Saturday, June 30, 2007

Stream Survey At Coon Creek, Alabama

I spent yesterday at Coon Creek, Alabama, part of a 500-acre parcel of land in Jackson County (N.E. corner of the state) that the Alabama State Lands Division has recently purchased. It's between the steep western face of Sand Mountain and the Tennessee River. The property has obviously had some wear and tear over the past 140 years including clearcutting and coal stripmining, but even with that is recovering and looking good. The odd thing about the property is that it's an "island" of sorts, with no legal land access for most people. We had permission from a private landowner to open a gate and drive through that property on to another land parcel owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and then on to the Coon Creek parcel. Otherwise, access is by boat up Coon Creek.

Two students, Jesse and Kevin, accompanied me to meet Nick Sharp and Courtney of the State Lands Division. My truck made it in and out on an even worse road than the Walls of Jericho, so I'm happy for that.

The creek is relatively wide and deep in some of the areas we sampled. It runs down a steep gradient from the side of Sand Mountain, and at times I'm sure it's a scary torrent of water. But yesterday it was calm as the result of our drought, otherwise I don't think we could have netted fish in it. The creek bottom is mostly covered with bowling ball sized chunks of sandstone smoothed by high water flow, and these stones are covered by a thick mat of diatomaceous algae which are very slick. So the footing in the creek was terrible... We netted fish by having two snorkelers chase fish into the net held by two other people, with a fifth helping to lift the net.

We found 13 species of fish, predominantly fish better adapted to high gradient creeks:

Spotted bass
Redbreast sunfish
Bluegill sunfish
Spotted gar
Northern hogsucker
Yellow bullhead
Whitetail shiner
Mottled sculpin
Rainbow darter
Black snubnose darter
Tennessee snubnose darter

Logperch and whitetail shiners were common in deeper, flowing pools, and the redbreast sunfish were everywhere along with large schools of young spotted bass. It's a different type of creek from what I'm used to working with. The diversity is lower, and the creek is more violent at least at times. But it's dropdead beautiful, with extremely clear water. We sometimes walked unawares into deep water because the bottom was always visible, so a spot that seemed to be maybe three feet deep would be more than neck deep.

Interestingly, all of the snubnose darters we found in the creek were Tennessees, and the only black snubnose was found in a small spring run tributary coming out of a nearby cave (the sculpins were found there, too). These were the first undeniable Tennessees I've seen for a while, with the possible exception of Hurricane Creek at the Walls of Jericho.

So we have to go back at some point to some points lower in this creek, along with two other creeks on the property. Below is a picture of our starting point. Notice the rounded stones, along with Jesse and Kevin from behind:

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Paperwork Phase Of Field Research

I have a Scientific Collecting Permit from the state of Alabama allowing to collect and keep most fishes and invertebrates. This is relatively easy for me to get since I'm part of a university biology department. The only slight downside is filing for a renewal once a year. The cost is slight, only $1, but I have to submit a complete list of fishes and invertebrates I've kept. The new forms require that I list every species kept from a site on its own line, rather than grouping them all together as one entry. Luckily I keep this information in my field journal, and for backup I have a reasonably well organized numbered jar collection of preserved fish (thanks to Daniel's work this past spring). Even with all that it took me about five hours over the past three days to fill out the application proper, write out the ~150 line entries including GPS coordinates, number taken, and current disposition, and get a photocopy of my driver's license to include in the package. The good news is that I have this all written up, since of course I'm keeping a copy for myself. The bulk of the year's entries are in July, August, April and May, which I pretty much knew, but seeing it in longhand form reinforces the point. Of all the collections reported, I only sent away two of them -- two batches of black darters, Etheostoma duryi, now in the possession of Tom Near at Yale for genetic study. And for once I'll get this in relatively early; the people in Montgomery who process the applications probably think I'm mildly retarded based on previous years' experience.

I heard back from Nick Sharp about this Friday's trip to Coon Gulf. The access road on the property has been flooded out from beaver dams about half way in, so we'll drive in as far as we can and hike the remaining half hour to the sampling site on the creek there (which name I realize I still don't know!). Ok, I guess we're tough enough for that. And I hope my truck will be tough enough; it's with my mechanic now, getting a hole in the radiator fixed and new shocks on the back. They promised I'd get it back tomorrow afternoon, I hope so!

