute. I can use a sensor to do XYZ. I’m going down to the lab and see if he can’t build that for me,’” Smock said.

Urbanization and the inchworm

Abigail Nelson, a graduate student in the Department of Biology, researched the effects of urbanization on a species of moth called the fall cankerworm, otherwise known as the inchworm.

Cankerworms may be small, but they make their presence known in their eating habits, feeding on the leaves of deciduous trees. Periodic outbreaks can severely defoliate trees. “They eat new leaves on trees, which can be more damaging,” Nelson said.

She wanted to see if urbanization is playing a role in these larger outbreaks – specifically how urbanization affects the parasitic wasp that feeds on cankerworm eggs, effectively suppressing their populations.

“More and more people are flocking to urban areas and there’s more development to keep up with population,” she said. If development is wiping out parasitic wasp populations that keep inchworm populations in check, what does that mean for the trees and forests?

Nelson has long been interested in population ecology, or how species interact with the environment. When she started working in the Johnson Lab, she realized that looking at insects is one key to understanding this. “There are so many of them. You can get a great idea of what’s actually happening in the ecosystem,” she said.

Over two years, Nelson studied cankerworm and parasitic wasp populations at rural and urban sites in Central Virginia, including one at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. She found that in the second year, fall cankerworm abundance declined at every site and identified significantly more parasitoids during that time, but “there was no significant effect of urbanization,” she said. However, her research suggests that the parasitoids may be regulating the fall cankerworm.

What’s ailing the prothonotary warbler?

Biology graduate student Jesse Reese is also interested in looking at species population. Her research is focused on conservation efforts for the prothonotary warbler, a declining songbird species. “My research deals with understanding how populations on the breeding ground are linked to populations on the wintering ground,” she said.

Most of the research on migratory birds happens during the breeding season. To fill knowledge gaps, Reese studied habitat use and quality of the prothonotary warbler’s nonbreeding grounds to get an understanding of their survival over the winter season.

During a month-long trip to the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia earlier this year, she looked at population density and took feather samples from five different sites. Studying plumage is helpful because birds often grow their feathers on breeding grounds so the samples will actually give her information about where specific birds breed.

Next steps will be to analyze the feathers in the lab and see if the birds are coming from the northern or southern part of the breeding range. By comparing populations between seasons, researchers can understand better what factors impact populations. From there, they can establish targeted conservation measures.

A new frog arrives in Virginia

A new species of frog, the Atlantic Coast leopard frog, was discovered in Staten Island, New York several years ago and announced in 2012. That same year, J.D. Kleopfer, herpetologist at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, discovered the species in Virginia.

Kleopfer, a collaborator with the Rice Rivers Center, has been working on confirming the Atlantic Coast leopard frog’s status as a new species in Virginia by analyzing genetic samples, physical characteristics and bioacoustics. In fact, the tip off for him was an unusual-sounding frog chorus—more of a quacking than the warbling chuckle of the Southern leopard frog, a very similar species. He had originally dismissed this observation and it was a year before he revisited what he had heard to confirm this chance discovery.

Based on his experience, Kleopfer had encouraging words for the room, in particular young biologists and conservationists: “You’ve got to be able to pay attention. Get out there and, if you notice something that makes you cock your head a little bit, pay attention to it because you never know what you’re going to find.”

This article was originally published in VCU News on June 10, 2016.

Black Lights and Owls IX

June 1, 2016

For the ninth year in a row, Black Light and Owls (BLO) recently drew a wonderfully engaged crowd of citizen scientists out to the Rice Rivers Center and the USFWS Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery. A collaboration between Dr. Art Evans and Anne Wright, VCU Rice Rivers Center Director of Outreach Education, BLO was initiated as an advanced training opportunity for volunteers from chapters of the Virginia Master Naturalists program. It is a great opportunity to learn more about how insect sampling is done, to learn the identification and natural history information about the bug species that come to the lights, and have the chance to practice insect and macro photography. Insects collected add to the Rice Rivers Center reference collection of insects being amassed by Dr. Evans. 

On May 28, approximately 80 people participated, with about a third of them camping out at the Rice Rivers Center for the evening. The event is held overnight because the lights draw different suites of species every few hours from dusk to dawn. Around midnight, three barred owls responded to calls made by Wright. Additionally, a number of  frog species were active and calling, giving the Master Naturalist members a chance to practice their frog call identifying skills.  

For more information on the Master Naturalist program:

A new tradition: VCU Alumni adopts the university's first alma mater

May 31, 2016

Lemont “Monty” Kier, Ph.D., likes variety.

“I like to do a little bit of everything,” said Monty, who joined Virginia Commonwealth University in 1977 as chair of the Department of Medicinal Chemistry in the School of Pharmacy – a position he held for 10 years. Now a professor emeritus in the school, he also holds positions with Life Sciences in the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity and with the Department of Nursing Anesthesia in the School of Allied Health Professions.

But even that’s not enough variety for Monty.

Click here for the full story and video on VCU News.

Measuring flux: New meteorological tower at the Rice Rivers Center

May 31, 2016

By Rachel Machacek, University Public Affairs

Standing at the edge of the wetlands at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, a 20-foot aluminum tower stands juxtaposed among the wild plants and grasses. There is no detectable movement from its perch on a wooden platform, but it is furiously recording data all day, every day — perhaps the hardest-working researcher in the field.

