News and events

VOSRP Fall Event 2016

October 17, 2016

It was a beautiful fall day in Richmond as a crowd gathered to enjoy food, cheer, and fun, at this year’s Shell Raiser’s Shindig.  The event, which took place on October 16 at Libbie Mill-Midtown, supported the Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP), a collaborative program of the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Guests were able to sample dishes from some of the top chefs in Virginia, and also enjoyed regional beer, wine and cider.  

The program is active in Charlottesville, Richmond, Williamsburg, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Suffolk Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Lancaster County, with almost 60 participating businesses and nearly 30 public drop-off locations. Volunteers also actively collect from oyster roasts and special events.

Annually, the program gathers more than 75,000 pounds of waste shell that is age-cured at the VCU Rice Rivers Center before being seeded with juvenile oysters. Those seeded shells are then returned to the Bay on reef restoration projects, working with restoration partners and the industry. Once all the shells collected from the prior year are seeded with juvenile oysters, more than 10 million oysters will be returned to the Chesapeake.

Spring weather dampens woodpecker season

October 8, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

The 2016 spring season was challenging for both birds and biologists.  The consistent rain throughout the heart of the breeding season appeared to have an impact on breeding performance for many species throughout the mid-Atlantic region.  Bald eagles had small broods, osprey in the lower Chesapeake Bay had a very high failure rate, and peregrines had both small broods and a high failure rate.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers did not escape the impact with the lowest reproductive output in recent memory.  In terms of productivity, this year is comparable to the 2008 breeding season.

Eight woodpecker pairs produced 16 birds to fledging age, including 11 females and 5 males.  Three additional pairs made breeding attempts but produced no young.  Additional pairs were present within the site but did not attempt breeding.  No four-chick broods were produced in 2016.  Three pairs produced three-chick broods, two pairs produced two-chick broods and three pairs produced single chicks.  Despite low productivity during the breeding season, woodpeckers within Piney Grove Preserve continue to hold their own.  We can only hope that productivity will rebound in 2017.

Four birds remained within the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge during the spring of 2016.  All birds were released into the site during the fall of 2015.  Retained birds included three females and a single male.  The single male was paired with a female and the young couple prepared and maintained a nesting cavity through the spring, but eggs were never documented.  Additional birds will be moved into the refuge during the fall of 2016 to bolster the population with the hope of producing the first breeding attempts in 2017.

Addition to the VCU Rice Rivers Center Instruments

September 29, 2016

On August 19, 2016, a new instrument system was installed at the VCU Rice Rivers Center Pier.  Pandora 35 was contributed to VCU Center for Environmental Studies by Dr. Jay Hermann from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center by the generous sponsorship of Dr. Jack Kaye at NASA Headquarters.  The Pandora instrument system, which uses sun tracking to keep its upward-looking orientation, is an integral component of ground validation measurements for remotely-sensed atmospheric NOand ozone profiles. Nitrogen dioxide is an important trace gas to measure because of its role in the formation of photochemical smog which adversely affects human respiratory system. Ozone (near the ground) is also important to measure because it is produced from industrial and urban pollution.

Rice Rivers is honored to join the global Pandora system which includes sites from Harvard Smithsonian in Boston, MA, to Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, to Innsbruck, Austria and many more. We are anticipating new partnerships and collaborations for both CES faculty and students as the result of the addition of the Pandora instrument system to the array of interdisciplinary instrument systems at the VCU Rice Rivers Center.

Mapping bald eagle movement corridors in the Northeast

September 29, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

With the establishment of many commercial-scale wind installations throughout the eastern United States and Canada has come a growing concern about the potential impact to migrating eagles.  Raptor migration corridors form around narrow ridgetops and coastlines that produce updrafts the birds use to facilitate soaring and gliding.  These same sites support the best wind profiles for commercial wind power generation.  Development of turbine fields within migration routes has the potential to cause population-level impacts.  One of the most effective strategies for reducing eagle and other raptor mortalities is to place turbines away from areas of high activity.  An impediment to implementing this strategy has been our inability to identify movement corridors.

In a recent paper published in Plos One, CCB biologists used satellite tracking data to delineate eagle migration corridors in the Northeast and overlay these corridors on maps of existing wind facilities and areas of viable wind-energy development.  A dynamic Brownian bridge movement model was used to process 132 individual migration tracks to create a utilization surface that delineated the movement corridors.  The work was funded by the American Wind Wildlife Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the intent of informing the placement of future wind facilities in the Northeast.

Delineation of the movement corridors will be important for future wind development.  More than 2,000 existing wind turbines were within the highest two categories of eagle use.  However, only 6% of the area supporting the most commercially viable wind power classes overlapped with these eagle use areas, suggesting that a great many locations exist where wind may be captured outside of eagle movement areas.

VCU Sturgeon Team Funded

September 29, 2016

VCU fish biologists working out of the Rice Rivers Center have focused for several years on understanding the biology and ecology of the federally endangered Atlantic Sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay. Their work has put VCU on the forefront of endangered species research, including the development and testing of new technologies, such as acoustic telemetry and environmental DNA, for conservation and restoration efforts aimed at this iconic migratory species. In July, the VCU sturgeon team was funded for an additional three years by NOAA, the federal agency responsible for sturgeon recovery. Objectives for the competitive grant renewal will focus on the biology of early life history stages, the quantification of in-river threats, and development of GIS-based tools and data applications for state and federal managers. 

Citizen scientists work to fill the nightjar information gap

September 29, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Over the past four decades there has been a growing concern within the conservation community that some species of nightjars are experiencing rapid declines over much of their breeding ranges.  Their ecology is poorly understood.  Because national monitoring programs are conducted during daylight hours and nightjars primarily call after dark, we have had very little information to assess changes in distribution and abundance.    

