Monthly Archives: March 2015

Look Down: Life in Soil at UVa

When I was in grade school, my science teacher (who was coincidently my mom) played a song for us called Dirt Made My Lunch by The Banana Slug String Band. While I have forgotten most of the lyrics, I remember the main and key theme. We have a lot of gratitude to express to Earth and its soil. Soil sustains us and helps us build life. All soil, however, is not the same. Soils can be affected by what the land is used for and how frequently the land is visited. As the Life in Soils team, we look forward to exploring the biodiversity of these soils and learning more about under Grounds.

As a group, we chose to test three types of sites. We will test some of the gardens in the back of Pavillions, the lawns’ of different frat houses and the green roof on top of Rouss Hall. We hope to see how different social settings, use and ability of access will affect the biodiversity of the soil at these sites.



Garden of Pavillion V

To help us determine the biodiversity, we will both test for signs that show the health of the soil and observe for life. We plan to test soil for its pH levels, moisture content and observed life in the soil.

But what exactly is soil? And why does the pH and moisture content of the soil matter? And why does biodiversity of soil matter?



 Fraternity Houses at UVa and their lawns

Well, soil is a general term, which refers to Earth’s outermost layer. Sand, silt and clay compose soil in different proportions. Clay is a key component of the red soil that is very typical of Virginia. The color of soil gives us more information about soil, such as the moisture content and make up of the soil. As bedrock breaks down, this becomes a key component of soil. As well, organic matter is a key component of soil.

pH measures the concentration of hydrogen ions, and the pH scale runs from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. The zone of the pH scale that is most conduciveto plant growth would be something from 6 to 7. To determine the pH of soil, a pH meter is used. Over time, soil can become more acidic. One way to help solve the problem of acidic soil is to add lime to the soil. Not only does lime help to raise pH, but it also provides calcium and magnesium, two key elements of soil. Additionally, lime makes phosphorous more readily accessible for plant growth. Lastly, lime helps break down organic matter, which makes more nitrogen available for plant growth. Soil moisture conditions influence how plants will absorb the water from the soil.


Rouss Hall Green Roof

Lastly, biodiversity is important for soil healthy. At the same time, the biodiversity in the soil, shows us the health of the soil. Soil, it is important to remember, is filled with living organisms. These organisms could be microscopic, like bacteria, or the organisms could be larger, like earthworms. This living organisms help to break down the organic matter and make healthier soil. These organisms help to keep the carbon cycle of soil constantly going.

Soil is extremely important. Our team hopes to examine soil at each site and see how it has been affected. By measuring pH, we hope to see what life the soil could provide. Testing the moisture content of soil will help us see how this plays into life in soils. As well, we will keep our eyes open for signs of life by each site. By examining these aspects of soil, we will begin to see the life of soils.

Post by Robert McCarthy



Rouss Hall Green Roof –

Power Lines and Electrocutions

The Problem

Our research team has discovered that power lines are cause for millions of bird deaths each year.  These deaths are caused by either direct collision with the lines, which can be nearly invisible in poor weather conditions, or electrocutions due to the bird’s large wing span bridging the gap between two lines or a line and a pole.

The Solution

Since a single bird electrocution can cause power outages for thousands of customers at a time, power companies have been increasingly compliant in implementing solutions to the electrocution problem.  In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act became a United States federal law and made it unlawful without a waiver to pursue, capture, or kill, even if unintentionally,  migratory birds.  In 1999, the Moon Lake Electric Association of Colorado was forced to pay $100,000 in fines after being found guilty to violating this act, as their electric lines had killed thousands of birds.  Many other associations and power companies around the country took action to fit their lines with bird-safety devices after this incident.

Furthermore, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has produced a short video entitled, “Raptors at Risk,” explaining the electrocution problem and has distributed it to power companies around the country.  The video includes information on fitting existing power lines with bird-safety measures, including visual markers, insulating sheaths, and wider separation between lines.

Dominion Virginia Power, our local power company, has implemented a strategic undergrounding program, due to begin in 2016.  Although not directly related to decreasing bird mortality, Dominion will install new underground equipment, replacing 4,000 miles of overhead lines, and saving millions of birds.

Post by Allison Jaros


Janss, Guyonne F. “Avian Mortality from Power Lines: A Morphologic Approach of a Species-Specific Mortality.” Department of Applied Biology: 5-12. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

“Power Line Collisions and Electrocutions.” Power Line Collisions and Electrocutions. American Bird Conservation, 2013. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

“Strategic Underground Program.” Strategic Underground Program. Dominion, 2015. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

“Strategic Undergrown July 2014.” YouTube. DomCorpComm, 2 July 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.



