Virginia Aquatic Ecology and Management – Vernal Pools, Water Monitoring

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

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.

Citizen scientists

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.

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Virginia Geology and Soil Sciences – Master Naturalist Training

The following is what I learned about Virginia’s geology and soil sciences during my first session of Virginia Master Naturalist training.

Virginia Geology

Plate tectonics drive a cycle for the creation and transformation of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. Plate tectonics includes divergent plates with fresh material in the middle, transform boundaries where two plates slip past each other (earthquakes), and convergent plates where one plate subducts underneath the other creating volcanoes (e.g., pacific northwest US).

Igneous rock are lava or magma cooled above or the the below the earth’s surface. Intrusive igneous rocks cool slowly below the surface and have large crystals. Extrusive igneous rocks cool quickly above the surface and have small crystals. Chemical (i.e., dissolving) and physical (i.e., wind, ice) weathering on igneous rocks creates small particles that are transported (e.g., water, wind) and deposited. Weight pressure from layers of deposits create sedimentary rock. Sedimentary and igneous rocks that are forced downwards experience increases in heat and pressure that transform them into metamorphic rocks.

Virginia has a low risk of earthquakes because it is far away from convergent plates and relatively far away from the New Madrid Fault Line in Missouri. Eastern and western Virginia are comprised primarily of sedimentary rocks whereas the central regions of the state include metamorphic and igneous rocks. Virginia’s caves are the result of chemically weathered limestone. An interesting note is that I-95 was built to connect port towns that ships used to be able to reach via waterways. Finally, North America is moving an inch/year towards Japan (human nails and hair grow an inch/year).

A high level geological history of Virginia includes the original super-continent Rodinia breaking apart putting Virginia on the continent’s edge where thick layers of basalt and charnockite formed. In addition, remains of tiny sea creatures were deposited and have created limestone in the state that is 25,000 feet thick. Further, the Appalachian mountains were formed when the continent of Africa rammed into North America.

Soil Sciences

Soils are the interface between the earth and the sun’s energy. They are a complex ecosystem comprised of living and non-living things. In addition, they grow plants, regulate water, and recycle raw materials.

Virginia’s soils are typically red which means they are weathered and well drained (i.e., rich in oxygen). Grey/blue soils are saturated with water and poorly drained. Blacks soils (e.g., coal) are comprised of organic matter. Western Virginia has a moist climate and soils classified as inceptisols. Eastern Virginia has old temperate soils classified as ultisols.

Particle size affects soil properties. Sandy soils comprised of small particles do not hold water and are not compacted. Clay soils comprised of larger particles hold water and are compacted.

Virginia Master Naturalist Training – Roanoke Valley Chapter

On Tuesday, I attended my first session of training to become a Virginia Master Naturalist with the Roanoke Valley Chapter. The course includes 11 three hour classroom sessions and a few weekend field trips. Maintaining a title of Virginia Master Naturalist requires an annual commitment of 40 hours of volunteer service and eight hours of advance training. Continue reading “Virginia Master Naturalist Training – Roanoke Valley Chapter”