The University of Kansas

Testing the waters

Scientists prepare to probe U.S., Mongolian river systems

A KU scientist is leading a team of ecologists on a one-of-a-kind expedition — to map out the chain of life in the world’s river systems and the changes they are experiencing because of rising temperatures and man-made development.

“To study rivers, you have to understand the river in its entirety, from the smallest streams to the largest channels,” says the expedition’s leader, Jim Thorp, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey.

Researchers from nine universities will map out the ecosystems in 18 rivers in the United States and Mongolia to find out the interconnectivity of the species that live there, including trout, insects, and even algae.

The project is the largest-scale research of its kind. Thorp and his team plan to take samples from river systems that span hundreds of miles, including the Eg River in Mongolia and the Snake River in the northwest United States.

Their goal is to draw conclusions about species’ biodiversity, food webs, and oxygen metabolism of entire macro river systems.

Grant partners KU is the lead institution on the grant, in partnership with Kansas State; Ball State; Drexel; Rutgers; South Dakota School of Mines and Technology; University of Nevada, Reno; Wayne State; and the National University of Mongolia.

Thorp’s lab is also pioneering a new scientific technique that traces the source of essential amino acids to specific plants. The technique will give researchers new insights into the role algae play as a source of carbon in the food web of rivers.

They have already discovered algae are the most important source of carbon in two large U.S. river systems, the Ohio and the Upper Mississippi.

They are also seeking funds to extend their research to test the importance of algae in other parts of the rivers, such as headwater streams, which could challenge a still-popular 35-year-old theory.

The research project, funded by a $4.2 million National Science Foundation grant, has three goals.

One is to study the rising temperatures of Mongolian rivers to predict how climate change might affect U.S. rivers. They also plan to study U.S. rivers to predict what will happen if the currently untouched Mongolian rivers are dammed and developed. Finally, they want to learn how the physical structures of rivers affect their ecology.

Jim Thorp works with students to prepare for research at the Kansas River.

“I’ve had people tell me it’s not possible to do experiments in rivers. Now I’m doing the world’s largest river experiment.”
— Jim Thorp

Emily Arsenault came to KU because of Thorp’s multi-continent project. “Observing the river systems of a different ecoregion firsthand, collaborating with researchers from around the world, and using the latest techniques in food web studies are just a few of the invaluable experiences that this project offers to graduate students,” Arsenault says. She is working on a master’s in ecology and evolutionary biology.