News and events

VOSRP featured on Virginia Sea Grant website

October 31, 2017

VCU is one of seven partner universities collaborating with Virginia Sea Grant. The organization advances the resilence and sustainability of Virginia's coastal and marine ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them.  

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is featured in the lead story on the Virginia Sea Grant website.

Read "Seventy-five percent of the menu. Fresh, local and sustainable - one chef's goal."

Study shows commercial harvest of snapping turtles is leading to population decline

October 26, 2017


(Photo: Ben Colteaux, Ph.D., in the Integrative Life Sciences program holds a snapping turtle in the field. Photo credit: Courtesy of Team Snapper)

By Leah Small, University Pubilc Affairs

Crawling through neck-high mud on riverbanks is a dirty job, but someone has to do it for the sake of Virginia’s snapping turtles.

That task falls on Benjamin Colteaux, a Ph.D. candidate in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Integrative Life Sciences program, and other members of “Team Snapper” working in the lab of Derek Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

For four years, the researchers spent several weeks at a time trekking through muddy turtle turf to catch and tag the animals, and record indices of health and growth for multiple studies on the impacts of wild turtle harvesting. 

Read the full article, "Study shows commercial harvest of snapping turtles is leading to population decline"

VOSRP on Virginia This Morning

October 18, 2017

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) Director Todd Janeski sat down with Virginia This Morning Host Bill Bevins to talk about the Shell-Raiser's Shindig.  The third annual Shindig is Sunday, October 22 from 2 - 5 p.m. at Libbie Mill-Midtown.

There is still time to purchase tickets to this popular event supporting VOSRP.


Apply by October 25 and study abroad in Panama

October 16, 2017

(Photo: last year's Team Warbler)

The popular Panama Avian Field Ecology class is back, and time is running out for students to apply.  Wednesday, October 25 is the last day that applications and letters of recommendations will be accepted.

Students will study abroad in Panama January 2 - 15, 2108, and will meet weekly during the spring semester.  Dr. Cathy Viverette and Dr. Ed Crawford will lead 18 new members of Team Warbler. The ENVS 515/BIO 415, 4 credit hour program can fulfill ENVS and BIO capstone requirements. 

For more information on the course, visit the Panama Avian Field Ecology ram page.

To submit your letter of interest and recommendations: Yes, I am interested in going to Panama!

For more information, contact Dr. Viverette or Dr. Crawford.  

Rice Rivers Center Director interviewed by Sierra Club

October 12, 2017

(Photo: VCU's Matt Balazik holds an Altantic sturgeon. Photo courtesy of Matt Balazik)


VCU Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman was interviewed for Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club.  

Read: The South's Very Own Sea Monster

New assistant director of Center for Environmental Studies named

October 11, 2017

Dr. Rodney Dyer, director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES), recently announced Dr. James Vonesh as assistant director of CES. Dr. Vonesh held the position of associate professor at VCU’s Department of Biology.

As assistant director, Dr. Vonesh will play a key role in the management and development of the ENVS undergraduate curriculum, bringing with him more than 10 years of teaching experience and a commitment to experiential and global education.

“Dr. Vonesh’s skill and expertise provide fundamental support to the ongoing transitions this unit is undertaking in both its research and curricular missions,” stated Dr. Dyer.  “I am tremendously excited to have him onboard and look forward to his help in guiding this unit forward.”

A broadly trained population and community-level ecologist and author of more than 50 scientific papers, Dr. Vonesh’s research has spanned from understanding how habitat fragmentation has affected forest chameleons in East Africa and frogs in North America, how predators shape the timing of metamorphosis in Central American tree frogs, to using mosquitos’ natural habitat preferences against them for more effective management. The current focus of his research is understanding how changes in predator biodiversity from extinction or species introduction will impact prey populations and ecosystem function and services.  

