Oh yeah! It was like lightning
Everybody was fighting
And the music was soothing
And they all started grooving

BioBlitz, bioblitz, bioblitz, bioblitz

The lyrics to the Sweet’s 1974 “Ballroom Blitz” conjures up images of all-out dance assault. On Friday, April Addington and her class high school juniors and seniors from Twin Springs High School conducted a “stream shuffle” offensive on the fish of Stock Creek at Natural Tunnel State Park. In honor of the “Earth Week”, the state park gathered experts on everything from protists to ferns in an effort to catalogue as many species of organisms during a 24 hour period. Our crew led by our kick seining crew was tasked with identifying as many species of finned critters as possible.

"Stream shuffling" fish into the seine!

“Stream shuffling” fish into the seine!

Checking out the catch

Checking out their catch

With the help of the students, we collected roughly 13 species of fish. The clear cold stream was dominated by sculpins in the rocky riffles, stonerollers on the bedrock flats, and Rock Bass in the boulders and undercut banks of the pools. I’ll need help identifying the sculpins as there are 4 species found in the Clinch. Other native species captured included: Telescope Shiner, Greenside Darter, Striped Shiner, Smallmouth Bass, White Sucker, and Northern Hogsucker.

Baby bronzeback aka Smallmouth Bass, Micropterus dolomieu

Baby bronzeback AKA Smallmouth Bass, Micropterus dolomieu

Telescope Shiner Notropis telescopus

Telescope Shiner Notropis telescopus

Sculpin spp.

Sculpin spp.

The only definitive male Stoneroller we caught. Most seemed to be females full of eggs.

The only definitive male Stoneroller we caught. Most seemed to be females full of eggs.

White Sucker Catostomus commersoni

White Sucker Catostomus commersoni

Striped Shiner Luxilus chrysocephalus

Striped Shiner Luxilus chrysocephalus

Rock Bass Ambloplites rupestris

Rock Bass Ambloplites rupestris

Stock Creek

Stock Creek

VDGIF also stocks Stock Creek with rainbow trout.. I was wondering if the presence of large gamefish might cut down on the number of minnow and darter species present but the little fish still seemed plentiful. The impacts of Brown Trout stocking are likely larger as they are more piscivorous than rainbows.

Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss

Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss

The most surprising discovery of the day were the 6 or 7 Northern Studfish juveniles we captured. Studfish are killifishes in the family Fundulidae and are slack water specialists. It is rare to find these fishes in swift flowing mountain rivers. Stock Creek had a few backwater areas that seemed to suit these guys just fine.The upturned, beak-like mouth allows the studfish to feed on terrestrial insects that fall into the water.

Northern Studfish Fundulus catenatus

Northern Studfish Fundulus catenatus

The south side of the the tunnel itself is one of the most beautiful places I’ve conducted a fish survey and is one of the most awe inspiring geologic features I’ve seen in Virginia. Over millennia Stock Creek carved a tunnel through the ridge. The railroad industry soon realized that the tunnel provided a convenient shortcut for rail travel and installed tracks. Looking up you find that you are in cylindrical canyon with cliffs rising. Occasionally drops of water would dimple the creek surface falling from the rim over 10 stories above.

Southside tunnel entrance.

Southside tunnel entrance.

It's a long way up...

It’s a long way up…

The rocks in the stream near the tunnel were large and covered in a slick coating of algae. Many slips led to dips in the creek and bruised limbs. By the time we got home my shin was doing it’s best impression of the forehead of a spawning Bluehead Chub.


Not that you really wanted to see my nasty leg…

You can check out some of the species found or log your own at



The Narrow-Minded Scientist

I’m new to twitter. I’m still a shy tweeter. Twitter has been a great tool to learn about things I’m interested, chiefly science and conservation.

Twitter states that their mission is “To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers.”

What a self endorsement! That sounds like the kind of tool that can breed political revolutions and surmount major world problems, which in specific instances has. However, I don’t think Twitter always lives up to this billing. As many things as I like about it, Twitter may offer views into dimly lit corners of academia where the walls imposed by disciplines or individuals close in rapidly.

This weekend the Twitter-sphere was engulfed in a veritable supernova as the mind of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took a break from drifting among the stars to deal with more “earthly” phenomena. Tyson wrote, “If there were ever a species for whom sex hurt, it surely went extinct long ago.”


