Oklahoma State University
Deciphering the survival message PDF  | Print |
Thursday, 18 February 2010 22:51

Scientist Joe Bidwell strives to understand the stamina of aquatic wildlife at the site of one of the worst toxic nightmares in U.S. history

Growing up in rural New York, scientist Joe Bidwell spent a lot of time trudging through streams and lake bottoms. Now in his 40s, not much has changed.

As an associate professor in zoology at Oklahoma State University, his research focuses on contaminated waters and the tiny creatures that live in them.

Bidwell says the dense swarms of insect-like creatures – amphipods – are so stressed from living in toxic waters he is amazed they are alive at all.

Plunging in

Bidwell’s love of the outdoors started as a boy in South Worcester, N.Y., a town of 200 people just 60 miles west of Albany, N.Y. There he grew up fishing, hunting and exploring around Charlotte Creek, a pristine stream near his family’s dairy farm.

In 1985, Bidwell graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. He dove into the effects of contaminants on aquatic wildlife at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at Blacksburg. While there, earning a master’s and doctorate in zoology, he studied the effects of mercury on rock bass and strategies to control the invasive zebra mussel.

In the early years of his academic career, Bidwell’s research efforts ranged from Australian frogs to Asian clams.

Some of that research found the young Bidwell and his fellow graduate students trudging through sewage and industrial runoff near a paper mill in Virginia. “We were all in shorts and T-shirts in the middle of a hot summer,” Bidwell says. “I thought to myself this is not the best idea to stand in this type of water.”

These days, the seasoned professor takes a more cautious and informed approach when plunging into projects.

Yet Bidwell’s enthusiasm remains. His current research with aquatic organisms living in contaminated waters excites him the most these days.

For the past year, Bidwell has taken an in-depth look at organisms in the waters near Picher, Okla. The area, considered one of the worst toxic nightmares in U.S. history, made the National Priorities List in 1983 to become one of the first Superfund Sites.

Picher’s abandoned lead and zinc mines, productive from the 1890s until 1970, polluted the area’s surface and groundwater with acid drainage that flooded mine shafts, natural springs and bore holes.

Today, tens of thousands of tiny creatures live in the streams and creeks in the 43-square-mile area of Picher, Commerce, Cardin, Quapaw and North Miami, Okla.

Bidwell wants to understand how these aquatic organisms, specifically amphipods, survive in the highly contaminated environment at Beaver Creek, located near the well known Tar Creek.

“We want to find out how these organisms deal with stress and study the ability of this ecosystem to recover from the stress,” he says.

Examining black specks

For a year, Bidwell and his graduate students have collected miniscule specimens at Beaver Creek. They head out before dawn outfitted in flannel shirts, jeans, hiking boots or waders, and caps. They pack buckets, nets and coolers for the 130-plus mile trek to the Tar Creek area.

There they net amphipods to truck to the OSU Ecotoxicology and Water Quality Research Laboratory, which Bidwell directs.

At last count, they have collected thousands of amphipods.

At the lab they examine how the amphipods, which look like black specks of pepper, consume oxygen as a way to determine how much energy they require to live. “There are a lot of studies that address how amphipods tolerate contaminated environments, but not a lot about understanding the mechanisms that allow them to survive,” Bidwell says. “That research is much less well described.”

After 10 months of investigation, the scientists are figuring out what questions to ask.

Thus far, the research suggests that the shrimp-like crustaceans at Beaver Creek are smaller than the average. The tiny creatures, with more than 7,000 species, range from .039 to 5.5 inches in length. The ones at Beaver Creek are on the low side of the range.

They also have learned that the amphipods at Beaver Creek have much less energy for growth than their cousins. While it is good the amphipods can withstand stressors, dealing with the stress from metals could weaken their ability to deal with other stresses such as increasing temperatures associated with global climate change, Bidwell says.

“We’re not sure what this finding means yet,” he says. Over the next two years, Bidwell and his team hope to find out as they study their primary data to delineate the questions to ask.