Gas and wind sensors mounted to the flux tower — aka Rice Rivers Atmosphere Biosphere Interaction Tower, aka Marsh RRABIT — are set to 20 hertz. That means the measurements fly in at frequencies up to 20 times per second. On the whole, the tower instruments collect about 1.7 million records per day on wind speed and direction, carbon dioxide and methane concentrations, precipitation, air temperature, soil temperature and moisture, light, the works.

In any environment, it can be challenging to get an accurate picture of what the atmosphere and terrain are doing. Normally, scientists manually take measurements and samples from smaller locations daily, weekly, monthly.

“You could walk out here and measure over the course of a season how much plant material is produced and you can look at how much carbon gets stored in the soil,” said Scott Neubauer, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences who is jointly leading the project with Chris Gough, Ph.D., assistant research professor in the Department of Biology. “These snapshots-in-time provide a batch of observable data, but it’s limited.”

The 12 instruments mounted to and around Marsh RRABIT are inherently more efficient and faster, providing a constant stream of micrometeorological information. It is a bit of a game changer, though it does not mean scientists can now kick back behind a desk, never to hoof it out to the field in waders again.

The flux tower data will tell researchers how much carbon and methane is going in and out of the footprint it measures (roughly 25 acres from its position to the edge of the forest), and then it is the researchers’ job to get on the ground and figure out where the carbon ends up — in the soil, plants and trees.

“If you can approach it from two different ways, on the ground and an independent approach with a tower, then you can converge on an estimate for greenhouse gas fluxes,” Gough said. “It increases our confidence in the estimates we’re making.”

Discovering the wetland

VCU Life Sciences purchased the tower through funding allocated from the Higher Education Equipment Trust Fund, which provides resources to upgrade equipment needed for instruction and research. It is the first tower to be put in a restored freshwater tidal wetland, an ecological system scientists do not know a ton about, particularly in regards to methane and carbon dioxide coming in and out of the atmosphere. In 2011, the wetlands were restored under a project with the Nature Conservancy.

Understanding the functioning of this type of wetland is at the heart of the project, as is being able to track how a restored wetland functions.

“There are tons of wetlands that have been destroyed all over the U.S. historically, and now, especially after Hurricane Katrina got a lot of attention, people are trying to restore them,” said Ellen Stuart-Haentjens, a Ph.D. student in the VCU Integrative Life Sciences Program. The flux tower project is central to her doctoral research, and she helped assemble and configure the tower.

Wetlands act as sinks for greenhouse gases and are also substantial sources of methane. They help with flood control, protect soil from erosion, and filter water to keep out pollution and toxins. When wetlands are not fully functioning, they simply do not do their job as well.

It is unknown if restored wetlands like the one at the VCU Rice Rivers Center are actually sequestering the same amounts of carbon or emitting similar amounts of methane as an established wetland, and they present a number of scientific question marks for researchers.

“There are very few restored wetlands that people have taken at least carbon measurements out of, so this is going to be one of the first studies looking at that,” Stuart-Haentjens said. “If restored wetlands are not functioning up to what they should be, should we have more regulations on what we do with our wetlands? Or should we change the way we are restoring our wetlands?”

With the new data set, researchers can get answers to these questions and, by being able to precisely quantify the greenhouse gas fluxes between the wetland and atmosphere, produce better predictive models of the carbon cycle.

Data in real time

William Shuart, director of information technology at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, is working on getting the tower hooked up to Wi-Fi so data can be transmitted to a server at the Trani Life Sciences Building on campus. Shuart and Jennifer Ciminelli, data manager and research coordinator, are the keepers of the data. Once the Wi-Fi connection is established, Stuart-Haentjens can begin monitoring the tower remotely from her laptop or even through an app on her cell phone, making sure the instruments are working and that there are no glitches.

Remote access is something that has only just become accessible in the past 10 years, and the technology has revolutionized researchers’ ability to capture high-frequency ecological data from ecosystems, according to Gough.

“What happens is, every 15 minutes or so, the system will transmit data back to one of our servers here on campus and it’s stored in a database,” Shuart said. “We’ll have a website where people can go and look at the current atmospheric conditions at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, what the tide is doing, how much dissolved oxygen is available, etc. Now we have more detailed microclimatology data available.” (Think of the data and graphs on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, but on a hyperlocal scale.)

It also allows researchers to share data online in real time, creating a potent teaching and learning platform for VCU professors and students and even those outside of the university interested in the data.

“Tons of courses could benefit from a real-time data stream because you can see what the wetland is doing on any given day,” Gough said. “It makes it more accessible to students because you can say, ‘Hey, it’s sunny and spring. What do you think is going on today based on the theoretical stuff we’ve talked about?’ Then the student can actually see what’s happening in real time and test their hypothesis.”

The hope is that the data will also inform other research, transcending the original questions being asked regarding greenhouse gases.

“So somebody could be interested in what’s happening in Kimages Creek, and they could look at our flux tower data to figure out what’s happening when the tide is up and the whole marsh is creek, and get estimates of what flux is coming from the water,” Neubauer said. “We can see it informing lots of individual scientific questions and allowing others to build off the data.”

Power in numbers

When it comes to flux towers and the micrometeorological data they track, there is power in the aggregate — to take slices of regional and national data in order to understand on a global scale how ecosystems affect climate, and also the other way around. Ultimately, the goal is to generate usable science that could influence policymakers to create regulations around protecting the environment.

The flux tower is about 20 feet tall and 12 sensors are mounted to the frame.

