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Research Projects

Effects of Invasive Trees on Native Floodplain Forest Vegetation & Breeding Birds

Research mentors: Drs. Mark Dixon and David Swanson, Department of Biology

(2 students/summer)

Project Background: Floodplain forests, particularly those dominated by plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides), support among the highest levels of bird diversity of any habitat type in the Great Plains region, but native floodplain forests have been greatly reduced and degraded since the time of Euro-American settlement.  These changes have promoted the invasion of floodplain forests by native upland and non-native tree species.  These changes are likely to substantially impact breeding bird populations and nesting success, so we propose to investigate (1) the factors influencing the abundance and distribution of invasive woody plant species along the Missouri River and (2) the relative habitat quality of habitats dominated by native vs. invasive woody species.  

 

REU Research Project: For question #1, we will evaluate relationships between landscape factors (e.g., fragmentation), site factors (e.g., soils, management history), historical land cover change and the distribution, abundance, and age structure of invasive woody plants along the Missouri River.  For question #2, we will compare nest site selection and nesting success for bird species occupying habitats dominated by native and invasive trees and shrubs within floodplain forests along the Missouri River. We will compare nesting success using statistical models, with variables including the preponderance of invasive tree species, to determine factors influencing nesting success for floodplain forest birds. REU students will work with Drs. Dixon and Swanson to conduct vegetation surveys, find and monitor bird nests, and conduct statistical analyses of both vegetation and nest data. Students will learn identification skills and survey methods for birds, bird nests and floodplain forest plants, as well as methods of data analyses for bird nesting and community ecology data.

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Student Qualifications: No prior experience is necessary for this research project, but coursework in ecology and ornithology and skills in bird identification would be beneficial. This project involves field work, so the student must be willing and able to work outside in summer conditions.

Effects of Modified Sediment Loads on Missouri River and Tributary Hydrology

Research mentor: Dr. Mark Sweeney, Department of Sustainability & Environment

Project Background: Suspended load is an important component of the total sediment load carried by a river, and it is an important nutrient source for numerous aquatic organisms. The installation of Gavins Point Dam resulted in a drastic reduction in suspended sediment load along the 59-mile stretch of the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR), while also increasing sedimentation in Lewis and Clark Lake upstream of the dam. A recent two-year assessment of the suspended sediment contribution of tributaries to the Missouri River within the MNRR indicated that the tributaries had minimal impact on the river’s overall sediment load, however, a longer study is needed to evaluate seasonal impacts and long-term trends. A study upstream of the dam sought to determine sources of sediment depositing in Lewis and Clark Lake, predicted to fill in about 160 years. This REU project seeks to accurately determine seasonal changes in suspended load of Missouri River tributaries, and to help identify potential sources of that sediment by evaluating land use. 

 

REU Research Project: This research will measure the suspended load concentrations of the major tributaries (from bridges) at multiple times throughout the summer which will help to determine the role of the tributaries in sedimentation on the Missouri River. The REU student will use a depth-integrated sampler to collect samples and will process samples in the lab. The REU student will compare suspended load data to previous work and analyze the data for trends. S/he will investigate how differing land uses surrounding the Missouri River and its tributaries (e.g. grazing land, row-crop agriculture, riparian forest) affect local sediment contributions and the overall sediment load of the Missouri River. The student selected for this project will work in a geoscience-focused group of 2-3 students and compare data with GIS land-use mapping of the watershed.

 

Student Qualifications: Introductory coursework in environmental sciences or geosciences is required. The REU student must be able to work outdoors and repeatedly (several times over the course of 30 minutes) lower and lift a heavy, ~30-lb sampling device by rope >20 feet from a bridge. Student may also need to wade shallow streams for sampling purposes. The student must also have a valid driver’s license and may be expected to drive to and from field sites.

Effects of Modified Sediment Loads on Missouri River and Tributary Hydrology

Research mentor: Dr. Mark Sweeney, Department of Sustainability & Environment

Project Background: Suspended load is an important component of the total sediment load carried by a river, and it is an important nutrient source for numerous aquatic organisms. The installation of Gavins Point Dam resulted in a drastic reduction in suspended sediment load along the 59-mile stretch of the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR), while also increasing sedimentation in Lewis and Clark Lake upstream of the dam. A recent two-year assessment of the suspended sediment contribution of tributaries to the Missouri River within the MNRR indicated that the tributaries had minimal impact on the river’s overall sediment load, however, a longer study is needed to evaluate seasonal impacts and long-term trends. A study upstream of the dam sought to determine sources of sediment depositing in Lewis and Clark Lake, predicted to fill in about 160 years. This REU project seeks to accurately determine seasonal changes in suspended load of Missouri River tributaries, and to help identify potential sources of that sediment by evaluating land use. 

 

REU Research Project: This research will measure the suspended load concentrations of the major tributaries (from bridges) at multiple times throughout the summer which will help to determine the role of the tributaries in sedimentation on the Missouri River. The REU student will use a depth-integrated sampler to collect samples and will process samples in the lab. The REU student will compare suspended load data to previous work and analyze the data for trends. S/he will investigate how differing land uses surrounding the Missouri River and its tributaries (e.g. grazing land, row-crop agriculture, riparian forest) affect local sediment contributions and the overall sediment load of the Missouri River. The student selected for this project will work in a geoscience-focused group of 2-3 students and compare data with GIS land-use mapping of the watershed.

 

Student Qualifications: Introductory coursework in environmental sciences or geosciences is required. The REU student must be able to work outdoors and repeatedly (several times over the course of 30 minutes) lower and lift a heavy, ~30-lb sampling device by rope >20 feet from a bridge. Student may also need to wade shallow streams for sampling purposes. The student must also have a valid driver’s license and may be expected to drive to and from field sites.

Effects of Invasive Fish on Missouri River Food Webs

Research mentor: Dr. Jeff Wesner, Department of Biology

Project Background:  Invasive fishes, including the bigheaded carp, are present in the Missouri River. While the effects of fishes in aquatic food webs are relatively well-studied, their effects on terrestrial food webs are not. The goal of this research is to understand how invasive fish affect linked aquatic-terrestrial food webs in the Missouri River. In particular, Dr. Wesner’s research group measures how fish affect emerging aquatic insects and the terrestrial predators they feed. They use manipulative experiments and field surveys to determine whether carp ingest insects during feeding, and if their presence alters the emergence of aquatic insects to terrestrial ecosystems. The effect of invasive fish on emerging aquatic insects will be measured using field surveys in the Missouri River and in artificial streams at USD’s Experimental Aquatic Research Site (ExARS). Fish effects on terrestrial food webs will be measured by quantifying fish diets and the density of terrestrial long-jawed spiders, which track aquatic insect emergence. 

REU Research Project:  The REU student will assist with manipulative experiments, and will lead the diet survey with the assistance of Dr. Wesner. Specifically, the REU student will collect fish, extract gut contents, and identify prey items to determine what life-stage of insects fish eat. The REU student will learn concepts in life-history, entomology, food webs, experimental design and ecosystem ecology. 

Student Qualifications:  Required qualifications are an ability to work independently and in relatively strenuous outdoor conditions. Preferred qualifications include coursework in ecology, ichthyology, experimental design, or other related subjects.