Anyone who has ever seen a photo of a spiny duck penis will quickly notice Tyson’s blunder. While I know very little about Tyson and have not watched his show Cosmos, a thread of sarcastic humor is often laced through many of his tweets, which means we must at least entertain the idea that he was joking. Nevertheless, many rankled biologists sensed weakness in this sultan of science and snapped down on his jugular by rifling a flurry of tweets with mocking mashups scientific biology and physics theory with #BiologySpaceFacts.

When I say incensed, I don’t think that was everyone. Several biology space facts I read were lighthearted jabs and made me chuckle. For instance, Milton Tan wrote of the adorable and now inspirational water bear “Tardigrades are adapted to survive in space because that’s how they got to Earth.


Other biologists took Tyson’s tweet a bit too personally which to me suggests an unfortunate slip back into a feudal age of science. It seems to me that scientists are becoming more and more specialized and fiercely defensive of their fiefdom of knowledge against outsiders. Gone are the Renaissance men and women. Gone is the liberal education. A product of stretching the largely inelastic bounds of human intelligence in a more complex world where we entrust computers to store general knowledge.

Wendell Berry environmental author and advocate of sustainable agriculture writes in a recent collection of essays that “We have accumulated a massive collection of ‘information’ to which we may have ‘access.’ But this information, by being accessible, does not become knowledge. We might find, if such a computation were possible, that the amount of human knowledge over many millennia has remained more or less constant- that is it has always filled the available mental capacity- and therefore that learning invariably involves forgetting. To have the Renaissance, we had to forget the Middle Ages. To the extent that we have learned about machines, we have forgotten about plants and animals. Every nail we drive in, as I believe C. S. Lewis said, drives another out.”

A result of this specialization are the widespread insecurities seen in the academic culture today. Perhaps some treat Twitter like the puffed chest of the magnificent frigate bird or a unfurled hood of a king cobra, as a tool to entice attention from or assert dominance in a highly competitive environment #BiologySocialFacts. Tyson, with his 5 million followers, will no doubt survive unscathed, but we need to make sure we are not deterring other scientists from making forays outside their specialized disciplines and open the walls into our own. Step beyond your barriers and be generous to others as they stumble stepping beyond theirs. We cannot penalize individuals for being a product of the system we have collectively created.

I also noticed that everyone, except me, has more followers than profiles they follow. Besides indicating that I’m probably the lamest person on Twitter, perhaps it hints that the promotional component of social media usurps the sharing component. Share what you know but more importantly, listen to others. Promotion doesn’t synthesize knowledge. Sharing is a two-way process, yes create information but listen as well.

I know that if I wanted to compose a sarcastic #BiologySpaceFact, I would have to do more than a few google searches to brush up on my astronomy.

That is why I think Twitter is so valuable. My research project forces me to be an extremely narrow-minded scientist.  I study one species, found in one state, and in only two counties. Skimming Twitter during my lunch breaks exposes me to snippets of research and information on plants, animals, and fish across the globe and reminds me that there is a larger system to which I am trying to fix just a small component.


I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now: Thinking about Fish in Multiple Dimensions

I think every graduate student could produce a list of things they wish they would have known going in. For me, “I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now” could be a recurring feature on this blog. One of the hardest things for me to shake is a propensity to think about stream ecology in multiple dimensions. With the shift from emphasizing fish stocking to habitat management in traditional fisheries management, the idea that fish chose “homes” reflecting specific environmental tolerances was hammered into my brain. Slowly but surely I am learning that environment is only part of the picture.

One of the first exercises in my quantitative ecology class last semester was to partition variation in species communities among environmental and spatial factors. I immediately wondered what are these eggheads talking about? Theoretical ecology is interesting and all, but I am into applied fish conservation. My species could go extinct while I sit here worrying about frivolous things such as how spatial factors affect Clinch Dace distribution. So I responded how most do when confronted by inconvenient and uncomfortable new knowledge: I ignored it. I went back to my simple, comfortable niche-based world view. A world of conductivity, canopy cover, substrate, and watershed land use that alone should dictate where a Clinch Dace decides to live. Countless other published studies have done the same thing, why couldn’t I?

