Hi.  I’m Hannah.  I’m a PhD Candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a hydrologist, and an applied physical scientist.  And, as of this week, I have been the Scientists in Parks Fellow at Zion National Park for an entire month.  An entire month!  I shouldn’t be surprised time is flying by though.  My work here revolves around one of the most interesting – and applicable – scientific projects I’ve ever been involved in.

Image of cyanobacteria mat
Underwater photo of a species belonging to the cyanobacteria genus Tychonema. This mat may produce harmful cyanotoxins. Photo: Robyn Henderek, Zion National Park.

See that feathery, nodule-growing yellow stuff in the photo?  That’s a species of Tychonema, a toxin-producing cyanobacteria.  Cyanobacteria are a native inhabitant of the tributaries comprising Zion National Park’s Virgin River.  As pictured, they form lumpy mats on submerged rocks, aquatic plants, and the riverbed.  These mats may also detach and accumulate in calm waters near the shore.

As part of their lifecycle, certain species of cyanobacteria may produce cyanotoxins.  At high concentrations these toxins may cause sickness or even death.  This is concerning, as some of the park’s most popular trails are in or adjacent to tributaries containing these cyanobacterial mats.

However, there is a lot of uncertainty about benthic cyanobacteria – both locally in Zion National Park and broadly throughout the scientific community.  Most species have been poorly studied.  Information on why and when cyanotoxins are produced is largely speculative.  And the short- and long-term effects on human health from many cyanotoxins is uncertain.

Hannah investigating a cyanobacteria mat
Visiting one of my field sites! During each visit, I conduct a survey for cyanobacterial mats. Photo: Ellie Smith-Eskridge

That’s where I come in!  Data collection is critical to expand scientific understanding, explore causation, protect park visitors, and make informed park management decisions.  As a Scientists in Parks Fellow, I am responsible for maintaining a rigorous monitoring system, investigating and implementing expanded data collection protocols, and examining spatial and temporal trends of benthic cyanobacteria growth and cyanotoxin production.

Consequently, over the past month I’ve been spending many days in the field: collecting samples, making observations, and prototyping new measurement techniques.  I also have been busy during my time in the office: reorganizing the park’s cyanobacteria measurements into a new database, carrying out analysis, and developing SOPs and data collection forms.

July of 2020 was when the cyanobacterial mats first became a concern for the park.  As the end of June approaches, I’m primed (and fascinated!) to see how this summer develops.  Watch for more updates here!

— Hannah