The Scanian river Vramsån (Fig 1) has been a stage for RivEM research before, but not with the wide range of methods that Ph.D. candidate Sebastian, visiting intern Hanna Paikert and Ph.D. candidate Jacqueline tried out in May this year!

Vramsån has long been used for hydropower purposes but is now in the process of being restored to a more natural flow regime. It is one of seven rivers of interest to the LIFE Connects conservation project, which aims to improve their ecosystem functions and ecosystem services. Under six years the project will work with removal of hydropower plants and dams, create fauna passages and improve migration paths at barriers. The project also works on innovative passage solutions that enables both hydropower production and fish migration as well as riverbed restorations to gain more natural habitats and improved water quality. The goal is to improve survival and production of threatened fish species such as Atlantic salmon and European eel as well as the endangered mussel species Freshwater pearl mussel and Thick-shelled river mussel. Research and information efforts linked to river restorations within the project will constitute an important part of the project, that you can read more about on https://lifeconnects.se/!

With that in mind, the first goal of this research adventure was to collect fish and mussel specimens for a study on the impact of light pollution on the host-parasite relationship of the endangered Thick-shelled river mussel (Unio crassus) and its host the common Eurasian minnow (Phoxinus phoxinus).  

This incredibly endangered, and ecologically significant mussel has rapidly diminishing populations, something that LIFE Connects is trying to change. While many people don’t think much of these simple bivalves they play a key role in keeping environmental conditions stable. By filtering suspended particulates from the water column large populations of mussels can keep water cleaner, a benefit to both fish and humans. When they need to poop, the majority goes into the surrounding sediment, fertilizing it and improving both benthic fauna communities and plant growth. Together, these help fortify fish and bird populations. Not only does the increased plant growth provide habitat but the increase in benthic fauna provides more food sources as a large part of benthic fauna communities are comprised of the larval forms of terrestrial insects.

One of the main ways we try to prevent the Thick-shelled river mussel from going extinct is to increase the chances of their reproductive success, a complex cycle and significant factor in their population decline. These mussels are partial parasites on fish, with this extra step making their reproduction rate be quite a bit slower than other freshwater bivalves. We can help by forcefully infecting host fish with mussel larvae and keeping them safe for a large part of the reproductive cycle before releasing them back into the wild. As such the first part of this study was to go electrofishing for fish to use as hosts in for the mussels to be reintroduced, primarily minnows and trout. The trout got to stay in the river (Fig 2) while the minnows were destined to come back to KAU to be used in some experiments. More on that in another blog post

Re-naturalizing the flow regime of a river doesn’t just affect the fish and their ecological functions in it, but other processes as well. Dispersal is one of these processes, and is thought to be important for the composition of all plant communities, including those that we find in-water and in the riparian zone. There are many ways in which plants disperse (Fig 3), and a large part of Jacqueline’s Ph.D. project focuses on dispersal via water. Most of this dispersal is in the direction of the water flow, but many people overlook a tiny component: the animals in the water that swim in the opposite direction! These animals can carry seeds on their outsides or, via foraging, in their bodies. This relatively little-studied function called endozoochory builds on the thought that animals spread other species by eating them in one place and pooping them out elsewhere.

A second goal of this week was finding out whether this pathway is an important route for riparian vegetation in Vramsån. The fish that we were catching thus had a double function: not only will they be used for mussel larva infestation, but we collected their poop to compare the seeds therein with seeds and vegetation in other parts of the ecosystem (Fig 4).

Which other parts, you ask? Well, of course, fish stomachs are not the only place where you find seeds – far from that! Given that there are so many ways in which plants disperse, we planned a comparison of the seed composition in different parts of the ecosystem. So, equipped with self-built traps to filter seeds from the water (Fig. a), to catch seeds from the air (Fig. b) and loads of boxes to sample riparian litter, riparian soil and aquatic soil, we went to work!

It took some hours to get everything in place, but while Seb will spend his spring infesting his fish in Karlstad University’s (KAUs) aquarium facility, Hanna and Jacqueline are running a germination study to see which species pop up in the samples of the different ecosystem parts. After two weeks in KAUs plant growing room, over 200 seeds of at least 10 different species have germinated across the different sample types. We are giving the samples a few more weeks to see what else poops up before we’re going to try and sniff out if there’s anything interesting in there!

