Students study James River, use app to document different organisms

Students in Footprints on the James, a summer semester VCU expedition class, studied the organisms and history of the James River. Photo by Gabriela de Camargo Gonçalves

Rachel Marcus, Contributing Writer 

Footprints on the James, a summer semester VCU expedition class, studied the James River in order to learn about its human and natural history, according to the Footprints on the James website

James Vonesh, environmental science professor and the course’s instructor, said Footprints on the James is an outdoor skills course focused on expedition planning. Vonesh has been instructing the class since it was first offered in 2014. 

Environmental students, biology students and other majors came together and explored the James River, according to Vonesh. 

This year’s expedition took place over 31 days and spanned over 200 miles, from May 23 to June 23, according to the Footprints on the James website.

Though the course is always studying about how the James River has “shaped cultures,” in past years, a cultural element has been involved, Vonesh said. 

“We’ve met with some of the coastal plain, Native American tribes have come and spoken to us about their cultural history, as it’s associated with the river,” Vonesh said. 

There were all a number of research projects to learn how the river functions embedded in the course, according to Vonesh.

This year, we looked at the emergence of insects and the insect diversity as we traveled down using black lights. We sampled insects as we traveled down the river, you can attract them into black lights and ultraviolet lights,” Vonesh said. “We looked at how diversity and abundance of organisms changed as we traveled down the river.” 

The group used the app iNaturalist to carry out a BioBlitz over the course of the session. A BioBlitz is an event to identify multiple species in a certain area over a fixed time period, according to National Geographic.

Throughout the expedition, the group continuously added to the iNaturalist page with new pictures and information on different organisms they observed on the James River. Vonesh said the 2022 class made 6,000 observations of 500 different taxa.

The group’s iNaturalist page features hundreds of organisms, including the Carolina Wren, the American Eel, the Flathead Catfish and more. 

Vonesh said that he and his colleagues want to make it possible for students to have a broad accessibility to the course. 

There is an application and interview process to join the course. Once that is complete, there are informational meetings, where alumni of the previous courses come and kind of talk about their experiences, said Vonesh.

The group learned about the wildlife as well as the river’s impact on human development, according to Oluwarotimi Johnson, student of the 2022 Footprints on the James class.

The daily expeditions varied in length, but were an average of 10 miles each day, Johnson said. 

He also said the course gave him real-world experience outside of the classroom.

“We simply just travel from one campsite to another, stop in some areas our teacher deemed interesting to talk about,” Johnson said. “I had never experienced anything like this beforehand.”

He said that the expedition helped to strengthen himself, and he would recommend taking Footprints on the James. 

Correction: Footprints on the James is actually a collaborative mini block of two courses. One course is taught by the biology department instructor Dan Carr, that course is called footprints on the James the human and natural history of the James River watershed. The second course is taught by the environmental studies program. This year that course was called Riverfield practicum. James Vonesh was the instructor of this course.

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