Dr. Vonesh was instrumental in the development of the “Footprints on the James” course which explores the interaction between history and the environment as students paddle down nearly 200 miles of the river. Recently, following a Fulbright Fellowship, he developed a similarly themed “South African Summits-to-Sea”, an expedition-style course in which students explore the intersection of freshwater resources, society, and biodiversity. He has also led field courses in Uganda, Tanzania, Taiwan, and Madagascar. “Ideally”, Vonesh says, “research and teaching are not compartmentalized but reinforce each other. A good example of this is our current work studying predator-prey ecology in the rock pools of the James River. This collaboration includes a world class team of ecologists, undergraduates from courses at VCU and University of Richmond, and Richmond Public High School students from Open High School and aims to advance STEM education and basic science.”

Dr. Vonesh’s work can be found at voneshlab.

A tough year for Chesapeake Osprey

October 9, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

 (Photo: Female osprey on nest with three-chick brood on a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  2017 was a poor year for osprey in the Bay.  Photo by Bryan Watts.)

The grumblings have gotten louder and louder over the past three years and have increasingly come from more corners of the Chesapeake.  By the end of the 2017 breeding season, the voices were loud and clear and singing the same tune.  The breeding season had been a dismal failure for osprey in the Chesapeake Bay.  Not just in one location but in all locations that were under observation.  Jan Reese reported that only 3 of 18 nests (17%) around Tilghman Island produced any young. Pam D’Angelo, observing on the Little Wicomico River, reported that the area produced almost no young. Reese Lukei reported that only 30 of 73 nests (41%) produced young on the Lynnhaven River, Pete McGowan reported that half of 23 nests monitored on Poplar Island failed, Greg Kearns working on the Patuxent River reported a 50% success rate, and CCB working on the upper James River recorded 26 of 57 nests (46%) that produced young.  The general sense of a poor season did not stem from the low success rate alone but also the reduced brood sizes.  On the upper James River surviving broods were mostly 1-2 young where in the past most successful nests produced 2-4 young.       

When Bob Kennedy monitored breeding osprey in the lower Chesapeake Bay as a student working with Mitchell Byrd during the early 1970s, hatching rates were only 36%, productivity rates were unsustainable, and the Bay-wide population had reached an all-time low of 1,400 pairs.  However, by the mid-1980s productivity had tripled and the population was experiencing rapid growth.  This growth would continue to the present time, reaching our current estimate of 10,000 breeding pairs for the tidal reach of the Bay.  Andy Glass, working in 2006 in the same study area as Bob Kennedy 35 years earlier, recorded 95% hatching rates.     

Observations and concerns over the past few years have led to questions about causation.  What is behind the success rates that are lower than what we have become accustomed to seeing?  Most biologists working with the population believe that failures are being driven by three factors, including 1) food stress from reduced fish stocks, 2) predation, and 3) poor weather.  Broods that are not provided enough food by adults to fuel growth form dominance hierarchies where high-ranking young get most of the food and low-ranking young get leftovers.  If the food shortage increases, the lowest ranking young will die in a process that we refer to as brood reduction.  In severe cases, all young will die and the nest will fail.  Lower brood sizes generally are indicative of brood reduction and are accompanied by low young weight or other behavioral signals.  As the populations of bald eagles and great horned owls have recovered from the DDT era and the number of mouths to feed has soared, the energy demand has spilled out onto species that would not be considered traditional prey.  Osprey fall into this category and there have been numerous documented broods lost to both predators.  Lastly, most raptors are susceptible to cold rains during the critical development period when eggs are near hatching or chicks are too young to thermoregulate on their own (first two weeks).  It is certainly possible that poorly timed storms could have caused some of the failures in 2017 and other years. 

All of these factors have likely been acting within the Chesapeake in recent years and have contributed to poor performance.  We do not currently know which of these factors may be dominant or how they may be distributed throughout the Bay.  You can help answer some of these questions by joining OspreyWatch and recording your observations about productivity of your nest.


