Biology professor discusses importance of interdisciplinary studies in lecture Friday, Jan 17 2020 

By Blake Wedding —

The University of Louisville honored Professor of Biology Lee Dugatkin for his research in evolutionary biology and science Jan. 9. The seminar highlighted his efforts in exploring the contemporary relationship of evolutionary biology with that of United States history and philosophy.

U of L invited Dugatkin to present a lecture based upon an important and relatively unknown topic of discussion: the failed expedition of André Michaux that nearly made Lewis and Clark’s infamous expedition a footnote.

Dugatkin’s lecture was informative and full of surprising bits of historically relevant information. He introduced the audience to historical figures both infamous and more unknown, including Thomas Jefferson, André Michaux, Edmond-Charles Genet and George Rogers Clark.

However, the key information was the failed expedition of westward exploration based around biological research and botany that, had it occurred, would most likely have made Lewis and Clark a footnote.

Dugatkin cited this story as just one in a book he’s currently working on. “I’m working on a book right now that revolves around natural history, including natural history expeditions that occurred around this time,” Dugatkin said.

The professor said he became enraptured with this story because people are so unfamiliar with it and just how important it is from a historical and scientific perspective.

Regarding the question of why so many people are unaware of Michaux’s story and the expedition that nearly happened, Dugatkin said he believes that because the expedition did not happen, it never received the limelight or attention that it might have otherwise.

He also believes the general public’s unawareness of such an imperative event in modern history reflects a greater need for reflection in academic and scholarly circles.

“I think it all revolves around the fact that we need to do better as a whole at understanding the scientific environment in the early America and how it interacted with politics,” Dugatkin said.

Dugatkin spent many years training as a lab scientist in evolution and behavior and has dedicated his life to teaching evolutionary biology.

Throughout all that time spent training and learning about evolutionary biology, Dugatkin discovered how surprisingly intermingled the fields of biology, history and philosophy were.

“I began to learn about all of these incredible people that had been involved, and above and beyond, over the incredible science that they did. I realized there were a lot of interesting connections between what was going on in the scientific world and how it was affecting things on a geopolitical scale,” Dugatkin said.

“I found myself falling in love with that sort of work and dedicating a lot of my time to it.”

It was through these interests in the relationships between these various fields that he began work on a number of different books, such as “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose,” a book dedicated to examining natural history in America and its relationships with early politics.

Dugatkin has used his acquired knowledge in the political and public sphere.

“I probably give around thirty to forty lectures around the world every year on various aspects of science,” Dugatkin said. “I’ve spoken in Mongolia, the United Arab Emirates, France, Germany and Austria.”

His advice was simple. Study things outside of the major requirements. “Don’t feel boxed in by whatever your particular major or discipline is,” Dugatkin said. “If you’re studying biology, read about philosophy and the history integrated in the biology you’re reading about. That would also hold true if you were studying history; you might want to know what’s going on scientifically.”

Students who are interested in learning more about Dugatkin’s published works and supporting him directly can find his published works on Amazon, including “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose.” For those who want to learn from Lee Dugatkin firsthand, you can find him in the University of Louisville’s biology department.

Graphic by Alexis Simon // The Louisville Cardinal

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Mussel Woman: Biologist Passes Along Pearls Of Wisdom About Threatened Mussels Monday, Aug 5 2019 

Janet Clayton is standing thigh-deep in a back channel of the Elk River. Clad in a wetsuit and knee pads, the silver-haired biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources reaches into a bright orange mesh bag submerged in water.

Inside are a half dozen mussels she plucked from the rocky river bottom.

“This is called a long solid,” Clayton says. An earthy colored shell about the size of a computer mouse sits in the palm of her hand. “As it gets older it gets really long.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Biologists measure and monitor the mussels at the Elk River site.

Her bag also includes a pocketbook mussel, wavy-rayed lampmussel, and kidneyshell.

