Independence Day for Brook Trout

As the 4th of July is just a day away, I though it was fitting to share this video of us releasing a brook trout back to the stream.  These fish are one of the main reasons we feel so strongly about conducting research on the impacts of Marcellus shale natural gas extraction.  Much like the thirteen United States of America in the Declaration of Independence, we hope to enable the brook trout to escape from any negative oppression of fracking, and live wild and free.  Click on image below to see the video of a brook trout being released back into the PA wilds.

releasevideo

-Chris Grant

Dead Man’s Lick to Slenderman

This post was written by Maria Fernanda Campa, who is an Energy Science and Engineering PhD student at the University of Tennessee’s Bredesen Center (bredesencenter.utk.edu) and a collaborator on the Marcellus project through Dr.Terry Hazen’s Lab. She is particularly interested in the energy-water nexus associated with unconventional gas extraction, and the tolerance and/or bioremediation capabilities of subsurface microorganisms to fracking fluids.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

It was 7 am and the homestead already smelled like coffee and breakfast. There was a palpable energy in the environment, people were packing lunches and loading the van. As I took the first step down the stairs, I realized my legs still felt like spaghetti from the hikes through Moccasin Run and UNT to Birch Island Run the day before. I smiled proudly, “we survived Moccasin Run!”

Our first stream of the day was Dead Man’s Lick, a site that the group has visited in the past. A year before the group observed active drilling within the watershed, and by this summer fracking had begun.

It was a quite enjoyable day, and the stream was very accessible. Dr. Grant took extra time, to make sure the students that hadn’t tried a particular technique got the chance today. This was particularly exciting for me because that day I was taught how to electrofish! The electrofishing machine looks like something straight out of a Ghostbusters movie (see picture 1 and 2). Someone carries a backpack-size machine that spreads electrical pulses though the water using a pole with a wire loop. The small current temporarily “stuns” the fish near the pole, so it can be a bit easier to catch them with a net. I was able to catch most of fish that came my way (yay!), but a couple escaped.

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Brandon, Grant, and Maria electrofishing and capturing brook trout

Once I was done applying my new electrofishing skills, I went back to what I was there to do; get water samples for methane concentration and methane isotope analysis. We are interested in testing if there is methane in the streams, and if there is detectable methane, we want to know if the methane is naturally occurring in the streams or if it is coming from the subsurface as a result of fracking practices.

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Water sampling. Jada is filtering water for DNA and RNA collection. Maria is collecting water for methane analysis.

We took a bit longer than usual collecting the samples in this site, as we were all learning new techniques. Then while conducting fish morphology, we began discussing experimental design and different techniques that could help us answer the same scientific questions. After some more fun scientific discussion, we loaded the van and headed to our next stop, UNT to Naval Hollow.

UNT to Naval Hollow had a well pad near the stream that was cleared and prepped, but not fracked, when we sampled the stream last summer. I was excited to finally collect some non-fracked control sites for my study, as it seemed all the control sites in my list had started fracking operations recently. However, as we began sampling the stream, Grant immediately noticed that the stream pH was significantly lower than last year. After collecting the samples, we stumbled upon the well pad, which was actively being fracked. The well pad held 10 wells! I had never seen an operation so big! It was the first time I have seen an active fracking operation, and it seemed like at least some of the wells were already producing flowback water.

UNT NAVALbefore

UNT Naval Hollow Well pad last year

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UNT Naval Hollow Well Pad this year

It is also worth noting that there were a lot of solar panels being used to harvest energy for the operation. It was an interesting juxtaposition of gas companies using renewable energy to extract fossil fuels. The irony of that, does not cease to amaze me.

Then we headed to the last site of the day, Potato Creek, a site that already active fracking within its watershed. The water was a funky off orange color, and there was some foam floating around, which I was told that is how it was last year.  After finishing with water collection for methane analysis (figure 3), I helped out with the collection of macroinvertebrates. To do this I disturbed sediment (danceing around while kicking the stream floor) while Jada hold a kick net so the sediment (and macroinvertebrates) float into the net. After filling our kick nets, we headed to a flat area of land to pick out the little critters. As we started picking, we noticed the sun was starting to set. This made me happy as I finally got an excuse to use my headlamp. Once our headlamps were on, we gathered around and finish collecting the macro invertebrates.

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Potato Creek

This was the first day we were able to make it to three sites in one day, satisfied with the productivity of our day, we packed the van and started our drive back to the homestead. As the road turned pitch black, Devin started talking about things and stories that scared her the most (SLENDERMAN!). This started a conversation of horror stories and deepest fears. As we reach the homestead around 11 pm, we all ran inside and did not look back, in case the fracking slenderman was behind us.

The Devils Highway Ends at a 19 Hour Long Field Day

Drafted by Devin Beck, Jada Hackman, Allison Lutz, Chris McLimans, and Nick Weit. The authors are Juniata College summer research fellows from the Lamendella and Grant Labs.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

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Wapiti, more commonly known as an Elk, we observed while hiking to our first stream site.

After a rough start to this week’s expedition with thunderstorms and heavy rain on Monday, Tuesday started out as another typical field day in the Wapiti’s Woods. A light drizzle fell as we inhaled our breakfast and crammed the van with our equipment and bodies at the Homestead in Benezette, PA. As we careened along the winding state forest roads, swaying left and right from the sharp turns, the rain started to pick up, but this wasn’t going to stop us from acquiring some water samples at Bear Creek, Little Wolf, and Indian Run. Unfazed, we worked collecting water samples, taking water chemistry measurements, and then electrofishing once the rain subsided. We found white suckers, redside dace, blacknose dace, fantail darter, slimy sculpins, creek chub, and the most exciting catch at this stream was mountain lamprey. After processing the brook trout from this stream, it was time to load the van back up with our waders and equipment. We had grown accustomed to the pungent smells of stale sweat, fish, swamp mud, and wet feet from our work, so they didn’t bother us as we proceeded to gobble down our lunches and snacks on the way to our next stop.

