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Mapping a successful recovery



Novel methods and dedicated fieldwork offer good news for cleaning up mining pollution in rivers

Mining involves moving a lot of rock, so some mess is expected. However, mining operations can continue to affect ecosystems long after activity has ended. Heavy metals and corrosive substances leach into the environment, preventing wildlife and vegetation from returning to the area.

Fortunately, this damage can be reversed. A team of scientists, including UC Santa Barbara’s Dave Herbst, investigated how river ecosystems respond to remediation efforts. The team combined decades of data from four watersheds polluted by abandoned mines. It took creative thinking to simplify the complex dynamics of nearly a dozen toxins on the myriad species in each river.

Ultimately, the team’s clever methodology showed that restoration can improve some of the biggest problems of mining contamination. Their findings, published in the journal Freshwater Science, revealed strategies that worked well as recovery patterns across the four waterways. The results also suggest that regulations need to consider all contaminants together, rather than establish standards on an individual basis.

“There is a big problem that we have with legacy mine sites, not only in the U.S. but worldwide,” said Herbst, a research biologist at the university’s Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL) in Mammoth Lakes. “They are widespread, persistent and long-lasting problems. But the good news is that, with the investment and effort of programs like CERCLA Superfund, we can fix those problems.”

Herbst’s work focused on Leviathan Creek, a Sierran stream 25 miles southeast of Lake Tahoe which is the site of a restoration effort under CERCLA (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act), also known also as Superfund. The area was mined not for precious metals, but to extract sulfur for making sulfuric acid to process minerals from other sites. The presence of sulfur-bearing minerals made for water that was naturally a bit acidic, but open-pit mining exposed these minerals to the elements. The result was stronger acid that leached trace metals like aluminum, cobalt and iron from the rock into the environment. The combined effects of increased acidity and toxic metals devastated the local aquatic ecosystem.

Sorting out standards

Each mining site produces a unique blend of pollutants. What’s more, different rivers harbor different species of aquatic invertebrate, with hundreds of different types in each stream, Herbst said. This variability made comparisons a challenge.

So the researchers set to work establishing standards and benchmarks. They decided to track the effect of pollution and remediation on mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies. These groups are critical to the aquatic food web and display a variety of tolerances to different toxins. Rather than compare closely related species, the scientists grouped together animals with shared characteristics — like physical traits and life histories.

Next the team had to make sense of all the pollutants. They quickly realized it wouldn’t be enough to track the toxicity of individual metals separately, as is often done in the lab. It’s the combined impact that actually affects the ecosystem. Furthermore, scientists often measure toxicity based on a lethal dosage. And yet pollution can devastate ecology at much lower concentrations, Herbst explained. Chronic effects, like reduced growth and reproduction, can eliminate species from an area over time without actually killing any individuals.

Given the variety of toxins, the researchers decided on another standard for toxicity: the criterion unit. They defined 1 criterion unit (CU) as the concentration of a toxin that produced adverse effects on growth and reproduction of test organisms. Although the variety of responses makes the CU an approximation, it proved to be a surprisingly robust metric.

The concentration in 1 CU varies from substance to substance. For instance, the researchers used a value of 7.1 micrograms of cobalt per liter of water as a toxic threshold for aquatic life. So, 7.1 μg/L equals 1 CU of cobalt. Meanwhile, 150 μg/L of arsenic kept invertebrates from living their best lives, so 150 μg/L was set as 1 CU of arsenic.

This approach enabled the scientists to compare and combine the effects of completely different toxins, providing a validation of how total toxicity would be expected to occur in nature. So, 7.1 μg/L of cobalt by itself, or 150 μg/L of arsenic by itself, or even a combination of 3.55 μg/L of cobalt plus 75 μg/L of arsenic all produce a cumulative criteria unit (CCU) of 1, which spells similar problems for aquatic critters however it is reached.

This combined effect proved critical to understanding the real-world implications of mining pollution because animals are exposed to many toxins at once. “You need to consider these metals together, not individually, when evaluating the toxicity threshold in a field setting,” Herbst said.

So despite the variety of metals at different locations, by expressing toxicity in cumulative criteria units, the scientists could compare across rivers. When total toxicity tops 1 CCU, invertebrate diversity unravels.

Judging their efforts

The team now had their subjects (aquatic invertebrates) and a simple way to measure pollution (the cumulative criteria unit). They also had over 20 years of field data from four watersheds where Superfund clean-ups have been underway. They used unpolluted streams near each river as a baseline to judge how well restoration was proceeding.

The authors found these projects were able to restore rivers to near natural conditions in 10 to 15 years. It was a wonderful surprise. “Regardless of the fact that there were different mining pollutants, different ways of remediating the problem and different sizes of stream, all the projects came to successful outcomes,” Herbst said.