Sunday, June 24, 2007

My Burrhead & Silverstripe Shiner Article Is Definitely In At Southeastern Naturalist

I talked to my editor, Todd, at Southeastern Naturalist on Friday and he's almost completely happy with my manuscript on the reproduction of burrhead and silverstripe shiners that we've been working on for the last six months. (These things always go slowly...) The only thing we still have to fix is my Figure 1, showing the relative fraction of egg cell developmental stages of the two species over the breeding season. Ideally this should be on one graph, with two side-by-side bars for each month. But strangely, Excel can't do this, so I'm trying to track down a colleague with Sigma Plot which is a more powerful software package. If I can't make the moves by the end of the week Todd will do it when he returns from field work in Mississippi. Hopefully the article will come out at the end of the year, although Todd couldn't say that for sure.

This coming Friday I'll be joining Nick Sharp and other State Lands employees on some new state property along Coon Gulf off of the Tennessee in Jackson County, AL. This land is supposed to be in surprisingly good shape with a clean stream running through it before emptying into the Tennessee. Their concern is to determine if hellbender salamanders are on the property, which would be cool since they're disappearing from streams across their range. I'll show up with some students to sample the creek for fish, and also to see if we can encounter any amphibians in the creek besides hellbenders. I'm curious to see if we find any flame chubs or blotchside logperch, among other uncommon fish species. Nick tells me that the unpaved road into this site is much better than the one at the Walls of Jericho, which I can well believe.

We've dissected the ovaries of all of the female telescope shiners from June and May, and we're well into the April fish. Soon we'll have to start counting and measure eggs, along with determining the maturation stage of each ovary. It'll be a ton'o data but well worth it.

I think we've signed the last papers for Rachel to complete her Master's degree. Her thesis on black darter reproduction is in good shape, and hopefully we can boil it down into a journal article. I'm still intrigued by the Sarcocystis coccidian parasites she found in the darters. It's something I'd like to go back to if some student is up for the field work and histological work. Volunteers?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

I'm Almost Famous, And Fundulus News

I've been meaning to post for 4 or 5 days, but I kept thinking I'd have something completely exciting to say. Well, not exactly, but things are progressing.

I haven't mentioned it yet because I didn't want to jinx it but I'll be in a new episode in the Alabama Public Television series, "Discovering Alabama". This series focuses on specific sites and habitats around the state of interest ecologically, which means they have a nearly endless list of possible topics. The episode I'm in focuses on the Flint River, just to the east of Huntsville. There is an interview of me along the banks of the Flint, and they did a session of me showing off preserved fishes from the Flint in my lab. Hopefully a shot of flame chubs or black darters will make it into the final rush. This episode will air sometime in July. The film crew was talking about a show dedicated to the freshwater fishes of Alabama so hopefully they'll be back and I can take them in-country for some hands-on show-and-tell.

I'm holding my breath on Kris' work to get good sequences for some of our mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus) DNA from Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. We figured out some of the PCR-associated errors that can happen with amplifying DNA, and it's being fixed by some laboratory sleight of hand. These are 4 or 5 sequences which would tie together our project looking at genetic variation in this species along the Atlantic coast. All the years I lived in Boston, I only made it out to the Vineyard once to collect fish on another project, and luckily for this project I had some mummichogs in good condition in my collection. If anybody reading this is visiting the Vineyard or Nantucket soon and can collect some fish to ship to me I'd be your pal... talk to me!

Speaking of Fundulus killifish species, Joe Scanlan in Montgomery, AL, told me that his Fundulus bifax have produced over 80 offspring in a 55 gallon tank. That's great news because this species is disappearing from the wild along the Alabama/Georgia line in a fashion similar to flame chubs in my end of the state. This species could well be in need of some kind of domestic propagation effort before it disappears for good. The species still has "low conservation status" to the state of Alabama, of course, and the feds pretend it's not there. We'll see.... and be careful who you vote for in the next elections, for God's sakes!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

GSI Date For Male And Female Telescope Shiners

We've been processing our June catch of telescope shiners from Hurricane Creek. Many individuals have the largest gonads we've found yet, especially the males. I suspect that June may turn out to be the peak breeding month for telescopes in Hurricane Creek. Average female GSI (gonado-somatic index) is 14.9, average male GSI is 6.2, both very high values. Several females were about 30, which is to say that a third of their body mass is ovaries and eggs.

