“Aquatic weed management is unique because we work in three dimensions instead of two,” said Rob Richardson, professor of aquatic weed management in the NC State Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. âMost terrestrial locations such as plants or lawns are cultivated according to area. But in water you have to consider volume and flow. ”
For his outstanding contributions in the field, Richardson was recently named a William H. Culpepper, Jr. Distinguished Professor in Aquatic Weed Science from NC State.
Protect common waters
Weed research is a diverse field. Aquatic weed management is a highly specialized subgroup that aims to offset harmful weed control amid fragile ecosystems and human activities.
âWater is a precious commodity. Anything that limits water availability or changes the balance of the ecosystem matters, âsaid Richardson. âIn natural systems, aquatic weeds can disturb our native plants and wild animals. In North Carolina we have rare species that invasive weeds could reduce or displace. “
NC is home to over 240 species of freshwater fish, 57 of which are state or federal protected areas. Rare native species are found in known NC waters and include more than just fish. Five rare species found in the catchment areas of the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico rivers are the Tar River Spinymussel, Yellow Lance, Dwarf Wedgemussel, Carolina Madtom, and the Neuse River Waterdog.
âIn large aquatic systems, every weed we deal with is an alien species. Hydrilla is one of the most common and problematic aquatic weeds we have in the state. It is a rapidly spreading, non-native plant that can shade the native vegetation and habitat. ”
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Invasive weed species can be controlled effectively, but the elimination is fleeting. Invasive plants can reproduce quickly from tiny fragments and can be transferred between bodies of water by boats or wildlife. And in a difficult turn, species of weeds also adapt to new environments over time.
“Initially, Hydrilla was mainly found in slow-flowing bodies of water and ponds, but over time it has moved into systems with more water disturbances.”
Richardson says we now have hydrilla in several NC river systems like the Eno and Cape Fear Rivers, which is extremely problematic as rivers are much more difficult to manage than ponds or still waters.
âThis is part of our current research. We are working to identify the biology and phenology of hydrilla in rivers and determine which management techniques could be effective with minimal environmental impact. But rivers are hard because we have fewer opportunities than in a reservoir system. “
Another alien weed, giant salvinia, once thought to be wiped out in NC, has resurfaced in southeast NC. Richardson’s group is working with government agencies to refine the Salvinia management programs.
Remote controlled access
Richardson’s group faces a common challenge in their research: routine access to remote areas. His group uses unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to monitor bodies of water and, in some cases, apply treatments.
âUAVs are useful for getting quick pictures of locations, so they can be extremely useful for identifying weeds such as giant salvinia. It’s a floating plant, so you can fly over it and get pictures much faster than by boat. ”
His group researches both the image processing of aquatic weeds and the application of weed treatment by drone.
âThe main benefit is the speed or randomness with which you can complete an application. When it comes to weed stains in hard-to-reach areas, air access is much more efficient than access from the ground or water. “
A rising tide
In his nearly two decades of research at NC State, Richardson has supervised 20 PhD students who will also benefit from the new professorship in aquatic weed science.
âBill Culpepper’s support for this program has been extremely valuable. It has enabled many PhD students to expand their research inquiries, present their work at specialist conferences, and interact with industrial partners. This is of crucial importance for our graduate training. “
Graduates from Richardson’s Weed Science program are currently working in environmental science with regulatory, utility, and industry.
“Research grants are a cornerstone of the advancement of science,” said Jeff Mullahey, director of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, NC. âWe are deeply grateful for Bill Culpepper’s transformative gift in supporting our aquatic weed science program and we are pleased that Dr. Richardson’s work is enhanced by it. “
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