This strategy was somewhat successful for me until a few months ago. One of my committee members, Emmanuel Frimpong, happens to be a particularly brilliant landscape ecologist. During a committee meeting he burst my bubble of ignorance. So with the help of Dr. Frimpong and his former student Brandon Peoples, I began to confront the elephant in the room- space. I calculated the distance a fish would need to swim to travel between all my sites and began to think about how spatial correlation among the habitat measurements at my sites could be removed.

Metacommunity ecology uses four major paradigms to explain how space effects species distribution and community structure. These are: species sorting, mass effects, neutral theory and patch dynamics. I will focus on the first two paradigms in this post.

Source: Falke and Fausch 2010.

Source: Falke and Fausch 2010.

Species-sorting theory has historically been the bread and butter of ecological thinking. Species find the habitats that best suit them and generally stay in there. It is essentially the niche theory that is in some form recognizable to even a lay audience.

So then what are heck mass effects? Mass effects refer to source-sink population dynamics where individual fish are highly mobile. They are all about how fish moving among patches of habitat in the stream frequently; persisting in the good habitats called source patches at all times and occasionally blinking in and out of the less optimal habitats called sinks.

Although I’ve struggled mightily at times implementing space into my statistical analysis, so far my results suggest that perhaps a species-sorting model where environmental factors prevail in explaining species distribution is more dominant in Clinch Dace. Conceptually this makes sense. Clinch Dace are likely fairly sedentary; dependent on headwater pool habitats and nearby gravelly runs for feeding, reproduction, and most of the other important events in their short lives. However space and dispersal could definitely play a role when we start thinking about impassible road crossings,  genetic connectivity among populations, and stream drying in the late summer/early fall.

A nice clean, well-shaded pool might fulfill most of the requirements for a Clinch Dace

A nice clean, well-shaded pool might fulfill most of the requirements for a Clinch Dace

There are certainly circumstances where the mass effects or a space dominated model might be a better fit. On the Arikaree river on the arid plains of Colorado researchers found that pure spatial mass effects explained 31.4% of the variation in fish community structure while pure environmental effects only explained 6.5%. This make sense, the Arikaree river’s hydrology is seasonally variable. Fish must move between habitats as they become available throughout the year. Deep pools that teem with fish in the spring may be dry by the fall. In other words, while environment may influence which habitats are best (sources) and which are worse (sinks) you may not be able to distinguish between the two with your sampling data. The species dispersal abilities can overwhelm the effects of microhabitat variation. Managers could construct the perfect pool for the imperiled brassy minnow in the Arikaree but if the right spatial configuration of habitat patches did not surround it, it wouldn’t do a lick of good.

Arikaree River. Source:

Arikaree River. Source:

All ecological research should tell a story which is a simplified but ultimately useful version of the focal ecosystem. While thinking beyond habitat may muddy the waters on the clean narrative that has prevailed for decades, native fish need biologists who can think in multiple dimensions. Yes, habitat is one, but there are also human, genetic, and of course spatial dimensions to consider as well. Without understanding how space and movement influences fish distribution, we are ill prepared to incorporate spatial effects in our graduate research and even less in our future careers managing of native fish communities. Multidimensional thinking will ensure that the stories we tell our peers and the public are nuanced and a step closer to reality.


Sources and Other Links:

Another cool blog post on meta-community ecology:

Book chapter I was reading while I wrote this: Falke, J. A. K. D. Fausch. 2010 From metapopulations to metacommunties: linking theory with empirical observations of the spatial population dynamics of stream fishes. In: Gido, K. B., and D. A. Jackson, editors. 2010. Community ecology of stream fishes: concepts, approaches and techniques. American Fisheries Society, Symposium 73, Bethesda, Maryland.

Crossing the Threshold

Spoiler alert: so far the occupancy models for my thesis have not showed strong support for many of the habitat variables that we hypothesize may affect the distribution and abundance of Clinch Dace. Small sample sizes and complex interactions among variables inherently lead to low statistical power for pulling out the environmental relationships with rare fish. Another issue with occupancy models, GLM’s, N-mixture models, etc are that most of the time we are assuming linear relationships between our response and our environmental predictors. However, in nature threshold relationships with certain environmental variables may exist.