Sebastian Rock electrofishing

Sebastian Rock, a LIFEConnects funded Ph.D. candidate at RivEM, will be giving a seminar on the impacts of parasitic Unionid mussels on their host fishes! These incredibly endangered freshwater bivalves are considered keystone species in their native ecosystems and are heavily protected, but will the returning salmon be able to survive in an ecosystem full of parasites? Will local anglers be upset with the habitat restoration efforts because their favorite fish are now less healthy than they were before? To find out the answers to all these questions and more! Join the seminar live on zoom https://kau-se.zoom.us/my/kaubiology at 1315 CET on 22nd February 2022.

On 15-6-2021 Sebastian Rock will be giving a talk introducing his work on the host-parasite interactions of unionid mussels. Within the broader LifeConnects projects, this work will improve mussel conservation and reintroduction efforts of this little studied order of bivalves in Sweden and around the world.

River Vramsån, a spot for future mussel reintroduction (photo by Sebastian Rock).

The seminar starts at 13.15 and will be streamed live over Zoom. Contact Olle Calles (olle.calles@kau.se) to receive the zoom link to this seminar.

A group of international researchers, among which Martin Österling, have a new paper out! The authors, led by Ronaldo Sousa from the University of Minho in Portugal, investigated the role of anthropogenic habitats as refuges for freshwater mussels. The dataset of 709 sites comprised 228 mussel species, of which 34 are threatened, in a broad variety of anthropogenic habitat types. The authors assessed the conservation importance of these anthropogenic habitats, which included both refuges and ecological traps, and provide guidance for the conservation of freshwater mussels. Read the full paper here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15549

Irrigation canal in Morocco (river Bouhlou) colonized by Margaritifera marocana, one of the rarest species on the planet. Photo by Ronaldo Sousa.

Today (Tuesday 7 April) Raviv Gal, NRRV PhD-student, will give a seminar entitled Mussels and ecosystem functioning in streams. The Seminar is held online via the video conference system zoom.

You can follow the seminar by clicking here.

The seminar starts at 13:15, everyone who wants to is welcome to attend the seminar.

Freshwater pearl mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) in the River Vasslabäcken.

Karlstad University invites applications for three full-time PhD positions in ecology!

 

Two of the positions focus on applied aquatic conservation biology and aim to examine:

Position 1) Ecological effects of remedial measures in regulated rivers, e.g. implementation of fish passage solutions and dam removal, on diadromous fish species in southern Sweden.

Position 2) Reintroduction ecology of the freshwater pearl mussel and the thick-shelled river mussel and their host fishes in southern Sweden.

Read more and apply for the positions here, last application date is 31 January 2020.

 

The third position is on ecological and individual-based modelling and aims to:

i) Develop high-resolution spatially explicit maps of physical habitats in rivers, (ii) assess river hydraulic conditions using 2- or 3-D hydraulic models, (iii) develop and apply individual based models of fish population in rivers to assess the effects of river regulation.

Read more and apply for the position here, last application date is 10 January 2020.

 

The doctoral program consists of 240 higher education credits (4 years), including the doctoral thesis. Doctoral students may also be assigned department duties (up to 20 % of full time), such as teaching, which will extend the PhD position accordingly.

 

River Klarälven, Sweden

On 28 May (tomorrow), Martin Österling, Associate Professor at Karlstad University, will give a seminar titled:

“The genetic structure of mussels with complex life cycles and its relation to host fish migratory trait and density.”

The seminar starts at 13:15 in room 5F416 at Karlstad University. Everyone who wants to are welcome to attend the seminar.

Two PhD positions (1: vegetation ecology, 2: ecosystem function/host-parasite interactions) are now open for applicants at Karlstad University. Both positions are full time for five years within the River Ecology and Management (NRRV) research group and include 80 % research and 20 % department duties (mainly teaching).

The applications for both positions close on 31 January 2019.

 

PhD position in vegetation ecology

River Klarälven, Värmland

The project will study which factors control diaspore dispersal and plant community composition along boreal streams, which in turn may have cascading effects on functional plant diversity and ecosystem functioning. The specific research questions to be addressed will be decided in consultation with the candidate. Areas of particular interest are (1) the effects of local and landscape-scale factors for plant species composition and diversity and cascading effects on ecosystem functioning and (2) studies of factors promoting or constraining plant dispersal along streams.