There are more than 1,000 bat species worldwide and Virginia holds about 17 of them. 3 of them are considered federally endangered. However, people are more likely to see three of the non-protected species which are the Little Brown Bat (Myotis Lucifugus), the Big Brown Bat (Epitesicus Fuscus), and the Evening Bat (Nycticeius Humeralis). Bats have a profound effect on the environment as they act as pollinators as well as insect control when they hunt at night. In Virginia, the bats here primarily eat mosquitoes and other small insects and they can eat up to 3,000 insects in a single night.

Trees as well as commercial/residential areas can be equally desirable for a bat to live in as they do not need much space to claim as their dwelling. Since bats are social creatures, they will colonize in these areas and can amount to hundreds. They have rather poor eyesight and use echo location to find their way around as well as using it to find food. Unfortunately, more and more bats have been recently being killed by wind turbines. They actively approach the turbines thinking that they are trees that could provide them with shelter and food when the blades were either slow or stationary. Strong gusts of wind spin the faster causing a large number of bat deaths. Researches say that bats may not have the cognitive capacity to discern the wind turbine from a tree.  Approximately over 600,000 bat deaths have been estimated due to wind turbines.

Photo from:

Scientists speculated that one possible solution could be to alter the appearance of the wind turbines. They deduced that the bats saw the base pole of the turbine as a tree trunk while the blades resembled branches. Adding lights to these turbines would possibly lessen the bats to mistaken them as trees. Wind farm operators could also be asked to operate only when high winds were present. This would prevent strong gusts of wind to make the blades reach lethal speeds during low wind downtime.

Post by Christopher Lee


Gosden, E. (2014, September 14). Bats lured to deaths at wind farms ‘because they think turbines are        trees’. Retrieved March 5, 2015, from         wind-farms-because-they-think-turbines-are-trees.html

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. (n.d.). Retrieved March 5, 2015, from   

The Effect of Trees on the Corner

For UVa students, the Corner is the central hub for commerce in Charlottesville. There are popular restaurants, bars, and retail shops all located conveniently near UVa Grounds. It is always bustling with people and makes for a great place to spend an afternoon or evening. The main stretch of the Corner on University Avenue features scattered trees on the sidewalk, while the section on 14th street does not have any.

The trees provide many services for pedestrians, shoppers, and diners on the Corner. First, they provide a temporary escape from the heat for pedestrians. The shade under a tree can be about 2.3 degrees Celsius lower than the temperature in the sun (Simpson, 1998). Secondly, a single tree can absorb 750 gallons of storm water per year (Earth Gauge). Lastly, trees can greatly reduce air pollutants. One tree absorbs 60 pounds of pollutants from the air in one year (Earth Gauge).

The above section of the Corner greatly benefits from having street trees. They provide shade and a psychological sense of separation from both the busy road. On warm days, The Virginian can take advantage of the tree’s benefits and places two tables on the street. The outdoor environment, combined with the possibility of seeing friends passing by makes these tables among the most popular places to eat on the Corner.

This section of the Corner, at the intersection of 14th Street and University Avenue features no trees. Among the eight restaurants between University Avenue and the Wertland and 14th intersection, four restaurants, Boylan Heights, Christian’s Pizza, Two Guys Tacos, and Basil, have outdoor seating. Instead of street tables, though, they all have built structures such as patios or porches to accommodate tables.

The Boylan and Christian’s porch is just a few feet away from an incredibly busy intersection, a railroad bridge, and a coal-fired power plant. I know from experience that when a UTS bus and a train pass this spot simultaneously, you cannot hear the person sitting next to you. Additionally, all of the activity increases the temperature and emits many toxins into the air.

While the trees on the Corner are beneficial, having them can come at a cost. Trees require a good amount of space that could be used otherwise. For example, sidewalks must be extended in order to plant a tree, and that eliminates the space that could be used for parking. Also, they increase risk of property damage as falling limbs could hit cars, buildings, or even people. However, the risk of property damage from trees is still very low and reduced parking motivates people to walk more and keeps the air cleaner.

Overall, trees help both businesses and people on the Corner. They add floor space to restaurants and create a pleasant ambiance for dining outdoors without having to build an additional structure for seating. Additionally, the cooling power of trees can reduce the amount of sun entering a building, lowering the need for air conditioning (Simpson, 1998). The trees on University Avenue create a quasi barrier between the street and sidewalk, creating a cool, clean environment for pedestrians. There are several problems on the corner that trees could help address. Storm water management on the Corner is not great, especially after a snowstorm. The side streets and sidewalks frequently flood and make walking difficult. Additional trees or other vegetation could help absorb storm water, but there is no more space available for more to be planted. Also, to help improve air quality, the city could plant more trees around the power plant. I believe that if more space were available, the city would plant many more trees on the Corner as the most cost-effective way to manage issues with temperature, air quality, and storm water runoff.

