Category: Research Blog

Frozen: Reptiles & Amphibians in the Winter

 Frozen: Reptiles & Amphibians in the Water

It’s cold outside! How do reptiles and amphibians stay warm during the winter time?

By Nate Hobbs

If you’re a cold blooded animal like reptiles and amphibians, temperatures below 32°F (0°C) can be a huge problem because the freezing point of their blood is around 31.1°F (-0.5°C). Many animals, avoid these freezing temperatures by hibernating underground or even underwater. They can burrow into the mud at the bottom of a pond or lake and take in oxygen into their skin from the surrounding water. The eastern painted turtle can breathe through its cloaca, which contains two sacs, or bursa, that readily absorbs oxygen. So not only is it a lot warmer in the mud underwater, but they can breathe without coming up to the surface for air. They have been known to survive 3-4 months without breathing oxygen while under icy ponds.

Wood Frog

Wood Frog


Frozen Wood Frog

Other species of amphibians and reptiles hibernate near the soil surface where temperatures can drop below the freezing point of their blood. These animals have the ability to create a biological antifreeze in their bodies that prevents ice from forming in their blood. Frogs like spring peepers, gray tree frogs, and wood frogs all have these capabilities. Wood frogs in particular, have ice nucleating proteins inside of their cells; humans lack these proteins which is why we get frostbite. Frostbite is the formation of ice crystals between our cells, which dehydrates the cells and causes them to collapse. Wood frogs cells contain a concentrated sugar solution that protects them from freezing while water on outside of the cells freezes. These frozen frogs have no heartbeat, no blood circulation, no breathing, and no detectable brain activity. When the temperature warms up, the frogs thaw within 1-2 hours, and all vital functions resume.


Sound Science for a Healthy Basin

This blog was originally written by Dr. Oscar Flite as a guest blogger for Balancing the Basin. It can be viewed in its original form here.

In 2005, Phinizy Center for Water Sciences (formerly known as Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy), a nonprofit research and education center in Augusta, Georgia, developed a Savannah River research program with funds originating from individuals, foundations, municipalities, and industries, along with a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. From 2006 to 2009 those funds helped develop a continuous monitoring network, a significant water quality database, and an assessment of the aquatic insect community along the Savannah River. Data were collected at 10 locations from 7 miles below Thurmond Dam to near Clyo, Georgia. The initial data allowed us to develop a complete understanding of how the Savannah River functions from a chemical, physical, biological, and geological perspective. It was also valuable in helping Georgia and South Carolina improve regulatory water quality modeling efforts. A summary of the data and analyses can be found in our final project report.

One parameter that we did not measure during the initial study was long-term biochemical oxygen demand (LTBOD), which helps determine oxygen loss by bacteria as they consume chemicals in the water. From 2009-2011, we focused on LTBOD, collecting and analyzing more than 70 river samples and more than 60 samples from dischargers within the Augusta area. Results from that study allowed us to develop a better understanding of how and where natural and manmade chemicals enter the river and impact oxygen concentrations. Data from that study are currently helping to inform decisions being made on low dissolved oxygen concentrations in the Savannah Harbor and Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) development for the basin. The data have also been valuable in helping improve regulatory water quality modeling efforts.

Phinizy Center scientist collecting an integrated water sample on the Savannah River (Courtesy Photo).

Phinizy Center scientist collecting an integrated water sample on the Savannah River.

Since rivers always move through different geological formations, past cities and farms, and through bottomland hardwood swamps, the biology, chemistry, and physics of the water constantly change. Our research program has focused on how best to sample the river as the water flows downstream (a Lagrangian perspective). Since 2006 we have collected samples according to travel time. We determined that getting in the river and collecting samples as you float downstream would be the best way to sample; in 2012 we did just that. Focusing on how the river processes wastewater and natural organic material, we developed a unique program using a houseboat that allowed us to float, at river speed (about 2 feet per second), from Augusta to Ebeneezer Creek (about 145 miles). During that study, we continuously measured water quality and sampled according to travel time. The data and analysis were invaluable and currently help to inform the discussions of low dissolved oxygen in the harbor and the TMDL.