The first tower went up in 1990 at Harvard Forest, and there are now about 700 flux towers around the world, many connected to FLUXNET, a global aggregate of tower networks. There also is AmeriFlux, a U.S. and South American network that Marsh RRABIT will join in December as soon as they meet the criteria of having a year’s worth of data.

“This is for people to do large-scale syntheses and models,” Stuart-Haentjens said. “If you have all the information from several ecosystems in the whole U.S., then you can do a lot more.”

For now, the VCU team is part of a group of Virginia-based flux tower scientists called VAFlux. They are working together to determine how they can use combined tower data to develop a carbon footprint for Virginia.

“We have so many ecosystems represented and if you know the kinds of carbon coming in and out of each other’s ecosystems, you can make a model for the whole state,” Stuart-Haentjens said.

VAFlux is also considering how to use the towers as a tool to teach middle and high school students about ecosystem fluxes, and potentially developing a travel course for international students and researchers who are trying to set up and interpret data from their own tower.

The flux tower technology is part of an ongoing effort within VCU Life Sciences to build an infrastructure at the VCU Rice Rivers Center with a broad range of applications that can facilitate a multitude of long-term research projects. It joins a suite of technology and tools, including tidal gages to measure water level and quality and three unmanned aerial vehicles, that give researchers the big picture of what the environment is doing over time. It represents a significant investment in VCU’s research mission.

This article was originally published in VCU News on May 31, 2016.

Oyster Restoration Day at Rice

May 25, 2016

On April 17, the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) held an oyster restoration day at the VCU Rice Rivers Center. A group of VCU honors students, graduate students, faculty and Program volunteers worked to construct spat cages, spat bags and a shell cleaning station.

Don Abernathy of Deltaville Oyster Company and Matt Schwab (VCU Class of 2014) of Hold Fast Oysters helped direct the efforts, and the day included a short discussion about the VOSRP, oyster restoration and some of the work at the Rice Rivers Center. 

Many thanks to VCU Honors College, Biology at VCU, the newly-formed VCU Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), Deltaville Oyster Company, LLC, Hold Fast Oysters and VOSRP partners and volunteers.


Bukaveckas’ research a helpful link for water quality problems in Western Australia

May 24, 2016

On May 4, Dr. Paul Bukaveckas gave a seminar at the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia, as part of the OI Futures Forum. In his talk titled “Mechanisms Driving Phytoplankton Turnover”, Dr. Bukaveckas addressed the fact that there is long-standing interest in the role of ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ forces in regulating material and energy cycling within ecosystems.  

An applied aspect of this problem concerns top-down effects that may mitigate (via grazing) or exacerbate (via nutrient recycling) the effects of nutrient enrichment on aquatic primary production.  Researchers at the Rice Rivers Center quantified the abundance, feeding and diet of zooplankton, benthic filter-feeders, and planktivorous and detritivorous fish in the tidal-fresh segment of the James River Estuary to assess the importance of primary consumers in removing phytoplankton biomass and recycling nutrients.  They found that consumer-mediated fluxes of chlorophyll A and nitrogen were small in comparison to other fluxes regulating phytoplankton abundance (production, respiration, advection) and nitrogen availability (external inputs, internal recycling).  This finding has implications for understanding the mechanisms that regulate turnover of chlorophyll, nitrogen and phosphorous in phytoplankton communities.

Dr. Bukaveckas is a Professor in the Department of Biology at Virginia Commonwealth University and holds a joint appointment with the Center for Environmental Studies. His area of expertise is Phytoplankton Ecology with a focus on factors controlling algal production and the role of primary producers in nutrient and organic matter cycling. His research includes studies of the effects of nutrient inputs on streams, rivers, and estuaries in the United States, Eastern Europe and Western Australia. His current work focuses on the occurrence of harmful algal blooms and water quality problems in the James River, a sub-estuary of Chesapeake Bay; similar problems are arising from nutrient inputs to estuaries along the western coast of Australia.

Wetlands walk attracts engaged crowd

May 24, 2016

On April 9, Joe Morina, a graduate student in VCU’s Biology Department, led a wetlands walk at the Rice Rivers Center. In his role as a Virginia Sea Grant Graduate Research Fellow, and in coordination with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, he led 18 participants on the walk who wished to learn more about wetland ecosystems. 

A group that included master naturalists and wastewater treatment workers learned about wetland ecology and the extensive wetland restoration efforts at the Rice Rivers Center. At the restored wetland, Morina demonstrated some basic methods of wetlands research, including sampling a soil core, viewing gas flux chambers, and understanding the use of litter bags for measuring decomposition rates or performing soil transplants. Lastly, the group walked to the swamp and discussed the differences in ecosystem function between the marsh and the swamp. The walk concluded with a discussion focusing on the importance of wetland ecosystems to water quality. 

Sutherland Elementary School students get first-hand science experience

May 23, 2016

VCU’s Graduate Organization of Biology Students (GOBS) organized an outreach event on April 8 at Sutherland Elementary School. Six graduate students installed mesocosms (large experiment tanks) to mimic vernal pools in order to teach the third grade students about ecosystems and scientific measurements. 

Graduate students Kennesha Bragg, Abigail Nelson, Joseph Morina, Andrew Kirk, April Harris, and Logan McDonald dug three mesocosms into place at the school. Small sticks from the surrounding area were placed in the mesocosms to encourage insects to perch, mate, and lay eggs.  Since students will measure the increase in the water depth from week to week as part of the project, the mesocosms were not filled.  And just in case the water levels fall low, rocks and sticks were placed in the mesocosms as an exit route for any amphibians that may need help escaping.

