Urbanization and Estuary Eutrophication

Charles Hopkinson out taking dissolved O2 measurements.

Charles Hopkinson out taking dissolved O2 measurements.Student activity, Graph Type A, Level 4

The activities are as follows:

An estuary is a habitat formed where a freshwater river or stream meets a saltwater ocean. Many estuaries can be found along the Atlantic coast of North America. Reeds and grasses are the dominant type of plant in estuaries because they are able to tolerate and grow in the salty water. Where these reeds and grasses grow they form a special habitat called a salt marsh. Salt marshes are important because they filter polluted water and buffer the land from storms. Salt marshes are the habitat for many different kinds of plants, fish, shellfish, and birds.

Hap Garritt removing an oxygen logger from Middle Road Bridge in winter.

Hap Garritt removing an oxygen logger from Middle Road Bridge in winter.

Scientists are worried because some salt marshes are in trouble! Runoff from rain washes nutrients, usually from lawn fertilizers and agriculture, from land and carries them to estuaries. When excess nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorus, enter an ecosystem the natural balance is disrupted. The ecosystem becomes more productive, called eutrophication. Eutrophication can cause major problems for estuaries and other habitats.

With more nutrients in the ecosystem, the growth of plants and algae explodes. During the day, algae photosynthesize and release O2 as a byproduct. However, excess nutrients cause these same algae grow densely near the surface of the water, decreasing the light available to plants growing below the water on the soil surface. Without light, the plants die and are broken down by decomposers. Decomposers, such as bacteria, use a lot of O2 because they respire as they break down plant material. Because there is so much dead plant material for decomposers, they use up most of the O2 dissolved in the water. Eventually there is not enough O2 for aquatic animals, such as fish and shellfish, and they begin to die-off as well.

Two features can be used to identify whether eutrophication is occurring. The first feature is low levels of dissolved O2 in the water. The second feature is when there are large changes in the amount of dissolved O2 from dawn to dusk. Remember, during the day when it’s sunny, photosynthesis converts CO2, water, and light into glucose and O2. Decomposition reverses the process, using glucose and O2 and producing CO2 and water. This means that when the sun is down at night, O2 is not being added to the water from photosynthesis. However, O2 is still being used for decomposition and respiration by animals and plants at night.

The scientists focused on two locations in the Plum Island Estuary and measured dissolved O2 levels, or the amount of O2 in the water. They looked at how the levels of O2 changed throughout the day and night. They predicted that the upper part of the estuary would show the two features of eutrophication because it is located near an urban area. They also predicted the lower part of the estuary would not be affected by eutrophication because it was farther from urban areas.

A view of the Plum Island estuary

A view of the Plum Island estuary

Featured scientists: Charles Hopkinson from University of Georgia and Hap Garritt from the Marine Biological Laboratory Ecosystems Center

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.6

Dangerous Aquatic Prey: Can Predators Adapt to Toxic Algae?

Figure 1: Scientist Finiguerra collecting copepods at the New Jersey experimental site.

Figure 1: Scientist Finiguerra collecting copepods at the New Jersey experimental site.

The activities are as follows:

Phytoplankton are microscopic algae that form the base of all aquatic food chains. While organisms can safely eat most phytoplankton, some produce toxins. When these toxic algae reach high population levels it is known as a toxic algal bloom. These blooms are occurring more and more often across the globe – a worrisome trend! Toxic algae poison animals that eat them, and in turn, humans that eat these animals. For example, clams and other shellfish filter out large quantities of the toxic algae, and the toxic cells accumulate in their tissues. If humans then eat these contaminated shellfish they can become very sick, and even die.

One reason the algae produce toxins is to reduce predation. However, if predators feed on toxic prey for many generations, the predator population may evolve resistance, by natural selection, to the toxic prey. In other words, the predators may adapt and would be able to eat lots of toxic prey without being poisoned. Copepods, small crustaceans and the most abundant animals in the world, are main consumers of toxic algae. Along the northeast coast of the US, there is a toxic phytoplankton species, Alexandrium fundyense, which produces very toxic blooms. Blooms of Alexandrium occur often in Maine, but are never found in New Jersey. Scientists wondered if populations of copepods that live Maine were better at coping with this toxic prey compared to copepods from New Jersey.

Figure 2: A photograph of a copepod (left) and the toxic alga Alexandrium sp. (right).

Figure 2: A photograph of a copepod (left) and the toxic alga Alexandrium sp. (right).

Scientists tested whether copepod populations that have a long history of exposure to toxic Alexandrium are adapted to this toxic prey. To do this, they raised copepods from Maine (long history of exposure to toxic Alexandrium) and New Jersey (no exposure to toxic Alexandrium) in the laboratory. They raised all the copepods under the same conditions. The copepods reproduced and several generations were born in the lab (a copepod generation is only about a month). This experimental design eliminated differences in environmental influences (temperature, salinity, etc.) from where the populations were originally from.

The scientists then measured how fast the copepods were able to produce eggs, also called their egg production rate. Egg production rate is an estimate of growth and indicates how well the copepods can perform in their environment. The copepods were given either a diet of toxic Alexandrium or another diet that was non-toxic. If the copepods from Maine produced more eggs while eating Alexandrium, this would be evidence that copepods have adapted to eating the toxic algae. The non-toxic diet was a control to make sure the copepods from Maine and New Jersey produced similar amounts of eggs while eating a good food source. For example, if the copepods from New Jersey always lay fewer eggs, regardless of good or bad food, then the control would show that. Without the control, it would be impossible to tell if a difference in egg production between copepod populations was due to the toxic food or something else.

Featured scientists: Michael Finiguerra and Hans Dam from University of Connecticut-Avery Point, and David Avery from the Maine Maritime Academy

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.6

There are three scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. 

