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The Unusual Suspects

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Scott Horvath

Hello and welcome to CoreCast. I'm Scott Horvath, but I'm not really the host of the show today. That honor goes to our very own Denver Makle, editor of Science Picks, the USGS's monthly media tip sheet.

Science Picks gives news media a heads up on USGS topics that they might want to cover, and in 2007, nearly 50,000 requests were made for Science Picks items in the USGS Newsroom.

So in this episode, Denver will interview three scientists who participated in Science Picks and were involved in some of the science that generated a bit of media buzz last year, even though their programs and projects might not be well known.

First up is a compelling case of coastal wetland loss. John Barras [Bar-uh], a geographer at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center in Lafayette, Louisiana, has been a staple in the media along the Louisiana coasts. So Denver asks him what keeps him popular even a few years after Katrina and Rita.

Denver Makle:

John Barras, geographer at the USGS National Wetlands Research Center, has been a regular staple in the regional media along the Louisiana coasts. The big story was coastal wetland loss, please welcome John Barras.

John Barras

Hi, I'm John Barras and I'm a geographer with the National Wetlands Research Center in Layfayette, La.


When it happened, there was no news bigger than Hurricane Katrina, now that it's 2008. What keeps you in the media?

John Barras

I think its just curiosity on the actual impacts of Katrina, and also, as how quickly the some of the areas impacted by the storm surge will recover. That's probably the greatest number of questions I receive now -- related to how the recovery is going, and do you think the damage is permanent.


When they ask you that what do you tell the media?

John Barras

Basically, the typical scientists attitude is we need more information, we have to wait and see - just one or two years after a storms impact definitely is not enough time to ascertain whether the damage will be permanent or not. So the best that we can do is just make estimates off the information that we are receiving now and go ahead and acquire more information in the future and see which way the trends are going.


So can you tell me the significance of the latest land-loss reports?

John Barras

Well, I'm also working on research, not just looking at hurricane impacts. Just looking at long-term trends, we're taking a multi-data approach to provide a better area estimate on, and better idea of the trends on land-loss in coastal Louisiana.


What's the process you ordinarily use?

John Barras

That's pretty simple. We just acquiring, using Landsat thematic map or satellite imagery aquired from the USGS EROS Data Center, and just acquire images over time (at least one or two per year) in either the fall or winter and just look at water area changes over time to see which way its trending. A greater increase of water area, continued increase of water area even with natural variance caused by tidal fluctuations, riverine flooding - other types of environmental factors. We just try to take those trends and move it forward.


What can our listeners look for in the future? When can we expect more data, more reports?

John Barras

I'm working on two reports right now, again it is to provide a better quantification of the trends. Because right now, Coastal Louisiana land loss trends is scattered in several different reports. We're trying to get a unified report out on that. And, I've also been able to identify historical hurricane impacts, from Hurricane Betsy and Hilda, which occurred in the mid-60s. Where the surge impacts from these hurricanes actually remained in place for 40 plus years, and were actually exacerbated by hurricane Katrina's surge. It is giving us a better perspective on what these storms do, and how long the permanent impacts can last.


So, if someone wanted to get more information on your work where would they go?

John Barras

The National Wetlands Research Center has a Hurricane information component of their Web site, and you can also find some of the reports that have been published if you go to the USGS publication warehouse and do a search on my last name.

Scott Horvath

Now, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, here come Asian carp, possibly invading a river near you. Sorry, I just couldn't resist. They can wreak havoc on native fish populations, even without a mouthful of teeth.

They also cause some problems for boaters, as passing motorboats can frighten carp weighing as much as 20 pounds into leaping out of the water and into boats and their passengers.

Denver caught up with Duane Chapman to discuss this strange fish tale.


What's the big story about asian carp? Why do you think you received 30 inquiries when the science Pick went out?


Silver Carp in particular are very photogenic. They have this propensity to leap when they get scared. Silver Carp when they do leap in response to a boat very often they will jump into the boat and strike people. You can get sometimes literally hundreds of fish in the air at once. And sometimes the fish can be very large. Ans so When you've got these large fish flying into a boat people get hurt. And plus, people just like to see large fish. It makes it - It's an interesting thing for people to see on television. People are justifiably afraid of the affects these fish have you can get hurt badly and there are so many big headed silver Carp out there that they are appearing to have detrimental affects on our native fishes. The abundance of them is extreme. We are trying very hard to find ways to make that less of a problem by reducing those populations. We are also trying to keep the fish from spreading into new places.


How did the Asian Carp enter our waters?


The fish were brought over for a variety of reasons, mostly for use to control sewage treatment and aquaculture pond water quality, that's Big Head and Silver Carp; Graph Carp were brought over to control aquatic weeds; and Black Carp were brought over to control snails in aquaculture.

If you look in the media reports, what you'll see very, very often is that the fish escaped in the floods of ‘93 when the aquaculture ponds were inundated -- and the fact is that we don't really know where the fish came from, certainly its very possible that they came from aquaculture ponds, very likely either from State, or Federal, or private aquaculture ponds, but flooding may not have had anything to do with it because these fish were established long before the floods of the early 90s.


Are there any recommendations for people who might get these fish jumping into their boats?


