Abilene Biologist Studies Impact Of Drought

The impact of sustained drought doesn’t just affect water levels.

By Joy BonalaFebruary 22, 2016 9:30 am| , ,

This story originally appeared on Abilene Public Radio.

On a recent Saturday morning, McMurry University Assistant Professor Dr. Terrence Boyle and his student, Brianna Littlefield, skimmed across Hubbard Creek Lake by motorboat. Their lake trip included stops at ten sites on the water where Boyle left modified minnow traps to collect all kinds of organisms from their habitat below the surface.

The motor rumbled to a stop as he pulled up to shore at site number one. Wearing waders, he sloshed around following GPS coordinates to find the trap nestled on the lake bottom. It was hoisted it up then the contents were spilled out on a tray in the boat.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Small rocks tumbled out of the trap, Boyle pushed them around and pointed to tiny wiggling dots on the tray.

“That’s actually a copepod,” Boyle said as he bent over the tray with Littlefield. “See the little bity thing that’s moving right here. Copepods are one of the most common food sources for larval fish.”

Boyle is working on his research project titled, “Macrobenthic Surveys of 12 Big Country Reservoirs.” His goal is to establish a baseline data set for plankton, periphyton and macrobenthic organisms found in local reservoirs. Or as Boyle puts it- he studies the ecology of “all the little critters without a backbone.” His research also records changes in the ecology of each lake over time, and in West Texas, that means through periods of drought.

“That’s one of the big questions as far as across the board that we don’t really understand is, what is the impact of the drought?” Boyle said.

Texans know what it means to survive a farming season during a drought, and they are familiar with water restrictions for watering lawns.

“But we don’t understand is what effect did it actually have in these lakes,” Boyle said.

People often assume that if some water remains in a lake, despite drops in the level, then the fish are OK and everything is normal. But Boyle said the drought might be affecting a lot of the insect larvae in lakes because a loss of water is a loss of habitat.

Texas is currently drought free according to Texas climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, but Boyle’s research is a four-year-project, during which he’ll be able to compile a significant amount of information about area lakes. He revisits each lake every three months to collect from the traps and record differences in life between seasons.

While he’s not alone in collecting samples from the reservoirs, he is the only person focusing on biological data. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality analyzes surface water to check for quality and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department collects surface water to investigate fish kills. Boyle’s work however, is focused entirely on how the life present responds to changes in the habitat. His project also provides plenty of opportunities for biology students to take part and gain experience.

Brianna Littlefield, his work partner that day, is an aspiring marine biologist. This project is offering a chance for her to get out in the field and practice some of the work she’ll do later in her career. Adam Liuzza is another student who has spent time collecting the traps and analyzing their contents.

“I always liked doing fieldwork and this was my first chance to actually do some hands on,” Liuzza said.

He wants to be an inland fisheries biologist in his home state of Louisianna.

“Now we are actually applying what we learned in the classroom to the field, seeing firsthand and getting a feel for what we have to do to get all the scientific data to record a project,” Liuzza said.

In addition to fieldwork, bringing students into the project prepares them for the lab work they’ll face in their careers. Boyle said a lot of the time people will prefer the fieldwork over the lab work or vice versa.

“What I find is that I like both,” Boyle said. “Out here I get the chance to get dirty, I get the chance to play as a kid would and find and collect all those things. In the lab I get to do the more nuanced inspections of what I’m looking at and studying.”

Boyle is also watching out for the white-fingered mud crab, which is no bigger than a quarter. He’s looking for reasons why the crab is found in one lake but not a neighboring lake only 12 miles away. And he’s keeping an eye out for zebra mussels- a new exotic species making an appearance in Texas. When it comes down to it though, Boyle really doesn’t mind what he pulls up from a trap or finds under a microscope, for him just being engaged with nature is enough motivation to keep up the time-consuming research.

“A lot of people look at West Texas and think it’s ugly but we’re sitting on the middle of this lake and it’s gorgeous,” Boyle said. “It’s a beautiful morning, you got to see the beauty around you and this allows me to do that.”