Asbury Biology Students Go Fishing for Data

Asbury biology students (from left) Matt Engler '13, Jordan Cox '14 and Graham Howell '12 identify fish and crawfish in the Jessamine Creek water system.
Asbury biology students (from left) Matt Engler '13, Jordan Cox '14 and Graham Howell '12 identify fish and crawfish in the Jessamine Creek water system.

For Asbury University seniors Graham Howell and Matt Engler, “gone fishing” is a phrase that describes scientific research, not goofing off.

The two biology majors are surveying a portion of the local Jessamine Creek drainage area for separate research projects. Howell is studying the number, species and distribution of fish, and Engler, whose research is funded by a grant from the Kentucky Academy of Science, is studying similar aspects of the crawfish population. Both studies will help establish a baseline measurement of data for comparison in the future.

“Jessamine Creek is a relatively pristine watershed, and the current studies will provide baseline data documenting the species of fish and crayfish present, as well as their current distributions,” said Dr. Ben Brammell, assistant professor of biology. “This data will be available for future studies to reference, allowing documentation of any reduction in species diversity resulting from alterations to the watershed.”

Thus far the students have identified 23 species of fish, including five species of darters, five species of sunfish, two species of black bass, a madtom (small catfish species), and a number of shiners and other species of minnows. The diversity of fish species observed in Jessamine Creek is typical of Central Kentucky streams but greater than that observed in streams experiencing degraded conditions.

“I am always surprised when we find a new species of fish that we had not seen before,” Howell said. “It definitely came as a surprise to find the number of species that we've found, especially after I have fished in this creek for almost my entire life without seeing more than seven or eight species.”

One significant boost to the project has been the cooperation of the RJ Corman Railroad Group, which has allowed Asbury students unlimited access to the 1.5 miles of Jessamine Creek that flows through their property for the purposes of sampling fish and crayfish. The RJ Corman Group is interested in maintaining its stretch of Jessamine Creek in as pristine a state as possible, and this research should be complementary to that goal. 

In addition to learning to identify the animals, Howell and Engler also are gaining experience in electrofishing, a method that involves applying an electrical charge to the water to stun the fish so they can be counted and studied. The students will present their findings at the Kentucky Academy of Science annual meeting in Murray, Ky., in November.

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