“Autumn on the James” debuts at VCU Rice Rivers Center

October 6, 2017

(Pictured, from left to right: artist Guy Crittenden, VCU Life Science Director of Development Catherine Dahl, Rice Rivers Center Director Dr. Greg Garman)

A major painting was unveiled that captured the impact and beauty of the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

 “Autumn on the James,” by renowned Virginia wildlife artist Guy Crittenden, will hang in the reception area at the Rice Rivers Center Education Building. The 4 x 6 foot painting is from a birds-eye – or drone’s – view; Crittenden used drone photos to give perspective of the property from the air. The use of drone footage was a natural fit during the creation of the piece, as a course on the scientific application of drone technology is taught at the center.

Crittenden shares his thoughts on this important piece. “The project began with my first drive down the wooded lane off Route 5 which leads to the Rice Rivers Center. I was intrigued immediately with the landscape as I took twists and turns through the living forest. On that first visit, I was hooked. As talks about a painting progressed, I began to see this piece as a historically significant opportunity to render the land and water around the center. I wanted to give the viewer an eagle-eye perspective, and provide for them that sense of place, with all the relativity of the area’s landmarks.  Like the works of the 18th and 19th Century landscape artists I admire, this painting takes an interpretive approach to the traditional composition challenges, and uses light and color to hold the strong positive and negative shapes together. The landscape, river and marsh make a visually interesting composition, and if you look closely you will see native wildlife, the Benjamin Harrison Bridge, the town of Hopewell and the City of Richmond.”

The aerial view of the painting captures VCU’s River Campus in its totality. Although viewers cannot see the research being conducted in the James River or at the restored wetlands, the importance of the work done at the center contributes to the recognition of the facility and grounds as a nationally-significant academic research center.

“This remarkable piece of art places the Rice Rivers Center within a broad landscape context that includes natural systems like woods, wetlands, and water, while adding cultural elements such as the Benjamin Harrison Bridge and Richmond’s skyline. That composition is a great metaphor for the Center’s research and teaching mission,” says Greg Garman, Center Director.

We are delighted to be able offer limited edition prints of this painting, from a series of 150 numbered and signed by the artist, for a donation of $200 or more.  Please contact Catherine Dahl at or 804-827-7372 if you would like to make a donation to the Rice Rivers Center for this exclusive piece of art, or to obtain more information.  

Clutch Size in Chesapeake Bay Bald Eagles: An unexpected history

October 6, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

(Photo: Two-egg bald eagle clutch along James River.  This clutch size is by far the most common for bald eagles throughout their breeding range.  Photo by Catherine Markham)

There was a time during the late 1800s through the mid-1900s when bird eggs were collected and sold or traded like stamps or coins.  During this period, bald eagle eggs were valuable and in demand.  The price for a single bald eagle egg was listed as $15.00 in the 1922 American Oologist Exchange Price List of North American Eggs.  Due to the general interest in eagles and the value of their eggs, eagle egg collectors were widespread throughout North America.  Several major collectors including Harold Bailey, Fred Jones, Edward Court, Richard Harlow, and Willet Griffee were active in the Chesapeake Bay through the 1940s.  Each had their own collecting area that seemed to be respected by gentlemanly agreement but all were highly secretive about the location of prized nests where they collected.

Although eagle egg collecting has now gone the way of the stagecoach, compilation of clutch sizes from egg collections provides exciting new insight into the ecology of eagles during a time period before the introduction of DDT into the estuary.  Compared to all other accounts throughout the species range, clutch size within the Chesapeake Bay during this early time period was extraordinarily high, averaging 2.46 eggs.  In his remarkable book, The Bald Eagle, Mark Stalmaster summarized 16 studies from throughout the breeding range that reported clutch size and indicated that 17% of clutches contained only one egg, and only 4% contained more than two eggs.  In stark contrast to this finding, 3.3% of clutches collected in the Bay contained only one egg and 43.0% contained three or more eggs. 

