The following is what I learned about Virginia’s aquatic ecology and management during my second session of Virginia Master Naturalist training. The Appalachian Mountains are home to a high concentration of fresh water bodies that include rivers, streams, ponds, reservoirs, lakes, and vernal pools. Wildlife and insects congregate around water bodies because they serve as a source of water, oxygen, food (e.g., crayfish), and shelter (e.g., bank hangovers, rocks).
Importance of plants near water bodies
Water bodies provide an environment for plants; although most do not do well with wet roots. Virginia plants that can be found near water include cardinal flower, joe pye weed, alder, shadbush, sycamore, river birch, and cottonwood. Plants near water bodies serve several very important functions:
- Provide ground cover for insects that are eaten by animals.
- Control pH of soil and water to stabilize them at a slightly acidic level that is beneficial for both plants and animals.
- Control temperature of air and water
- Limit erosion and sediment pollution by stabilizing stream banks; sediment pollution is when too much of a stream bank is sliding into the water.
- Remove heavy metals from soil – Some plants (e.g., willow, water hyacinth) can remove pollution from air and soil via phytoremediation; the absorption of heavy metals.
- Food source for insects and animals – Animals attracted to Virginia’s water bodies include deer, otter, mink, raccoons, muskrat, beavers, insects (e.g., mosquitoes, butterflies), and birds. Many animals and insects rely on stream side vegetation for food. Animals help plants by eating seeds (e.g., berries) and spreading them via their movement, followed by defecation. Notably, beavers often cannot be relocated because of concerns regarding disease and/or genetics so protecting their natural habitats is important.
Factors that affect a water body’s function
- Pollution – Air pollution (e.g., acid rain, heavy metals), sediment pollution, and people littering (e.g., banana peels, apple cores) all negatively affect a water body’s ability to function. Littering is enough of a problem at Douthat State Park that the lake has to get drained from time to time. In addition, the presence of black flies can be an indication of human pollution.
- Flash flooding – Healthy water has various speeds of water flow and a flash flood can disrupt water speeds.
- Climate change – Increases or decreases in temperature affect a water body’s ecosystem. A reduction in plants and trees near a water body can increase sun exposure and, ultimately, the temperature of a water body.
- Defoliation – Pests eating all of the leaves of a tree forces the tree to expend energy growing a second set of leaves (e.g., oak) when its energy would be better spent preparing for winter. In addition, human development (e.g., destruction of plants) can disturb a natural ecosystem.
Vernal pools are an important body of water for some of Virginia’s keystone species. Vernal pools are temporary bodies of water that typically exist from September to June. Although snapping turtles can find their way into a vernal pool, fish typically only get in via flooding. Skinks, lizards, salamanders, frogs, amphibians, and other species critical to the food chain are able to reproduce in a vernal pool predator-free because most predators (e.g., fish) require a year round water body to survive. An additional ecological benefit of vernal pools is that some amphibians live miles from their mating place (e.g., a vernal pool) which means that during their migrations they can collect and spread seeds; which is beneficial for native plants. Douthat State Park has both natural and artificial vernal pools. Finally, controversial mountain top mining can inadvertently create vernal pools; which facilitate the continuation of keystone species.
Anybody can be a citizen scientist by volunteering to perform water monitoring tests, pulling invasive weeds, counting migratory birds, counting plant variations (i.e., biodiversity count), and working with vernal pools. World Water Monitoring Day is non-profit program that raises awareness about protecting water resources by helping citizen scientists conduct basic water monitoring tests (e.g., dissolved oxygen checks). It is recommended to wear gloves and waders during water monitoring and to wash hands afterward to prevent food poisoning.