En route to Camp Run we traversed The Devil’s highway, Pennsylvania Route 666, or ‘Triple 6’ as the locals call it. In the cramped van we suddenly heard a consistent and concerning popping and banging sound coming from the front end. Thinking it was a flat tire we pulled off, parked the van, and looked for the flat tire. (Brandon was excited to show off his tire changing skills.) It turned out, however, that the sound had originated from the engine.  The smells of gas and combustion hit our faces as we approached to open the hood, and we inspected the engine and underneath the van for anything that looked problematic, but did not observe a menacing looking problem. It was 3 pm, we had no cell reception from any of 3 different carriers, and the closest towns were nearly 18 miles in either direction. We started walking in hopes of finding a residence, cell reception, or anyone to help out. Quoting the infamous survivalist Bear Grylls, we “took positive steps” to bring some humor to our predicament and also passed time by chewing and spitting sunflower seeds. We walked down the road not knowing how long it had been since we passed the last sign of civilization.

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View back at Juniata College van sitting alongside triple 6

Few cars passed us as we walked, but none stopped to check on our condition or why a group of seven people were walking in the middle of nowhere—although we couldn’t really blame them as we looked quite weathered. Finally, we reached a bridge and saw an older fellow fishing with his grandkids. Dr. Grant approached him and introduced himself, the group, and explained our situation. The man, Jim, agreed to drive Grant to his camp in order to use his landline to arrange for the van to be towed and for us to hopefully be rescued. We watched as our professor rode away with this bearded man in sandals and a Harley Davidson muscle shirt and stayed behind at the bridge to keep an eye on his grandkids who were fishing. After nearly an hour and a half of waiting, Grant and Jim returned with only a small bit of good news—that the van would be towed the following morning—but still no pick up for us. We hiked back to the van once again, wondering what we were going to do and questioning whether we would have to sleep in the van for the night.

Once we arrived back at the van Grant weighed the options and decided to try to drive to the nearest town, 18 miles away. The van ride to Tionesta was disturbing with the eerie sounds and acrid smells coming from the engine; it sounded like it was continually backfiring. At one point the van was shaking a lot and smelled of strong gas fumes. The gas pedal was pegged most of the way, but we did not break 45 mph, and were unsure if the van would make it. After an arduous climb up to a ridgetop, we were able to coast into Tionesta, PA around 6 pm. We stationed the van at a Farm Fresh grocery store parking lot and made numerous phone calls to figure out who was coming to “save” us. Since it was approaching 7 pm, Grant decided we should go eat before everything closed for the evining, so we walked to a local gas station. The subs, while simple, tasted amazing after our excruciatingly long day.

After dinner, we sat on an old church pew bench outside of the gas station awaiting rescue.  A passerby we met while waiting resembled Uncle Si from Duck Dynasty.  He pulled up on his nifty electric scooter to talk to us. Grant’s attempts at humor were not received, because when Grant asked to buy the scooter to drive it nearly 90 miles to Benezette, “Uncle Si” answered with all seriousness, “Well, I’ll have to check the charge on the battery first.” After a few more minutes “Uncle Si” left, peeling out of the parking lot with tires squealing and almost ditching it after hitting the curb… we all tried to restrain ourselves, but couldn’t help but laugh at the scene.  Another gristly onlooker from an open car door nearby chuckled and said, “That little bugger is pretty fast, huh”. We went back into the gas station, grabbed some ice cream and coffee, and finalized plans to get back to Homestead:  Nick, a recent Juniata College grad, was coming to “save” us.

Nick had just sat down in the Huntingdon Cinemas Clifton 5 to watch the new Jurassic World movie, when he received a distress call from Grant. This call stated that the entire field team and all of our samples and supplies were stranded in Tionesta, PA. Grant asked if he could immediately drive up to Tionesta, locate the field team in the Farm Fresh Foods parking lot, and transport us to the Homestead. So, Nick urgently left the cinema (and his two friends to drive home), pack, and make the 2.5-hour expedition to Tionesta. Nick arrived at the Farm Fresh Foods parking lot around 10 pm to the sound of barking dogs and a star filled sky and found the entire field team hanging out around the van in the dark.  Upon arrival, we swiftly packed Nick’s car with as much equipment as possible, only allowing small spaces for Grant and two team members (Kelsey and Jada) to barely squeeze into seats. After stuffing the car to the gills, Nick began the 1.5-hour excursion from Tionesta to the Homestead. This drive was filled with very little signs of human life; however, there was a multitude of animal life, including deer, elk, possums, and foxes. Finally, they reached the Homestead at 12 AM.  Grant unlocked the front door and immediately left in his car to travel the 1.5 hours back to Tionesta to pick up the remaining members of the field team.

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Research team waiting in parking lot to be picked up by Nick

While waiting for Nick to complete the first leg of the relay, and drop off the first few team members, the remaining team members waited in the van knowing it would be at least 3 hours until their pick up. Allison, Brandon, Chris, and Devin passed the time by napping, talking, and testing Brandon and Chris’ falsetto while singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. Around 1 am the headlights of Grant’s car came flying into sight as he entered the parking lot. Everyone quickly packed up his car and squeezed in for the trip home. It was after 3 AM when we finally returned to the Homestead and pulled out the essential gear that was packed in the car.  We paused to take in the clear cold night and the brilliant stars in the sky before collapsing in bed.  The thing about field work is, you can have every little detail planned out, but the unexpected is always a possibility—a 19-hour field day filled with marginal scientific data collection, but tons of experiential learning.