Five third grade classes, or approximately 100 students, heard a short presentation to give the students background information on mesocosm communities and explain the importance of vernal pools.  They learned what a mesocosm is, what they might find, and what their responsibilities will be for the project; they also got a chance to see spotted salamanders brought in by the graduate students. 

The classes were taken outside to view the mesocosms and given a brief demonstration on data collection.  Data will be collected weekly for a 7-week period, and the teachers then will help their students graph the data and compare the findings between classes. Students will sequence natural events chronologically, and classify species with similar characteristics into sets and subsets. The data they will collect will include water depth (measure of precipitation), water temperature, and biodiversity.

In addition, the graduate students constructed a field guide for students to use to identify species that may be present in the Dinwiddie area.

All of the graduate students involved are researchers at the Rice Rivers Center, with a diverse range of research from population ecology to microbial ecology. And while their research is vital to their work, they heartily support the Rice Rivers Center mission to promote outreach for environmental stewardship and education.

The goal of the event was to encourage the next generation of scientists to get started early and show them that opportunities for science are just outside the door.  “This was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had as a graduate student,” said Bragg.

Norman T. Jeffries Jr. Memorial Stream Clean-up

May 19, 2016

On May 14, 31 volunteers joined Mark Jeffries in the Norman T. Jeffries Jr. Memorial Stream Clean-up. Created in memory of his father, the clean-up happened in Woodman Park, Henrico County, where a large amount of erosion has occurred on the stream bank and the riparian buffer has been lost. A significant amount of garbage and debris was removed from the stream, including tires and sheet metal. Stacey Heflin, Conservation Specialist assisted in water quality testing, and Alan Weaver, Fish Passage Specialist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries conducted an Aquatic Life Inventory using an electro-fishing device.

Lisa Turner, Rusty Sprouse and Mike Beck from the Society for Ecological Restoration at VCU introduced our volunteers to a method of stream monitoring using benthic macro-invertebrates. Benthic: meaning stream bottom; Macro: meaning large enough to see with the naked eye; Invertebrate: meaning has no backbone. A number of species were identified, including Damselflies, Dragonflies, Crayfish, Midge Fly Larvae, Lunged Snail, Scud (Amphipod), Caddisfly, and Beetle (Coleoptera).

The Norman T. Jeffries Memorial Stream Project adopted a 1-mile stretch of Hungary Creek in Henrico County through the Virginia Adopt-a-Stream Program; the group also adopted Woodman Park as a part of the Henrico County “Because We Care” program.

Special thanks were extended to the following people who provided educational assistance: Paul Bukaveckas, Ph.D. with VCU Dept. of Biology and Center for Environmental Studies; Drew Garey, Deputy Director of VCU Rice Rivers Center; Lisa Turner, Mike Beck and Rusty Sprouse from Society for Ecological Restoration at VCU; Alan Weaver, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries; Stacey Heflin, Conservation Specialist, Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District.

Lesley Bulluck, Ph.D. receives outstanding faculty mentor award

May 12, 2016

Dr. Lesley Bulluck, Assistant professor with the Center for Environmental Studies and Department of Biology at VCU, has been honored as a 2016 Outstanding Faculty Mentor. Her central research interests are population ecology and behavior of birds, and she is most often motivated by the ability to influence conservation and management.

For award nominations, undergraduate students were asked to select a faculty member who has made a lasting impression through their guidance and mentorship of undergraduates conducting research and scholarship at VCU. Denney Turner, UROP Research Fellow, selected Dr. Bulluck specifically for her efforts toward student engagement in research activities and experiences, her enhancement of student learning and research training in the discipline, and for her overall support and guidance. Turner states, “Working this past year with Dr. Bulluck has been nothing short of extraordinary. She opened my eyes to many different aspects of research. I have learned so much from Dr. Bulluck, the hands on experience alone was rewarding enough but working one on one with a professor that is so knowledgeable and passionate in their field was unbelievable. Working with Dr. Bulluck, I have broadened my knowledge of everything that goes into research. One can learn a lot in classroom-based education but working out in the field or lab, immersed in the subject can alter your thinking and conception. Overall, Dr. Bulluck helped me find my true passion this past summer. It has been a life changing experience that I am so thankful to have had with such a wonderful professor.”

At the Rice Rivers Center: VDH hosts minority health month event with Virginia tribes

May 9, 2016

On April 15 at the VCU Rice Rivers Center, the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity (VDH-OMHHE) hosted an event celebrating April as Minority Health Month in Virginia.

The event began with a presentation of the signed gubernatorial proclamation by Secretary of Health and Human Resources, the Honorable William A. Hazel, Jr., MD. Dr. Hazel also made remarks about the importance of focusing on the health of all minorities in Virginia.

“For the three leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer and stroke – mortality rates in Virginia are 30 percent higher for blacks than they are for whites and 27 percent higher for all causes of death,” said Dr. Hazel. “The opportunity to be healthy is not equally available to all people living in all places in Virginia. It’s time we bring awareness to this injustice.”