Colin, SP and HG Dam (2002) Latitudinal differentiation in the effects of the toxic dinoflagellate Alexandrium spp. on the feeding and reproduction of populations of the copepod Acartia hudsonicaHarmful Algae 1:113-125

Colin, SP and HG Dam (2004) Testing for resistance of pelagic marine copepods to a toxic dinoflagellate. Evolutionary Ecology 18:355-377

Colin, SP and HG Dam (2007) Comparison of the functional and numerical responses of resistant versus non-resistant populations of the copepod Acartia hudsonica fed the toxic dinoflagellate Alexandrium tamarense. Harmful Algae 6:875-882

Coral bleaching and climate change

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

A Pacific coral reef with many corals

The activities are as follows:

Corals are animals that build coral reefs. Coral reefs are home to many species of animals – fish, sharks, sea turtles, and anemones all use corals for habitat! Corals are white, but they look brown and green because certain types of small plants, called algae, live inside them. The algae produce food for the corals so they can grow big, and the corals provide the algae a safe home. The algae and corals form a mutualism, or a relationship between two species where both partners benefit each other and do better together than they would alone.

When the water gets too warm, algae can no longer live inside corals. The corals turn from green to white, called coral bleaching, because they do not have algae living in them. Climate change has been causing the Earth’s air and oceans to get warmer. With warmer oceans, coral bleaching is happening more often. If the water stays too warm, bleached corals will die without their algae mutualists.

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Scientist Carly working on a coral reef

Carly is a scientist who wanted to study coral bleaching so she could help protect corals and coral reefs. One day, Carly observed an interesting pattern. Corals on one part of a reef were bleaching while corals on another part of the reef stayed healthy. She wondered, why? Why can some corals and their algae still work together when the water is warm while others cannot?

Ocean water that is closer to the shore (inshore) gets warmer than water further away (offshore). Perhaps corals and algae from inshore reefs are used to warm water. She wondered whether inshore corals were better able to work with their algae in warm water because they are used to these temperatures. If so, inshore corals and algae may bleach less often than offshore corals and algae. Carly designed an experiment to test this. She collected 15 corals from inshore and 15 from offshore reefs in the Florida Keys. She brought them into an aquarium lab for research. She cut each coral in half and put half of each coral into tanks with normal water and the other half into tanks with heaters. The normal water temperature was 27°C and is a temperature that both inshore and offshore corals experience during the year. The warm water tanks were 31°C and are a temperature that inshore corals experience, but offshore corals never experienced in the past but may experience with climate change in the future. After six weeks she recorded the number of corals that bleached in each tank.

 Featured scientist: Carly Kenkel from The University of Texas at Austin

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 7.9

There are two scientific papers associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The citations and PDFs of the papers are below. The lab webpage can be found here.

If your students are looking for more data on coral bleaching, check out HHMI BioInteractive’s classroom activity in which students use authentic data to assess the threat of coral bleaching around the world. Also, check out the two videos below!

  • Another BioInteractive video, appropriate for upper level high school classrooms. Visualizes the process of coral bleaching at different scales. Video includes lots of complex vocabulary about cells and the process of photosynthesis.

 

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Float down the Kalamazoo River

Morrow Lake, a reservoir created along the Kalamazoo River. The water is held in a reservoir by a dam. When water flows into the reservoir it slows, potentially letting some of the total suspended solids settle to the bottom of the river.

Morrow Lake, a reservoir created along the Kalamazoo River. The water is held in a reservoir by a dam. When water flows into the reservoir it slows, potentially letting some of the total suspended solids settle to the bottom of the river.

The activities are as follows:

Ever since she was a kid, rivers have fascinated Leila. One of her hobbies is to kayak and canoe down the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, near where she lives. For her work, she researches all the living things in the river and how humans affect them. She is especially interested in changes in the river food web, caused by humans building dams along the river, and an oil spill in 2010.

Leila knows there is a lot more in river water than what meets the eye! As the river flows, it picks up bits of dead plants, single-celled algae, and other living and nonliving particles from the bottom of the river. The mix of all these particles is called total suspended solids (TSS) because these particles are suspended in the river water as it flows. The food web in the Kalamazoo River depends on the particles that are floating in the water. Invertebrates eat decomposing leaves and algae, and fish eat the invertebrates.

Leila showing off some of the cool invertebrates that can be found in the Kalamazoo River.

Leila showing off some of the cool invertebrates that can be found in the Kalamazoo River.

As you float down the river, particles settle to the river bottom and new ones are picked up. The amount of suspended solids in a river is influenced by how fast the water in the river is flowing. The faster the water flows, the more particles are picked up and carried down the river. The slower the water flows, the more particles will settle to the bottom. Discharge is a measure of how fast water is flowing. You can think about discharge as the number of cubes (one foot on each side) filled with water that pass by a point every second. During certain times of the year, water flows faster and there is more discharge. In spring, when the snow starts melting, a lot of water drains from the land into the river. There also tends to be a lot more rain in the fall. Things humans build on the river can also affect discharge. For example, we build dams to generate hydroelectric power by capturing the energy from flowing water. Dams slow the flow of river water, and therefore they may cause some of the suspended solids to settle out of the water and onto the bottom of the river.

Leila wanted to test how a dam that was built on the Kalamazoo River influenced total suspended solids. If the dam is reducing the amount of total suspended solids, it could have negative effects on the food chain. She was also curious to see if the dam has different effects depending on the time of year. On eight different days from May to October in 2009, Leila measured total suspended solids at two locations along river. She collected water samples upstream of the dam, before the water enters the reservoir, and samples downstream after the water has been in the reservoir and passed over the dam. She also measured discharge downstream of the dam.

KalamazooRiver

Featured scientist: Leila Desotelle from Michigan State University

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 8.7