University of Richmond Biologists Partner with State Conservation Experts for Invasive Species Management in the Chesapeake Bay

October 3, 2022

Pictured above: Students in biology professor Carrie Wu’s “Genetics in the Environment” class conducted field research at New Point Comfort Natural Area Preserve near Mathews, Virginia, in September.

UNIVERSITY OF RICHMOND — Biology professor Carrie Wu and her students at the University of Richmond are partnering with conservation experts at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation to help with management of an invasive marsh plant.

Phragmites australis, also known as the common reed, is a non-native, aggressive wetland grass that is found along the eastern seaboard and across the United States.  

Carrie Wu headshot“This plant can grow to about 15 feet tall and resembles bamboo,” said Wu. “It changes water dynamics in wetlands and forms dense monocultures, which is harmful to native vegetation and can negatively impact property values.”  

Land managers are motivated to control or eradicate Phragmites australis, but there is a closely related native Phragmites species — Phragmites americanus — they wish to preserve. The range of the native species has been drastically reduced from historical levels, and many of the remaining stands are in the greater Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“Our goal is to help both landowners and our Natural Area Preserves remove the invasive Phragmites but protect the native species,” said Kevin Heffernan, stewardship biologist at DCR. “The challenging thing is that the two species can be difficult to tell apart based on how they look.”

The good news is there is a simple genetic test that can distinguish between the two species. That’s where Wu and her students come in. They collect tissue samples of the plants and then extract and analyze the DNA to determine if the plant is the native or non-native species. This project, which first started in 2011, has expanded to include georeferencing and spatial analysis to pinpoint specific locations of the plants. The students in this year’s class collected samples earlier this month. The data allows DCR to manage the land.

"Because relatively few native populations are known to remain in the mid-Atlantic region, the ability to confidently distinguish between the invasive and native forms has important implications for management practices,” said Wu. “This project immerses students in interdisciplinary scientific work that has an immediate impact in the community.”

"The best science combines learning and education,” said Heffernan. “Collaborating with Dr. Wu and her students has helped guide our management practices, and the students get a unique perspective of conservation work."