On the Road Again

This post was created by Allison Lutz and edited by Chris Grant.  Allison is a 2015 graduate of the Juniata Biology department.  She is a co-author on one peer-reviewed journal publication and is lead author on a second, recently submitted publication from her senior thesis.  Allison was recently accepted into a graduate program at Georgia Southern University set to begin this fall.

On the Road Again

Anticipation for the arrival of summer and ensuing field work on the Marcellus project had been building up to this week.  We left for the first site at 8:00 in the morning and arrived at the top of the trail around 10:30. The first hike was down a trail and then across a log bridge through a verdant field of green ferns. We crossed a few smaller tributaries to Stone Run along the way to the exact sampling point. The hike went well and didn’t take much longer than 30 minutes. We then set up our equipment and started electrofishing the stream, however, as we are preparing to sample the stream we could hear the ominous sounds of thunder all around us-but we were spared a thorough soaking. We finished electrofishing and started to process fish but we realized we forgot anesthetic in the van…so I proceeded to hike back to the van to pick it up. Once I returned we processed all of the fish and everything went well considering a few new tasks when processing fish this year. We first anesthetized fish to take pictures for a morphometric component (which uses a computer software to measure parts of the fish for further analysis), then we collected the blood of the fish for later determination of endocrine disrupting contaminants, then a small piece of liver was collected for an RNA component, and finally a fin clip was taken for an ongoing population genetics component of the Marcellus project.  The process requires a lot of hands and careful attention to what is going on at all times but it’s really fun to be a part of this process.

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Example of pinning anesthetized fish for morphometrics

We then packed up for our hike out, and Brandon went down to the stream to release the fish we did not keep back to the stream.  In the process, he knocked over a dead tree, and a small resident was forced out of his home, it was a flying squirrel! It posed for pictures and then we were on our way to the next stream.

Flying squirrel at Stone Run

Flying squirrel scared out by Branden

We arrived at Coldstream and dark clouds were starting to roll in behind us, but we decided to head down to the site despite the moderate length hike to the stream. We made it down the hill and into the small hemlock forest that surrounds Coldstream, but we were not spared from the thunderstorm this time. We continued on to the sample point but it was pouring at that point so we could not begin electrofishing due to the danger of electrical shock from the electrofishing backpack (not to mention the danger of getting struck by lightning). We initially waited for enough breaks in the thunder to collect macroinvertebrates (which can be done in the rain) but every time we went to put on our waders the thunder decided to announce itself. We waited it out and eventually the rain slowed down (and the thunder stopped) enough for a quick photograph of the drenched researchers and then we began sampling.

coldstream group rain

Researchers soaked after heavy downpour at Coldstream

We finished collecting fish and brought them back to process them under a makeshift rain coat tent strung across overhanging branches, which proved enough to keep out a lot of the rain. Even though we got soaked we still had a great time; nothing beats a day in the field even if it ends with everyone getting rained on. I hope you all stay tuned for the next blog post!

Allison

Breaking the Mountains

Breaking the Mountains

As we gear up for another field sampling in the PA wilds to assess the impacts of Marcellus shale natural gas extraction on stream ecosystems, I have begun reflecting on past conversations about our research.  Over the past five years, I have spoken with quite a diverse group of people including landowners, hunting/fishing club members, outdoor enthusiasts, directional drillers, well pad supervisors, private security personnel, policemen, state and federal game land managers, scientists, and legislators.  These conversations have varied from cordial to confrontational and have been as informative as the results of much of our scientific research.

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Many of my pre-conceived notions or first impressions about how a particular group of people would respond were wrong.  One example is about a conversation that I had with several members of a private hunting camp we ran into in the backwoods of Moshannon State Forest.  Largely because of the media’s depiction of fracking being aligned with political parties, I assumed that these two friendly sportsmen from the Wilds of Pennsylvania would be of the “drill baby drill” mentality.  Through my conversation I quickly came to realize that while these two fellow sportsmen were indeed conservative (and likely republican), they were not pro-Marcellus.  In fact, quite the opposite was true.  They began to explain how the spring that used to provide fresh drinking water to their camp had all but dried up since the recent development of a well pad located just a short distance uphill from their camp.  They expressed to me their concern for the feasibility of being able to continue to use the camp with the shortage of water, as the shift to a “dry” cabin would mean a considerable change.  Further, these elder sportsmen voiced concerns over this having cascading effects, causing their sons to lose interest in visiting the camp and carrying on the sportsman tradition for future generations.  I feel like the students and I learned as much from these sportsmen as they did from us on that day.

Out of all the conversations that I have had, there is one that stands out as the most straightforward and poignant.  So, it only makes sense that this conversation was with a 4 year old.  We crossed paths with a young boy and his father while we were on a sampling trip in the PA Wilds and he asked what we were doing.  I tried to wrap my head around how to explain our research to someone who did not yet grasp the basic principles of science, let alone energy demands, politics, money, and the all-encompassing topic that is Marcellus Shale.  So I tried to explain in simple terms the process of fracking, why it is important, and why it is also important to protect the last remaining wild streams and forests in Pennsylvania.  I said nothing more than necessary, and was careful to not bias his interpretation by suggesting or imposing any of my personal beliefs on the subject.  To my surprise, after a few moments of silence the boy posed a question to me that was both simple and profound. He said “Why are they breaking the mountains?”

I leave you with that thought as we set of for another field season.  I hope you check in with the blog, as we will be posting weekly updates about our expeditions and sightings over the next few months.

