Monday, June 18, 2012

Fish Biology at Mountain Lake Biological Station

This summer, I’m spending a few weeks out of Chattanooga and in the woods!  I’m co-teaching a course on the Biology and Conservation of Fishes at the Mountain Lake Biological Station (MLBS).  MLBS was founded in 1929 by the University of Virginia and is located in southwestern Virginia, about 30 minutes outside of Blacksburg.  Biological field stations are really important places for research and education.  Most stations offer summer courses like ours, and they also provide space for students and scientists to study natural processes, often in remote settings.
Lewis Hall, the main teaching and research building at MLBS. 
MLBS sits on ~650 acres on top of the 3800 foot Salt Pond Mountain, right on the Eastern Continental Divide.  We’re surrounded by 100,000 acres of the Jefferson National Forest in addition to private land managed and protected by the Mountain Lake Conservancy.  It’s a great place to study ichthyology, because some of our mountain streams drain to the Gulf of Mexico through the New or Tennessee rivers, while other streams drain to the Chesapeake Bay through the James River, or directly to the Atlantic through the Roanoke River.  Each of these different drainages has lots of unique fish species, which means our students have a lot of diversity to study without having to drive very far.
Dr. Dave Neely leading a discussion of fish diversity in the New River drainage. 
Snorkeling in the South Fork Roanoke River.  I'm impressed at how long some students stayed in without wetsuits!
Classes at a field station are an incredible experience because they’re so immersive.  Almost every waking moment can be devoted to biology.  During the day, we’ll have lectures, small group work, lab, or my favorite, field time.  We’ve hiked from the station about 1500 feet down the mountain until we reached an elevation where the streams held native brook trout; a small waterfall keeps them from getting father upstream.  We’ve conducted field labs where our students have used different methods to learn how to estimate the population size of certain fish species in a stream.  In the evenings, we’ll gather for seminars from other researchers or just work in the lab to help students learn how to identify fish.  And we often get totally absorbed in our work, which is why we’re grateful to hear the dining hall bell ring to remind us it’s time to eat… though we still often talk about biology through every meal.

It's not just about fish--we saw this mink next to the South Fork Roanoke River.
Salamander diversity is also high in this corner of the woods.  This is a red eft, the juvenile stage of the Eastern Newt.
On a personal note, this has been a really special experience for me because the two classes I took at MLBS when I was an undergrad (groan, fifteen years ago!) really fostered my interest in learning more about Appalachian animals.  Field experiences like these are defining moments for most biologists, where we move out of the lecture hall and into our “real world.”  What puts the icing on the cake for a field biologist is the support of a community that understands, and even celebrates, the time we spend wandering through the woods with a notebook and a question.  
Studying their field guides by a covered bridge on Sinking Creek.

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