Much of the recovery happened in the first few years of treatment, he added. Since conditions are at their worst in the beginning, even a small effort will make a big difference.

“The other surprising part was the degree of commonality in the responses despite differing contaminants and remediation practices,” Herbst said. The rate of recovery, order in which species returned (based on shared traits), and even the long-term timeframe was similar across all four rivers. These promising results and shared paths suggest that even daunting environmental problems can be solved with proper effort and investment.

Lessons and loose ends

Remediation at the four sites in California, Colorado, Idaho and Montana is ongoing. Many interventions, like treating acidic water with lime, require continuous attention. However, efforts like replacing contaminated soil, setting up microbial bioreactors and revegetating excavated and riparian areas will hopefully make remediation self-sustaining.

And a self-sustaining solution is the goal, because these sites can become inaccessible at certain times of year, leading to variable levels of pollution. For instance, snow prevents access to the Leviathan mine in winter, so remediation can occur only between spring and fall. The spring snowmelt also dissolves more metals, creating worse conditions than during drier times at the beginning of autumn.

Herbst plans to revisit the seasonal aspects of remediation in future research. As for now, he thinks that other abandoned mines should implement remediation and monitoring practices to evaluate the success of restoration.

These exciting discoveries would have been impossible without long-term monitoring at the four locations. “You seldom get monitoring studies of restoration projects that last more than a couple of years,” Herbst said, “which is really a shame because most of them don’t show any kind of response over that short a period of time.”

And the only reason Herbst and his colleagues had these datasets was because they invested the time and resources themselves. “A lot of it is due to the dedication of individual researchers to these projects,” he said. “There are other players that come and go along the way, but as long as there’s some dedicated researcher collecting this data then it will be there in the future for us to base decisions on.”

Aside from the importance of long-term monitoring, the message Herbst hopes the EPA and industry embrace is that we can’t apply water quality standards for toxic metals individually. “We must be applying them collectively according to how they’re acting together,” he said.

Even if individual contaminants are under the required limits, their combined effect could be well over what wildlife can handle. The concept of cumulative criteria units provides a really simple way to account for this: If eight toxins in a stream are all at half of their CU value, they still add up to 4 CCUs.

Bottom line: There is reason to celebrate. “We’re able to demonstrate through this research that these programs can be successful even for the biggest of problems,” Herbst said, “which is exactly what Superfund projects are intended to fix.”


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No health worries for children born to mothers given seasonal flu vaccine in pregnancy



uOttawa/CHEO study finds no increased risk of early childhood health issues following exposure to seasonal flu vaccination during pregnancy

A population-based study, published today in JAMA, has found flu vaccination during pregnancy does not lead to an increased risk of adverse early childhood health outcomes.

Although pregnant people are not more susceptible to acquiring influenza infection, they are at an increased risk of severe illness and complications if they get the flu during pregnancy. For this reason, all pregnant people are advised to receive a flu shot each year, yet only 36 percent received it according to a study monitoring four flu seasons in Nova Scotia. Safety concerns are reportedly a leading reason people may not receive influenza vaccination in pregnancy.

Dr. Deshayne Fell, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology in the Faculty of Medicine at uOttawa and a Scientist at the CHEO Research Institute, a pediatric healthcare and research centre, led the study along with researchers in Ontario and at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. The study followed over 28,000 children from birth up to an average age of 3 ½ years, with the results suggesting that maternal influenza vaccination during pregnancy was not associated with:

– Immune-related health conditions, such as asthma, ear infections or other types of infection.

– Non-immune-related health problems like neoplasms, sensory impairment.

– Nonspecific health needs such as Emergency Department visits and hospitalizations did not increase.

“This study adds to what we know from other recent studies showing no harmful effects of flu vaccination during pregnancy on the longer-term health of children,” says Dr. Fell, whose other recent work includes studying the effectiveness and safety of COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy. “This is important because we know that getting the flu shot during pregnancy not only protects the pregnant person, but has the added bonus of protecting newborn babies from getting the flu during their first few months of life, which is when they are most susceptible to respiratory infections but still too young to get the flu shot themselves.”

The study, Association of Maternal Influenza Vaccination During Pregnancy with Early Childhood Health Outcomes, is published in JAMA.


About the University of Ottawa
The University of Ottawa is home to over 50,000 students, faculty and staff, who live, work and study in both French and English. Our campus is a crossroads of cultures and ideas, where bold minds come together to inspire game-changing ideas. We are one of Canada’s top 10 research universities–our professors and researchers explore new approaches to today’s challenges. One of a handful of Canadian universities ranked among the top 200 in the world, we attract exceptional thinkers and welcome diverse perspectives from across the globe.