Christopher Grant

Holy Water

Hello all, we have the distinct pleasure of including this essay on wildsonfrack.  It was written by Kimi Cunningham Grant this past summer and published in the most recent issue of the literary magazine, Whitefish Review, and just released earlier this month.  I hope you enjoy it!

Holy Water

Beneath where we stood, there was disruption, activity deep below the ground, the outcomes of which are still not fully known.

I’ve always wanted to love fishing. As a girl, I’d go with my father, who found no shortage of opportunities for my brother and me—sunfish at his friend’s pond; bass from his boat on the lake; trout along the skinny, twining streams near our home in central Pennsylvania. When I was a teenager, I even took fly-fishing lessons, and, with my instructor along an open pond in Colorado, I learned the technique of back casting fairly quickly. I loved the way you could train your arm and wrist to learn such precision: the motion, the acceleration, the white line rolling across the water. There was music in that. I asked for a fly rod for my fifteenth birthday.

Unfortunately, despite my good performance at my fly-fishing lesson, back on the overgrown banks at home, back where there was real fishing, the truth became clear: I was no good. My father taught me to roll cast, but still, I caught my line in the branches that arced over the water. Often. After a while, I sensed that my father, despite his abundance of patience, was not particularly fond of having to scamper back through the dogwood to untangle me, again and again. When I was along, there was little time for him to fish.

Though I failed at fishing, my brother excelled. In those days there was little that maintained his attention the way fishing did; he’d rise early, come home late. He never grew tired of it. Having caught his limit for the day, he’d return, and in my parents’ kitchen, line his fishes up on thick stacks of newspaper to clean, their skin shiny and bright as Christmas bells, their smell thick in the house.

Maybe I was destined, then, to marry someone who loves fishing—or, more accurately, , someone who loves fishes. I’ve spent numerous vacations watching my husband, Chris, fish: red drum on the surf in the Outer Banks, cutthroat in the Sawtooths in Idaho. A fat, orange-fleshed lake trout in the Wind River Range. On occasion I’d toss in a line too, but mostly I’d watch, settled in the grass nearby, or perched on a rock, happy enough to observe.

Chris, a field biologist whose most recent research examines the potential effects of Marcellus shale fracking on stream ecosystems, disappeared for a few weeks each summer, heading to the remote Pennsylvania Wilds, where he and his team of student researchers shacked up in a homestead that had no television, cell phone reception, or internet. I’d never gone with him on these trips, where, among other things, he caught brook trout. Of course I’d heard the stories about these adventures; I’d seen the photographs of the black and tan rattlesnakes stretched across gravel, the bull elk who stood in front of the van once, chin raised, as if daring them to proceed. I’d seen plenty of trout photographs, too. “Look at this one,” Chris would say, pointing out the coloring, or the patterning, as if I should be able to see the difference between one brook trout and the next. “Isn’t it beautiful?” Though I couldn’t quite sense that beauty, I’d nod: “Sure is.”

Three years into this research, I finally had my opportunity to join him. We met up with the team of Juniata College student researchers at a district conservation office, where we shuffled seats and headed to our first stream. As we trundled over the wide, gravel road, the dust rocketing into the June sky behind us, we passed metal gate after metal gate, well pad after well pad, owned by various companies and painted different colors.

To my surprise, these well pads, now in their finished, working form, were relatively inconspicuous and tidy, each one a trio of metal tanks sitting atop a wide, cleared space with a few additional pump-like looking objects nearby. I guess I’d envisioned something more massive, something uglier and dirtier. And yet—out here, with the oaks towering and the ground thick with mountain laurel and huckleberry, with the boulders draped in moss and the loud hurry of stream water ringing—something about the abundance of the well pads, so many of them dotting public land, the state forest, and the Allegheny National Forest, too, with their warnings and phone numbers and locked gates, did feel, well, menacing.

We pulled the van off the road and parked in a patch of grass, where the students, with a military sense of order and focus, unloaded a vast amount of equipment—long white nets, an electrofisher, buckets, scales—all of which they reloaded onto themselves. We followed an old road, which was not much of a road anymore, but a swath where timeworn ruts held water from the abundance of May and June rain. Tadpoles scuttled as we came close. In a handful of these puddles, a gray-purple, oily sheen clouded the surface. We wondered: could that sheen be from one of those three stern green containers near where we’d parked? It seemed so out of place here, miles from where any motorized vehicles traveled. A student scooped up a sample in a clean bottle.

A mile in, we arrived at the 100-meter reach of stream the researchers were now assessing for the third year in a row. I slipped into a pair of chest waders and followed Chris and two students downstream, where I was then given safety instructions and a net.

The first fish turned up right away. “There! Right there!” the three of them shouted, pointing to a flash in the snarling white stream. I obliged, thrashing my net through the water, but the truth was, I hadn’t even seen it. My mind shot back to childhood, when my brother would reel in fish after fish, while I slumped along the shore, waiting for help, my line snagged in a branch. Clearly, regardless of the gear—fishing pole or net—I was not cut out for this.

But then I caught one. And another. Two small brookies. A big one. I scraped up crayfish, too, their brown claws raised like Pentecostals. When we’d finished the 100 meters, another student joined Chris to count and measure the trout. This year, there were half as many as last year.

I asked if I could touch one of the trout.

“Of course,” Chris said.

“Are the fins sharp?” I asked, remembering the razor-like fins of bass, the spots of blood on my brother’s hands.

“No.” (He seemed surprised that I would ask such a question.)

As I plunged my arm into the white bucket, the brook trout darted about the cold water, too quick for my inexperienced hands. It glided through my palms, cool and soft. Delicate and lithe, tigered fin on its top, burnt amber fin below, body spotted with red within blue circles, it was—there was no other way to describe it—beautiful. The team took their measurements, holding each trout carefully along the ruler, placing it onto the scale, and plopping it back into the bucket.

