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Biology Students Study Health of New York Streams

December 14, 2017

At the bottom of Great Brook, a small stream that runs through the Ganondagan State Historic Site, lay tiny little organisms called benthic invertebrates. This fall, students in Dr. Chris Collins’ biology course found that while these aquatic creatures may lack a backbone, they can reveal a lot about the overall health of the ecosystem.

Students in Dr. Chris Collins’ biology course studied stream invertebrates at the Ganondagan State Historic Site.

Collins, who has conducted wildlife research at Ganondagan for four years, formally partnered with the organization’s Environmental Field Office to offer a service-learning component for his course, Animal Natural History.

Through the class, students collected invertebrates found in the brooks and streams by stirring up the rocks and sand in the stream bed and letting the cloud of mud and debris flow through a filter net. By hand, they picked through the sediment to identify and count the invertebrates.

“We study stream invertebrates because they are good indicators of water quality,” Collins explained. “Certain species won’t tolerate anything but pristine water, and others are more tolerant. By looking at the species in the stream, we can estimate the overall health of the ecosystem.”

Students in Dr. Chris Collins’ biology course studied stream invertebrates at the Ganondagan State Historic Site.

Over the course of the semester, the students contributed 100 hours of time in the field, thoroughly surveying streams that hadn’t before been assessed. That’s not counting the time they’ve spent analyzing data and writing reports.

“The staff at Ganondagan work very hard, but they have a lot of land to manage, and rely on volunteers for some of the biodiversity surveys they don’t have time for,” he noted. “It would take a single person at least two full weeks to collect that much data.”

Their analysis will be added to a report for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant, written by the Finger Lakes Environmental Field Team in collaboration with the Finger Lakes Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management.

Last year, Collins challenged his class to conduct bird surveys and create field guides for Ganondagan, which the organization used in an application that successfully earned them official recognition by New York State as a Bird Conservation Area this fall. The then-new service-learning partnership between Collins and Ganondagan was given the inaugural Civic Engagement Reciprocity Award by the Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement, recognizing a collaboration where there was an exceptionally high level of benefit to both the community partner and the College.

For his class, it’s a chance to see how their biology education can translate into a profession.

“The students see that it’s a real career option, and that these are real, regular people who love their jobs and are passionate about protecting biodiversity,” he said. “You can’t teach that in a classroom.”