Continuous monitoring is important for providing information on multiple time scales (hours, days, weeks, years). Real-time, continuous monitoring can be important for identifying events that could be catastrophic to the river’s ecosystem. Many of the current technologies act as “sentinels” by providing alarm settings that send text messages to the user when measurements are outside a particular range. If a program has been in place for a long time, those data provide an understanding of long-term trends and can be used to determine if water quality is improving or declining over time. Through generous donations from individuals and municipalities in 2012, we upgraded our monitoring program to a real-time, continuous system. Everyone has free access to the data here. Through donations from individuals and partnerships with municipalities, industries, and regulatory agencies we have kept this important program going since 2006; funding for one of the sites was provided through South Carolina’s Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), as a result of the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP). Data from that network will be important for assessing water quality as the fish passage at New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam is constructed as part of the SHEP, as well.

We have also been fortunate to play a role in many other Savannah River research projects, some of which relate to the SHEP. These include: participation in the TMDL modeling group, collaborating with SCDNR with ongoing sturgeon research (SHEP project), providing Dial-Cordy and Associates with river velocity data for a sturgeon habitat assessment study (SHEP project), collaborating with The Nature Conservancy and others on ecosystem flow alternatives for the basin’s Comprehensive Study, Interim 2, and participation in the South Carolina Savannah River Basin Advisory Council.

A Phinizy Center scientist performing a long-term biochemical oxygen demand test (Courtesy Photo).

A Phinizy Center scientist performing a long-term biochemical oxygen demand test.

A recent collaboration with Georgia Southern University on a Supplemental Environmental Project related to a 2011 fish kill has allowed us to develop a similar real-time monitoring and research program in the Ogeechee River, the river basin immediately adjacent to the Savannah Basin. This valuable opportunity will not only allow us to learn more about the Ogeechee River, but comparative analyses will allow us to learn more about the Savannah River, too. Real-time data from that project can be seen here.

Finally, integration of our research efforts into our K-College education programs have been successful. Over the past 15 years, we have provided place-based education to more than 66,000 students on topics ranging from water quality, the water cycle, wetland functions, wastewater processes, stream ecology, and the urban watershed. Please see our website ( for more information about our education programs.

The Savannah River Basin is a complex and integrated system. Its nearly 10,000 square miles of land mass is connected by a resource that all ecology and economy within its drainage rely on: water. Upstream and downstream, Georgia and South Carolina, balancing the ecological and economic needs of the entire basin requires informed decision-making, and informed decision-making requires sound science. We are proud to play a role in the effort to maintain that balance.

2014 in Review – A Letter from the CEO

2014 - December Staff Photo 2

This has been a full and exciting year for us, and we want to thank each of you who has supported us, whether through partnerships, volunteering, financial support or participation. I wanted to share with you highlights of the exciting things that have happened here this year.

Phinizy Center

Phinizy Center LogoOne of the biggest changes for us this year was a name change; after 18 years, Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy is now Phinizy Center for Water Sciences. The change helps consolidate our identity with Phinizy Swamp Nature Park and better identifies us as an organization focused on water issues. As part of the name change, rebranding of the organization allowed our marketing team to show their expertise and talent. Our team maintained a link to our history by keeping the iconic dragonfly but they enhanced the logo and color scheme making it consistent with our focus on stream and river research and education. Rebranding meant updating our website, stationary, and other marketing content too. While our team did much of the work in-house, it could not have been such a success without assistance, especially from graphic artist Larry Williams. Jr., and through financial support from the Augusta Convention and Visitors Bureau.



Jen McGruter

This year we educated over 3,000 elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate students. That number helped us reach a milestone for our program: over 66,000 students have been educated through our program since 1996. In addition to field trips, we strengthened our adult education program with several Master Naturalist and Field Ornithology Programs. With the intent of continuing to build our education programs, we welcomed Jen McGruter as our new Environmental Educator. If it were not for our education volunteers, especially Bob Neugebauer, and the financial support of ESG Operations, we would not be able to provide this important program!