Post by Scott Schutte

Works Cited

Simpson, J. R. (1998). Urban Forest Impacts on Regional Cooling and Heating Energy use: Sacramento County Case Study. Journal of Arboriculture 24(4): 201–214.

“National Arbor Day.” Mother Earth News. Earth Gauge, 23 Apr. 2014. Web. 06 Mar. 2015.


Microorganisms- Hidden in Plain Sight

Microorganisms are found all over the world. They can reside deep in the ocean, high in the atmosphere, the boiling waters of natural hot springs, and even the frigid grounds of the University of Virginia. For our BioGrounds research project we are focusing on the places where microorganisms are found and what the organisms are doing.

In order to simplify this microscopic survey, we are focusing in on eukaryotic organisms. A eukaryote is a classification of organism that has more than one cell with a nucleus. While humans and other tangible animals, are eukaryotes, many are also microscopic. They usually happen to be the largest type of microscopic organism and will therefore be the focus of our study for a variety of reasons. First, since they are the largest, we will not need the most high tech equipment. This will allow us to spend less time calibrating the equipment and more time searching for the hidden organisms. Second, they will be easier to identify. No one on our team has any extensive biological backgrounds which would make identifying bacteria, archaea, and prokaryotes very difficult. Instead, we will focus on a more well-known group of microorganisms, so that we can quickly identify the species. Third, we are attempting to mimic the works of Agnes Catlow, and her work Drops of Water. In this series, Catlow sketches the microorganisms she sees under the lens of a microscope. Since this book was published in the 19th century, we can assume that she saw mainly eukaryotes and possibly some of the largest protists. For these reasons, we want to focus on cataloging the micro-eukaryotic species around grounds.

Essentially our project is taking her method of capturing the existence of microorganisms and applying it to the grounds of the University of Virginia. By doing so, we hope to catalog a variety of different microorganisms in a variety of places on grounds. In order to begin our project, we need a few research tools. A light microscope, slides, pipettes, petri dishes, and collection vials will all play an important part in collecting and analyzing our data. We are also adding an artistic component to this project and for this we will all use our own preferred method of documentation, but it will most likely included water color, colored pencils, and hand drawing.

We are also trying to get a large sample of what kind of organisms live where on the University’s grounds. We have discussed collecting samples from bicycle tires, bus seats and floors, gutters, sidewalks, dirt, dining halls, and basically any other places that we can. The hope is to find as many microorganisms as possible and document them, to show what a variety we have on grounds. We also want to show that our city is teeming with life, even though we cannot always see it, reinforcing the idea that we live in a biophilic city.

Post by Laura Moran

Saving the Birds of Charlottesville: Creating The Plan

It is estimated that “500 million to possibly over 1 billion birds are killed annually in the United States due to anthropogenic sources” and “collisions with human-made structures” (Erikson et al., 1). Our BioGrounds team therefore hopes to utilize this semester to monitor and assess the various “problem areas” around Grounds that prove harmful for the birds of Charlottesville.

In order to focus our data collection, we have chosen Nau Hall, Rice Hall, and the New Cabell Courtyard. These areas have a few common characteristics that are known to cause confusion and danger for birds and their flight patterns, such as building height and extensive large glass windows. In an attempt to expand on the work completed last year, we will also be looking into areas with high-tension wires and communication towers. Members of our team will assess bird mortality rates and occurrences around these areas on a weekly basis throughout the rest of the semester and record their findings on a shared document for later reference. Although our team will not be conducting daily observations, we believe that a longer assessment stretched over the next few months will account for any changes in migration patterns.

Also, in order to expand our evaluation of bird mortality, our team plans to reach out to multiple resources both here on Grounds and in bird-protection community. We are in the process of contacting Facilities Maintenance, in order to see if they have any insight on bird mortality at UVa or willingness to assist us in our weekly observations. In addition, we plan to speak with a representative of Dominion Power to address our questions regarding the effects of power lines on bird mortality and to get in touch with the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), in order to gain a better understanding of general bird collection and mortality prevention.

At the end of the semester, our BioGrounds team will compile all recorded data and examine our findings. Our hope is that our assessments, along with information provided by Facilities Management, Dominion Power, and FLAP, will allow us to determine the buildings and areas that prove detrimental to the birds of Charlottesville.

Works Cited

Erikson, Wallace, Gregory Johnson, and David Young, Jr. A Summary and Comparison of Bird Mortality from Anthropogenic Causes with an Emphasis on Collisions (2005): TreeSearch. USDA Forest Service. Web.

Post by Maggie Gratz