Plot from Hitt et al. 2016

A new paper by Nathaniel “Than” Hitt et al. on the Clinch Dace’s cousin the Blackside Dace as well as the Kentucky Arrow Darter suggests that a threshold relationship exists with water quality and abundance. Like Clinch Dace, Blackside Dace are also affected by surface mining which can lead to elevated conductivity. High dissolved solids can lead to declines in sensitive EPT taxa. The cause of this relationship needs more investigation, but they hypothesize that it may be due to indirect effects on the fish as their macroinvertebrate prey populations become depressed. Fish end up spending more and more energy searching for food when it is scarce, reducing the amount available for other important life functions such as reproduction and predator avoidance.


Relationship between specific conductance and relative abundance of Clinch Dace at 70 sites I sampled during 2014 and 2015. Threshold suggested for Blackside Dace by Hitt et al. marked with red line.

My experiences with Clinch Dace has made me suspect a similar relationship. Clinch Dace abundances are either high, low or 0 below 350 uS/cm and except for one site, low or 0 above the threshold. However with only 70 sites of paired relative abundance and water chemistry data it is difficult to tell for certain. It may be informative to look at relationships between conductivity and herbivorous species such as Stonerollers to see if their populations remain stable with increases in conductivity.

Elucidation of the relationships between conductivity macroinvertebrate biomass, and fish abundance may be best accomplished with future lab or manipulative experiments.

Check out Hitt et al.’s outstanding work cited below:

Hitt, N.P., M. Floyd, M. Compton, and K. McDonald. 2016. Threshold responses of Blackside Dace (Chrosomus cumberlandensis) and Kentucky Arrow Darter (Etheostoma spilotum) to stream conductivity. Southeastern Naturalist 15(1):41-60.

Than’s research page is:

The Clinch Drainage: A Land of Opportunities

The fact is that most of the state and federal lands that are managed for fish and wildlife habitat today just are not good for much of anything else, at least from a direct economic perspective. Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation legacy is perhaps greater than any other US president. However we may need to temper our admiration a bit when we imagine him sitting behind his desk establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments under the 1906 American Antiquities Act (1). Roosevelt had tried his hand at ranching cattle in the Badlands of North Dakota. In 1877 when 80% of the cattle in the region succumbed to harsh winter weather he reconsidered ranching and sold off the property. 100 years later, we have realized that even the vast expanses of Western land under the management of the federal government will not be nearly enough to conserve the most species rich ecosystems against growing human consumption of natural resources.

It is no accident that the federal government owns 87% of land in Nevada and 47% in the Western United States overall. It is no accident that Cliven Bundy graze needs 600,000 acres of BLM land to graze 900 head of cattle. Most of Nevada gets less than 15 inches of precipitation each year meaning cows must roam far and wide to find enough to eat. The boulder strewn slopes the Rockies and the deserts and dry grasslands of the west just are not productive enough for agriculture. Plain and simple, we often only have undisturbed ecosystems where we can’t grow other stuff. And most of the places we can’t grow stuff lacks fish and wildlife species diversity.

Some abandoned anthracite mines can burn underground for years. Source:

Some abandoned anthracite mines can burn underground for years. Source:

So how does vulnerability to agricultural land conversion factor into conservation of the Clinch Dace? The forested watersheds of the Clinch Dace’s range remain so due to their thin rocky soil and steep slopes where mean slope averages 32.5%. At first it may have seemed as though much of the Appalachians would be prime targets for opportunistic land preservation. If you believe in legends, the only chink in the conservation armor of Appalachia was discovered in 1790. Necho Allen, a Pennsylvania hunter fell asleep by his campfire and awoke to find an exposed hillside seam of anthracite coal aflame. Further south in VA, the deposits of fossilized Precambrian forests that over millennia of pressure and heat formed deposits of lower quality, but still valuable, bituminous coal.