The event continued with honoring two champions of equity in the tribal communities.  Elder Sharon Day of Minnesota, who also conducted a water ceremony at the event, is a nationally recognized health champion whose water walks around the United States highlight the link between health and nature. Narinder S. Arora, MD, is a pulmonologist practicing in Charlottesville, VA, who started the Healing Eagle Clinic on the Mattaponi reservation in King William, VA. He has travelled the 150 miles between his home and the reservation twice a month for the past 20 years in order to provide members of the tribal communities with medical care at no cost.

The event culminated in a listening session (similar to a town hall), which served as an open forum for Virginia’s tribal communities to discuss matters of health with leaders of various state agencies.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for government officials to interact with our state’s native tribes and hear the concerns they have about the well-being of their communities,” said Dr. Levine. “The listening session provided valuable insight on the concerns of Virginia’s tribal communities.  Having healthy, connected communities is one aim of Virginia’s state health improvement plan, the Plan for Well-Being. Having important discussions about health concerns, like the one we had today, opens the door for improving overall health for all Virginians.”

The theme for National Minority Health Month 2016 is “Accelerating Health Equity for the Nation.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health leads national minority health month efforts to raise awareness of the health disparities that continue to affect racial and ethnic minorities and how the country is working together to accelerate health equity.

Studying the Red Knot in Coastal Georgia

April 4, 2016

By Fletcher Smith, Center for Conservation Biology

The day will begin around six hours before high tide. Researchers will prepare enough food and water for the day ahead, and double check that all field gear is loaded up. The boat will drop into the water approximately four hours before high tide, and we will arrive on the island about three hours before high tide. The sand bars still expand for what seems like miles in every direction. This is the result of the up to nine-foot tides that characterize coastal Georgia. But as the water creeps up and the bars become smaller, the birds we are studying become more concentrated and much easier to access. By the time the tide reaches its apex, the birds will be in astonishingly huge concentrations, with upwards of 10,000 shorebirds (mixed flocks) occupying sand bars as small as one or two acres in size. But we are here to work with red knots, not the other shorebirds, and will focus our efforts on them during the mid-rising to mid-falling tide periods. 

The red knot is a robin-sized shorebird (and formerly called “beach robins”) that has two contrasting wintering strategies. A portion of the population will migrate to southern Argentina and Chile from breeding grounds in the high Arctic, while another portion will winter as far north as Virginia, all through the Caribbean and northern South America. When we arrive in Georgia in early April, the wintering population will be present, but the long distance migrants will not arrive until early May. We know all of this because a large percentage (around 5%) of red knots are individually marked with coded leg flags. These knots were captured in a variety of locations, from Delaware Bay to coastal Massachusetts (green flags), the breeding grounds in Canada and coastal stopover locations there (white flags), southern Chile (red flags), coastal Argentina (orange flags), and Brazil (blue flags). The majority of flags seen in April will be green (banded in the USA) but as the season progresses more of the long-distance migrants will arrive, displaying the full range of flags representing the above locations. This marked population makes studying arrival times, stopover duration, and population estimation easier than working with an unmarked population.  

This upcoming field season, our goals are to project a population estimate utilizing the coast of Georgia, map the important stopover locations, and attempt to increase the public awareness of red knots using the South Atlantic Coast of the US. During the 2015 field season, we saw peak numbers of red knots in the 7,000-8,000 range, and hopefully we will be neck-deep in knots again this year. 

This project is a collaboration among the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Non-game Division, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, and The Center for Conservation Biology. Numerous other entities have assisted us in this multi-year project, including staff from Little St. Simons Island, St. Catherines Island, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Georgia Riverkeepers staff, and staff from Cumberland Island National Seashore. We will be relying on volunteer help from some of the best “resighters” out there, especially Pat and Doris Leary.    

This red knot resighting project is receiving funding from Gulf Power and Southern Company through their National Fish and Wildlife Foundation partnership. 

Ipswiches cope after Jonas

April 5, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology 

On Friday, January 22nd the squeeze play between a rare winter tropical storm named Jonas moving north along the Atlantic Coast and a high pressure ridge over eastern Canada created battering winds within the mid-Atlantic.  By 3:00 a.m. on Saturday sustained onshore winds of 50 mph and gusts above 80 mph stood up offshore waves to a height of over 25 feet.  This storm caused widespread property damage across several states and reworked the landscape of the Virginia Barrier Islands.  A standing question for decades is how do resident birds that depend on this landscape cope with such storms?

Fall and winter storms are the agents of change within this dynamic barrier island landscape.  The forces of water and wind move tremendous volumes of sand overtop dunes and set back the successional clock.  Succession will begin anew, building dunes that lead to grassland, then to shrubland, and ultimately to maritime forest. This alternating process of damage and repair is critical to several breeding bird species, like the federally threatened piping plover and the declining least tern that depend on open beaches for nesting. But the season of residency for these breeding birds is opposite of the storms, with storms occurring in the fall and winter and breeding occurring in the spring and summer. Very little is known about how the winter bird community copes with these storms and their aftermath.

The Ipswich sparrow is a geographically isolated subspecies of the savannah sparrow. The Ipswich is a true coastal sparrow, spending its entire lifecycle in dune habitat along the Atlantic Coast. Its breeding range is restricted to Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, where it nests in dune and heath habitat. Its primary winter habitat includes coastal barriers and beaches along the Atlantic Coast. The global population is estimated to be only 6,000 individuals. Although a considerable body of research has been completed on the breeding grounds, very little is known about the winter ecology of this unusual bird.

