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July 13, 2010

UMBC, Baylor Ecologists Say Current Methods for Monitoring Aquatic Life are Inadequate

Anthony Lane
Communications Manager
(410) 455-5793

Current methods used to detect how aquatic life responds to environmental degradation fail to show thresholds where significant biological changes are occurring, according to an analysis by ecologists at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and Baylor University.

“The measuring sticks we use are really insensitive to certain kinds of biodiversity loss,” said Matthew Baker, an assistant professor of geography and environmental systems at UMBC.

In a new paper, Baker and Ryan King, a biology professor at Baylor University, demonstrate that two prevailing methods for monitoring water quality – which consider dozens of types of aquatic insects and other invertebrates – miss abrupt declines and increases in certain species that can occur even with minimal development, such as the construction of roads, roofs and other impervious surfaces on 1 to 3 percent of land in a watershed.

“More than 40 percent of the regional species pool is declining due to very low levels of impervious cover, but we’re not detecting it with current methods.” Baker said.

Baker compared current methods to stock market indices: “The Dow Jones measures a sector of our economy, but even when it shows little or no change, people invested in particular stocks can still be making vast profits or losing their shirts.”

In a paper published earlier this year, Baker and King detailed a new method – Threshold Indicator Taxa Analysis (TITAN) – for detecting impacts to individual species. Baker said it essentially amounts to a “much more precise measuring stick.”

The new paper, now available online, will appear in September’s Journal of the North American Benthological Society as part of a special focus section highlighting thresholds in environmental management. Though the analysis focused on the changes caused by increased runoff and pollution from development, Baker said he believes the method could be used to get a clearer picture of the biological changes associated with many other forms of human activity, such as mountaintop mining.

On the bright side, Baker said, their method could help target the mechanisms responsible for biodiversity losses, allowing for improved low-impact development designs, and giving land managers a better indication when environmental restoration efforts are working.

Posted by elewis at July 13, 2010 3:06 PM