Story by Cassandra Hockman
Fralin Life Science Institute
Along the Mississippi River there is one species many people who live there know well. Mayflies. These long, dragonfly-looking creatures live on the bottom of the river and burrow in the muck and sand. They grow and develop there before they come to the surface to fly away and mate.
When they fly away, they do it en masse.
“They come out in huge swarms so big they show up on Doppler radar,” said Tony Timpano, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech and an Interfaces of Global Change Fellow studying how insect communities are affected by water quality. “The sky is blackened, and you need your windshield wipers to drive. Since they only live about 24 hours, they then die and have to be shoveled away like snow.”
Small invertebrates like the mayfly live in all kinds of freshwater bodies across the globe. In the U.S., many species prefer fast-flowing or slow-moving streams and lakes. But no matter which freshwater body these insects prefer, their sheer abundance and the communities they make up can teach scientists like Tony a lot about the water in which they live.
“Many insects, just like the mayfly, are major players in the aquatic community,” said Tony, who is also a doctoral scholar in the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech. “Since every freshwater body has some community of these insects in some combination, we can look at the diversity and abundance of species to give us an idea about the water quality.”
In states like Virginia and West Virginia, many freshwater insect communities reflect the water quality as it’s influenced by local industries, such as coal mining. Tony’s main goal as a scientist is to understand how freshwater insects are affected by water with high amounts of salt runoff from this mining.
One way in which coal mining affects water quality is through the process of mountaintop mining. At the top of the mountain, miners work to get to the coal under the surface. The rock covering the coal gets blasted off into rubble. When this happens, Tony explained, the rock material is typically placed in freshwater stream areas known as valley or hollow fills.
“This material sits for geologic time underground before it’s exposed to water and air,” he said. “So minerals start dissolving and flow right into the streams where they increase the salt concentrations of streams. They then start becoming saltier and saltier.”
This issue of salinization – when increased amounts of dissolved salts enter freshwater – is a significant portion of Tony’s dissertation research, and was the subject of his recent publication in the journal Science with stakeholders from regulatory agencies and other universities around the globe.
In particular, the paper recommended ways that people can address salt pollution to protect freshwater ecosystems, including the insect biodiversity that Tony studies. Essentially, he explained, the cleaner the water, the more diverse in number and abundance the species are in the water.
Beginning with trout fly-fishing, Tony’s interest in insects and aquatic biodiversity were further sparked as an undergraduate at Virginia Tech. He took an entomology course and learned even more about aquatic life, including how to identify the diversity in freshwater, how different organisms behave, and how they are affected by surrounding aquatic ecosystems. He also learned the application of using insects to examine stream health.
“This was my first exposure to applied entomology,” he recounted.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, he worked as an environmental consultant where he applied the bio-monitoring science he had learned, introducing him to how science can inform policy. In particular, this first hand experience taught him how water quality standards were measured by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But, after working in this field, Tony decided he wanted to further the scientific knowledge that could better inform the science behind how these standards are made.
So Tony went back to school. His interests in aquatic life and water quality continued for his master’s degree work at Virginia Tech, a joint program between civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering and crop and soil sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. His research was then funded in part by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy, which have jurisdiction over clean water in the coal mining regions. His data regarding salinity’s affect on aquatic life was incorporated into guidance used by these agencies for issuing mine permits in the state of Virginia.
Tony’s master’s work was noticed by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), which subsequently funded him as a research associate for the Virginia Water Resources Research Center at Virginia Tech. In that role, he expanded his study of salt pollution to streams in West Virginia. That work established the foundation for his doctoral research, also funded by OSMRE, which incorporates seasonal patterns of water quality to better understand the complex effects of salinization on aquatic life.
With his longtime interest in bugs (including a certification in taxonomy), Tony now works to share his doctoral research to inform sound policy decisions made by regulatory agencies, including the U.S. EPA. His dissertation specifically focuses on the salt content in freshwater streams as a result of coal mining. In addition, he’s developing models for water quality relative to these salt concentrations so they can be used as predictors of biological aquatic diversity.
He’s also more broadly interested in how these biological types of data can be used to address other issues in addition to the influences of coal mining. This includes improving the precision and quality of science surrounding bio-monitoring for salt, sediment, and nutrient pollution, and, ultimately, how aquatic insects are affected by any variety of human disturbances.
“I’m very focused on applying science,” he said. “While pure biology is interesting, I get really jazzed about the applied stuff because you know these organisms can reflect what’s going on in the water. We need to know what’s causing changes so we can make management decisions to achieve the goals we want.”
Even though Tony works to do good science that will inform policy, he still likes to spend time with what drew him to this research in the first place: the insects.
“I still enjoy looking under the scope,” he said. “I love getting out in the streams, collecting invertebrates, bringing them back, getting on the scope, and doing the identification.”
There’s no question about it: Tony Timpano is truly a ‘bug guy.’