Well, it's important that people realize that you can get really seriously hurt by these fish. And so, you've seen things on the television about people driving crazy through the fish and causing them to jump on purpose, and getting lots and lots of fish into the air and into their boats, or people trying to catch the fish in the air. If you do that kind of thing, just be really careful because you're likely to get hurt.

Scott Horvath

Another odd and hot topic for '07 was the story of how a fungus, a virus, and a plant are surviving climate change through teamwork. Not only did this story draw media attention, but the related report was named one of the most significant papers of the year by the journal Nature.

Rusty Rodriguez, one of the scientists involved, gives Denver the lowdown.


Can you give me a brief description exactly what it is that you do?


In this particular project we look at how plants adapt to and survive in high stress habitats. In this particular case we were looking at plants that thrive in geothermal soils and the conventional wisdom and knowledge dictates that these plants survive in these areas because the plants have had evolutionary time to adapt the stresses they are exposed to and make modifications in their own genome to accommodate those stresses.


When you say geothermal, what does that mean to a layman?


If you go to areas that have a lot of what are know as geothermal activities, like Yellowstone National Park, where much of this work was done, the magma chambers are close enough to the surface where you can have one of a few different things happening -- like the well known, well recognized hot pools of just boiling water. But, there are many different areas where you just have steam come up through the ground, and these result in hot soils that reach about 65 degrees centigrade in the summers and drop to about 20 degrees centigrade in the winter.


What does this research mean to us? Why is it significant?


I think that the most significant aspect of this research is that it has allowed us to begin developing new strategies for mitigating the impacts of climate change on plant communities both in natural settings and agricultural settings.

The situation that we have found in Yellowstone and elsewhere is that the plants end up surviving in these areas because of their close association with microscopic fungi that live entirely inside the plants, and the fungi adapt to the habitat specific stresses that are imposed by the system, or on the plants, and then the fungi confer stress tolerance to the plant. In this particular case, in Yellowstone, there is also a virus associated with the fungus, and the virus is involved in that process as well. We don't yet know how it is involved in it, and we're studying that now.

But the point here is that we now can go to different habitats, and we can isolate fungi from the plants living in these habitats, and demonstrate that those fungi are responsible for the ability of the plants to tolerate stress. So, if we're concerned about increased temperatures, decreased freshwater, increased periods of drought, and increased soil salinity. We know now, we can overcome those issues with symbiotic fungi that we can put in the plants, so the plants can survive in whatever habitat we put them in.


What other types of research could this type of information that you've gathered support?


We're using this information now to branch off into several different areas. One of which, deals with watersheds, in general, and when you look at a picture of a watershed what you would see is a blending of natural environment with anthropegenic environments. So, you'll have agricultural influences, you'll have urban influences, etc., and one of the things that all of these need is fresh water. And that's going to become one of the biggest concerns in this century throughout the world. So we are looking at this type of research branching out into these areas, where plants would be requiring less water, and leaving more water available for these watersheds for the aquatic ecosystems.

That's one type of area were looking into. Others simply include the fact that restoration efforts in polluted areas have been very challenging. We think we can overcome that now by using these fungi that have adapted to certain pollutants and conferring the ability to plants to survive in these areas.


Lastly, were looking at this as a major mechanism that allows a very limited number of plants to become invasive species when they move to non-native habitat.

So, in a way it almost seems like you are saying the virus is actually a good and important part, just as much as, the plant and the fungus?


Absolutely, one thing to keep in mind is that, as far as anyone is aware at this point, all plant life, in fact, all complex life on this planet is symbiotic with microscopic organisms. In the case of plants, there are fungi and bacteria that are symbiotically associated with them and virus,' as well. In this particular case, the virus is a benefit to the symbiosis between the fungus and the plant, and plays a very important role in the ability of the fungi to confer heat tolerance to the plant.

The real fascinating aspect of this is that we tend to think that complex life on this planet has evolved as individuals. Yet, since all life on the planet is symbiotic with microorganisms, we know now that in fact, we don't evolve alone. Plants don't, and animals don't. In the case of plants, it has been thought that plants slowly evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, and they slowly adapt to stresses of new environments and changes of the environment, and we know now that that is not the case for at least some of the plants out there. They evolved as a result of microscopic fungi that live inside of them and allow them to accommodate whatever stresses come their way.

Scott Horvath

Well, I hope these interviews have given you a little peek into some of the unexpected and compelling things USGS scientists are up to. I also hope you'll check out Science Picks-it's a great way to get a glimpse at the spectrum of USGS science on a monthly basis. Learn more by going to and clicking "Science Picks" on the left-hand side, or contact Denver at dmakle (spell out)

CoreCast is a product of the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior. Until next time, I'm Scott Horvath saying, keep it cool.

Music credits:

"114 BPM I've got the Blues" by frifrafro

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Title: The Unusual Suspects

Description: Three scientists talk about lesser-known topics that were brought to light in the media in 2007 by the USGS Science Picks, including the loss of coastal wetlands, leaping carp, and evolutionary teamwork. We also preview CoreFacts, the quick science Q & A we'll offer every weekday starting February 4th. Subscribe at

Location: USA

Date Recorded: 1/25/2008

Audio Producer: Denver Makle , U.S. Geological Survey

Usage: This audio file is public domain/of free use unless otherwise stated. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this audio.

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