Kelsey Laymon

This year our Research Program has undergone new growth as well; we are currently working on 12 research projects that range in scale from individual species studies to two projects that assess water quality within entire river basins; twelve is the most number of projects that this organization has ever had at one time. As a result, we welcomed two part time and one full time researchers, Nate Hobbs, Kelsey Laymon, and Damon Mullis. We are thankful for research support from

Nate Hobbs

Nate Hobbs

the following entities: Augusta-Richmond County Utilities Department, Columbia County Water Department, PCS Nitrogen, International Paper, City of North Augusta, Georgia Southern University, Milliken & Company, Augusta-Richmond County Engineering Department, Georgia Department of Environmental Protection, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, The

Damon Mullis

Damon Mullis

Nature Conservancy, City of Thomson, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Wells Fargo, Knox Foundation, Richmond County Mosquito Control, Georgia Department of Public Health, DSM Chemical, and Augusta-Richmond County Environmental Services Department.

Nature Park

Phinizy Swamp Nature Park is the home of our campus and is one of Augusta’s hidden gems. Whether you like exercising, watching wildlife, or just experiencing the beauty of our natural

Phin & Izzy

Phin & Izzy

resources, the park has something for everyone. Growth within the park this year included the development of the “Swamp Shop” in our Visitors Center, introduction of our mascots, Phin and Izzy, and a renewed commitment to update our kiosks throughout the park on a monthly basis. Much of the information that you see in the kiosks

and on the boardwalks and trails is interactive, leading you to websites with additional information on individual species in the park or to websites with frog and bird calls; the kiosks are maintained by Phinizy Center educators and researchers but have been enhanced by our dedicated volunteers, especially Priscilla Hollingsworth and Debo Boddiford. Through the hard work of many volunteers, the boardwalks and trails have never been in better shape. The park continues to remain free to the public and open from dawn to dusk every day of the year, that is only possible through generous member donations and the support of the

Photo by Jennifer Holcomb

Photo by Jennifer Holcomb

Augusta-Richmond County Utilities Department. Another great collaboration this year was with Cabela’s; we were honored that Cabela’s dedicated an entire wall to Phinizy Swamp and our organization, if you have not seen it, please stop by the new Cabela’s store to see the wall and support Cabela’s.


This year we have continued our popular events that the community has always enjoyed (Swamp Soiree, Guided Hikes, Bike Tours, Swamp Stomp, etc.) but we have introduced several new programs that have been successful in its first year, they include, Yoga in the Park, Nature Printing Classes,

Heather Milne

Heather Milne

Earth Day Celebration, and Family Camping Night. These events help support the overall operation of our organization while developing lasting collaborations and friendships. One of those collaborations developed this year was our Earth Day Celebration: this collaboration between Augusta-Richmond County Environmental Services, Georgia Regents University, and the Phinizy Center will provide one of the best celebrations of this important day within the CSRA for years to come! With all of this new activity this year, we welcomed Heather Milne to our organization as our Events and Volunteer Manager.


If you haven’t noticed, the expertise of our volunteer workforce has always been important to the fundamental operation of our organization, this year has been no exception. Our volunteer workforce of 163 individuals and 7 groups has logged in over 1,200 hours to provide hikes, clear and maintain trails, stabilize and maintain our boardwalks, and clean up the park. As an example of the continued growth of our organization in all areas, one of the highlights of the year in our volunteer area was our Rivers Alive Cleanup, this year we had 98 people volunteer and clean up over 1-ton of trash from the Butler Creek watershed!

Rivers Alive Volunteers

Rivers Alive Volunteers

The Phinizy Center for Water Sciences could not exist without your support, either through a membership, volunteer activity, participation in adult education class, or purchasing a t-shirt in the Swamp Shop. We thank you for your support and continued interest. Please let us know what else you would like to see at the park, on our website or social media, or what other things you would like us to offer through our research, education, recreation, or public involvement activities.

From our family to yours, have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


Oscar Flite, Ph.D.
CEO / Sr. Scientist

Dirt is Just Dirt, Right?


Figure 1: Area of Pendleton King Park classified as a wetland.

