From Jurassic World to Backwoods Sampling

This post was created by Nick Weit, a research student and recent Juniata College graduate who is attending Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine this fall.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

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My brief sampling experience during June 17-19th was anything but normal. The story begins on Wednesday night at 6:45pm. I had just bought a movie ticket for Jurassic World in the Huntingdon Cinema’s Clifton 5 and had sat down with my friends in our seats when Dr. Grant called me. After a quick discussion, I was informed that the sampling van had broken down in Tionesta, PA and that I was needed to drive there in order to shuttle members of the field team back to the Homestead in Benezette, PA. After Dr. Grant explained the situation to me, I quickly got a refund for my ticket at the cinema and drove home in order to pack. At this point, the term ‘pack’ was an overstatement; I only threw a few articles of clothing in my backpack. Since it was a two and a half hour drive to Benezette and it was already past 7pm, I needed to leave as soon as possible. I grabbed my backpack and peanut butter and jelly supplies, jumped in my car, and I started driving North towards Benezette. The first two hours of drive went by quickly; however, the last half hour was a little eerie. I was driving along winding roads through the woods, and I only passed a few cars in over 20 miles.

Once I arrived in Tionesta, I realized that I finally had service and I was able to utilize my Google Maps app to find the actual parking lot where the broken down van was parked. The directions that I followed brought me to down a dark alley, which seemed completely deserted. I noticed that I was behind a larger building, and I assumed I was on the wrong side of the building of the correct address. I drove around the building and, sure enough, I found the broken down van with the field team. As soon as I arrived, we packed my car with the Electrofisher and other important equipment. My car was completely packed with only enough room for myself, Dr. Grant, Kelsey and Jada to squeeze in. We then began the next leg of the trip to the Homestead. This drive seemed to go quickly since I was able to converse with my passengers about their crazy day, hearing all about the field sampling, the van breaking down, and how everyone spent their last few hours. Again, very few cars were on the road, and it seemed that a majority of the life on the road was various animal species, especially deer. We finally arrived at the Homestead around midnight. Once we arrived Dr. Grant grabbed his keys and began driving back to Tionesta to shuttle the remaining field members to the Homestead. After my car was unpacked, I made my bed on the couch and fell asleep within minutes.

The following day was a great smorgasbord – learning experience and work out due to the hiking into various sample sites. At each site, I took water chemistry data, and I helped with acquiring methane and isotope samples. After all of these samples were collected and put on ice, I then helped with fish sampling as well as picking macroinvertebrates from the kick nets. My responsibilities encompassed a lot of methods including measuring fish lengths, weighing fish, extracting liver samples, clipping fish fins, and sorting through the kick net for aquatic macroinvertebrate specimens.


Bucket of brook trout and crayfish after first pass of electrofishing

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Brook trout captured during electrofishing

The actual fieldwork was extremely fun because there was always something to do, keeping you on your toes. The time seemed to fly by, even when traveling between various sample sites because I was constantly consuming water and food. Overall, the sampling Thursday went smoothly because the weather was great and all the field members pulled their weight. It was dark by the time we returned to the Homestead, but everyone was happy and still full of energy from a day with no complications. So, after the blood plasma samples were finished being spun down and composited into collection tubes, we gathered around the TV for a few episodes of Bear Grylls. We began watching the outdoor survival show, but I was sound sleep after the first episode.

Overall, I thought my field sampling experience on Thursday and Friday were well worth the long drive Wednesday night. I will always remember those days because it began very unexpectedly and went by so fast. However, I learned various important ecological sampling methods as well as gained valuable friendships in between.

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Flatlanders Finding Fish

The following post was created by Chris McLimans a Biology student working in the Lamendella and Grant labs.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

The particular field day I am posting about actually began at 12:03 AM in the Juniata College Van.  Dr. Grant and I were sitting outside the Benezette Hotel- a short drive from where we were staying – to borrow the nearest WiFi to attempt to “fix” a problem that arose.  More specifically, we were requesting HELP in the form of dry ice, since our 40-pound block had disappeared much faster than usual. We drafted an email to a select few hardy individuals-who were back at Juniata College-and may be up for the challenge of delivering a cooler of dry ice within 12 hours of the email to a remote location in the Elk State Forest via only GPS coordinates of the vans location.  He remarked to me that this is an insight into what it takes to make field biology work and how it can be logistically difficult. I noted the amount of time and hard work that is necessary to perform successful research as we sat in an empty parking lot after a long day of field work. We hoped our ‘mayday’ email would be received in time for someone to be able to make the special delivery.  We discussed how it would be a quite a feat if dry ice arrived, given we would have no contact with anyone (cell or email) once we left the parking lot that night, and navigating to the remote GPS coordinates from several hundred miles away and involved >10 miles of dirt road/trail navigation on poorly marked roads.

Waking up at 6:30 AM I ate my breakfast, packed my lunch and bag of supplies for the day. We loaded ourselves into the van and headed off to Mocassin Run. We arrived at the site and I strapped the pack affectionately known as Uncle Fester to my back carrying supplies plus an extra battery for the electrofisher, bringing the pack to roughly 30 pounds. This may not seem like a lot but with the terrain we had to hike and climb, it was not going to be an easy hike. We made our way back through the forest to the slope, which was a roughly quarter mile climb at >50 degrees over the course of the slope.

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Research team hiking into Mocassin- the easy part of the hike.