Amazingly, eagle egg collections from the Chesapeake included three four-egg clutches and two five-egg clutches.  Although rare, four-egg clutches have been documented in recent times within the Chesapeake including three four-young broods.   The five-egg clutches are an oddity and have not been reported previously within the bald eagle literature.  The clutches were collected by E. J. Court, who was a prolific collector for more than 30 years along the upper Potomac River below Washington, D.C.  Examination of the collection notes provides confidence that these clutches were real.  The possibility that these clutches resulted from contributions of two females cannot be resolved.  Incredibly, the two clutches were collected from the same territory just two years apart.  The territory was on the Virginia side of the Potomac in a site known commonly as Crow’s Nest, which continues to be a center of eagle activity to the present day.  The circumstances that lead to these clutches are unclear, and because they were collected we are left to wonder if the pair could have hatched all five eggs and raised the young to independence.

One of the most surprising discoveries from looking back through the historic clutch record is that bald eagle clutch sizes have changed dramatically over the past century.  By the time the aerial survey was initiated in the early 1960s, the average clutch size had been reduced by nearly half compared to the period of egg collecting that closed merely 20 years before.  During the 1960s and 1970s, 20 (66.7%) of 30 documented clutches were single eggs and only one (3.3%) contained three eggs.  By the 1980s and 1990s, clutches were trending larger with only 26.8% (N = 56) single egg and 16.1% containing three eggs.  Although recovery is not complete, after the year 2000 clutches have begun to resemble those in the early 1900s, with only 4.0% (N = 99) single eggs, 66.7% two-egg clutches, and 29.3% three-egg clutches. 

The impact of legacy contaminants such as DDT on egg hatching rates, young survival, and even adult mortality from the 1950s through the 1970s has been reasonably well documented.  A retrospective assessment of clutch size within the Chesapeake Bay suggests that contaminants likely caused a direct suppression of clutch size as well. 


No good news for Eastern Black Rails in NC and GA

October 4, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

(Photo: Eric Sibbald records data during a survey along the North Carolina coast.  Photo by Rob Colquhoun.)  

The eastern black rail is listed as endangered in six states and is currently under review for federal listing.  In 2016, The Center for Conservation Biology worked with many partners to produce a status assessment in support of the federal process.  Among other things, this assessment identified gaps in survey coverage.  During the 2017 breeding season, CCB worked with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to help fill information gaps within the two coastal states.  Survey teams were deployed in both states to survey a network of sites within designated high-priority areas and assess black rail occurrence during the breeding season.  The surveys continue ongoing efforts by the Eastern Black Rail Working Group to collect information on status and distribution.  Since 2014, the partnership has surveyed more than 6,000 locations for black rails within coastal habitats.

A network of 691 point locations was surveyed for black rails during the 2017 breeding season, including 284 in North Carolina and 409 in Georgia.  The network was surveyed three times between 18 April and 21 July using a standard call-back protocol, resulting in the execution of 1,983 point counts.  Surveys in North Carolina targeted coastal regions that were not included in the 2014-2015 effort conducted by CCB.  The only exception to this was Cedar Island, which has historically been the center of activity in the state.  No formal surveys of black rails have been conducted in Georgia so the network covered the entire Coastal Plain in an attempt to determine status and distribution.

Black rails were detected within only 4 (0.6%) points and during only 5 (0.3%) of the point counts conducted across both states.  Detections were only made in North Carolina and only on Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, an area already known to support these birds.  The extensive survey effort resulted in the detection of no new occupied sites.  The effort has provided closure to some of the identified information gaps.

Results from the 2017 effort are discouraging and are consistent with observations across much of the Atlantic Coast over the past decade.  Black rails have experienced a catastrophic range contraction from northern breeding areas that is progressing southward.  Efforts are continuing within the Eastern Black Rail Working Group and other appropriate committees to identify management options that will stabilize remaining strongholds and slow the ongoing decline.    Survey efforts will continue in both North Carolina and Georgia during the 2018 breeding season to fill remaining information gaps.





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