On January 30th, just seven days after the passage of JonasBryan Watts, Fletcher Smith, Ned Brinkley, and Todd Day traveled out to Metomkin Island to survey Ipswiches. Over the past several years, CCB has determined that Metomkin is the center of abundance for Ipswiches along the Virginia Barrier Islands (read about our visit to the island in the winter of 2014-2015). The site supports the largest contiguous patch of preferred habitat in the state. On this day we surveyed the 5.8-kilometer (3.6-mile) patch of habitat extending north from the south end of the island and recorded 115 Ipswich sparrows, 111 regular savanna sparrows, 12 horned larks, 10 northern harriers, 6 eastern meadowlarks and 4 lapland longspurs. Incredibly, the number of Ipswich sparrows counted is nearly identical to the 117 counted by Bryan Watts and Dana Bradshaw within the same patch in 2011.  

The trip to Metomkin offered a rare opportunity to examine barrier island habitats shortly after a major storm and to observe Ipswich response to changes. Despite the fact that the birds continued to be present on the island, their distribution and pattern of habitat use was dramatically different than during previous visits. In previous years, Ipswiches were mostly confined to the open dunes, overwash fans and hind-dune grasslands where the birds are easily camouflaged by their sand-colored plumage and foraged singly or in small groups. On this visit, most birds were compressed along the shrub line and were using dense vegetation.  

Upon inspection, it appeared that much of the grass and forb vegetation on the dunes and within the dune swales had been sand blasted, stripping and burying the seeds. It is possible that the entire year’s seed crop was lost in the storm leaving the birds to adjust and behave like their regular savanna cousins.  Maintaining flexibility and having a “plan B” may be the key to survival within this raw and dynamic landscape during the winter months.

Our Avian Heritage

April 1, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Most students of natural history wonder about earlier times. Most of us are puzzle builders attempting to see a species in full relief. Over and over we place tiny fragments of information into a large, complex mosaic that we know will never be completed. We recognize intuitively that historical context is an essential part of that mosaic and we would give a great sum to sit down with a naturalist from an earlier time to ask questions that may fill in some of the gaps. How common was the species in their time? How did the species fit within the landscape? How did human use of the landscape influence distribution and abundance? How did earlier cultures view the species? In essence, we want to know how the ghosts of the past have led us to the present.

Sadly, much of what has been known about many of our species of conservation concern by earlier naturalists has been lost to time. We can read the formal writings of selected scientists who had the means and opportunity to publish some of their findings, but these are of course incomplete records. They frequently lack the detail that leads to the insights that we crave. Simple, mundane observations that seemed to the observer to be not even worth mentioning in publications are the jewels we seek. Some of this juice, this essence of context may be found in the observer’s field notes. Field notes are records of events or observations or thoughts made at the time of observation. They are accounts made for future reference.

Significant field records are being lost daily and with them potential insights into past conditions. Records that passionate field people have kept for decades are frequently discarded by family members at death. Family members that have never been self-ordained into the family of natural historians simply do not recognize the ongoing value of these records. They do not realize that for many of these people the records are held as their most valued possessions which they would protect to their last breath. Having carefully collected them during their most enjoyable hours, they would want them to live on and contribute to the knowledge of future naturalists.

More than ten years ago, CCB established the Avian Heritage Program, a project that is focused on preserving sets of historic field records for future generations. The program has a growing catalog of records. Donated and loaned sets of records are archived and scanned to be included in our digital library, and original materials are returned to the owner.

CCB is dedicated to preserving our avian heritage. If you have collected field records yourself or have those from a relative or friend and would like to have them preserved, please contact our office at or 757-221-1645.

At Home on the Islands

March 31, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The Virginia Barrier Islands have been recognized for their extraordinary birdlife for centuries by the locals.  As word of this incredible place spread, waterfowl and shorebird hunters, bird collectors, researchers, and early photographers, flocked to the islands supporting a very early ecotourism industry by the late 1800s.  Early egg and bird collectors came from far and wide and today specimens from the area are distributed in museums throughout the world.  Olin Sewell Pettingill, the noted ornithologist and film maker from Maine, famously spent his honeymoon (no doubt to the excitement of his young wife Eleanor) in June of 1933 on Cobb Island photographing black skimmers and terns. 

Through all of this history, the source of the islands’ notoriety has been their support of large numbers of shorebirds and beach-nesting waterbirds.  The islands have never been touted for their support of breeding eagles.  Prior to the decline of eagles during the DDT era, only a single bald eagle nesting record was known for the island chain (a pair on Parramore Island).

Over the past decade as the bald eagle population within the Chesapeake Bay and along the Delmarva Peninsula has recovered, observations of eagles along the outer islands have increased dramatically.  Bryan Watts and Barry Truitt flew weekly shorebird surveys along the island chain during the 1990s.  During this time, recording three eagles along the 100 kilometers of open beach was a big day.  After 2010 it has been common to see 15 to 25 eagles of all age classes loafing along the beaches.  However, breeding eagles did not begin to colonize the islands in any numbers until after 2010, and in 2011 only three active territories were known.

The islands were recently surveyed by Bryan Watts, Mitchell Byrd, and Captain Fuzzzo as part of the 2016 bald eagle breeding survey.  Surprisingly, the crew mapped ten eagle nests on the islands including six in loblolly pines, two in small trees or shrubs, one on the ground in the dunes, and one on an old peregrine tower.  Ground nests are particularly rare in bald eagles except beyond the tree line in high latitudes.  Two ground nests have been documented on the islands in the past four years and these represent the first to be recorded along the Atlantic Coast. 

