Being an Ecologist

Written By: Michael Rollins; Photo Credit: Sammie Alexander

Figure 1. Mason Senior Michael Rollins slowly submerges his macroinvertebrate bottle trap with assistance of PEREC team member Heather Nortz in Gunston Cove, VA

You would never think that drinking 16 liters of soda would be key to being an ecologist. I didn’t either. As a George Mason University senior, finishing my degree in environmental science with a concentration in marine, estuarial, and freshwater ecology, I am participating in an OSCAR undergraduate summer research project.

Drinking loads of caffeine, designing invertebrate traps with my emptied soda bottles and hanging upside down in a large metal cylinder to collect aquatic invertebrates from all layers of the water column are just a few of the things that have become part of my weekly routine working as a member of the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC).

The goal of my research is to assess the differences in macroinvertebrate community composition within vegetated and non-vegetated aquatic habitats

Figure 2 Dr. Joris van der Ham helps Michael Rollins set his bucket trap in a bed of emergent spatterdock

in Gunston Cove and Hunting Creek. Benthic macroinvertebrates are bottom-dwelling organisms without backbones, large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Sampling habitats that are not alike has proven difficult due to the structural differences (e.g. submerged aquatic plant bed densities), making no single method or piece of equipment a perfect technique. For example, the ponar grab, a self-closing tool lowered by rope off the side of the boat for collecting benthic macroinvertebrates, will not deploy in heavily vegetated areas, rocky bottoms or hard bottoms. These grabs are great for muddy habitat, lightly vegetated and soft bottom habitats though. I once thought fieldwork meant a nice day spent easily capturing macroinvertebrates on the water, but now I know fieldwork means getting covered in mud, sweat and algae so that I can acquire the samples I need.

Figure 3.To better understand which invertebrates reside in benthic sediment, Senior Michael Rollins (legs protruding from bucket trap) collects bucket after bucket of water.

To collect macroinvertebrates, I tested an array of techniques. Construction of each trap made me feel a bit like MacGyver and gave me the best excuse I ever had to drink copious amounts of soda. The first of my failed collection techniques became known as the bottle trap. With a bit of ingenuity, a milk crate, four empty 2-liter bottles of soda, 4 plastic wine glasses, some rope, PVC pipe and weights were rigged together with glue and zip ties to form a single trap. In its initial form, this trap was not very successful. After my recently modifications, I plan to retest it.

Overcoming set backs, such as the non-working bottle trap, has been a learning experience that has inspired me to engineer new collection methods. The drop ring is the most interesting of my sampling techniques. A large bucket without a bottom is plunged into the water. Bucket by bucket the sample is collected from within. This requires me to hang upside down, feet in the air, on a rocking boat. The end result is what is referred to as a portal. Where does this portal lead? Being imaginative, it leads an invertebrate oasis, also known as a muddy bottom or benthic.

So why am I spending 60 hours a week catching and sorting any spineless organism I can see with my eyes? I am one part of a much larger OSCAR PEREC 2017 mission, or as I would like to call us OP 2-0-1-7. Our mission, which we have chosen to accept, is to assess the ecology, micropollutants and human impacts in two Potomac River tributaries, Gunston Cove and Hunting Creek, both located down stream of wastewater treatment facilities. It may seem like mission impossible to get this done in 10 weeks, of which only 6 remain, but our team is working rigorously. As highly skilled developing professionals I believe we can in the words of Bill Nye, “dare I say it, save the world.”