When they were finished, I asked if I could help release the fish. I clambered back down the steep bank, and it was there, kneeling along the stream, sinking my hand into that bucket again and grabbing one of those magnificent little creatures, that I felt I understood, for the first time, that fascination, that love, that had taken my father, my brother, my husband. As I held the trout, its body lissome and glimmering against my palm, my four fingers wrapped tenderly around its belly, as I then opened my hand to set it free, back into that stone-bottomed, glinting water, I could almost forget, for the briefest of moments, that just up the hill from this place of perfect isolation, hundreds of those tall metal cylinders collected waste. That a gray-purple sheen glistened in the puddles we’d passed. That beneath where we stood, there was disruption, activity deep below the ground, the outcomes of which are still not fully known.

But with my knees pressed into moss, ferns sighing, water singing, there was a holiness—and this is what I think my father, brother, and husband had all at some point felt, and loved—a holiness compelling enough that, in that instant when the trout shot off into the riffles, slipping back to where it belonged, all was right in the world.

Kimi Cunningham Grant

Brookies and Waxy Wool- What does it all mean?

Hello hello, I am Taylor Cox, a research technician for the Grant Lab. Before I delve into the research topic, I want to give away some information about what I do. When I am in the lab, I help prepare samples for analysis, write reports, organize and analyze data, and largely oversee most activities in the lab. I am a recent graduate of Juniata College with a degree in Marine Biology. I been involved with the Grant Lab for a year and a half now and one day, I hope to get a master’s degree in horticulture.

For two and half years I’ve worked on a project addressing the effects of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), an invasive insect species (eek!) that feeds on Hemlock trees, resulting in death of the tree. These trees are often near headwater streams, and these hemlock headwater streams have created a tailored ecosystem for brook trout. Hemlock stands create cool temperatures and shaded areas for the associated streams, which allow brook trout to thrive. These ecosystems have been a staple of the Pennsylvania Wilds for eons, but sadly this has been changing in the recent past.

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“Waxy Wool”-evidence of hemlock woolly adelgid on hemlock

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, I’m deeply worried as well. But it gets worse. Far, far worse!!!

HWA entered the important hemlock headwater streams about a decade ago. Since their invasion, they have caused the death of many hemlock stands, which may be impacting the associated streams, aquatic ecosystems, and our state fish, the brook trout. This study, which I have been a part of, began two and half years ago in a field biology class, called Field and Stream, taught by Dr. Grant and Dr. Muth (botanist).

During the first year, we studied approximately ten streams. In the riparian corridors of each stream, we collected information regarding the Health of Hemlock (HH) trees by measuring Uncompacted Live Crown Ratio (ULCR) and canopy density (CD). ULCR is a ratio of live branches to the total hemlock tree height, and CD is a measure of how dense the canopy of the tree is. Additionally, both biotic and abiotic terrestrial and aquatic characteristics were collected. We evaluated fish assemblages, diversity, and population estimates with electrofishing, and kick netting was conducted to determine the macro-invertebrates biodiversity. Stream water quality information was collected including conductivity, salinity, total dissolved solids, pH and the water temperature.

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Picture of student collecting data

Before I get side tracked, I want to provide some information about the selection of the study sites. We wanted to study hemlock stands that had various degrees of death due to HWA. This would allow us to see if there was a correlation between hemlock decline, due to HWA, and the stream characteristics, such as brook trout populations. After assessing each of the streams, the ULCR and CD values showed us that our study sites fell into three distinct groups, a low (unhealthy), medium (intermediate health) and high (healthy). This information then allowed us to analyze if there was a correlation between the HH and the stream characteristics.

After that first year of data collection, Dr. Grant and Dr. Muth created an introductory biology lab based on the field research class. The students in the introductory lab learn about HWA and potential impacts on streams; especially fish and macro-invertebrate populations.

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Study site used for freshman Bio lab and upper-level Field Biology class

This fall is the third year that data on hemlock headwater ecosystems has been collected by the the two research based classes and summer students. In general, our findings on the impacts of HWA on hemlock headwater ecosystems have just started to develop. With time, we are hopeful we can find out how HWA and a decline in Hemlock Health are affecting aquatic ecosystems. As the data set grows and correlations become clear, we will be able to develop conservation strategies for the wild brook trout and these important ecosystems.

Go Brooks Trouts Go Brook Trouts Go!

Taylor Cox

Bugs’ Breath

jh

Greetings! This is Allison Lutz, a Juniata College student researcher for the Grant lab. Recently I’ve been working on a research project that involves aquatic insects (macroinvertebrates/macros) and their gills. I’ll be telling you all a little bit of what’s happening with the project currently and how it all got started.

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A net-spinning caddisfly (roughly 9-12 millimeters)

So, this project started about a year ago when I read a scientific paper about macroinvertebrate gill deformities that occur in mercury enriched streams. I then thought it would be really cool to look at macros from streams that are considered ‘fracked’ and streams that are considered pristine to see if there were any deformities in the gills. After deciding what to research, a couple of my friends and I went to collect the macros from two of the sites (one pristine and one fracked) that we usually sample during the summer. We all kick-netted for macros at the sites and put the macros in ethanol to preserve them for later identification. At the pristine site we even kick-netted a small brook trout, which pretty much never happens due to the trout being evasive. After collecting the macros we brought everything back to the lab where the macros were identified to the family level.