Read more and apply for the position here!

 

Ecosystem function/host-parasite interactions

The position will focus on either the role of mussels for ecosystem function or host-parasite interactions. Areas of interest are (1) the role of mussels for stream ecosystem function and (2) host-parasite interactions between mussels and their host fish. The specific research questions to be addressed will be decided in consultation with the candidate.

Read more and apply for the position here!

A thick-shelled river mussel, Unio crassus

Between 2012 and 2016, researchers at Karlstad University have worked together with several county boards in southern Sweden in the EU-funded life project “Unio crassus for life” (målarmusslans återkomst). The thick-shelled river mussel (Unio crassus) is one of the most threatened bivalve species in Europe. In Sweden, the distribution of the species has decreased with 50% over the last 100 years.

In twelve streams in southern Sweden, a total of 300 km has been restored as part of the project to improve the habitat for the mussel. The project has also examined what fish species that are suitable hosts for the obligate parasitic larvae of the thick-shelled river mussel. Species like minnow (Phoxinus phoxinus), bleak (Alburnus alburnus) and bullhead (Cottus gobio) seem to be important hosts for the mussel. In addition, juvenile mussels have been reared in captivity with the aim to successfully reintroduce them into the wild.

The project has been very successful, and has now been nominated as one of the best EU life projects. The ceremony where the best project will be awarded is held in Brussels 23 May. Martin Österling, associate professor at Karlstad University, will attend the ceremony. We wish Martin and all other people that have worked on the Unio crassus for life project the best of luck, and we keep our fingers crossed that Unio crassus for life will be awarded the best EU life project.

Read more about the project at the Unio crassus for life official web page, or on the Skåne and Södermanland county board web pages.

The project has also gotten publicity in media, and you can read more about the project on svt or Smålands-tidningen.

Watch a short film about the project here.

On Friday, 15 December, from 13:00, Stina Gustafsson will defend her PhD-thesis “Habitat compensation in nature-like fishways – effects on benthos and fish”. Paul Giller (Cork University, Ireland) will be the opponent, and Frauke Ecke (SLU, Sweden), Brendan McKie (SLU, Sweden) and Jouni Taskinen (University of Juväskylä, Finland) constitute the grading committee. The defense will take place in 1B306 (Fryxellsalen) at Karlstad University. Everyone is welcome to attend!

In the abstract to the thesis, Stina Gustafsson writes: “The construction of nature-like fishways has become an increasingly common measure to restore longitudinal connectivity in streams and rivers affected by hydroelectric development. These fishways also have the potential to function as habitat compensation measures when running waters have been degraded or lost. The habitat potential has however often been overlooked, and therefore the aim of this thesis was to examine the potential of nature-like fishways for habitat compensation, with special focus on the effect of added habitat heterogeneity. 

This thesis examines the effects of habitat diversity on the macroinvertebrate family composition and functional organization in a nature-like, biocanal-type fishway. The biocanal contained four habitat types; riffle, pool, braided channel and floodplain. The effects of habitat diversity and large woody debris on brown trout habitat choice was also investigated in the biocanal. In addition, and prior to introduction of the threatened freshwater pearl mussel into the biocanal, the suitability of different brown trout strains as hosts for the mussel was examined. 

The results show that the habitat heterogeneity in the biocanal contributed to an increased macroinvertebrate family diversity. The functional organization of the macroinvertebrate community suggests that it was a heterotrophic system and more functionally similar to the main river than to the small streams that it was created to resemble. Brown trout habitat choice studies showed that high densities of large woody debris increase the probability of fish remaining at the site of release. Testing of different brown trout strains as host for the freshwater pearl mussel revealed that both wild and hatchery-reared brown trout strains were suitable hosts. In summary, the results indicate that it is possible to create a fish passage with added value through its high habitat function and that nature-like fishways can be designed to reach multiple species restoration goals.”

The thesis is available online here.

On Thursday, 14 December 14:00, Brendan McKie, one of the members of the grading committee, will give a presentation titled:  “River restoration and biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in tributaries of the Vindel River: The importance of restoration intensity and time”. The seminar will be given in room 5F416, at Karlstad University. Everyone is welcome to attend also the seminar.