Sapelo Island: Class searches for elusive crayfish species

Observations

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For students in an environmental hydrogeology class at Georgia College and State University, class time means searching for crayfish on Sapelo Island.

In early September, a group of 20 trekked to the island on the Georgia coast with waders and nets to catch and study an endangered species that hasn’t been documented well.

“We’re looking at what factors control distribution of crayfish,” said Sam Mutiti, an associate professor who studies environmental geology and hydrogeology. “What’s the water and soil chemistry here?”

The students clomped around in knee-high and waist-high water, shoveling soil and looking for the signs of a crayfish burrow. They shouted to each other in glee when they swished a net through the water and sifted the silt through a pan, often revealing a small crayfish or larva.

Sarah Hazard, a graduate student in the program, plans to write her thesis about the crayfish species alongside Professor Christopher Skelton, whose research specializes in freshwater fish, particularly Georgia’s 70 species of crayfish. Skelton’s research is funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and supported by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

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During the weekend, the Georgia College hydrogeology students also studied soil composition to learn about the island’s environment.

“If fish are swimming, we know the water isn’t toxic,” said Allison VandeVoort, an assistant professor who focuses on soil contaminants, agroecosystems, and biochemical cycling. “We’re looking at the nutrients and bacteria in the runoff and soil here.”

After nabbing crayfish for study back on campus, the class traveled to Sapelo’s beach to map the salinity of the water as the tide moves in and out during the day. By transecting the salinity of the vegetation nearby, they could study whether the groundwater picked up the salt.

The students dug deep holes in the sand to measure the water table and then plotted electrical nodes nearby to measure the current passing through the sand.

“See how great science is? You can test your hypothesis,” Mutiti said, showing the class how to place nodes and dig holes. “Then cover it up. The environment shouldn’t show we were here.”

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