Adding bald eagles to the breeding avifauna of this rich landscape is in some ways unexpected.  Seeing them nesting among the dunes and standing in the surf extends our perception of their ecological boundaries.

Wild Bet on Woodpeckers Pays Off

March 30, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

It was 5 April, 2000 and we (Bryan Watts, Dana Bradshaw and Marian Watts) caught the 5:40 AM ferry across the James River and made the 30-minute drive south to take up strategic positions in the woods before 6:45 AM.  Just after dawn, woodpeckers began to emerge from their roost cavities calling and rallying together in the center of the cluster of trees.  We would count four on this morning, and over the next week an additional nine birds.  Thirteen plus two bachelor males within other sites were all that remained of their kind in Virginia.  Once relatively common and distributed throughout the southeastern part of the state, the red-cockaded woodpecker suffered dramatic losses with the exploitation of pines during the colonial expansion and much deeper declines with the movement toward the production of wood products through short-rotation pine plantations.  However, as recently as 1975, 60 different breeding sites were still known.  By 2000 nearly all of those sites had been milled and the population was perched on the edge of the abyss (read about the decline). 

The 1998 purchase of the Piney Grove Preserve, a 2,000+ acre stand of old pines, by The Nature Conservancy represented the final bet by an exasperated conservation community to save the species in Virginia.  The site was the last game in town and its purchase was made with a clear understanding of the long odds for success.  A coalition of the willing that included The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and The Center for Conservation Biology formed with an initial objective of growing the population within the preserve.  The plan was to build a nucleus for recovery.

Despite the long odds, with the hard work of many, many individuals, the bet with Piney Grove Preserve has paid off.  During the winter of 2015-2016, CCB counted 68 woodpeckers within the preserve, an incredible five-fold return.  In just 15 years the conservation experiment has reversed a 400-year-old decline.  Although the acres of this initial purchase are now approaching their capacity for woodpeckers, other initiatives are pushing forward.  The purchase of several thousand acres of pineland (The Big Woods) adjacent to the preserve by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries represents great promise for the future of pineland birds in the state.  The translocation of eight woodpeckers into the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in October represents a second phase of recovery.  The Piney Grove Preserve has truly fulfilled its intended role as a nucleus for recovery.

Untangling dispersal in coastal peregrines

March 29, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Natal dispersal is the movement of an animal from the place of birth to the location where it will ultimately breed.  For the majority of bird species, dispersal progresses through three phases including 1) a decision to leave the natal territory, 2) a transition that includes exploration or prospecting and 3) a decision about where to settle or establish their own breeding territory.  Of these three phases we know the most about when young birds leave their natal territories.  We know far less about prospecting and, for many species, even less about where young birds ultimately settle.  Famously, peregrine falcons have an extended and dramatic period of exploration (read about the wanderings of young peregrines from Virginia as revealed through satellite tracking conducted by CCB).  They are named for their wide peregrinations.  In stark contrast to these extensive wanderings when it comes to establishing breeding territories they actually settle relatively close to their natal sites.

For more than two decades, a large portion of the peregrine falcons produced in eastern North America have been marked with two bands including a United States Geological Survey (USGS) aluminum band with a numeric code and a field-readable band with unique combinations of letters and numbers.  In most instances reading the USGS band requires that the bird be captured.  However, the field-readable band may be read using spotting scopes, binoculars, or cameras.  The use of these bands has allowed the community of biologists (and the public) to resight these birds over time and to contribute a great deal to what we know about their spatial ecology and natural history.

Since the early 2000s when Shawn Padgett pioneered the use of video cameras on nests to read bands, CCB and other groups have used camera traps to identify breeding adults.  This activity has opened up the possibility of addressing a long list of questions, including how long peregrines live (read about James, the longest living wild peregrine known), the degree of relatedness within the breeding population (we have documented close inbreeding between siblings and parent-offspring pairings), lifetime reproductive success, and patterns of dispersal, among others. 

Like many other raptor species, dispersal serves to reduce the likelihood of pairings between parents and offspring.  In addition, differences in dispersal distances between males and females makes pairings between full siblings less likely.  Dispersal distances documented by CCB and partners within coastal Virginia range from 4 to 207 km for males (median of 24 km) and 0 to 473 km for females (median of 105 km).  The banding and resighting efforts in Virginia are building an integrated database that is beginning to untangle several aspects of peregrine ecology that have been notoriously difficult to address.

Anne Wright, director of outreach education, receives Green Giant Award

March 22, 2016

Anne Wright was awarded the Green Giant Award by the Sierra Club Falls of the James Group this month in honor of her work in environmental education.

“We are happy to recognize Wright for her hard work in local environmental education,” said Adele Maclean, chairperson for the club. “She has brought attention and enthusiasm that has been truly inspirational to all of us with the Science in the Park program.”

Wright’s projects and students were featured in the short documentary “The Urban Forest,” which was honored at the recent RVA Environmental Film Festival.

The award is given annually to individuals who have demonstrated “outstanding commitment to protecting and improving the environment of greater Richmond.” Wright was presented with the award during the chapter’s March 9, 2016, meeting, during which she spoke about the game camera project currently underway in the James River Park System.

“Wright has been instrumental in encouraging students to learn and share their knowledge about local ecosystems,” said Scott Burger, coordinator of the film festival and FOJG, which is one of 14 Sierra Club chapters in Virginia.

