Virginia Coast Reserve LTER

Graduate student Aime Aguiar studies wading bird feeding behaviors from a tower on the Machipongo Station on Hog Island. (Photo by Xuegong Xu)

Key Research Findings:

Twenty years of VCR research has revealed how the response of marshes to sea-level rise varies depending on vegetation type, landscape position, and sensitivity to disturbance. Understanding this variation is critical to predicting how sea-level rise will affect the diversity of waterbirds, marine invertebrates, and fin fishes that depend on marshland habitats.
VCR scientists discovered that bottom-dwelling plants and microbes control nutrient cycling in shallow coastal bays, contrary to expectations. This discovery is helping scientists better predict how land-use change and eutrophication will impact these vulnerable ecosystems and the important fisheries and marine biodiversity they support.
By tracking long-term shifts in land cover on undeveloped coastal barrier ecosystems, VCR scientists have learned how sea-level rise and storms interact to create a highly dynamic landscape. While the locations of lagoons, marshes, and barrier islands have changed over time, they have not experienced significant net reductions in the area they cover.


Research activities of the VCR/LTER focus on the mosaic of transitions and steady-state systems that comprise the barrier-island/lagoon/mainland landscape of the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Primary study sites are located on Hog Island, Parramore Island and mainland marshes near Nassawadox VA. The VCR/LTER uses field laboratory and housing facilities at the Anheuser-Busch Coastal Research Center in Oyster, VA.

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The Virginia Coast Reserve/Long-Term Ecological Research Program began operation in 1987. In VCR/LTER I (1997-1992) we focused on geophysical controls (e.g., storms) on coastal ecosystems. In VCR/LTER II (1992-1994) we introduced the concept of ecological state change, which was linked in VCR/LTER III (1994-2000) to relationships between free surfaces (land, sea, freshwater table). Under the VCR/LTER IV grant (2000-2006), we have added a hypsometric perspective, which provides an alternate way of examining ecological patterns on the coastal landscape. LTER V (2006-2012) adds a focus on how fluxes of organisms and materials across the landscape influence ecosystem dynamics and state change.

Research Topics:

Holocene barrier island geology; salt marsh ecology, geology, and hydrology; ecology/evolution of insular vertebrates; primary/secondary succession; life-form modeling of succession.

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