The biologically diverse waterways of the Ohio Valley are home to more than 100 species of freshwater mussels. Each can filter five to 10 gallons of water daily. But pollution, land use change, and a changing climate threaten their very existence. They’re among the most endangered animals in the United States.

Clayton, a West Virginia native, began her career researching aquatic invertebrates, but quickly switched gears to studying the state’s mussels and never looked back. She has worked with them for three decades and leads West Virginia’s mussel program, which she helped develop.

As Clayton approaches retirement next June, she is reflecting on how the field has grown and changed. Today, scientists know a lot more about freshwater mussels and how to protect them, partly due to her work.

Some other biologists call her a “hero” for the often overlooked species. But just as Clayton prepares to pass on her pearls of wisdom, she is also sounding an alarm about the population decline she has documented, and what that says about river quality.

“Mussels live for decades in our streams,” Clayton said. “So, they’re like the canary in the coal mine.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Biologists at work in the Elk River.

Mussel And Flow

In addition to filtering water, mussel excrement provides food for macroinvertebrates and benthic critters. Mussels themselves are a food source for many mammals, and the bivalves also help keep river bottoms in place.

To protect and preserve freshwater mussels, Clayton and her team use a three-pronged approach.

“Surveys, monitoring, and restoration are kind of the three components,” she said.

Jeff Young | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mussel shells along Kentucky’s Green River.

Working with partners across state and federal agencies in the Ohio Valley, Clayton developed mussel surveying methods that have been widely adopted. Her team has also set up 26 long term monitoring sites, which helps the team assess the health of the state’s mussel population. The researchers also help restore mussels to waterways, sometimes by relocating parts of healthy stock. Other times, lab-grown mussels are used.

“One of the important things that scientists have learned in the last couple of years is how to grow them in captivity without their specific host fish,” said Tierra Curry, a Kentucky-based scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates for federal protections for mussels and other threatened species.

“So now, the knowledge to be able to breed them and save them is available, but they don’t have the funding that they need to keep them from going extinct,” she said.

Curry said Clayton’s work on mussels has been very important to the field.

“Janet Clayton is a total hero for freshwater mussels,” she said. “She’s been such an asset to West Virginia and to the whole study of freshwater mussels.”

On The Elk 

One aspect of that study is tracking mussels found at long-term monitoring sites. On a recent weekday, Clayton and a handful of researchers clad in wetsuits and goggles bobbed in the gurgling Elk River.

Bright yellow string shimmers beneath the surface dividing the river bottom into five-by-five meter squares, resembling a giant underwater game of tic-tac-toe.

The scientists are plucking every mussel they can find out of the water and placing neon flags in their wake.

“When we go back, we can put the mussel in a hole,” Clayton said. “So it’s easier, less energy consuming for that mussel to rebury into the substrate.”

Each mussel will be tagged with small silver plastic tag and measured.

“So we’ve actually had mussels in here who’ve been tracked for the 15-year period we’ve been monitoring here,” she said.

Five years ago, Clayton and her team pulled hundreds of dead and dying three-ridge mussels from this river. The cause remains a mystery.

“We have no idea,” she said. “We’ve gone through investigations trying to figure out what’s the problem.”

Good quality water is vital to the health of mussels. And humans have not always treated waterways with care. Chemical discharges, excess sediment and dams pose challenges to mussels.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Biologist Janet Clayton has studied freshwater mussels for much of her 30-year career.

The team has successfully restored mussels after mortality events and have even seen once mussel-free streams come back. But there are also examples, like at this site in the Elk River, where the mussels aren’t flourishing, and it’s unclear why.

As she nears retirement, Clayton said she fears legacy impacts from coal mining, such as acid mine drainage, mean some waterways will never again be healthy enough to support mussels.

And new threats have emerged. Climate change could alter water flow and temperatures, and the growing natural gas industry brings water-intensive processes and pipelines that are being constructed through waterways.

“I’m concerned. I’m very concerned,” she said. “If mussels are dying – which in this case, they are – if mussels are dying, what’s in this water that’s causing them to die? We need to wake up and pay attention to what’s out there.”