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University of Oklahoma professor leads dry stream research

December 2, 2018

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Cutting under a bridge along East Indian Hills Road near Norman, Elm Creek transforms from pool to riffle and teems with midges, detritivores and oligochaetes.

Big words for bugs and worms.

Listen long enough to Daniel C. Allen, a 38-year-old biology professor at the University of Oklahoma, and you will learn which bugs are predator or prey, the value of filter-feeder insects and why the tiger beetle, with its metallic blue armor, stops by the water on occasion.

“There’s a lot of ways to make a living in the stream,” Allen told The Oklahoman .

Even when the water disappears.

Allen is leading a $3 million research project across the United States to study what happens to streams when they dry. He said only 40 percent of U.S. streams always flow.

Funded by National Science Foundation grants to OU and researchers in Arizona, California, Louisiana and Virginia, the project is one of the first coordinated efforts to survey dry stream impacts.

Researchers tend to focus on stream ecologies where water is constantly moving, Allen said. His team wants to know how dry streams affect ecosystems across various climates.

“We’ve mostly ignored the dry stream,” he said. “It’s something we don’t think of when we think of a river or stream. But we now know they’re all over the place.”

In Oklahoma, about 30 percent of the streams in the east are dry, compared to about 60 percent of streams in the western part of the state, Allen said.

Including locations in Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado, over the next five years, his team will examine 100 sites across the U.S. in 10 ecological regions.

The team will also produce hydrological models to see how stream drying patterns at the sites might change in response to different weather and climate scenarios. Another focus of the study is how drying patterns change the distribution of different aquatic insect species.

Finally, Allen’s team aims to develop a smartphone app that researchers and citizen scientists can use to map the wet and dry parts of streams.

As many smaller streams flow into larger streams that eventually become our drinking water, the research will impact conservation and management efforts.

If that isn’t enough work for the next few years, Allen is also putting together a river research coordination network of ecologists and hydrologists to study dry rivers around the world. The National Science Foundation awarded a $500,000 grant for the four-year project.

A native of Maine, with fly fishing in his blood, Allen is as comfortable in the water as he is on dry land. At Elm Creek on Monday he was joined by Darin Kopp, a 31-year-old Ph.D. student in the ecology and evolutionary biology program at OU.

They drew nets out of a pickup, put their rubber knee boots on, walked into the bubbling water and collected insect samples. On a still Oklahoma morning with the sun warming them, Allen and Kopp looked like little boys at play.

They wondered what their peers were enduring in their cubicles. Kopp grinned.

“You can’t go too far without running into a stream,” he said.

In Kansas once, Allen watched a snapping turtle emerge from a channel, caked in six inches of mud.

“There is still a lot of life in streams, even though they go dry,” he said.

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Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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