But the scientists do know the amphipods have high levels of cadmium, lead and zinc in their tissues and continue to be very resistant to metal exposures.

They are surviving in a place inhospitable to most other forms of life.

From Picher to Port Pirie

Port Pirie, a region on the East Coast of South Australia, is more than 10,000 miles away from Picher, Okla.

Located there is the Port Pirie Smelter, which is the largest lead smelter in the world that produces significant volumes of zinc, silver, copper and gold. It has operated as a smelter and refinery for more than 100 years.

Much like Tar Creek, its soil and waters are heavily contaminated with toxic materials. In 1984, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council warned more than 98 percent of the kids in Port Pirie exceeded the safe blood lead level.

Since then the figure has dropped to 55 percent because the government introduced programs to clean homes. Management at the smelter plan also learned better practices to deal with the dust at the site, Bidwell says.

Bidwell is able to draw comparisons to Tar Creek because between 1994 and 2000 he was a lecturer in environmental toxicology in the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences at the University of South Australia. He also led its Environmental Research Group.

Bidwell says Tar Creek is surprisingly similar to Port Pirie despite the freshwater vs. saltwater locations. “It’s really interesting in that this particular marine environment the levels of lead, zinc and cadmium contamination are a lot like Tar Creek,” he says.

The work of one of Bidwell’s graduate students in Australia led him to analyze amphipods in the Port Pirie region. The student’s thesis, “Laboratory and field evaluations of a lead smelter effluent in the Upper Spencer Gulf, South Australia,” focused on isopods, also known as sea lice. Isopods, like amphipods, are a part of the crustacean family and live in land, freshwater and saltwater.

“Research in the rugged waters of South Australia is more challenging than in the streams of Oklahoma,” says Bidwell, who is certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors as a rescue diver, open water SCUBA diver and medic first aid.

“When we first started diving there, we thought we did not have to worry about sharks, however a few days after starting the field work, a great white shark was caught about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from where we were working.

“It made us more nervous when diving and collecting samples in the water.”

On sabbatical from OSU from September 2008 to January 2009, Bidwell later conducted a series of field experiments on metal resistance in marine invertebrates in South Australia.

He reflects on how his research fits into Oklahoma’s research efforts. “Isopods in Australia have similar levels of metals in their tissues,” he says. “The difference is they don’t show any increased oxygen consumption while the Tar Creek animals do.

“There’s a great energetic cost for the amphipods to live in contaminated water but apparently not as much for the isopods to live in a marine system with similar levels of contamination.”

Seeking support

Bidwell and his collaborators continue to develop the study into a full-fledged program. A seed grant from OSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, as well as funds from the OSU Ecotoxicology and Water Quality Research Laboratory support Bidwell’s current research.

Thus far, funding for Bidwell’s other research projects have been from government and private industries that include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Oklahoma Water Resources Research Institute.

Soon, however, for the first time in Bidwell’s academic career, he will apply for funding from the prestigious National Science Foundation.

With that support he hopes to collaborate with other scientists including zoology Regents professor Ron Van Den bussche whose team has discovered genetic differences between the Tar Creek amphipods and ones from other sites in Oklahoma.

Bidwell remembers his modest beginnings in New York and is thoughtful of the tragedy surrounding those who remain in toxic communities whether out of choice or circumstance.

He recalls his research in Virginia. “The river was heavily contaminated with mercury. We’d do our research there and at the same time see fishermen catching fish to take home to dinner.”

Access to information on the Internet has helped people in the past 20 years to understand water quality and usage issues, Bidwell says. However he contends that much of the general public still conducts its business without regard to contamination issues.

“But Tar Creek is so in your face. There are huge chat piles, and the contamination is evident. Most of the people left there don’t have a lot of other options.”

“Tar Creek is a great study site for scientists and those who are interested in contaminants,” Bidwell says. “It is not great for the people who live there.”

By Lorene Roberson Hickey