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I decided to use the family Hydropsychidae (net-spinning caddisflies) because of the gills on their abdomen that are easy (relatively) to remove. Along the way, I made sure to keep gills from each individual macro separate and once I removed all the gills from one individual using a pair of forceps, I mounted the gills on slides. It took me multiple tries to find a way to mount the gills; I just couldn’t get the mounting medium right until I noticed some clear nail polish. It seemed like too simple a fix, but I tried it anyway and it worked almost perfectly. I used a pipette to put the gills onto the slide then I waited until the ethanol dried, and finally I put a drop of clear nail polish on top of the gills and covered it with a cover slip. In total it takes about two hours to make ten slides. The next part of the process is using a light microscope.

I carefully carried the slides up to the microscopy lab and tried to decide on how to view the gills with the microscope. I finally settled on viewing the slides using dark phase which has a black background and the item on the slide is white/opaque. After viewing a few of the slides, I realized that trying to use statistical software to analyze percent deformities would be difficult and maybe there was a better way. I decided to take pictures of all of the slides and use a program to measure the widths of the gills and determine if there were any differences between the two sites. I took as many measurements possible on each slide at the midpoint of the gills visible on the slides. This process probably took the longest since I took pictures of the slides wherever I saw gills, so each slide had up to twenty pictures and each picture required multiple measurements.

Finally I got to the final part of the process: the data analysis. I used statistical software to analyze if there were differences between the two sample sites. There was a difference between the streams! The gills of the macros at the fracked site had significantly wider gills than macros from the pristine stream. From this point it was a lot of searching the internet for research papers in my search as to why the gills could be wider. I found a few papers that mentioned dissolved oxygen and its effects on gills. Everything I found seemed to point to dissolved oxygen (oxygen that is in the water), since lower dissolved oxygen levels can cause phenotypic plasticity (i.e. gills becoming wider) due to the organisms not receiving enough oxygen from the environment. Well that would be a slight problem because dissolved oxygen measurements weren’t taken from either site so there was no way to know if that was the cause of the wider gills. The finding was still very exciting though, because there was a difference between the fracked and pristine stream.

The initial study was meant to see if it was worth looking into macro gills and it was so the project moved forward. Macros and dissolved oxygen readings were collected from all of the sites we visited this past summer. Analyzing what was collected this past summer will be the majority of my work this semester and I am really excited to get this data analyzed to see if dissolved oxygen levels are playing a part in the gills of macros. There will be a few changes to the project and a major one would be using the same genus to compare between sites instead of the same family. The genus level is a lower level of classification and therefore it can’t be argued that the differences in gill sizes are just differences between the genuses that fall under the net-spinning caddisfly family. I also hope to measure the macros themselves to account for body length when I measure gill widths and use similar sized macros from each stream. I just to make sure I didn’t use larger macros from the fracked site and smaller ones from the pristine site because that could explain the difference (macros that are larger need larger gills to receive enough oxygen). I am very hopeful that this project will determine whether or not fracking practices might be affecting dissolved oxygen in streams. I can’t wait to see the results of this project!

-Allison Lutz

A Race Against the Clock

Hello readers! Justin Wright here, research assistant for the Lamendella lab at Juniata College, excited to offer you my perspective on our quest to obtain a seemingly impossible amount of water samples with a single weekend.

Crunch time doesn’t even begin to describe the mad rush that the Grant Lab underwent this past weekend. Due to an unfortunate error in packaging, we needed to re-collect water samples from 26 sampling locations scattered throughout the Central Pennsylvania area, transport these samples back to campus, and have them filtered and packaged for shipment to the U.S. Geological Survey for Mercury analysis… all within a 3 day period. In addition to the sheer amount of samples that we had to collect, we needed to use some finesse when it came to coordinating the time of sample collection with the time of filtration back in the lab. The reason being, water samples set for mercury analysis cannot remain idle in their bottles for longer than 24 hours. If a sample remains in its bottle beyond 24 hours, Hg can adsorb to the plastic potentially changing Hg concentrations in the sample. Therefore, not only was this weekend going to be a physically daunting challenge, but also a mental one, in terms of working out a plan to get all of the samples collected and returned to the lab so that they could undergo filtration without sitting in the freezer longer than 24 hours. To accomplish this task, our whole team needed to be on its A-game. Everyone had to know their role and be aware of their deadlines. Time was our enemy, and we were constantly racing against the clock. I felt like we were Keanu Reeves in a weekend-long version of the movie Speed, one mistake and everyone was in trouble. I It was beyond crunch time, it was “I don’t know how are we going to get this done in time”…time.

By Thursday (August 7th), our plan was set. Friday morning at around 830 AM, two vans, containing two researchers each, were going to collect 15 of the 26 samples we needed to obtain. One van’s route contained 9 sampling sites, the other contained 7, but with a greater distance to travel by van. It was decided that Dr. Grant and I would take the route containing 9 sampling sites, and Caleb and Allison would take on the route with 7 sampling locations. We were hopeful to get the samples back into lab by about midnight so that they could be ready for filtration the following morning. We were lucky enough to get in touch with former Juniata student and Grant Lab member Elliott Perow, to lead the filtering effort. Elliott, along with two other team members, Aaron and Abby, were prepped to begin filtration at 730 AM Saturday morning, beginning with the sample collected earliest the day before, to ensure no sample sat beyond the allotted 1 day period. The plan was set, but actually carrying it out was going to be the real challenge.

Friday

Dr. Grant and I were on the road by 830, fully aware of the physical and logistical challenge we were about to face. While some of the sampling locations were rather easy to access, most were a bit difficult. We decided to hit 6 of the 9 easier locations first, and then tackle the most challenging 3 last. Of the 3 difficult locations, the hardest site to access was Mocassin Run. Only being about a mile hike form the van, when it comes to distance Mocassin doesn’t stand out as difficult compared to the other sites. The trouble with Mocassin, is that after a flat ¼ mile hike, the remaining ¾ involves scaling a hill with a slope of more than 45o. The terrain is extremely rocky, with some of the thickest rhododendron bushes I have ever seen. As we were going through the first 6 sampling locations, Dr. Grant and I were continuously mentally preparing ourselves for the intense hike to Mocassin (see June 22nd post entitled “Mocassin Revisited” to see a video clip of an earlier trip into Mocassin).

