USGS - science for a changing world

U.S. Geological Survey - Ecosystems

Maps, Imagery, and Publications Hazards Newsroom Education Jobs Partnerships Library About USGS Social Media

Ecosystems News & Highlights


Plague Vaccine
USGS has developed a laboratory-tested oral plague vaccine for prairie dogs. This is a potentially pre-emptive method of combating plague in prairie dogs and thus minimizing the risk of disease transfer to endangered black-footed ferrets that live in the same burrows. If field trials are successful, its use will aid in black-footed ferret conservation, and may help to protect public health. This groundbreaking research gives state and federal wildlife managers a cost-effective, state-of-the art tool that can be applied to improve the recovery of these imperiled species and contain the spread of this disease in wild populations.

Adaptation of Rice
USGS has discovered that rice and other plants could become adapted to temperature and salinity change if colonized with the spores of naturally occurring fungi that are adapted to those conditions. Scientist Rusty Rodriguez from USGS has successfully colonized rice plants with spores of fungi from dunegrass, a salt-tolerant species. The colonized plants thrived under salt conditions that would normally be detrimental. This innovative research resulted in reduced water consumption of the plant by up to one-half, and increased growth, number of seeds produced, and weight by as much as 50 percent. Colonizing species with adapted fungi could increase the ability of the plants to thrive after tsunamis, tidal surges and other climatic scourges that affect these stressors. Similar results have been found with other plants and fungal Rice provides nearly half the daily calories for the world.

Lichens Breakdown Prions Responsible for CWD
Certain lichens can break down the infectious proteins (“prions”) that are responsible for mad cow disease and chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD is a neurological disease fatal to wild deer and elk and spreading throughout the United States and Canada. CWD, which affects hooved animals, costs the federal government tens of millions of dollars a year. Prions can remain infective in the environment for many years. USGS recently discovered that in the laboratory, an enzyme produced by certain lichens can safely break down prions. Follow-up research is examining its effects on prions in the natural environment and determining if consumption of lichens can protect the animals from acquiring prion diseases.

USGS, in a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, has developed comprehensive geospatial data products characterizing wildland (surface and forest canopy) fuels for all lands in the United States.  These products are used strategically to allocate firefighting resources, to prepare for upcoming fire seasons, and to plan hazardous fuel reduction projects at the large landscape scale.  They are also used to provide the tactical foundation to manage individual fire incidents and to address extreme fire events across the nation.  LANDFIRE is updated biennially ( Data products are created at a 30-meter grid spatial resolution raster data set; however, the applicability of data products varies by location and specific use.

Tropical watersheds, Coral Reefs, and Ecosystem Services
Coral reef ecosystems are in decline worldwide, and in some places their survival isdoubtful. In response to this ongoing threat, scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey are collaborating with local communities and agencies in Hawaii and on other U.S. islands in the Pacific Ocean to understand the sources and impacts of sediment, nutrients, and pollutants from watersheds. Many coral reefs are being degraded by sediment from runoff, and soil loss is exacerbated by invasive species, wildfire, agriculture, and grazing by feral animals, such as pigs and goats.  USGS studies are helping land managers understand the link between increased sediment loads to reefs and grazing in watersheds, and the speed of recovery of ecosystem services following watershed restoration.  At an experimental site in Hawaii, exclusion of ungulates (hooved animals such as pigs) led to rapid revegetation and dramatic reductions in erosion within 3 years. Land and coral reef managers are using these results to design mitigation and management policies that make the best use of limited funds. USGS isworking closely with federal agencies (such as National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and Environmental Protection Agency), state agencies (such as Department of Land and Natural Resources and Health), other organizations (such as The Nature Conservancy and Hanalei Watershed Hui), and local communities.

The Legacy of Forest Wildfire
Wildfire can produce drastic changes to soil carbon and nutrients that alter the structure of the regenerating forests for years. A USGS study in the western Cascade Range in Oregon compared soil nutrients in forested areas that burned 550 years ago with other areas that burned 150 years ago. Scientists detected more carbon and nitrogen in the forest floor material in the older forests. Additionally, nitrogen was more available in the older forests than in the younger forests. Study findings suggest that more frequent fires may prevent accumulation of carbon and nitrogen and may ultimately decrease the role of forests in providing long-term carbon storage, habitat for fish and wildlife, commercial timber harvest, and other forest values. In this way, policy decisions on managing wildfires can have multi-century effects that go well beyond the short-term effects usually considered by forest managers.