By Kelsey Laymon

Wrong! Soil is so much more than what people typically think. It is the basis for sustaining life on earth by supporting food and biomass production, regulating water quality, storing carbon and maintaining the balance of gases in the air, providing habitats, and sustaining biodiversity. The quality of soil is an important factor in the quality of the ecosystem. Its texture, water-holding capacity, porosity, permeability and organic matter content all affect the surrounding ecosystem.

Wetland soils, are formed under conditions of saturation – when flooding or ponding lasts long enough to cause anaerobic, or oxygen-poor, conditions in the upper soil layer. Wetlands themselves have three defining characteristics: (1) the presence of standing water, either seasonally or permanently, (2), unique wetland (hydric) soil, and (3) vegetation tolerant of saturation.


Figure 2: Soil Profile

So, if a wetland soil must have wetland plants, water, and anaerobic conditions, why was a section of the soil at Pendleton King Park in Augusta, GA regarded as a wetland based on the U.S. Army Core of Engineers’ parameters when it looks like a pine forest (Figure 1)?

Looking at the soil from Pendleton King Park, it is technically a wetland. Oddly, the soil does have hydric properties. The soil has a gray color from a process known as gleying. When soil is wet for an extended period of time, anaerobic conditions will result because oxygen diffusion through the soil is extremely slow. There is only a thin surface layer that will support normal aerobic, or oxygen loving, root respiration and the deeper layers remain reduced. Reduction is a chemical process where electrons or hydrogen ions are gained and an oxygen molecule is given up. Nitrogen, manganese, iron, sulfur, and carbon are all reduced in a wetland environment. Iron reduction was seen in the orange mottles, or speckles, in the layer labeled Ba in Figure 2. Mottles that are orange/reddish-brown are from the reduction of iron, and mottles that are dark red or black are from the reduction of manganese (observed in the layer labeled Bc in Figure 2). The reduction of manganese can also be observed in the thick black layer, layer Bb in Figure 3. Another observation that the research team noticed was a rotten egg odor at about a 2.5 ft depth. This odor is only observed when sulfate is being reduced. These chemical processes are necessary for the break down of nutrients so the plants can use them to grow.


Figure 3: Aerial view of Pendleton King Park


Researcher attempting to understand soil.

If the soil was classified as wetland, then why were there pine trees growing in it? One theory is that the area was a forest next to a natural wetland, but during Augusta’s development the natural hydrology changed. A railroad and a paved road were both built alongside this wetland seen in Figure 3. The railroad and the road were both built up several feet on a berm. During high periods of rainfall, these features kept the water from running off naturally. The water had nowhere to go, so it just sat for long periods of time. Perhaps if the conditions stayed the same for another 50-100 years, all of the pine trees would die because they wouldn’t be able to transport oxygen, and water-loving plants, like cattails and water lilies, would move in. The pine trees would not survive because, unlike the water loving plants, they do not have the aerenchyma, or air spaces, in their roots to allow the plants to get oxygen. Other plants like reeds, and sedges have hollow stems to transport oxygen.

So to answer the question “Is dirt just dirt?” No! It is the basis to sustain life and can be used to predict changes in the environment. It influences the distribution of plant and animal species and provides nutrients for those animals. It is important to understand the aspects of soil in order to understand how the ecosystem around it will function.

World Toilet Day

toilet pic

I love to flush my toilet. Actually, I love the fact that I have the luxury of flushing my toilet. In the detail of the painting, Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, he depicted the worst-case scenario of what would happen in the absence of centralized sanitary sewer systems. Imagine a world without it.

The luxury of flushing my toilet, however, does not stop at our flush valves. As our wastes travel from our homes, through the pipes, to the wastewater treatment plants, and out to the Georgia Rivers, our responsibility does not end; we have a responsibility to ensure that the waste does not cause problems for the fish that live in the river or for the people that live downstream of us that will eventually use that water to bath, drink, and recreate. The wastewater treatment plant is actually an extension of us, and our responsibility continues, so we have to ensure that it is operated in such a way so that it meets all state and federal water quality effluent standards. We can do that by happily paying our utility bill, even when the costs increase over time, because there is no alternative.