This intense focus and mental preparation for the challenges ahead really benefitted Dr. Grant and I. Every sampling location went like clockwork, and seemingly out of nowhere, we had completed 6 sampling locations by about 230 in the afternoon. Needless to say we were pumped, but we still had to hop over our biggest hurdle, Mocassin. Upon our arrival our spirits were high, but physically I was beginning to feel a little weak. Being a 6 foot, 150 pound, out-of-shape microbiologist, the day’s hikes were beginning to take a toll on my body. But on we went. Upon reaching the ¾ mile downhill slope, I fell within a matter of seconds. Dr. Grant laughed and told me that: “If you only fall once at Mocassin then you are doing something right.” After falling 8 more times, I lost count. On we went, and eventually we made it too the stream. As we collected water samples and caught our breath, I suggested to Dr. Grant that he should give his research students badges for surviving some of the more difficult sampling locations. He said he would consider it, and if he does I am looking forward to obtaining my Mocassin badge because we did indeed survive the climb back to the van!

After completing Mocassin, our morale couldn’t be higher, and while the remaining two sites were challenging, we completed them with great efficiency. When the last water sample was bagged and put on ice, Dr. Grant and I were amazed to see that it was only 830. A trip that we had expected to potentially take us into the early morning hours of the next day was completed before nightfall. We rendezvoused with Caleb and Allison at the lab by 1030, as they had also completed their day’s work with extreme speed. We were ecstatic. Like Keanu Reeve’s we had beaten the clock, but the ride wasn’t over yet.

Saturday

15 of the 26 samples had been collected, 11 remained. We decided to attack the sampling effort with the same strategy as the day before, 2 vans with 2 researchers to a van. This time, Caleb and I would sample 7 locations, and Dr. Grant along with his wife, Kimi, tackled the remaining 4 locations.

Again, both vans attacked sample collection head-on, and after the monstrous challenge that we had faced on Friday, obtaining these final samples came with ease. By 1030 PM Saturday night, Caleb and I were back in lab again with all 7 samples collected. We went to put our samples in the freezer and noticed that there weren’t any other samples inside.

“That’s odd,” I thought to myself. I had expected to see the 4 samples that Dr. Grant had collected with Kimi that same evening, since the filtration team’s job on Saturday was to filter only the 15 samples we had collected on Friday. Surely they couldn’t have been so ahead of schedule that they also completed the 4 samples Dr. Grant brought in with his wife? Well…they were. The filtration team had successfully filtered 19 samples for Mercury analysis in a single day. Not only were we getting the job done, we were ahead of schedule. The end was in sight.

Sunday

On Sunday, Elliot, Abigail and I filtered the final 7 samples Caleb and I collected the day before. As I observed and carried out the filtration process, I realized how truly impressive it was that the team had gotten 19 samples done the night before. Each step required extreme focus, as there were many pieces involved in the filtration process, and avoiding contamination was of the highest concern. One thing I continued to forget was that, as the person deemed “clean hands” I could not touch anything besides the equipment involved with the filtration process. I must have burned through 10 pairs of nitrile gloves by the end of the day, as I continued to touch the countertop. Looking back, after the arduous days of sampling beforehand, my mind was not quite in the freshest of states. Nevertheless, we got through it. After filtration was complete, Dr. Grant, Elliot and I packed up the samples for shipment with extreme care to avoid making the same mistake with improper packaging. By 4 pm we had finished. Just like that it was over. The samples were sent, and we were spent. Everyone returned home for much needed rest.

Looking back on the entire weekend, I have realized how rewarding of an experience it was for me, as I hope it was for everyone else involved. It is truly amazing what we can accomplish as humans if we have passion for what we are working towards. When it comes to solving the environmental impacts and the unanswered questions behind fracking, the passion we posses here at Juniata is staggering, and I can say with confidence that it matches with any large institution in the county. While this work required intensive work, dedication and time, it was worth every second.

As Dr. Grant and I were on the road Friday evening, we discussed our motivations for taking on this project. We both agreed that we are not trying to combat fracking corporations, simply to prove that fracking is “bad”. Rather, with fracking being such a new but large-scale process with such huge potential environmental implications, it would be foolish and short-sighted to not be curious to investigate what these implications may be. Streams are the veins of our earth, and it is our duty as environmental researchers to ensure their overall health is being maintained. If this weekend proved anything, it proved that the Gramendella lab (Grant and Lamendella labs) contain individuals passionate enough to do anything to investigate the implications of fracking. I am convinced that with continued dedication, we will continue to answer some of the unanswered questions behind fracking. I can’t wait to get my Mocassin badge, and I look forward to getting many more.

