eNews January 2019

ENMU Graduate Student Uses Grant to Monitor Basking Behavior in Rio Grande River Cooter Along the Black River in New Mexico

By Desiree M. Cooper, ENMU Communication Services

Thanchira Suriyamongkol, a graduate student studying biology at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU), is working on a grant project funded by the New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) titled “Monitoring Basking Activity and Assessing Water Conditions in Relation to Basking of Rio Grande Cooters along the Black River.” Her faculty advisor is Dr. Ivana Mali, assistant professor of wildlife biology at ENMU.

Thanchira holding a cooter turtle.

The project began in August 2018 and will be completed in August 2019.

Thanchira’s research focuses on monitoring basking behavior in the Rio Grande cooter on the Black River, a tributary of the Rio Grande River located in Eddy County, New Mexico. “Black River is one of the very few locations where this threatened freshwater turtle species occurs in relatively high densities,” explained the graduate student, who studies the turtles’ daily basking activities in relation to environmental conditions, such as ambient temperature and time of day, and seeks to assess seasonality pattern (active period vs. hibernation period).

The ENMU student considers being able to observe the turtles’ behaviors through game cameras to be a highlight of her research. “[Using the cameras] can give unique insights to turtles’ daily behavior,” she said. “Typically, Rio Grande cooters are easily startled by humans, which makes it difficult to observe their basking activities. Interestingly, game cameras have documented a turtle basking on a cold day in November (between 9-11 degrees Celsius), which was highly unexpected. I have also observed inter-taxa basking (turtles sharing a log with ducks or cranes), and inter-species basking (between Red-eared sliders and Rio Grande cooters).”

Thanchira decided on this research topic because the Rio Grande cooter is an “important part of the Black River ecosystem. Although it is currently listed as threatened, little is known about this species.”

She highlighted the importance of learning about the turtles’ basking behaviors (a process that is important for the thermoregulation process in turtles) and active periods, since an increase in anthropogenic activities on the river, such as boating, fishing, and oil production, may create disturbances to the turtles’ activities and behaviors. “Studying basking behavior in the Rio Grande Cooter can aid in understanding the dynamic of the population and planning appropriate conservation strategies,” she explained.

Thanchira setting up a game camera.

Thanchira credits the NM WRRI grant with improving her field skills. “I learned how to use game cameras to study behavior. I also learned new programs and statistical models for analyzing the data I gathered,” she said.

The grant also gave Thanchira the opportunity to learn how to write a grant proposal, which she calls “an invaluable skill for my future successes in the field.” She was able to purchase equipment needed for research, build her leadership skills by conducting her own study with help from her advisor and lab mates, and gain new statistical skills.

“This grant provides an opportunity for students like myself to conduct this research. This not only benefits young researchers, but information gained from their studies can contribute to the scientific community,” she shared.

The graduate student will give a presentation about her research at the 2019 New Mexico/Arizona Wildlife Society meeting in February. She plans to present the preliminary basking behavior data from August 2018 to January 2019. She will also present data comparing the daily basking pattern of the turtles within the six months in regards to the change in seasonal pattern.

Thanchira, who is from Thailand, plans to find a job in the field of research or outdoor education in the United States through an Optional Practical Training (OPT) program for international students after graduating from ENMU. Upon completing the OPT, she plans to pursue a Ph.D.

Community Water eNews January 2019

NMSU Graduate Student Investigates the Use of Plants to Remove Contaminants from the Gold King Mine Spill of Wastewater Into the Animas and San Juan Rivers

By Catherine Ortega Klett, NM WRRI Program Manager

Jason Fechner is a graduate student in the NMSU Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences. He graduated in May 2018 with a BS in horticulture from NMSU. Jason received a 2018 NM WRRI Student Water Research Grant entitled: Gold King Mine Spill: Contaminant Removal of San Juan County Rivers via Phytoremediation.

The Gold King Mine Spill in 2015 contaminated the Animas and San Juan Rivers with heavy metals that affected multiple states including Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. This event had a tremendous impact on local farmers dependent on the Animas and San Juan Rivers for irrigation of their crops. There are also health concerns related to the plant and aquatic life in and around the contamination sites. Due to these concerns, remediation of these contaminated mining sites and river stretches is a priority issue. The main objective of this project is to explore the use of selected plants and their associated microbes for the removal and/or stabilization of contaminants deposited by the mine spill event. In this effort, Jason is working under the guidance of his faculty sponsors Dr. April Ulery, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and Dr. Soum Sanogo, Department of Entomology, Plant Pathology, and Weed Science at NMSU.

Common duckweed (Lemna minor) is the plant chosen for this remediation project, as it is found throughout the United States and is known for its remediation ability as well as its high reproductive rates. It is an aquatic plant that grows on still or shallow, slowly moving waterways, and it is known to tolerate water contaminated with various toxins. For the Gold King Mine spill, there are multiple heavy metal contaminants of interest; however, the focus of the present study is the uptake of iron. Iron is one of the principal contaminants carried by the spill, and while it can be very toxic in high doses, it is also of interest because of its ability to form stable complexes (chelates) with other, more toxic contaminants. Accordingly, the focus of this project is to determine the extent to which duckweed is able to remove iron from an aquatic system. An attendant goal is the identification of bacterial and fungal species that are associated with the duckweed and may be partially or largely responsible for the chelation of iron.