Lack of a centralized sewer system is actually a reality for over 1 billion people. Today is World Toilet Day. According to UN-Water (, this day is meant to bring awareness to the fact that over 2.5 billion people in the world lack the luxury of a flush toilet-sanitary sewer system: over 1 billion people still defecate in the open.

We are often so disconnected from our impact on the environment (flush it and forget it) we sometimes need a dose of reality. Happy Toilet Day!

Temperature & Mosquitoes

All insects, including mosquitoes, are ectothermic, more commonly referred to as “cold-blooded.” Ectotherms rely on external sources of heat, so temperature plays an important role influencing developmental processes, behaviors, and even survival. In general, higher temperatures have been found to shorten development time and decrease adult size of mosquitoes. The phenomenon of having smaller body size in response to increased temperatures is common in ectotherms and tends to be the rule rather than the exception. Although increased temperatures commonly result in smaller size, more rapid growth and development leads to increased probability of survival to adulthood. In the case of nuisance mosquitoes, this may translate into more active adults and more mosquito bites, given there is sufficient precipitation to prevent drying of larval habitats. As we enter the cooler months, we can see some seasonal trends from our mosquito surveillance in Richmond County.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Numbers of mosquitoes captured and daily temperatures. The red and blue lines represent the number of mosquitoes captured in traps among two different “routes”. Each route has 7 trap sites; and trapping occurs weekly, alternating between routes. The green line and purple line represent daily maximum and minimum temperatures respectively.

Numbers of nuisance mosquitoes have remained high in some locations through September and arboviral disease (viruses transmitted by arthropods like ticks and mosquitoes) transmission is still a possibility. However, those numbers are beginning to fall due to cooler night temperatures.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Correlation between temperature and number of mosquitoes. Each point represents the number of mosquitoes captured, averaged over one month and the daily low temperature, averaged over the same month. The R2 value in the top corner shows how well the mosquito count can be predicted or explained by the minimum temperature. In this case, about 60% of the fluctuation (variance) in mosquito counts can be accounted for minimum temperatures.

Past studies have found that the seasonal emergence of host-seeking females (those seeking a blood meal) is strongly influenced by the minimum temperature, and our results are in agreement with that finding. Furthermore, one study from Italy on the Asian tiger mosquito, a major nuisance species in our area, identified a threshold for activity around 48.2°F – 55.4°F.

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 3. Correlation between temperature and number of mosquitoes. The graph on the top shows the relationship when temperatures are 50F or below, and the graph on the bottom shows the relationship when temperatures are above 50F. Comparison of the two graphs shows the relationship is much stronger when temperatures are lower and there is practically no relationship once temperatures exceed 50F.

A closer examination of our data shows that numbers of mosquitoes vary by one order of magnitude (difference between 10’s and 100’s) when daily low temperatures are around 50°F. These data also show that once daily low temperatures exceed 50°F, the minimum temperature has almost no effect on the number of mosquitoes. As low temperatures in your area begin to drop consistently into the low 50’s, expect a substantial decrease in the number of mosquitoes around your home.

Water Fun Block Party Outreach Event

IMG_1481How do you make water education and outreach fun? You throw a Water Fun Block Party! And that’s just what Phinizy Center did on September 29th.

IMG_3521The family friendly event was hosted in Colony Park of Richmond County and offered playful water activities, fun and informative games, and a hot dog grill out. Phinizy’s education department walked children and parents through a water cycle game, ESG Operations exhibited a small-scale replica of a septic system to show how they work, and Adopt-A-Stream shared techniques for monitoring water quality.

IMG_3519The purpose of the event was to educate the community about septic system maintenance, pet waste management, and storm drainage fundamentals and protection as part of a larger collaborative project with the Augusta Engineering Department and Georgia Environmental Protection Division. The Center’s role under this collaboration has been to develop and implement outreach strategies aimed at reducing the conveyance of bacteria into local streams in areas where bacteria levels are a concern.