 

~Justin Wright

Discovering Pennsylvania Streams and their Unknown Fish Assemblages

This post comes from Dr. Jonathon Niles, a colleague from Susquehanna University who is a biology professor and the director of the RK Mellon Freshwater Research Initiative.  I have worked with Jonathon for the past several years on the Unassessed Waters Initiative that aims to document fish assemblages in previously unassessed streams (for more information about the program look under ABOUT tab on wildsonfrack).  This program and its collaborators, like Jon, have allowed for thousands of streams to be classified and protected because of the discovery of wild populations of brook and brown trout.  Hope you enjoy – Chris Grant

Pennsylvania is fortunate to have a vast amount of streams and thus very important aquatic resources. We have large rivers like the Susquehanna, creeks and streams that are five to fifty meters wide, and we have streams and runs that you could easily step across. Each of these streams is an important ecological and economic resource for the Commonwealth. While, Pennsylvania has over 64,000 waterways, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission only have data on approximately 6,500 of these waters. Therefore, only 9 percent of the streams in the Commonwealth are being actively and properly managed. Of the waters remaining, many likely support wild trout populations. Trout whether it be rainbow trout, brown trout, or the native brook trout are an important economic resources for the Commonwealth, as their fisheries generate over a billion dollars of economic activity across the state each year. Trout are also the key indicator species in coldwater streams across the state. Brook trout in particular are only found in the highest quality streams. The native brook trout needs clean, highly oxygenated water of the highest purity. They have a narrow range of pH tolerance, and are sensitive to low oxygen, pollution, pH changes, temperature, and other human induced environmental effects such a sedimentation.

Created in 2010, The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initiative is a collaboration between the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Pennsylvania colleges to visit headwater tributaries that have never been assessed to determine the presence and status of wild trout populations. An unassessed water is a waterway that has no biological data or information about which fish species live in that water. The goals of this program are to proactively identify and properly classify the most at-risk streams which support naturally reproducing trout populations in order to protect, conserve and enhance those waters as wild trout streams. Data collected from the Unassessed Waters Initiative is used by the Fish and Boat Commission to help correctly classify and protect high quality trout streams from environmental alterations and degradation. The primary threat to undocumented wild trout populations is inadequate water quality protection. The importance of adequately protecting our aquatic resources has increased dramatically with Marcellus Shale Gas extraction. Proper stream classification and protection is vital, as it is likely that streams will be impacted by human caused stressors with additional pressure for resource extraction.

Since 2011 my research team at Susquehanna University has been involved with the Unassessed Waters Initiative. Since 2011 we have surveyed 340 previously unassessed waters as part of this project. These streams have been across most of north central Pennsylvania in Snyder, Union, Centre, Mifflin, Northumberland, Montour, Lycoming, and Sullivan counties. The majority of the streams we have sampled are within Lycoming and Sullivan counties in the Loyalsock Creek drainage. We have found trout in over 55% of the streams we have sampled in those 3 years. During this time we have worked directly with many different stakeholder groups all of whom are concerned about protecting water quality and trout streams. We have worked with watershed associations like the Loyalsock Creek Watershed Association who have provided in kind volunteer hours, donated many nights of overnight accommodations for our crews. Many private landowners, hunting clubs, and private companies like Dwight Lewis Lumber have allowed us access to sample streams on their property. Government agencies like DNCR’s Bureau of Forestry and the Game Commission have opened closed gates to gain us access to extremely remote streams that needed to be sampled. The cooperation from multiple entities has shown me that this program is extremely important for aquatic resource protection across the commonwealth.

Last summer my team of 4 students and I decided to focus on un-named tributaries for the Unassessed Waters Initiative. Un-named tributaries are the small blue line streams on a USGS topographic map that drain to the larger named streams. Un-named tributaries represent the largest amount of unassessed waters across the state with over 54,000 un-named tributaries still remaining to be assessed. During the summer of 2013 we sampled 168 un-Named tributaries across several watersheds including Loyalsock Creek, Lycoming Creek, Buffalo Creek, and White Deer Creek, of these 168 un-named tributaries we found that 80 of the un-named tributaries had no trout (61 had water but no trout, while 19 were dry). We found that 88 un-named tributaries had trout present with brook trout being present in 85 of those streams. Finding brook trout in 50.5% of the 168 un-named tributaries we sampled was surprising and shows that these un-named tributaries are important clean water resources. Our data indicated that 23 (26%) of these streams might even qualify for the best of the best qualification (Class A trout streams) from Pennsylvania Fish and Boat commission. That is a very high percentage of high quality waters which may indicate that these un-named tributaries are almost as important as larger named streams in terms of trout habitat and production.

This summer our field crews (1 research scientist Mr. Mike Bilger, 1 research technician Mr. John Panas, and 5 summer student interns) have again been focusing on un-named tributaries. We have been primarily sampling in the Schrader Creek watershed of southern Bradford County. This area around state game lands 12 and 36 is in the heart of Marcellus Shale gas development. Over the last few weeks we have made several overnight trips here and sampled 6 named streams of which four had trout, and 2 were severely impacted from acid mine drainage and had no trout. During this time we have also sampled 43 un-named tributaries in Schrader Creek watershed. We have found brook trout in a large number of un-named tributaries in the watershed. Our data primarily shows that un-named tributaries will be either dry or if the hold water they have trout present. Last week we were extremely surprised to find brook trout in an unlikely looking stream (Un-named tributary 64346) in the town of Laquin (see picture 1). After arriving at the stream we found the stream had lots of sediment and little water flow. (see picture 2). However, after taking water quality measurements, we found that the stream was cold, and had good pH so it may be fed by some springs and had good water quality that it might hold trout. We began to electroshock the 1st pool and to our surprise we found several small brook trout in that pool and throughout the rest of the 100m section (picture 3). All total we found over 20 brook trout ranging in size from 2 inches to up to almost 6 inches (picture 4). This discovery of just goes to show us that we should judge a stream by its outward appearance that we need to look at the water chemistry and actually sample a stream to determine if it is a good quality stream.

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Picture 1. Location of Un-named tributary 64346 on a USGS topographic map

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Picture 2. Un-named tributary 64346 in near the mouth of Schrader Creek in Laquin, Bradford County.

 

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Picture 3. Finding brook trout in the 1st few meters of Un-named tributary 64346.

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Picture 4. Completing our sampling in Un-named tributary 64346.