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:

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.
Long-term studies show that two simple environmental factors, distance from the shoreline and elevation above sea level, determine patterns in barrier island vegetation. VCR scientists are using this knowledge to forecast climate change effects on these fragile coastal landscapes.
Researchers at the VCR discovered that long-term changes in the positions of barrier island shorelines follow remarkably similar patterns across the U.S. mid-Atlantic coast, suggesting controls by common regional factors. The last major shift in shoreline trends, for example, dates back to 1967 and coincides with an increase in the frequency and severity of coastal storms.


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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