About CHEO
Dedicated to the best life for every child and youth, CHEO is a global leader in pediatric health care and research. Based in Ottawa, CHEO includes a hospital, children’s treatment centre, school and research institute, with satellite services located throughout Eastern Ontario. CHEO provides excellence in complex pediatric care, research and education. We are committed to partnering with families and the community to provide exceptional care — where, when and how it’s needed. CHEO is a partner of the Kids Come First Health Team, a network of partners working to create a high quality, standardized and coordinated system for pediatric health care that is centred around children, youth and their families. Every year, CHEO helps more than 500,000 children and youth from Eastern Ontario, western Quebec, Nunavut and Northern Ontario.

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How your phone can predict depression and lead to personalized treatment



Study used data from cell phone apps and watches, brain activity and lifestyle factors to generate predictions of depression; results could lead to individualized treatment plans for mental health

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the World Health Organization, depression affects 16 million Americans and 322 million people worldwide. Emerging evidence suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is further exacerbating the prevalence of depression in the general population. With this trajectory, it is evident that more effective strategies are needed for therapeutics that address this critical public health issue.

In a recent study, publishing in the June 9, 2021 online edition of Nature Translational Psychiatry, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine used a combination of modalities, such as measuring brain function, cognition and lifestyle factors, to generate individualized predictions of depression.

The machine learning and personalized approach took into account several factors related to an individual’s subjective symptoms, such as sleep, exercise, diet, stress, cognitive performance and brain activity.

“There are different underlying reasons and causes for depression,” said Jyoti Mishra, PhD, senior author of the study, director of NEATLabs and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Simply put, current health care standards are mostly just asking people how they feel and then writing a prescription for medication. Those first-line treatments have been shown to be only mild to moderately effective in large trials.

“Depression is a multifaceted illness, and we need to approach it with personalized treatment whether that be therapy with a mental health professional, more exercise or a combination of approaches.”

The one-month study collected data from 14 participants with depression using smartphone applications and wearables (like smart watches) to measure mood and lifestyle variables of sleep, exercise, diet and stress, and paired these with cognitive evaluations and electroencephalography, using electrodes on the scalp to record brain activity.

The goal was not to make any comparisons across individuals, but to model the predictors of each person’s daily fluctuations in depressed mood.

The researchers developed a new machine-learning pipeline to systematically identify distinct predictors of low mood in each individual.

As an example, exercise and daily caffeine intake emerged as strong predictors of mood for one participant, but for another, it was sleep and stress that were more predictive, while in a third subject, the top predictors were brain function and cognitive responses to rewards.

“We should not be approaching mental health as one size fits all. Patients will benefit by having more direct and quantified insight onto how specific behaviors may be feeding their depression. Clinicians can leverage this data to understand how their patients might be feeling and better integrate medical and behavioral approaches for improving and sustaining mental health,” said Mishra.

“Our study shows that we can use the technology and tools that are readily available, like cell phone apps, to collect information from individuals with or at risk for depression, without significant burden to them, and then harness that information to design personalized treatment plans.”

Mishra said next steps include examining if the personalized treatment plans guided by the data and machine learning are effective.

“Our findings could have broader implications than depression. Anyone seeking greater well-being could benefit from insights quantified from their own data. If I don’t know what is wrong, how do I know how to feel better?”


Co-authors include: Rutvik Shah, Gillian Grennan, MariamZafar-Khan, Fahad Alim, Sujit Dey, all with UC San Diego; and Dhakshin Ramanathan with UC San Diego and the VA San Diego Medical Center.

Disclosure: Shah, Dey and Mishra have an Invention Disclosure filed for “Personalized Machine Learning of Depressed Mood using Wearables.”

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The buck stops where? UNH research records longest-ever deer distance



DURHAM, N.H.–Why did the deer cross the road? According to research from the University of New Hampshire to keep going and going and going. Researchers have discovered the longest distance ever recorded by an adult male white-tailed deer–300 kilometers, or close to 200 miles, in just over three weeks. The finding has important implications for population management and the transmission of disease, especially chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease.

“Deer are one of the most abundant, well-known and intensely managed species of wildlife in the United States,” said Remington Moll, assistant professor of wildlife ecology and lead author. “So, to make this discovery despite the fact that they are so well studied is pretty surprising.”

In their study, published in the journal Ecology and Evolution, researchers analyzed data from GPS radio collars on more than 600 deer in Missouri. One dispersal, or long-distance journey, of an adult white-tailed deer stood out for its length, duration and age of the deer. The buck travelled close to 300 kilometers over 22 days by moving an average of 13.6 kilometers per day (almost eight and a half miles), crossing a major river seven times, an interstate highway, a railroad and eight state highways. To confirm the findings, the researchers surveyed the scientific literature for other dispersals of white-tailed deer. The deer, known as N17003, stood head and antlers above others; his walkabout was 174 kilometers longer than any other recorded for an adult male deer.

“This extraordinary movement just jumped out from the others we tracked,” said Moll. “At first, we thought it was an error. It looks like someone took the GPS collar and drove across the state of Missouri.”