In 2007, The Center for Conservation Biology called on citizen scientists to help fill the information gap with nightjars by initiating the Nightjar Survey Network.  The response has been both gratifying and overwhelming.  An army of birdwatchers, agency biologists, and nightjar lovers have volunteered during the wee hours of the night to conduct standardized surveys of routes across North America.  The effort has resulted in the most comprehensive database to date on the group.

A total of more than 23,000 nightjars of nine species have been recorded during surveys.  We would like to express our gratitude to the many observers across the continent who have given of their time and expertise to make this effort possible.  Over the next year, CCB biologists will begin to explore the database for spatial and temporal patterns that will help with future nightjar management.  Moving forward, we hope to expand the volunteer base and survey network into additional areas that have received little coverage.

Fruit availability and consumer demand within a migration bottleneck

September 27, 2016

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

During the fall of 2014, The Center for Conservation Biology, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, conducted a study to examine the availability of fruit and which fruits were important to passerine migrants on the lower Delmarva Peninsula (download report).  CCB technicians Sarah Rosche and Arianne Millet performed more than 2,000 vegetation assays to evaluate the composition and density of fruiting plants and the density of fruit production within selected forest and shrub patches.  They monitored nearly 500 fruiting branches of 12 species that supported more than 24,000 fruits weekly during the study period to assess patterns in fruit ripening.  These branches were included in an exclusion experiment (covered versus exposed) that we used to evaluate rates of fruit loss, fruit consumption, and fruit preference.

The seasonal schedule of fruit ripening varied dramatically between plant species such that the availability of ripe fruits changed during the migration period.  Some of the fruits, including American holly and hackberry, matured too late to have relevance for most migrants.  Based on the exclusion experiment, an index of consumption varied significantly between fruit species.  Sassafras, devil’s walkingstick, fox grapes, and autumn olive had consumption rates of more than 15% per week compared to hackberry, beautyberry, and bayberry that were less than 5% per week.  Fruit species fall into three preference categories including high demand, medium demand, and low demand.  Migrants stripped virtually 100% of fruits in the high demand category during the height of the migration season. 

Mature forest and shrub patches differ dramatically with respect to the composition of the fruiting plant community, plant density, fruit density, and the extent to which they support preferred fruit species.  Although fruit density within shrub habitat was more than ten-fold higher than forest patches, 95% of the crop is of low demand or is produced by an exotic invasive species.  Shrub patches should be managed to broaden out the fruiting plant community to include preferred fruit species.  Management prescriptions should be developed that drive the footprint of the less desirable plants down and expand the more desirable elements.

This field study follows a previous study by CCB that examined metabolic demand by migrants stopping over on the Lower Delmarva Peninsula and conservation limits (download report).  These projects have been completed to inform land management within this important staging site.  

CES Assesses Ecological Value

September 19, 2016

Saving green space and protecting healthy waters while balancing the need for economic development can be challenging for local governments.  In 2010, with the help of the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and other partners, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's Coastal Zone Management Program (CZM), released the Virginia Ecological Value Assessment (VEVA) to help show where important ecological areas are located in the coastal zone of Virginia.  This major breakthrough gave local governments a tool to assess the ecological value of potential sites, and hopefully to protect ecological resources.  

Now, CES has been awarded a contract from CZM to update this model and incorporate new data.  "This data set is important to the community because it provides localities with information on local, unique, and potentially highly valuable ecological resources." says Mr. William Shuart, a faculty member within CES.   The project will run for almost a year and the final products will be visible on CZM's data portal, Coastal Gems ( that CES supports.   

For more information on the project, please go to:

New Director of Rice Rivers Center

September 8, 2016

There continues to be change and growth in the VCU Life Sciences program. Dr. Robert Tombes, the Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research at Virginia Commonwealth University, recently announced Dr. Greg Garman as Director of the Rice Rivers Center (RRC). Dr. Garman has served as the Director of the Center for Environmental Studies (CES) for the past 16 years as well as serving as the founding Research Director for RRC. Approximately CES 70 students graduate annually with one of the highest rates of placement to their related job market. Dr. Garman, who has been a tenured member of the biology faculty since 1994, has agreed to remain as acting director of CES until his replacement is found. Special gratitude is extended to Dr. Len Smock for not only serving as Rice Rivers Center Director, but also Interim Vice Provost for Life Sciences and Research during the past 18 months. 

New Vice Provost for VCU Life Sciences

September 2, 2016

We have had an exciting summer in the VCU Life Sciences building with the appointment of new leadership in our quest to continue forward in our interdisciplinary collaborations. 

The announcement from our provost and vice president for academic affairs, Dr. Gail Hackett: 

I am pleased to announce the appointment of Robert M. Tombes, Ph.D. as vice provost for life sciences and research. Dr. Tombes has been serving as the interim executive associate dean in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences.

Dr. Tombes has been a leader in VCU’s interdisciplinary life sciences community for 22 years. He is a professor in the Department of Biology with affiliate appointments in the Department of Biochemistry and the Massey Cancer Center. He is also a former director of the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education as well as the integrative life sciences doctoral program. He maintains an active lab in the Department of Biology focused on cell and developmental biology research. Prior to his current position he served as associate dean for research in the College of Humanities and Sciences. Dr. Tombes received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Washington and a dual B.A. in Chemistry and Biology from the University of Virginia. 

VCU Rice Rivers Footer
About us People and partners Research Community engagement News and events Site Reservation
Virginia Commonwealth University | VCU Life Sciences | VCU Rice Rivers Center | P.O. Box 842030 | Richmond, Virginia 23284-2030
(804) 828-5600 |