Wednesday, November 18, 2015

On the Life of Kelly J. Meyer, by Don Orth

On October 24th I posted birthday wishes to Kelly Meyer on Facebook.  I sent him a photo of a Brook Trout for his birthday wishes. It was my last communication with him.   On the evening of November 4th, he died unexpectedly (see obituary), and, as is typical, I grasped for words to comfort his wife, Denise, and sons, Jack and Andrew, who I never knew, never met.  No words would come, only sadness.   Kelly was one of my graduate students from 1988 to 1990.  His life (vita from this 1990 MS thesis appears below) during his years at Virginia Tech remain among my fond, faded memories.  
During his time as a graduate student, Kelly studied the bioenergetics of Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) in streams of the Shenandoah National Park.  These unproductive, small streams are lined with dense Rhododendron and trout cannot move to find more suitable habitats during most seasons.   Brook Trout have adapted to these southern highland streams.  Kelly's thesis project explored the relation between the energy available in drifting insect prey and growth and consumption of brook trout.  The field work required sampling every six hours, flushing out stomach contents with lavage, and quantifying the mass of all items in stomachs and in the drift.  The waterproof, Ryan J (chart recording) thermograph recorded water temperatures continuously in this pre-digital era. The field work was strenuous enough just to hike into the study areas. Once there, you realized just how mal-adapted bipedal hominids are for wading these streams.  Few investigators have attempted this type of work, especially over the 24-hour cycle.  Kelly was interested in the challenge and was attracted to studying native Brook Trout in their natural habitats.    While in the Peace Corps, stationed in Lesotho, in southern Africa, Kelly managed to apply his skill set to survey isolated populations of the critically endangered Maloti Minnow Pseudobarbus quathlambae.  This minnow is still struggling to persist today (see recent story).
A mountain stream of Virginia and home to the native Brook Trout.
Kelly's thesis findings are significant to the survival and persistence of Brook Trout.   The southern strain of Brook Trout are adapted to life in the small, infertile mountain streams but growth rates can be very slow and adult body size is modest.   In some streams, the amount of energy Brook Trout could assimilate was barely enough to meet their standard metabolic needs, much less to permit energy for activity or growth.  Very few mountain streams provide the right combination of habitats and food.
Differences between assimilated and maintenance energy for Brook Trout in four study streams in Shenandoah National Park (Meyer 1990).

Consequently, it is the rare Brook Trout that captures sufficient prey and meets energetic needs to live and swim and grow large enough to produce mature eggs and contribute to the next generation.   Brook Trout in these mountain streams continuously monitor the available drifting insects and dart out to capture the larger, more energetically valuable prey. The best streams have an abundant canopy to shade the stream and keep water cool enough for optimum Brook Trout feeding (12-17°C).   The optimal Brook Trout streams also produce an abundant and diverse fauna of invertebrates, including aquatic and terrestrial forms.   Kelly's hypothesis that growth and consumption of Brook Trout was influenced by abundance of larger prey in the drift was supported by his field studies (see below), especially within streams.   He also identified an energy minimizing strategy by the Brook Trout that enabled them to reduce activity costs when prey levels were low.  Years later, Railsback and Rose (1999) confirmed that  growth of Rainbow Trout was strongly influenced by factors controlling food consumption.  Their work and most other more recent field investigations relied on model-estimated food consumption rather than diel sampling.  
Percent of consumption captured by Brook Trout in relation to density of large drifting prey (Meyer 1990)
One of the surprises in the study was the regular appearance Gypsy Moth (Lymatria dispar)  larvae in the guts of the Brook Trout.   Gypsy Moths are a devastating forest pest that feed on foliage and were marching through the Appalachian mountains at that time.   The pest has been in North American for 100 years. A major concern is the potential loss of economically critical and ecologically dominant oak (Quercus spp.) trees.  Yet, the examination of the diet demonstrated that this terrestrial pest was subsiding the Brook Trout in these forest-covered mountain streams.

Realizing the practical difficulties for numerous intensive field investigations, Kelly Meyer also developed an energetics-based model to analyze dynamics of trout populations in Appalachian streams.  The model included mathematical formulations for temperature effects, size-dependent mortality, seasonal mortality to predict population changes and  average trout size.  The model was programmed in the language of the times (FORTRAN).   These calculations are essential components to define the thermal niche of the Brook Trout.  They may be used in future efforts to project the effects of climate change on suitability of streams for Brook Trout in the southern Appalachian mountains.  Many partners are involved via the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, to protect, restore, and enhance remaining Brook Trout 

Most of Kelly's fisheries career was with the White Mountain Apache Tribe Game and Fish Department and  Arizona Department of Game and Fish.  When he was first hired, he was the only fisheries biologist with the White Mountain Apache Tribe; he would joke that he was Chief of Fisheries.  In this role, his expertise was critical in the management and recovery of the federally endangered Apache Trout (Oncorhynchus apache).  Many actions are required for the recovery of  Apache Trout and the success of recovery depends on special people, such as Kelly Meyer, who possess the patience and skills to work with the many cooperators to set appropriate fishing regulations, improve stream habitats, negotiate agreements, install and maintain barriers, and prevent movements of non-native competitors.  He was a field scientist for all seasons and for all peoples.  We need more people like Kelly Meyer in this world.   I am very saddened with news of his passing.

Kelly J. Meyer

Meyer, K. J. 1990.  Effects of drifting prey abundance on food consumption and growth of brook trout in Shenandoah National Park.  Master's Thesis. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia.  111 pp.
Meyer, K.J., and D.J. Orth.  1990.  Development and application of an energetics-based model for trout populations in Appalachian streams.  Final Report, U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station. 129 pp.
Railsback, S.F., and K.A. Rose. 1999.  Bioenergetic modeling of stream trout growth: temperature and food consumption effects.  Transactions of the American Fisheries Society  128:241-256.


  1. I was lucky enough to travel to AZ when I worked for McMullen in 1994 for an ESA-listing project. who should I get to interview about the Apache Trout but our own Kelly, whom I had not seen since his graduation 4 years earlier. He was already hip-deep in his work and you could tell good things were happening and even better was on the way. One of the things I learned during that whole ESA experience was that imperiled species need a champion if recovery is to occur. Kelly was definitely that champion for Apache Trout. We need more....

  2. What was the most interesting and or surprising thing you found in the stomachs of these fish?