The findings were remarkable not only for the deer’s range–he roamed a distance equal to that between New York City and Baltimore–but also because unlike juvenile males, who move to seek breeding opportunities, adult males tend to stay put. Movements were faster and more directional than those in their home territory and were faster and more directional at night than during the day when the deer frequently sheltered in forest cover. The journey, which happened in November 2017, occurred during hunting season.

“We call this a rare event, but we haven’t been putting collars out for that long, and not in these large numbers,” said Moll. “It’s entirely possible that it could be happening with greater frequency than we’ve known.”

Nearly eight million Americans hunt deer which contributes more than $20 billion to the U.S. economy. The researchers say that understanding the distance deer travel and how they do it is important for managing the species and controlling chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease spread by direct contact and the environment. Knowing that deer are crossing county or even state lines highlights a need for regional management coordination.

Funding for this study was provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the University of Montana.

Co-authors are Jon Roberts and Joshua Millspaugh, University of Montana; Kevyn Wiskirchen, Jason Sumners, Jason Isabelle and Barbara Keller, Missouri Department of Conservation; and Robert Montgomery, Michigan State University.

The >University of New Hampshire inspires innovation and transforms lives in our state, nation, and world. More than 16,000 students from all 50 states and 71 countries engage with an award-winning faculty in top-ranked programs in business, engineering, law, health and human services, liberal arts and the sciences across more than 200 programs of study. As one of the nation’s highest-performing research universities, UNH partners with NASA, NOAA, NSF and NIH, and receives more than $110 million in competitive external funding every year to further explore and define the frontiers of land, sea and space.




Credit: Missouri Department of Conservation

Caption: Fleeting glimpse of an adult white-tailed deer, known as N17003, that traveled the longest distance ever recorded by a UNH researcher – over 200 miles in 22 days.


Credit: UNH

Caption: Map chronicling the multi-county journey of an adult white-tailed deer, known as N17003, traveling the longest distance ever recorded – over 300 kilometers in just over three weeks.

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Serenading Lusitanian toadfish drowned out by water traffic



During spring, Lusitanian toadfish (Halobatrachus didactylus) suitors form choirs in Portugal’s Tagus estuary to serenade the females, vibrating their swim bladders to produce a call, known as a boatwhistle, which sounds like a vibrating cell phone. The males also listen in on each other to check whether anyone is intruding on their territory. But sadly, their performances are no longer conducted in hushed reverence. Revving motorboats and churning ferry propellors and engines fill the water with unwelcome noise, which made Clara Amorim, Daniel Alves, Manuel Vieira and Paulo Fonseca, from the Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal, wonder whether human noise pollution is playing havoc with the garrulous fish’s ability to communicate. They publish their discovery that toadfish serenades are being drowned out by water traffic that also disrupts their ability to croon together in Journal of Experimental Biology at

‘We had previously measured how far toadfishes could communicate with each other’, says Alves, who worked with local fisherman to collect the vocal fish. Once the fish were comfortable in the lab, Alves and Fonseca tested their hearing by playing boatwhistles – which had been recorded at distances from 0.1-15 m – while logging the fishes’ brainwaves as they listened to the sound against a silent background. Then, the duo added the whine of an outboard motor or a rumbling ferryboat and rechecked the brainwaves, to find out whether the fish were still able to hear the serenades.

Unfortunately, the outboard motor almost completely drowned out the recordings of the males. One boatwhistle that had been clear up to 10.4 m away in absolute silence became inaudible over distances of more than 2.5 m and the range of another toadfish rumble fell to just 2.0 m. However, the ferryboat seemed to have less of an impact on the toadfishes’ hearing, cutting the range over which one boatwhistle could be heard by 4 m, to 6.3 m, while the other, which had been so badly affected by the outboard motor, could be heard over slightly longer distances (6.7 m). Water traffic is clearly affecting the ability of these vocal fish to hear one another, but does the sound of passing vessels affect how harmonising toadfish croon together?

To find out, Vieira, Amorim and Fonseca crossed the Tagus to a quiet toadfish breeding ground, providing the serenading residents with 12 custom-built concrete nests, each equipped with an underwater microphone to record their boatwhistles as they settled into duetting with nearby males to attract females. In peaceful waters, the neighbours coordinated well, slightly advancing or delaying their responses to each other’s calls depending on their proximity. However, when the scientists played recordings of passing ferries and motorboats to the courting males, the toadfishes’ coordination broke down entirely, with serenading duetters interjecting more randomly between their neighbour’s timed rumbles.

‘These results demonstrate that boat noise can severely reduce the distance at which the Lusitanian toadfish can communicate and affect how they produce sounds in their choruses’, says Vieira, who warns that noisy human water traffic could dramatically affect the Lusitanian toadfish’s love life.


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