The BioOne Ambassador Award recognizes early-career researchers who excel at communicating the importance and impact of their specialized research to the public. Nominees were asked to provide a 250-word plain-language summary of their research which responded to the question:
A Feathered Trout in the Coal Mine
How much human-related disturbance does it take to affect the future of a wildlife population? Turns out not much. The Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla), aptly nicknamed the “feathered trout,” breeds only along forested headwater streams and feed primarily on aquatic insects. This bird declined in abundance during a 6-year study despite only 5% loss of forest cover at our predominately forested study site. The birds nesting along streams disturbed by unconventional shale gas development were not producing enough young birds each year to offset annual mortality of adult birds. Our study is one of the first to demonstrate that shale gas development reduced reproductive success in a wildlife population, both by the presence of shale gas infrastructure and indirect effects to stream health and aquatic insects. Surprisingly, forested headwater stream ecosystems globally are overlooked for regulation despite their critical role in providing nutrients and organic matter downstream, not to mention an important source for public drinking water.
Countries around the globe are increasingly using hydraulic fracturing techniques to decrease their reliance on natural gas imports and unlock shale gas buried deep in rock layers. The North American Central Appalachian region has experienced the quickest growth in unconventional shale gas development, resulting in the United States recently becoming the world’s number one exporter for natural gas. However, development has outpaced the ability to implement best management practices for wildlife that may be affected, an alarm sung by the “feathered trout in the coal mine.”
This summary is in reference to:
Demographic response of Louisiana Waterthrush, a stream obligate songbird of conservation concern, to shale gas development
Copeia, 107(3): 517-523. 2019.
Christopher M. Murray, Peter Russo, Alexander Zorrilla, Caleb D. McMahan
Dr. Mack W. Frantz
What drew you to your current research field?
Southwestern PA where I grew up was arguably the epicenter for the fracking boom in the Central Appalachian region. A short drive from my home and favorite birding spots, I watched the landscape rapidly change in a short period of time. Before and during my Masters, I conducted avian point count surveys and radio telemetry in the most contiguously forested area of north-central PA where shale gas development seemed to follow, and observed in the course of only two summers the landscape become fragmented. Trying to find point count sites to resurvey sometimes became disorienting when infrastructure like retention ponds would seemingly pop up overnight in what was once forest. When I learned of the opportunity to continue a long-term bioindicator songbird study in West Virginia undergoing the same energy development patterns, it seemed like the appropriate next step to determine how our wildlife may be affected by shale gas development.
Who most inspired and/or influenced your career?
I think like most people my current career was the result of several influences. My father was a retired, 100% disabled veteran with limited income trying to raise two children on his own- what could entertain kids all year for cheap? Fishing, camping, and an annual zoo pass. He also retired from a job he loved and claimed he would go back for free, so I was inspired to find a career where (at least most days!) it doesn’t feel like work.
I was also highly influenced by reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Since Carson was also born near Pittsburgh I think it’s some kind of local “requirement” to read or be aware of the book, but it is a prime example of how much influence the message of one individual can have, arguably resulting in the first environmental movement.
What one thing would you like the public to remember or understand about your research?
We saw across the board demographic decline in a bioindicator songbird species despite very little (<5%) forest cover habitat loss at our study site, so it does not necessarily take a lot of disturbance to negatively affect a wildlife population. We need to reevaluate if we should allow shale gas infrastructure and development as close to forested headwater streams as currently allowed. Our headwater stream ecosystems are largely overlooked for protection and regulation despite their importance to downstream life and despite being the source of our public drinking water.
If you had one piece of advice for someone who wants to pursue research in your field, what would it be?
Make the most of every opportunity that comes your way, no matter if in your field of interest, volunteering, or a paid position. There may be experiences or connections you make where their potential for a career trajectory or research won’t be realized until a decade later. Reach out to the experts for an “informational interview” and ask them how they ended up in their current position where you’d like to be. While you may not check all the boxes they have, you’ll grow character, humble yourself, and may discover what you’re called to do.