Grad student blogs on one of Rice Rivers's Center primary avian reserach programs

March 22, 2016

by Jessie Reese

The motor of our small fishing boat hums as we travel up a stream bisecting a narrow peninsula of red mangrove forest called Bocas del Atrato, in a remote region of the Caribbean coast of Colombia. We glide past massive mangrove prop roots and lush foliage, and come to stop along a patch of terra firma. A Common Black Hawk eyes us warily from an overhead perch as a chorus of howler monkeys lends an ominous feeling to the dawn. I ready my clipboard for a standardized bird survey and set my stopwatch for 10 minutes. It’s not long before I see a flash of brilliant yellow, and hear the distinctive chip note of a Prothonotary Warbler. I’ve followed this species from its temperate summer breeding grounds to its wintering habitat in the Neotropics, where I hope to unravel some of the mysteries of its poorly known winter ecology.

During the summer, Prothonotary Warblers are found in forested wetlands throughout the eastern U.S. and southern Canada, including at VCU’s long-term study site in the Lower James River Important Bird Area. For the winter months, Prothonotaries migrate to Central and northern South America, where highest concentrations are found in coastal mangrove forests. With funding from the Riverbanks Conservation Support Fund and the Northern Neck Audubon Society, I traveled with Alessandro Molina (B.S. Biology, VCU ‘14) and Dr. Lesley Bulluck on a month-long expedition to study Prothonotary Warblers overwintering Colombia. There we partnered with Dr. Nick Bayly and Angela Caguazango from SELVA: Research for Conservation in the Neotropics, a Colombian non-profit research institute with a focus on migratory bird ecology. Our goals were to conduct density surveys to determine where the birds are most abundant, to capture birds and collect feather samples, and to quantify habitat associations.

Our trip spanned over 700 miles of the Caribbean coast. We visited four mangrove forests and one freshwater lagoon, conducting a total of 70 density surveys and collecting 115 feather samples. As we traversed between sites, the humid lowland forest on the border of Panama transitioned to dry tropical forest in the east, where the landscape was peppered with cacti. Our expedition was a success, not only in terms of the data we collected but also through the connections we made to local people and places. Guides from the community shared their knowledge of local flora and fauna, and biologists from the Sistema de Parque Nacionales Naturales told us about their conservation successes and challenges. Leaving Colombia’s rich avifauna and welcoming culture was bittersweet, but almost as exciting as collecting the data will be understanding the story it can tell us. Working with my graduate thesis advisor Dr. Bulluck, I will analyze isotope ratios in the feathers we collected, which will help determine how populations are geographically linked between seasons. Ultimately, we hope to use our increased knowledge of Prothonotary Warbler ecology to inform management strategies and promote full life-cycle conservation, a goal which will certainly be advanced by the partnerships we made during this expedition. 

Tracking Red-cockaded Woodpeckers through winter and their recovery

March 22, 2016

VCU Rice Rivers Center and The College of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology

This winter marked the Center’s 12th year of conducting the annual winter survey of the red-cockaded woodpecker population at the Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve. We monitor the population of red-cockaded woodpeckers by conducting a full census of all individuals in the spring just before the breeding season and again during the winter. We also monitor all nesting activity in the early summer.  Because every bird in the population is color banded as nestlings, we can follow the movement of individuals between breeding groups, assess their survival, and determine their breeding behavior. The winter survey provides an opportunity to examine how the autumn-winter period influences survival patterns and document the dispersal of adults and summer fledglings. 

During the winter of 2015-2016, we recorded the highest number of red-cockaded woodpeckers in decades with 69 individuals distributed among 14 groups. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are cooperative breeders so groups may contain the breeding male and female, as well as additional birds that assist with incubating and feeding young. These groups will remain together throughout the entire annual cycle and travel together daily for foraging even in winter. The Piney Grove population continues to grow every season as the winter survey has shown through time, with 29 birds detected in 2002, 45 birds in 2011, and 57 birds as recent as 2013.  Among the birds detected this past survey included 16 of the 21 birds fledged in 2015. We typically lose 50-75% of the recently fledged birds by winter so the number of birds remaining bodes well for new recruitment into the 2016 breeding population.      

The Nature Conservancy’s Piney Grove Preserve has been the nucleus of recovery in the state since the early 2000s when the Commonwealth’s population of woodpeckers sank to an all-time low. A multi-organizational partnership that includes the Nature Conservancy, The Center for Conservation Biology, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has worked together on habitat and population management to bring the number of red-cockaded woodpeckers back from the brink.  

Tracking and training on Chiloe Island, Chile

March 22, 2016

VCU Rice Rivers Center and The College of William & Mary's Center for Conservation Biology

by Fletcher Smith

Several species of shorebirds make truly epic journeys, flying non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand (6,835 mi) or from Atlantic Canada to Brazil (4,350 mi). These journeys are fueled by stores of fat built up during migration stopovers or on wintering staging areas. One of the most powerful migrants in the Western Hemisphere is the Hudsonian godwit. The godwits are comprised of three disjunct breeding populations, one in Alaska, one in the Mackenzie Delta, and one in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. These high-latitude nesting birds make epic non-stop flights from the breeding grounds to stopovers in the Amazon and Orinoco river basins, then continue on to wintering locations in Argentina and Chile.   

The world of shorebird biologists is very small. There are probably only hundreds of biologists that study these fascinating creatures in the entire Western Hemisphere.&n