IMG_3526There are over 800 stream, river, and lake segments listed in Georgia over concerns of different types of pollution, but fecal coliform bacteria is the most common one. Fecal coliform bacteria are a broad group of nonpathogenic bacteria that have been used by regulatory groups to indicate potential contact of fecal matter from a warm-blooded animal with the water. In urban areas, like Richmond County, a large portion of the land area is impervious and rainwater can’t soak into the soil, so storm water washing pollutants, including bacteria, into local water bodies is a major concern. Common sources of bacterial contamination in urban areas include waste from pets or wildlife, failing septic systems, and leaky or overflowing sewer lines. Since stormwater runoff is generated from different sources – pavements, yards, driveways, and roofs, the source of a contamination problem can be hard to identify. It also means efforts to control pollution must include individuals and residential communities in cooperation with commercial operations and local governments.

In order to change behaviors that contribute to storm water pollution, the public must be aware of those behaviors and concerned about their impacts on water quality.  We are happy to be able to work together with the public to make the changes that are needed in order to have clean water for years to come!


Why is that River so Dirty?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the Savannah River’s designation as the 3rd most polluted river in the U.S. We had a chance to provide our thoughts on the topic in a series of reports by WJBF’s meteorologist Jason Nappi (view these here) and through an article in the Augusta Chronicle ( However, the dirt we are talking about here has nothing to do with nitrate discharge but has to do with, well, real dirt—the mud, soil, sediment kind of dirt.

If you were on a boat and lower a white disk attached to a rope into the water downstream of the dam (215 river miles from the ocean), you would be able to see the white disk to a depth of about 11 feet. If you were to lower the same disk into the water in the river near Clyo, GA (61 river miles from the ocean), for example, you would only be able to see the disk to a depth of about 3.5 feet. Why?

River Mile 215

water clarity 2





The reason that you would be able to see the disk so far into the water below Thurmond Lake is because the dam and lake prohibit the transport of material (sediment, leaves, nutrients, etc.) that originates from the landscape upstream of the lake, to the river below the dam. In essence, the lake is a big deep puddle that traps most of that material. As a result, the water that gets pumped through the dam is “filtered” by the lake. Removal of that material is the reason you can see 11 feet into the water below the dam.

The reason you can only see the white disk about 3.5 feet into the water near Clyo, GA is not because of Augusta but because the river begins to flow through what is known as the Coastal Plain Physiographic Province. A physiographic province is a region of the world that is distinct from other regions in terms of rock types, the landscape, and the environment that results from the topography and climate in that region. The Coastal Plain Physiographic Province is the region that is characterized by “rocks” that do not stick together (unconsolidated) like gravel, sand, silt, and clay, is generally flat (the Savannah River flows 187 miles from Augusta to the ocean but only falls 100 feet over that distance), and is generally wet with large areas of rivers, marshes, and swamplands. The Coastal Plain begins in Augusta and extends toward the sea.   As the Savannah River flows through the Coastal Plain, it comes into contact with more and more “unconsolidated rocks” and carries them to the sea. In addition, the climate within the Coastal Plain is perfect for growing trees that drop lots of leaves, some of which stain the water a dark tea color as they decay. As the water runs off the land, through the sediment, and ending up in the river, it carries with it stained water and leaf material to grow more bugs and river fish. The additional sediment, leaf material, and natural stain, compared to the Thurmond Dam site, no longer allows as much light to pass through the water which is why you would only be able to see the white disk to about 3.5 feet. The attached figure shows how deep you can see a black and white colored disk (Secchi disk) at several locations along the river.

If you would like to know more about our research efforts on the Savannah River please feel free to read our final report from a comprehensive Savannah River study or our annual monitoring reports (

Figure 1


WJBF Reports on Savannah River Water Quality

In response to the recent report naming the Savannah River as the 3rd most polluted in the US, Jason Nappi did an investigative 3-part report on other factors influencing this claim. Parts 2 and 3 include interviews with Dr. Oscar Flite, Phinizy Center CEO / Senior Scientist. You can watch these reports here:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:


Report Ranking Savannah River 3rd Most Toxic is Questioned

Recently, a report was released naming the Savannah River as the third most toxic in the US. However, not all relevant factors were considered. The Augusta Chronicle’s Meg Mirshak interviewed CEO / Senior Scientist Oscar Flite for his viewpoint on all relevant factors. You can read it here: