Research projects

REU student research projects will investigate a range of invasive elements and other stressors affecting the Missouri River including:  
invasive tree and fish species and their effects on birds and food webs, dam-modified sediment loads, competing values and beliefs about the river, 
loss of prairie and wetlands surrounding the river due to land-use change, and agrochemical contamination of the river.

Individual Research Projects

Effects of Invasive Trees on Native Floodplain Forest Vegetation & Breeding Birds

Research mentors: Drs. Mark Dixon and David Swanson, Department of Biology

(2 students/summer)

Project Background: Floodplain forests, particularly those dominated by plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides), support among the highest levels of bird diversity of any habitat type in the Great Plains region, but native floodplain forests have been greatly reduced and degraded since the time of Euro-American settlement.  These changes have promoted the invasion of floodplain forests by native upland and non-native tree species.  These changes are likely to substantially impact breeding bird populations and nesting success, so we propose to investigate (1) the factors influencing the abundance and distribution of invasive woody plant species along the Missouri River and (2) the relative habitat quality of habitats dominated by native vs. invasive woody species.  

REU Research Project: For question #1, we will evaluate relationships between landscape factors (e.g., fragmentation), site factors (e.g., soils, management history), historical land cover change and the distribution, abundance, and age structure of invasive woody plants along the Missouri River.  For question #2, we will compare nest site selection and nesting success for bird species occupying habitats dominated by native and invasive trees and shrubs within floodplain forests along the Missouri River. We will compare nesting success using statistical models, with variables including the preponderance of invasive tree species, to determine factors influencing nesting success for floodplain forest birds. REU students will work with Drs. Dixon and Swanson to conduct vegetation surveys, find and monitor bird nests, and conduct statistical analyses of both vegetation and nest data. Students will learn identification skills and survey methods for birds, bird nests and floodplain forest plants, as well as methods of data analyses for bird nesting and community ecology data.

Student Qualifications:  No prior experience is necessary for this research project, but coursework in ecology and ornithology and skills in bird identification would be beneficial.  This project involves field work, so the student must be willing and able to work outside in summer conditions.

Effects of Modified Sediment Loads on Missouri River and Tributary Hydrology

Research mentor: Dr. Mark Sweeney, Department of Earth Science

Project Background: Suspended load is an important component of the total sediment load carried by a river, and it is an important nutrient source for numerous aquatic organisms. The installation of Gavins Point Dam resulted in a drastic reduction in suspended sediment load along the 59-mile stretch of the Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR), while also increasing sedimentation in Lewis and Clark Lake upstream of the dam. A recent two-year assessment of the suspended sediment contribution of tributaries to the Missouri River within the MNRR indicated that the tributaries had minimal impact on the river’s overall sediment load, however, a longer study is needed to evaluate seasonal impacts and long-term trends. A study upstream of the dam sought to determine sources of sediment depositing in Lewis and Clark Lake, predicted to fill in about 160 years. This REU project seeks to accurately determine seasonal changes in suspended load of Missouri River tributaries, and to help identify potential sources of that sediment by evaluating land use. 

REU Research Project: This research will measure the suspended load concentrations of the major tributaries (from bridges) at multiple times throughout the summer which will help to determine the role of the tributaries in sedimentation on the Missouri River. The REU student will use a depth-integrated sampler to collect samples and will process samples in the lab. The REU student will compare suspended load data to previous work and analyze the data for trends. S/he will investigate how differing land uses surrounding the Missouri River and its tributaries (e.g. grazing land, row-crop agriculture, riparian forest) affect local sediment contributions and the overall sediment load of the Missouri River. The student selected for this project will work in a geoscience-focused group of 2-3 students and compare data with GIS land-use mapping of the watershed.

Student Qualifications: Introductory coursework in environmental sciences or geosciences is required. The REU student must be able to work outdoors and repeatedly (several times over the course of 30 minutes) lower and lift a heavy, ~30-lb sampling device by rope >20 feet from a bridge. The student must also have a valid driver’s license and may be expected to drive to and from field sites.

Effects of Invasive Fish on Missouri River Food Webs

Research mentor: Dr. Jeff Wesner, Department of Biology

Project Background:  Invasive Asian carp are present in the Missouri River below the Gavins Point Dam. While the effects of Asian carp in aquatic food webs are relatively well-studied, their effects on terrestrial food webs are not. The goal of this research is to understand how invasive Asian carp affect linked aquatic-terrestrial food webs in the Missouri River. In particular, Dr. Wesner’s research group measures how invasive carp affect emerging aquatic insects and the terrestrial predators they feed. They use manipulative experiments and field surveys to determine whether carp ingest insects during feeding, and if their presence alters the emergence of aquatic insects to terrestrial ecosystems. The effect of carp on emerging aquatic insects will be measured directly by isolating Asian carp in enclosures in the Missouri River and in artificial streams at USD’s Experimental Aquatic Research Site (ExARS). The carp’s effect on terrestrial food webs will be measured by quantifying the density of terrestrial long-jawed spiders, which track aquatic insect emergence.

REU Research Project:  The REU student will assist with manipulative experiments, and will lead the diet survey with the assistance of Dr. Wesner. Specifically, the REU student will collect fish, extract gut contents, and identify prey items to determine whether Asian carp ingest insects (directly or indirectly). The REU student will learn concepts in life-history, entomology, food webs, experimental design and ecosystem ecology.

Student Qualifications:  Required qualifications are an ability to work independently and in relatively strenuous outdoor conditions. Preferred qualifications include coursework in ecology, ichthyology, experimental design, or other related subjects.

Mapping Cultural Ecosystem Services in the Upper Missouri River Basin

Research mentors: Drs. Silvana Rosenfeld and Matthew Sayre, Department of Anthropology

(2 students/summer)

Project Background:  The Upper Missouri River Basin is a dynamic landscape that provides numerous ecosystem goods and services (EGS) to its residents and the rest of the United States.  The value of some of these EGS are relatively easy to quantify (e.g. food, feed, energy), whereas others are more difficult to quantify (e.g. cultural values, recreation opportunities, historical values) even though they are important to people using the land and they affect how land-use decisions are made.
REU Research Project:  The objective of this research is to map social values regarding land-use in the Upper Missouri River Basin. Specific sites chosen for this research include Gillette, WY; Bozeman, MT; Williston, ND; and Mitchell, SD. Students will travel to these locations to administer surveys where people identify their values related to the surrounding landscapes.
Student Qualifications:  This project does not require specific qualifications or previous experience. The research will involve travel to the above locations for periods of one to two weeks, so the students must be willing and able to travel for multiple week periods over the summer.

Terrestrial Land-Use Changes along the Missouri National Recreational River

Research mentor: Dr. Brennan Jordan, Department of Earth Science

Project Background: Wetlands, vegetated natural swales, and perennial stream channels provide critical ecosystem services by slowing surface-water runoff, increasing infiltration, and thus increasing natural filtration and improving water quality. Increases in agricultural commodity prices have motivated significant land-cover/land-use change (LCLUC) from of wetlands, grassland, shrubland, and forest to agriculture in South Dakota and adjacent states. Regional studies of LCLUC commonly use USGS LANDSAT imagery with a 30-m resolution, sometimes using time-series images from GoogleEarth for validation. Such studies miss fine-scale (<30 m) LCLUC within fields. These fine-scale changes, particularly in vegetated natural swales and perennial stream channels, may be cumulatively significant.

REU Research Project: An REU student will conduct a survey of fine-scale land-cover/land-use change in selected sub-watersheds of watersheds that drain into the Missouri River. Historical imagery in GoogleEarth will be used as the primary observations, and observed changes will be compiled in ArcGIS for analysis, with field validation of selected sites. The student will calculate the linear fraction of LCLUC in swales/perennial steam channels in studied areas and consider possible impacts on water quality.  The student selected for this project will work in a geoscience-focused group of 2-3 students with additional GIS and field components.

Student Qualifications:  A working knowledge of ESRI’s ArcGIS software is necessary for this project.  Students should only apply of this position if they will have completed at least one course in GIS or geospatial information technology by the time the summer program begins.

Interactive Effects of Contaminants & Pathogens on Amphibians along the Missouri River

Research mentor: Dr. Jacob Kerby, Department of Biology

(2 students/summer)

Project Background:  Corn and soybean production, which routinely includes the use of multiple agrochemicals, is the dominant land use in the MNRR watershed and is the leading cause of water pollution within the Corn Belt. Additionally, new strains of deadly pathogens are continually being introduced into altered aquatic systems like the Missouri River Basin. The interactive effects of agrochemical pollution and increased pathogen load has been purposed to be a potential cause of amphibian declines across the US, and is likely contributing to the declines of amphibian abundance in the Missouri River Basin. Due to the large number of potentially problematic contaminants in the Missouri River system, Dr. Kerby’s research group conducts both field and laboratory studies examining the impacts of agrochemicals and disease dynamics in several amphibian and turtle species. Dr. Kerby’s group has extensively researched the potential interactions between contaminants and pathogens along the Missouri River using amphibians as the focal taxon. His research group runs thousands of samples annually to diagnose the presence of amphibian pathogens via quantitative PCR methods.

REU Research Project:  The REU student will gather water quality data on contaminant concentrations via field surveys along established Missouri River study sites. The student will also examine the interactive effects on amphibian and turtle disease via experimental manipulations. This work will provide important information on water quality and its potential effects on aquatic organisms. Additionally, it will provide a wide range of training opportunities for the REU student including field-survey methods, toxicological experiments, and molecular laboratory skills.

Student Qualifications:  Students must be committed to conducting field work.  Dr. Kerby's group spends several weeks camping outdoors in tents and doing physical work on wetland and river systems.

Ethnohistorical Relationships among American Indian Tribes & the Missouri River

Research mentor: Dr. David Posthumus, Department of Anthropology

Project Background: In order to understand the Missouri River basin as a dynamic ecosystem, and in particular, the impacts of invasive elements on the sustainability of the river and those who depend upon it, an ethnohistorical baseline explicating the relationships between the Indigenous inhabitants of the region, the Missouri River, and its resources must be established. Numerous American Indian tribes are connected to the Missouri River basin, including the Sioux (Lakota, Yankton, and Yanktonai), Omaha, Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa, yet an ethnographic synthesis of these relationships has not been completed.

REU Research Project (2018): The objective of this research is to establish a baseline of cultural and historical data documenting traditional Indigenous relationships with the Missouri River in the Plains region. Utilizing ethnohistorical sources—both published and unpublished archival materials—this research explores and documents the historical values of Native communities who have lived in close proximity to the Missouri River and their evolving patterns of interaction with it. In particular, this research seeks to identify traditional cultural properties: “significant remnants of the past, present, and future of Native American and other traditional societies” (Kenmotsu et al. 1995:237) or places “associated with cultural practices or beliefs of a living community that (a) are rooted in that community’s history, and (b) are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community” (Parker and King 1990:1). Dr. Posthumus’s research expertise and the resources contained in USD’s South Dakota Oral History Center, which remain largely untapped by scholars, are strong assets to the project.

Student Qualifications: No prior experience is necessary for this research project, but coursework in anthropology, history, and Native American studies are preferred. The REU student will combine methods and theory from both anthropology and history. The REU student will address pre- and early-contact period ecological relational patterns of Indigenous peoples in the region with the Missouri, focusing on subsistence and sustainability. Using data from both primary and secondary sources the student will construct a baseline of ethnohistorical data in the form of a 25-page research paper that will be used in the next two phases of this project.

Evaluating Native and Non-Native Values Towards Their Environments

Research mentor: Dr. Meghann Jarchow, Sustainability Program and Department of Biology

Project Background:  The Upper Missouri River and its associated uplands were inhabited and cared for by numerous Native American tribes for thousands of years.  For the past two centuries, most of the land surrounding the Upper Missouri River has been used for agriculture, primarily livestock grazing and annual row crops, and much of the land is currently owned by the descendants of the EuroAmerican settlers to the region.  Historical and traditional values and use of land influence the ways in which we perceive land use.  Underlying values affecting land use and land-use decisions are likely to vary between Native and non-Native groups.
REU Research Project
:  The objective of this research is to compare the values of Native and non-Native South Dakotans towards their surrounding landscape.  The REU student will conduct interviews with Native American stakeholders in South Dakota.  Information from these interviews will then be compared with previously collected data from interviews with non-Native stakeholders in South Dakota.
Student Qualifications
:  Previous experience with interviews, counseling, or communications is preferred but not required.  Existing tribal relationships would also be useful but is not required.  The research will involve travel, so the student must be willing and able to travel for multiple, short periods over the summer.