Water quality in a water system can be a key indicator of the health of a plant or animal, a new study says.
The research is the first to use computer models to determine the health and fitness of a variety of species of water plants and animals, such as aquatic grasslands, and how that affects the health, reproduction and reproductive success of those animals.
The results could help scientists and policymakers better understand the role water quality plays in how animals and plants respond to human pollution.
In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado, and the University and College of California, Davis analyzed water samples collected from five West Virginia watersheds.
The researchers used a technique called molecular-level profiling to estimate the amount of dissolved oxygen and nitrogen in the water and its water chemistry, along with the concentration of dissolved organic matter (DOP).
In addition, they examined the health status of plants and invertebrates and the size and shape of their roots and leaf litter, and they analyzed how plants and animal species responded to pollution.
The study looked at how plants responded to environmental contaminants, including phosphorus, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide.
Plants, which are essential for the life of a river, can help clean the water, which is also a major source of nutrients and water-quality resources for aquatic plants and aquatic invertebrate species.
The authors found that plants can also benefit by helping regulate the levels of dissolved substances and nutrients.
The team also found that animals can benefit by reducing the concentrations of pollutants and other chemicals in the ecosystem.
The findings suggest that water quality could be a critical indicator of plants’ health and reproductive performance.
“What we found is that plants and fish can help with the management of pollutants,” said study co-author Thomas B. Smeeding, a professor of environmental engineering and biochemistry at Virginia Tech.
“If we could monitor plant health and the levels in the environment, we might be able to make better decisions for species and ecosystems.”
Smeaking said that because water quality and its relationships with wildlife are an ongoing problem, there is little information about how water quality affects wildlife.
“The research is important because we know how animals react to certain types of pollution and we know that there are negative effects to the health or reproductive status of some animals,” he said.
“There’s a lot we don’t know.”
Smegings is the author of a paper published last year in the journal Nature that showed that animals and humans interact to affect water quality.
He said the new research is an important step toward finding out how water pollution affects animals and how those interactions affect the health patterns of species.
Smegions research was supported by the National Science Foundation.
The work was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
The research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“Parks and water systems are critical to wildlife,” Smegies said.
In addition to Smeaning, the authors of the study are Sarah A. Schall, assistant professor of biological sciences at Virginia University; Scott M. McLean, assistant director of the University’s Center for Environmental Sciences and a former Virginia Tech faculty member; and Mark B. Jaffe, a doctoral student in water science and an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
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