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VIDEO NEWS: Tale of a trout stream

By David Gonnerman '90
October 8, 2010

Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stephanie Schmidt (left) leads Zephyr Mohr-Felsen ’11 and Gregory Gauthier Jr. (visiting from the College of the Menominee Nation with Connie Rasmussen, not pictured) through Rice Creek to seine for fish that they will analyze as part of their "food web" analysis. St. Olaf's new isotope ratio mass spectrometer allows the researchers to analyze samples as small as a fin clipping, for example, to learn about who is eating what in the ecosystem’s food chain.

Each summer St. Olaf science students and faculty engage in a wide range of research for 10 weeks. One of this year’s projects involved students looking at how links between water and land influence the “food web” of the Rice Creek ecosystem. In other words, they took a close look at who is eating what in the ecosystem’s food chain in order to help improve management of the area.

Three students assisted Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stephanie Schmidt with the research: Zephyr Mohr-Felsen ’11 and, visiting for the summer from the College of the Menominee Nation, Gregory Gauthier Jr. and Connie Rasmussen.

“This project was especially important to me because it linked my scientific interests to my involvement in local issues,” says Schmidt. “Much of my research includes an applied component such as ‘how can we use these findings to inform management?’” And being able to apply that at a local scale, she adds, is a valuable experience for students. 

The project’s field work involved catching trout, insects in the water, and insects and spiders on land from an area of Rice Creek just a few miles southwest of campus. Samples from the critters — including small bits of fin from the fish and tissue from spiders — were then run through the college’s new isotope ratio mass spectrometer that has the capability to note the tiniest differences in the weight of elements. As one faculty member says, the spectrometer allows students to analyze substances “with a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer.”

This ability can determine what kind of food an animal has been eating based on carbon-13 content, for example. And the amount of nitrogen-15 can help estimate how much meat an omnivore is eating. This type of analysis showed, for instance, that invasive reed canary grass in some areas of Rice Creek has reduced the amount and variety of food the trout can feed on, limiting them to leeches.

Partnering with concerned citizens
It is rare for a liberal arts college to have equipment of this caliber (in fact, St. Olaf is one of only four), and it was important for Schmidt that her students see the impact of their work and know that the data they collected would be used to help address a local issue. So she partnered the students with Bridgewater Township’s Rice Creek Concerned Citizens group. One morning in early August Schmidt and her students presented their findings.

“As a Bridgewater Township supervisor, I’m looking for information that helps our town board decide what actions to take to preserve and protect this little trout stream and still allow a variety of future land uses,” says Kathleen Doran-Norton, who co-chairs the Rice Creek Concerned Citizens group with St. Olaf Professor of Chemistry Paul Jackson ’92. “Stephanie’s work with the students gave us a good picture of the trout habitat. I appreciate the time she and her students took to carefully gather data specific to this local gem.”

Schmidt calls the partnership a win-win situation: “The students learned valuable field and research skills, and Bridgewater got information they can use to manage and protect these ecosystems.”

The print story above first appeared in St. Olaf's Posten newsletter mailed to Northfield-area residents.

Watch the video story, below, by David Gonnerman '90 and Dan Haywood '11:

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or