A Centralized Digital Library of BLM Land Treatment Legacies
At the request of the Bureau of Land Management, the USGS has developed an electronic database to archive land treatment information across the Great Basin.  Land treatments, such as herbicide application or seeding of burned areas, are conducted by BLM to meet local needs for habitat restoration, erosion control, wildlife-habitat improvement, or increasing livestock forage. Because these small projects are generally managed through local field offices, there is no central repository for information about project activities, success, or location. This has led to difficulties with assessment of resource condition and coordinating similar projects.  Now, the USGS is systematically working with managers to build the library holdings with information from 106 field offices in 11 western states. The goal is to make the archive available to authorized users on an agency website. From there, the information can be used to facilitate data analyses and syntheses, produce maps, generate reports, and respond to information requests. This long-term record will be useful for determining the history of land management across BLM lands.

White-Nose Syndrome: An Emerging Bat Disease
The sudden emergence of white-nose syndrome (WNS), a devastating disease of hibernating bats, demonstrates the importance of a national and international infrastructure to investigate and respond to emerging wildlife diseases and their ecological, economic, and societal threats. USGS discovered and identified the fungus responsible for this significant disease, and our ongoing research is critical for guiding state, federal, NGO, and tribal disease-response activities. USGS supports the field actions of land-management agencies, helped develop the WNS National Plan, and assists with other national disease management plans. A recent USGS and academic research study revealed that bats are worth billions (from $3.7 to $53 billion a year) to agriculture because of the pest-control services these animals provide.

Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus
Viral hemorrhagic septicemia virus (VHSV) is one of the most important viral pathogens of fish. It first emerged in the Great Lakes in 2005, causing a series of large fish kills. The virus rapidly spread to all the Great Lakes, the Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers, and inland lakes in New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio. USGS scientists rapidly mobilized to address the threat by:

  • developing sampling and diagnostic methods,
  • testing the susceptibility of several species of fish,
  • identifying methods to reduce virus transmission, and
  • testing experimental vaccines. 

The USGS provides information on risk assessment for managers, continues to develop and use molecular tools to identify and track strains of the virus, and is developing an on-line database of sequence data for epidemiological information. The USGS science has shown that the origin of the virus in the Great Lakes is consistent with a recent, single introduction.

Sea Lamprey
The USGS continues to work closely with the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission to produce a successful integrated pest management approach to control the parasitic sea lamprey, a fish that decimated the economically important lake trout fishery in the Great Lakes. USGS scientists developed technologies to block spawning migrations in Great Lakes tributaries.  Lampricides help control sea lamprey populations in small tributaries, while sterile males are released for population control in large river systems. Adult lake trout populations are stable or rising as a result of these controls.

Asian Carp Risk Assessment and Control   Asian carps, especially bighead and silver carps, now threaten the Great Lakes and are already abundant through much of the Mississippi River basin. USGS research is essential to help control the fish and assess the risk of their establishment in new areas. Among many projects, USGS is locating spawning sites; determining invasion potential of rivers and lakes; developing toxicants and pheromone attractants and repellants targeted for these species; and developing acoustic cannons to use as a sound barrier against carp advancement.

Acoustic Barriers to Fish and Biofouling Mussels
Originally used for oil exploration, the water gun was developed for seismic exploration, but quickly discontinued because of concerns about its effect on aquatic life. Today, it is those same properties of water guns that may provide the means to establish an acoustic barrier deterrent for Asian carp. The USGS is working with the Bureau of Reclamation to evaluate pulse pressure technology with water guns and air guns for control of other aquatic invasive species throughout the U.S. This research is exploring the feasibility of using these technologies to mitigate the effects of biofouling invasive organisms such as quagga mussels and zebra mussels on hydropower production. Researchers are assessing the capability of pulse pressure to remove attached mussels from substrate or even prevent settlement on water delivery and hydropower structures. The USGS and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are also evaluating the use of water guns as a means of suppression to control invasive northern pike in order to protect and conserve Pacific salmonids. These studies will expand our knowledge of water gun technology for the protection of our infrastructure and the conservation of our fishery resources.

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

Take Pride in America logo logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: Ask USGS
Page Last Modified: Friday March 29 2013