Below are the graphs for male and female GSI, from February to June. Both sexes show a clear trend from very low to very high GSI across these five months. Error bars indicate standard error.
Today we did a fair amount of dissecting preserved ovaries and photographing the eggs for future counts. I think we did 9 females from the June collection. So we should start generating that data in the next week or two. See you 'round....

Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Picture From Hurricane Creek Last Saturday. Yeah, We Have A Drought.

We have a bad drought in north Alabama. We've had about 20 inches (48cm) less rain than is typical by this point in the year. The photo below is of Hurricane Creek at the Walls of Jericho from last Saturday. The exposed rocks in the picture should all be underwater. The low water is one reason at least that we were able to catch 40 telescope shiners in under an hour, a very fast collection rate. This picture shows primo telescope habitat, shallow flowing water over rocks and sand. And that's exactly where they were!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Rachel's Black Darter Thesis Abstract

This is the abstract for Rachel Bedingfield's thesis, just completed...

Title: Reproductive Development in the Blacksided Snubnose Darter, Etheostoma duryi, in North Alabama.

Reproductive development in Etheostoma duryi was studied in two North Alabama populations. Sites chosen for comparison were: urban Town Creek, near downtown Athens, and rural Limestone Creek, in Madison County. Microscopic and macroscopic methods were utilized to study gonadal development and investment in male and female fish. Town Creek fish were a larger size than Limestone Creek fish. Reproductive investment, as measured by gonadosomatic index, relative gonad mass and the proportionality coefficient, increased in both sites (and for both sexes) toward the peak spawning. However, there were no significant differences between the sites in reproductive output for either sex. Total number of oocytes differed significantly between populations, possibly attributable to differing body sizes. Clutch size and mass were not significantly different between sites. Reproductive maturation occurs from January until the peak in late March and April at both sites.

We hope to boil down Rachel's thesis into a journal article for American Midland Naturalist. I know we have some solid data.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Hurricane Creek Trip Report (Including A Tire Change)

Five of us made it out to Hurricane Creek on Saturday for our monthly telescope shiner collection. Creek level was very low, not surprising with our drought. We caught our 40 fish very quickly, and encountered a number of snakes, frogs and salamanders. The excitement of the trip was that a small flap was torn on the sidewall of the front left tire on the way in. Luckily it wasn't losing air as we stared at it on arrival. Even better, we made it out on the four miles of gated road without making it worse, and better still made it all the way back to Huntsville.

The odd part was that the tire gave out just as approached the parking lot at the back of Wilson Hall at UAH; I made a sharp left turn on the road and the tire started hissing. The trip effectively ended as we changed the tire on my truck, which was complicated. One of the lug nuts on my rim was a odd small size, but luckily Valerie's car's jack set had a wrench that turned the nut. And it was a big deal to detach my spare from under the truck. The hole were you stick in a crank rod to release the spare was somewhat stripped and stuck but Kevin was able to wrangle it loose. The good news was that my spare was better than I thought; it was the first time I'd looked closely at it since getting the truck in February. So I hope to get out to my favorite hole-in-the-wal tire shop this afternoon and have a new tire put on my rim. From here out I'm keeping my spare in the payload using a chain to secure it.

We'll get together tomorrow morning and inventory the fish we found.

Friday, June 01, 2007

A Nice Trip Collecting Scarlet Shiners

I went out to Limestone Creek this morning with Jennifer and Cedona. We were interested in collecting about 10 male scarlet shiners, both alpha and sub-dominant males. Jennifer has collected blood from a good number of females already but was lacking sub-dominant males, especially. We were out and back in under two hours. The creek is very low because of our drought, and we're getting better at targeting high likelihood net positions. Jennifer spent the afternoon bleeding the fish, getting as much as 70 microliters of blood per fish. She hopes to run ELISA tests on the blood samples for 11-ketotestosterone by the end of the month. If it all works she's well on track to finish her Master's degree by next summer, pretty good work in our department.

Speaking of which, Rachel defended her thesis last Friday. Her work was on reproductive development in black darters in two local creeks using both histological preparations and counting eggs and egg size. It was a very impressive piece of work. She prepared 3000 stained histological slides, of which 300 were informative. It took 17 months from start to finish. Her thesis edits are almost finished, and then we can think about boiling it down to a journal article. Our first thought is to submit it to American Midland Naturalist.

Tomorrow we're going out to Hurricane Creek at the Walls of Jericho for our June collection of telescope shiners. It'll be the first trip for three of the students now on the project. I'm sure water will be low there too.