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Some Environmental Research Projects Underway at Berry College

Environmental Research 1The Rising Coyote Population Coast-to-Coast (Dr. Chris Mowry)

My students and I first began studying coyotes (Canis latrans) in 2002. Coyote populations appear to be on the rise in the eastern U.S. An animal that was once restricted to areas west of the Mississippi River is now found in all states except Hawaii. Humans have literally cleared the way for the eastward expansion of coyotes during the past 100 years. The conversion of forests to agricultural/developed lands and the extirpation of wolves have opened up ecological niches that are now being filled by coyotes.
The emergence of this new top predator can and will have significant ecological implications in some areas. Coyotes can potentially produce “top-down” effects whereby a small number of individuals can disproportionately influence animal and plant communities. For example, the presence of coyotes in an area can limit populations of smaller predators who might in turn be preying upon ground nesting birds. Conversely, when a top predator is absent, a community can experience “mesopredator release” or an overabundance of midsize predators (e.g., raccoons). Research is needed to investigate the impact of a burgeoning coyote population.
We are currently working on a dietary study of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. This project is being conducted in collaboration with the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center (YERC). YERC has been studying coyotes in Yellowstone since the late 1980s, both pre- and post-gray wolf (Canis lupus) reintroductions in the park. Coupled with YERC’s data sets on prey populations, climate change, and coyote behavior and demography, dietary information will further our understanding of the coyote’s role in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Environmental Research 2Berry College Longleaf Pine Project (Dr. Martin Cipollini)

The effort to reestablish a fire-maintained Mountain Longleaf ecosystem on Lavender Mountain, located on Berry College property just north of Rome, Georgia, actually began with studies during Dr. Martin Cipollini’s Plant/Forest Ecology course in 1999. That experience, coupled with a previous study conducted by a former Berry student and the enthusiasm of another group of Dr. Cipollini’s students in 2001, a formal longleaf management plan was drafted and was accepted by College administration in 2002. Since that time, hundreds of students, student workers, faculty, staff, and volunteers have been actively involved in the research and restoration efforts. It also frequently involves the expertise of Berry’s Land Resources Management Office and professionally-trained burn teams, who perform the prescribed burns necessary for growth of new trees and plants and the overall health of the ecosystem. Categorized as a biodiversity conservation undertaking, proper longleaf pine ecosystem restoration reduces the likelihood of devastating wildfires in managed areas in a species that is known to be less susceptible to regional diseases and pests. A healthy longleaf pine ecosystem is important to wildlife, including some endangered animals, and countless plant species.

Environmental Research 3Inventory of Reptiles and Amphibians of Northwest Georgia. (Dr. D. Bruce Conn)
Reptiles and amphibians are among the most conspicuous and important wildlife groups in most environments, but many are poorly known in the northwest Georgia area. A comprehensive inventory is being conducted to determine the occurrence, distribution, habitat utilization, and relative abundance of reptile and amphibian species in this important southern Appalachian foothill region and upper Coosa River watershed. This project is part of a comprehensive biodiversity inventory that is being conducted on Berry land.

Parasites of Wild Rodents in Northwest Georgia and Southeast Tennessee, and the Potential for Transmammary Transmission. (Dr. D. Bruce Conn)
Rodents are abundant in most habitats, and can be used as models to study many ecological phenomena. As hosts for many parasites, rodents carry a variety of infectious agents that are transmissible to humans and domestic animals. To determine the patterns of infection among rodents in North America, we are conducting parallel epidemiological studies on rodent populations in New York State, southeastern Tennessee, and northwest Georgia. We are paying special attention to the potential for transmission of parasites directly from mothers to their nursing young, since this has been shown to be important among parasites of pets and livestock.

Environmental Research 4Biology of Caddisflies in the St. Lawrence River. (Dr. D. Bruce Conn)
Caddisflies are among the most important members of freshwater communities throughout the world. Our studies in the United States and Canada involve a combination of navigational buoy surveys, scuba-based population measurements, electron microscopy, morphometrics, and gut content analysis designed to elucidate various aspects of the biology of the most important species if this insect group in the St. Lawrence River, which drains the world’s largest surface freshwater system.

Environmental Research 5Nesting Ecology of Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). (Dr. Renee E. Carleton)
Habitat loss resulting from urban encroachment into rural areas impacts the Eastern Bluebird and other songbird populations. Berry’s pastures and fields are ideal bluebird habitat, yet in 2002, we counted only 5 nesting pairs. To encourage more bluebirds to stay here, 60 nest boxes were placed throughout the campus. Studies involving nesting behavior, reproductive success, parasites, and other aspects of bluebird ecology are being conducted on those birds taking up residence. In the summer of 2009, we banded the 1000th bluebird on campus. Studies planned for the upcoming breeding seasons include the use of radio telemetry to monitor the survival of young bluebirds after they leave the nest and the physiological effects of parasites on flight capability.

Survey of Aquatic Turtle Species. (Dr. Renee E. Carleton)
Berry’s campus consists of many unique and specialized ecosystems, both terrestrial and aquatic. Little is known about the turtles which inhabit Berry’s lakes, ponds, streams and creeks. A capture, tag, and release study is in progress to identify which turtle species are here and estimate how many there are of each kind. In future years, this information will be used to follow increases and decreases in these populations, movements of individuals, and increase knowledge about their life histories.

Environmental Research 6Spawning Activity of Striped Bass in the Upper Coosa River Basin. (Dr. Bill Davin)
The Upper Coosa River Basin is home to one of only a few naturally-reproducing populations of landlocked-striped bass. Successful reproduction was first documented in 1997 through egg collections made in the Coosa and Oostanaula Rivers in northwest Georgia. Continuous monitoring since that time has indicated significant fluctuations in egg density (peak densities have ranged from 7.6 eggs/m3 in 1997 to 108 eggs/m3 in 2000). Variations in hydroelectric discharge, water temperatures, and water quality are thought to contribute to these fluctuations.

Environmental Research 7Movement Patterns of Striped Bass in the Upper Coosa River Basin. (Dr. Bill Davin)
Beginning in the spring of 2003, 14 adult striped bass will be fitted with radio transmitters and released back into the Coosa River. The movement patterns and habitat selection of these tagged fish will be monitored for the next 8 to12 months. Tracking will be performed from boat, car, and airplane. The goal of this study is to identify the spawning grounds; feeding areas; and most importantly, the thermal refuges utilized by these fish during the warmer summer months. With the potential for reduced discharge in the Coosa River system, as a result of water withdrawal; these thermal refuges could be in jeopardy.

Environmental Research 8Food Training Largemouth Bass in Intensive Culture by Using “Teacher Fish.” (Dr. Bill Davin)
Largemouth bass are commonly reared intensively by aquaculturists in order to reduce natural mortalities and to increase profits. One of the major obstacles to this process is the initial conversion of the fish to artificial feed. Typically, this requires holding the fish at high densities and subjecting them to high concentrations of food, which can be detrimental to water quality. As many organisms learn by mimicking, we are examining the possibility of training the largemouth bass at low densities by introducing food-trained fish to serve as “teachers.”

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