Another economically valuable and limited resource in a land of hills and hollows is flat land for residential and commercial development as well. A recent study estimated that Appalachia was 40% flatter due to surface mining. Lands flattened by mines may be too valuable and the soil too degraded to return to wildlife habitat. They are perfect sites for a row of houses or businesses. During our flight over our survey sites with in a single engine airplane with South Wings in November, we noticed some remote areas with brand new neighborhoods on a ridge top possibly flattened by old surface mines. P1020404


*Past flooding of Levisa Fork that runs through Grundy, VA had devastated the community that is surrounded by steep hills. This forced the relocation of a new business district outside of the narrow floodplain. The Army Corps of Engineers had to flatten part of a nearby mountain to make room for the construction site.*

Although Clinch Dace have managed to hold on through a century and a half of mining  and logging operations the threats posed by these practices are not static. It is possible that technological limitations in the past ensured that resource extraction and habitat degradation was patchwork. Small patches of land were cleared of timber and coal and then allowed to recover while another area was mined.The headwater specialist Clinch Dace may have been able to persist in small undisturbed tributaries and then gradually make up lost ground as habitat recovered in watersheds affected by mining and logging. These connected islands of suitable refugia could be key to species persistence. Lately, the game has changed. Machines and explosives can lop off huge mountaintops and bury miles of headwater streams with the potential of leaving Clinch Dace without safe places to hide. Impassible culverts have also restricted Clinch Dace’s ability to migrate between streams.

In the Clinch drainage we need more than opportunism, because opportunities are rare and vulnerability is high. We need strategic, targeted conservation action for the species to ensure that the humans and Clinch Dace can share the landscape.



Barbara Freese. Coal a Human History.


Color by Numbers

Picking up and measuring rocks, flow, canopy cover, or water quality at each and every site is the stuff you have to do while you’d rather be catching fish. Habitat data collection is not glamorous but is often the most important part of field work. Yet when you are only measuring micro-habitat parameters at each site your dataset is limited to only places you have been to. Even if you successfully develop a habitat model with this data, you will lack data for the stream segments you have not yet sampled and will be unable to predict whether or not your study species will occur there. Although at times the Upper Clinch watershed seems small enough that Aaron Rodgers might be able to throw a football from one boundary to the other, amazing gradients of landscape level habitat conditions still exist. It remains too large an area to exhaustively sample by yourself. Luckily, the United States Geological Survey maintains files and files of habitat variables that are available for catchments (or small pieces of a larger watershed) all across the country. Each catchment and stream segment in the stream network has its own unique ComID number. Habitat data in NHDplus tables available for free online can easily be linked to their corresponding catchments in a GIS system. Mapping programs then allow you shade catchments based on the values of a particular variable, like those color by numbers coloring books you did as a kid. Interesting patterns begin to emerge that can help us learn about the system we study.

The following maps show the Upper Clinch River Watershed. No sampling record points are displayed on this map to ensure the protection of Clinch Dace populations. However, we can see that even within such a small area the diversity of habitats provides unique conditions preferred by individual species within this biodiversity hotspot.

NHDPlus Habitat In Upper Clinch1

This paneled figure shows the variation in surface geology throughout the region. A shows the proportion of each catchment that has colluvium or larger rocky substrate transported by gravitational processes. Colluvium is most common in the northern part of the basin. B shows the proportion of red clay which predominate in the agricultural southern part of the basin. And C shows the proportion of alluvial or floodplain soils that are concentrated along the mainstem Clinch River.

NHDPlus Habitat In Upper Clinch3

The panels of this second figure display different characteristics related to ground and surface water movement in each catchment. Panel A shows the base flow index which measures the relative influence of subsurface flow in each catchment. Groundwater contributions are highest in the eastern part of the watershed. Panel B shows the mean elevation in each catchment. Elevation is lowest in the middle of the watershed where the Clinch River valley lowlands lie. Elevation also has major effects on mean air temperature in each catchment. Panel C shows stream density or the length of stream divided by the area of the catchment. No clear geographic patterns emerge with stream density. Finally panel D represents the amount of precipitation infiltration versus surface runoff. It should not be surprising that in the clay dominated southern part of the watershed precipitation does not as readily infiltrate the soil.

NHDPlus Habitat In Upper Clinch2

The final figure shows aspects of human impacts on the watershed. Panel A shows the number of times roads cross streams in each catchment. The number of road crossings is related to human population density shown in panel D and is at its lowest in areas of the Jefferson National Forest in Northern Scott Co. Figure B shows the proportion of each catchment that is forested. Northern catchments are more forested while southern catchments have largely been converted to agriculture and pasture. Panel C shows the proportion of each catchment that is barren rock. This may indicate that the catchment contains surface mines. The highest intensity of surface mining occurs near Cleveland, Northwest of Richlands, and in the peninsula in the northwest corner of the figure that is the Guest River watershed.