Looking at final descent to Mocassin- a 1/4 mile long 50+ degree grade section through thick mountain laurel

We performed our sampling and I began to process the collected fish. I was tasked with performing field dissections on a few select brook trout in order to collect small pieces of liver tissue. This tissue will be used to determine which genes are “turned on” in each fish, and to compare which genes are active between the fish of different streams. Specifically we are interested in seeing if differences exist between streams that have fracking in their watershed and those that do not. This can help to determine if there is any genetic impact on these brook trout where fracking is occurring. For my work, having this tissue as well as all of the other stream characteristic measurements, such as temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen, will be vital to understand how fracking is potentially impacting these ecosystems and thus the trout populations.

We finished all of the sampling and began the hike out of the site; the climb out was going to be much harder than hiking in since it was through dense mountain laurel going up. Once again we strapped on our heavy packs and began the climb. There is really no accurate way to describe the climb to convey the difficulty of climbing a slope that is at such an angle that standing up straight is nearly impossible without holding onto a tree or falling backwards, and crawling is the only possible way to proceed, as tree limbs and mountain laurel snag onto your pack, scratch an pull at you as you pass through, and knock your hat off.

We successfully climbed out of Mocassin and walked back to the van, hoping to see someone waiting with the dry ice we requested just 12 hours earlier. There was no one. We approached the van and set our packs down, enjoying the relief of standing only under our own weights, we rounded the back of the van and saw a blue cooler. We knew that cooler could only contain one thing… dry ice. After the climb we had just performed this was an incredibly uplifting and exciting thing since it meant the feat of finding the van using only the coordinates had been completed by the reliable research student-Aaron Kulig.


Research team ecstatic to be back to the van in one piece!

The group completed the final site for the day, Dutch Hollow, which was only slightly less complicated to hike to than Mocassin. We again performed our sampling tasks efficiently, I collected more liver tissue samples to bring back to the lab, and we hiked out after a hard day of work. While in the moment of the hard days we can lose sight of the ultimate reason why we are working so hard, but in the end being able to put in the long hours to protect the wild places of Pennsylvania is worth the sweat and sore muscles.

Sizing up the Day

The following post was created by Devin Beck, a Juniata College senior Environmental Science student.  Post edited by Chris Grant.

This being my second summer working in the Grant Lab, I was excited to get back up into the northern woods of PA. I was also excited to start collecting new data for a morphometrics project that is one new aspect of our research on the potential impacts of Marcellus natural gas extraction. A few other students and I will be looking at the morphometrics-or variation in shape-of brook trout in streams with various levels of  fracking within their watershed. While I have already started working on the research, we are in its infancy as far as results.

A quick peruse of the literature has turned up very little research done on the effects of pollution or contamination on fish shape. One of the few things that I did find was unpublished research on the morphology of brook trout affected by Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD) by Dr. Shawn Rummel, of Trout Unlimited. He and collaborators looked at mouth size and body shape in relation to AMD, and found some very interesting results. This study has helped us to develop ideas that we hope to build upon for this project.


Brandon, Maria, Jada, Devin and Allison preparing to process brook trout for morphometric analysis.


Brook Trout in the process of being pinned for morphometric analysis

On Tuesday we first assessed Little Wolf Creek, which is located in the Allegheny National Forest, just a short walk behind a gated dirt road, near what appears to be an unofficial makeshift shooting range. We caught a number of “brookies and a number of brown trout as well.

The presence of brown trout in this stream is interesting, as they are not a native species. Brown trout were introduced into Pennsylvania in 1886 from parts of Scotland and Germany, and have become a dominant species in many of the streams and areas they were introduced. It has been observed that many streams once only inhabited by wild brook trout are now largely occupied by brown trout. Brown trout can often outcompete native brook trout for food source-helping brown trout to thrive in streams where they co-habitate. Brown trout are also more tolerant of higher temperatures in streams than brook trout are, brook trout can generally survive in water that is up to 20 degrees Celsius, while brown trout can withstand higher temperatures. Last year at Little Wolf only one brown trout and eight brook trout were caught. This year we caught ten brown trout eight of which were young of year (trout that were born this past winter/spring) and only seven adult brook trout. These young brown trout and the size/age distribution of brookies and browns suggest brown trout are reproducing at a faster rate than brookies, meaning more competition and pressure for the brookies in Little Wolf Creek.

After assessing Little Wolf we drove to Bear Creek, located near a state road parking lot where multiple construction vehicles were parked. When we pulled in, one man asked us, “Ya’ll goin fishin or something? What’s with the ghostbusters get-up?” as Allison shouldered the electro-fisher. We laughed, told him a little bit about our project, and then started our short hike to Bear Creek. Once we arrived at the stream, we did the normal run through of data collection including physiochemical stream water measures, stream water methane isotope collection, microbial sampling, periphyton and sediment collection, crayfish hunting, macroinvertebrate kicknet sampling,  electrofishing, fish processing, brook trout morphometrics, brook trout blood collection, and brook trout liver collection and fin clips for genomics work.  By this point in the summer, everyone had found there groove-and we started to work well as a team towards efficiently collecting data from each site.


Bear Creek

Since we were planning on hiking Moccasin and Dutch Hollow the next day, two of our hardest hikes, we decided to end the day at Bear Creek around 6:00PM and head back to the homestead. Everyone went to bed relatively early to rest up and prepare for what what was to come.

It seems crazy to think that the summer is almost half over! Keep checking in for the next post!


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.


-Chris Grant