A Calvin College professor of biology and three students are researching the effects of pollution on Great Lakes colonial water birds.
Keith Grasman, a biologist who specializes in ecotoxicology, spent the summer performing medical tests on colonies of herring gulls, black-crowned night herons and Caspian terns at sites in Muskegon and Saginaw Bay. The work continues 17 years of research done by Grasman on these species (and also double-crested cormorants) throughout the five Great Lakes. Over the years his research has been funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Sea Grant Program, Lake Erie Protection Fund and Great Lakes Protection Fund.
Joining Grasman in the research this summer was a trio of students: Calvin junior Samantha Miller of Aurora, Ohio, and sophomores Luke Vande Zande of Wyoming, Mich., and Nate De Haan of Byron Center, Mich.
“The purpose of our research is to see whether pollution is contributing to their health problems and low population numbers,” Grasman says.
He sketched the decades-long legacy of chemical pollution that provides a backdrop to his work. In the period following World War II, society began using large amounts of pesticides and industrial chemicals whose harmful effects weren't discovered until the 1960s.
Among the species harmed by the chemicals were the birds currently studied by Grasman, which registered low population numbers and a variety of birth defects. When the U.S. banned or restricted use of these chemicals, the overall health and population numbers improved somewhat.
Grasman, a graduate of Calvin who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife sciences from Virginia Tech University, is trying to determine how much current pollution levels, which have remained relatively consistent over 20 years, are still harming the birds.
“If we're seeing these effects right now,” he says, “we're likely to see them in the future because pollution levels aren't changing much.”
The team uses state-of-the-art medical tests–the types of tests used for humans-to assess the health of the birds. Some of the procedures test how and to what degree the birds' immune systems are compromised by PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and dioxins. The team also tracks birth defects like crossed bills and–using an embryonic viability detector, which picks up the heartbeat in live eggs–the percentage of dead eggs at their test sites.
“We can say quite confidently that the pollutants are affecting the immune systems of the birds,” says Grasman. “We've been able to see it over multiple years and in multiple species using many different types of tests.”
The cumulative results of his research on the birds has been sobering.
“If you went to the doctor,” he says, “you wouldn't want to see that kind of lab report: That your immune system is being affected, that your thyroid is being affected, that your reproductive system is being compromised. And it's not just you; it's most of your neighbors!”
This summer the team pioneered a new method of research using Calvin's flow cytometer, a sophisticated piece of equipment not often found on undergraduate campuses.
“Since July, the students have been developing new techniques with the flow cytometer to analyze the white blood cells taken from the birds,” Grasman says. “It's going to be a pretty neat and significant addition to how we do our research.”
De Haan, a 20-year-old biology and chemistry double-major, enjoyed getting creative in the lab: “Like Professor Grasman said, we're probably the first people to run herring gull blood through a flow cytometer. There aren't developed protocols or methods for the cells we've been working with.”
He also enjoyed working with the birds, especially when it involved taking the department-owned boat to the islands where the colonies nested.
“Professor Grasman always wanted to make sure we'd get in and out as fast as possible just to make sure we'd have a minimal disturbance on the birds,” he says. “We have thousands of birds flying around us, and they're mad at us because we're working with their chicks. But it's not scary. You just have to be careful. Like, we always had to wear hats because once in while, they might nail you.”
De Haan was also excited to apply his interest in immunology to a real-life research situation.
“I think you learn so much better from real-life experience,” he says, “actually doing the things instead of just reading about them.”