The CRVI Path to Conservation

If you were to hop in a canoe and drift with the sluggish current of the Clinch for about 40 miles from my downstream most sampling site near St. Paul, VA, you would find yourself near the town of Duffield, VA. Forays outside of Russell and Tazewell County are rare for me. People often ask me if I’ve been to certain places in the drainage, and are met with a blank stare and an “I’ve heard of that place… I think”. Like a Clinch Dace who has found the perfect little pool, most of my time is spent close to home base and I know it well. The first thing that jumps off the map is that unlike the northern half of Russell and Tazewell Counties Northern Scott had escaped the grasp of the big mining and forestry conglomerates. Most of this area was owned designated as National Forest and even had a State Park. Whether undiscovered Clinch Dace populations swim in these forests remains a question of interest.

Bumper stickers with CRVI logo to promote the Clinch.

Bumper stickers with CRVI logo to promote the Clinch.

I found myself in Duffield two weeks ago for a meeting of the Clinch River Valley Initiative (CRVI pronounced “curvy”) which was held at one such park, Natural Tunnel State Park. CRVI is a local economic development effort constructed around the theme of the Clinch’s world-class biodiversity. I arrived a little early and had a brief chance to explore. At first, I thought I had wandered into an out of season alpine ski resort. Out of the yawning maw of a hilltop chalet emerged a pair of chairlift seats like a row of loose teeth that swung in the breeze. The rows of chairs descended down the steep hollow to deliver visitors to the main attraction, a natural tunnel through one of the rocky ridges that had been re-purposed into a tunnel for railroad transportation in the late 1800’s. After getting lost a few times, I was redirected to the conference center where the meeting was taking place. The hulking log building could have been the 4-star lodging at the ski-resort I kept forgetting I wasn’t actually visiting. On the grounds was a poo with a 100 ft corkscrew waterside and diving boards. As I turned around and looked off toward the sun dipping into the adjacent ridge, it all seemed slightly arrogant to think that structures of wood and concrete could add any splendor to the surrounding cliffs formed over millions of years by the deliberate forces of tectonic upheaval.

The chairlift to the natural tunnel at Natural Tunnel State Park (

The chairlift to the natural tunnel at Natural Tunnel State Park (

Fortunately, I found that the members of CRVI fully sympathetic to the surrounding ecological treasures and were trying to capitalize on their value to develop St. Paul, Cleveland, Duffield, and the many other communities strung like pearls on the winding Clinch. During opening introductions I was stunned by the diversity of stakeholders in attendance which included residents, local politicians, state agency, NGO, and tourism reps. The event was moderated by Frank Dukes and Christine Gyovai Institute for Environmental Negotiation at the University of Virginia who kept discussion flowing and ensured everyone had a chance to voice their opinions.

The focus of the meeting was the creation of a Clinch River State Park. The proposed linear park hopes to be a multi-location project to help improve accessibility and accommodations in the upper part of the basin making the Clinch a national destination for paddlers, nature lovers, and might I add anglers and snorklers! I was also excited that ecologists doing field work in the Clinch Basin may have more camping options along the river instead of the dilapidated elementary school in Cleveland, VA.

The conference center at Natural Tunnel State park where the meeting was held (

The conference center at Natural Tunnel State park where the meeting was held (

Over the past year, CRVI has amassed an impressive resume. 34.11 tons of litter were removed from 22 illegal dumpsites, 18 tons of household hazardous wastes were collected, 4 new river access points with signage were created, 7 towns received “Hometowns of the Clinch” status, 3 environmental education symposiums were held for local teachers, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation has pledged an initial $250,000 for the development of the Clinch River State Park.

While I doubt the Clinch Dace will ever attract droves of biodiversity nerds to the region the species is a small piece of the amazing ecological heritage of the region. Hopefully, CRVI will help continue to lead the way in creating a more hospitable environment for all the Clinch’s residents, humans, fish, wildlife, and plants alike.