To date, duckweed has been grown in various small vats under controlled conditions of lighting as well as nutrient and iron concentrations. Associated bacterial and fungi cultures have been isolated, grown, and samples analyzed using the genetic multiplication process known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The study results indicate that three different species of fungus are present, including Alternaria alternata, Plectosphaerella cucumerina, and Cladosporium tenuissimum. A review of the literature suggests that Alternaria alternata is most likely responsible for the plant’s iron uptake ability, as it can mycosynthesize iron nanoparticles.

A future, additional avenue of research for this project will include setting up the experiment again, but on a larger scale, composting the duckweed once the experimental trial is over, and growing Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushrooms) using the duckweed compost. The oyster mushrooms will be analyzed to see whether the fruiting bodies have absorbed any of the iron. If they do absorb iron, there will be an effort to determine how much is absorbed, how much is bound in the compost, and how much may have precipitated out of solution.

Knowledge of what types of plants can be used to remove or stabilize spill contaminants could prove very beneficial for water research and environmental agencies, especially since this approach is environmentally friendly, relative to conventional remediation methods. It is also potentially very cost effective, since it would reduce the burden of removal of contaminated material.

A native of Alamogordo, NM, Jason indicated that the NM WRRI grant has afforded him the opportunity to work with other scientists and to get their perspective on similar research. He has also been able to observe other field research studies underway on the Gold King Mine spill. He said, “The grant has provided funding for laboratory and other supplies pertaining to my research. After completing a master’s degree, I plan to continue my education and obtain a PhD. Eventually I want to work for a research university where I can train the next generation of scientists in the classroom and the lab.”

eNews January 2019

NMSU Graduate Student Studying High School Student Perspectives on Water Issues in Colonias

By Margie R. Vela, Water Science and Management, PhD Candidate and Student Regent, New Mexico State University

In December 2018, I had the pleasure of hosting a visit to NMSU by over 150 students from Canutillo High School; twenty of them presented findings of the research they conducted in their respective communities, providing a closer look at the challenges many residents of colonias (unincorporated communities in the Border Region lacking infrastructure) face daily. The Water and People Project is one component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture funded project titled, Rural Development: Using Photovoice to draw connections between social, built, and human capital for youth living in the colonias of the U.S. Border Region. It aims to discover relationships between water, education, and health for families in the colonias from the perspective of youth.

This project was inspired by UNESCO’s 2006 World Water Report titled Water: A Shared Responsibility, which begins to explain the relationship between water and educational attainment for women in many third world countries. This relationship is one that I found fascinating. As I pondered this idea over a few years, I could not help but wonder if the same dynamic existed in underdeveloped communities in the United States, particularly on the Southern Border. As a high school student, I spent many of my summers volunteering at an orphanage in Anapra, Mexico. I saw how families lived in colonias south of the border, and was compelled to study how families are affected by water in their sister communities, north of the same border. And so, the experiences of a young high schooler and the curiosity of a more mature researcher merged into a successful grant application to the USDA to conduct this study. I was awarded the NIFA Fellowship to conduct the research.

Canutillo High School became the study site for two simple reasons: 1) the high school serves a total of four colonias; 2) the high school principal is supportive of the project. Canutillo High School serves Canutillo, Westway, Prado, and Vinton. All four of these colonias are census-designated places, which makes it easy to find aggregate data for the communities. Additionally, the school principal was excited to accommodate the research and provide access to classrooms for several weeks. I spent ten days with some students, and seven days with other students. Class topics included water as a socio-environmental issue; socio-environmental issues as complex problems; the world water crisis and local water issues; population growth, drought, and climate change; water stakeholders; and agency and major water decisions. Students were encouraged to think about water critically and were given a homework assignment to take three photos and write narratives for every picture submitted for analysis. Not all students in the classes participated in the project.

The data collection included six short surveys and the homework assignment described above. Surveys included questions that will inform demographics, rates of diabetes and obesity for households in the communities, rates of bullying at school due to hygienic issues, access to parks and recreation facilities for healthy living, and access to healthy food choices in communities, among other topics.

Analysis of the data is still underway. Student presentations suggest there are substantial infrastructure issues in the communities. Streets and roads lack proper drainage for flash flooding that often occurs in the communities during monsoon season. Housing structures need repairs and maintenance for water damage that poses safety concerns for families. Public buildings currently harbor limited or non-functioning water fountains and sinks for public use. Preliminary findings also suggest water quality and confidence in water quality are also problematic for the students. Data analysis will continue to reveal more about the community and will inform future research.

Preliminary results and related methodology of the project were published in 2018 by the Journal of Social Change, Determining Pathways and Connections Between Access to Water and High School Noncompletion Rates for Communities Along the U.S.–Mexico Border. Click here to read article.