Aquatic Macroinvertebrate and Water Quality Intern Program at NCOS

Tue, 02/08/2022 - 13:14 -- jeremiahbender

This summer Sharon Metsch’s Field Lab at North Campus Open Space (NCOS) was put to good use as the new location for our aquatic macroinvertebrate and zooplankton monitoring and identification project. This project was originally started by Audubon member Steve Senesec in 2017. Steve’s enthusiasm about understanding what aquatic insects are available for birds to feed on quickly gained the interest of UCSB students, who took on a diversity of roles as part of the project. Students enjoy the beauty of the wetland while also gaining meaningful hands-on scientific experience in aquatic macroinvertebrate and zooplankton collection methods, invertebrate identification, scientific inquiry, and project management. The field team collects and preserves aquatic macroinvertebrate samples as well as water quality parameters from designated field sites. Back at the lab students learn to identify and quantify the preserved species collected from each site. The purpose of this study is to analyze the effect of NCOS restoration on the aquatic food web and to understand how abiotic factors such as dissolved oxygen and salinity influence aquatic organisms.

Steve Senesec and Victoria P. collecting macroinvertebrate sample at NCOS.

Data from 2018 and 2019 field collections were synthesized during COVID when field and on-campus lab activities were curtailed. Results from the first few years of monitoring demonstrate that NCOS has similar or better abundance and biodiversity of aquatic macroinvertebrates as compared to our reference site, Coal Oil Point Reserve. One interesting finding is that salinity has a strong effect on species abundance and biodiversity.


Statistical analysis of aquatic organism abundance and diversity using the filtered beaker method of collection. There is a clear separation of communities found in fresh water versus those in saline water. The data clusters by the mix of species found in each sample. Labeled with the abreviations for collection sites, one can see that samples from freshwater creeks have similar aquatic communities to each other (red samples) and samples from the Slough, with  brackish to hyper-saline water form a second cluster (blue samples).


Steve Senesec leading a group of 6 students to one of the macroinvertebrate and zooplankton sampling sites.

Steve Senesec played a pivotal role mentoring students, curating data and establishing a dynamic research and monitoring program. Steve is passing the leadership torch to CCBER, but is helping the project move forward through an Audubon Society-funded stipend internship program. We sincerely appreciate Steve’s leadership in this realm.


Left: Student McKenzie Goetz collecting a filtered beaker sample from our culvert field site. Right: Syrphidae (Rat tailed maggot, top) and Ephydridae (Brine fly, bottom) collected from the culvert Site. These species can tolerate heavy pollution and extremely low dissolved oxygen. The tail like feature on the Syrphidae is an adaptation to allow the organism to use oxygen from the air rather than the water.


Left: Student Megan Norman collecting a sample using the filtered beaker method at our Phelps Bridge Site. Phelps bridge is a freshwater stream with relatively high dissolved oxygen compared to our other sites. Right: A preserved sample from Phelps bridge. This sample has three of the most common species we see at NCOS; from bottom to top: Copepod, Ostracod, and Cladocera.


When CCBER took over this project in August 2021 there were five student participants, but student interest quickly grew and we now have 20 student interns, 7 of which are receiving  credit and/or funding for their efforts. This year’s monitoring effort will establish a third year of comprehensive sampling over the course of the establishment of NCOS and enable us to build a robust baseline data set that will capture annual variation. The scope of the study is also expanding with some students interested in conducting their own small research projects on topics related to invertebrate associates with algae, change in zooplankton abundance with depth of soil core samples, and the relationship between soil texture and invertebrate communities. Other students are working on creating informational materials for their fellow student interns about the life history of different organisms and their role in the food web.


Lauren Stiles (Left) and Megan Norman (Right) sorting invertebrate samples in the NCOS Field Lab.


One way in which this project has recently expanded is by collecting environmental DNA (E-DNA) from our sample sites. Aquatic Environmental DNA uses samples of water substrates and DNA amplification techniques to identify organisms in a body of water from the tiniest fragments of the organisms. This provides a non-invasive way to detect species. Our goal is to assess this tool as a complement to current IDs using microscopes and to look for relationships between algae, fish and aquatic macroinvertebrates to better understand the food web. Some interns that were exceptionally enthusiastic about E-DNA spent extra time in the field helping PhD candidate Joanna Tang collect environmental DNA at various vernal pools near UCSB for her research project.

Another additional study that will begin in the next few weeks is creating a small aquarium of zooplankton cysts- this study will be conducted by undergraduate student, Justin Huitman, who after learning about the unique attributes of vernal pools, wanted to learn more about how organisms can survive in such variable conditions. This is an interesting topic because zooplankton cysts can survive after being completely dried out for 8 or more months- an environment that most species cannot live in! In conjunction with this project, a few NCOS interns will be taking soil samples and comparing the macroinvertebrate communities at different depths in the soil. When this study is complete we will have a better understanding of where both adult aquatic macroinvertebrates and macroinvertebrate cysts are most abundant. More independent studies may evolve at our lab as students come up with research questions they would like to answer.


From Left to right: Justin Huitema, Megan Norman, and Ella Jones carefully handling E-DNA samples from a vernal pool.


Students Bailey Kimery and Cole Diemer cleaning E-DNA sampling materials with DI water to prevent contamination.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022 - 13:00