• Joanna Burger
  • Joanna Burger
  • Distinguished Professor
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  • Phone: (848) 445-9536
  • Fax: (732) 445-1794
  • Office: B216 Nelson Labs
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  • Research Group: Organismal Behavior and Physiology
  • Research Interests:

    Animal behavior, avian ecology, behavioral toxicology, ecological evaluations and risk

  • News Articles:
  • Dr. Joanna Burger Granted the Distinguished Career Award
  • Current Research:

    Behavior ecologist, eco-toxicologist and risk assessor whose research includes ecology, population dynamics, and effects of sea level rise on birds, effects of incubation temperature on behavioral development,  effects of contaminants on vertebrates (including people), and assessing human and ecological risk.


    In recent years our research program includes: 1) social behavior of birds and other vertebrates, 2) migratory and foraging behavior of shorebirds, 3) behavioral development (laboratory experiments with the effects of temperature on behavior, morphology and physiology), 4) ecology, nesting, and hibernation behavior of Pine Snakes, 5) fate and effects of heavy metals, 6) risk perceptions, concerns and preparedness for future storms, fish consumption, and effects from storms 7) risk assessment, including value of ecological resources and protection of human and ecological health on Department of Energy Sites and 8) a new species of grod.  Each on-going project will be described briefly below.  All of this research is collaborative with a range of scientists, government agencies and officials, and other stakeholders, as well as a number of graduate and undergraduate students, post-docs, and other volunteers. 

                My academic appointment is jointly with Cell Biology and Neuroscience, and with Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources.  I am also a member of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, The Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Institute, and a faculty member of the School of Public Health. 

    1. Our data on the demography and reproductive success of colonial birds in Barnegat Bay for over 40 years allowed us to examine the effects of invasive species, contaminants, and sea level rise. Only Great Egrets and Great Black-backed Gull have increased, while all other species are decreasing, largely due to competition for safe nesting places, increases in severe storms, and loss of colony sites because of sea level rise. While our major studies are in New Jersey, other work on lizards and Olive Sea Turtles in Costa Rice, Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, Common Terns in Mongolia, Cattle Egrets in Africa, and many other species elsewhere have allowed us to compare how animals avoid predators, obtain sufficient food, and breed successfully.  The studies in Barnegat Bay are on-going, as are those of nesting and hibernating Pine Snakes in the New Jersey Pine Barrens (30 + years, see # 4 below).

                Our data show long-term declines in the number of birds nesting in Barnegat Bay and elsewhere, and that these declines continue, and are due to losses of colony sites (due to sea level rise mainly).  These declines occur in Common Terns (shown below), some gulls, skimmers, and some herons and egrets.  Habitat loss is a result of low-lying salt marsh islands used for nesting becoming inundated because of sea level rise, making them no longer usable.  Competition with the larger Herring Gulls (an invasive species that nested farther north) has resulted in the smaller species being forced to lower elevation places, and their nests were flooded out.

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    Number of pairs and individual Common Terns nesting in Barnegat Bay from 1976 – 2016.

    Over the last several decades, the number of islands suitable for nesting has decreased for nearly all the colonially-nesting species.  Species with the greatest loss of habitat are the Laughing Gull and Black Skimmer (see below).  Other islands are lost because of competition with Herring Gulls.  These studies will continue as it is critical to understand what the effects of climate change and sea level rise are on a variety of species, to document changes, and to determine how to modify habitat to allow colonial nesting species to nest successfully.  This work is with Fred Lesser, Michael Gochfeld (Rutgers, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School), and Brian Palestis (Wagner College), in cooperation with NJ Endangered and Nongame Program.   

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    Effect of global warming and sea level rise on the island suitability for nesting by colonial birds in Barnegat Bay from the early 1970s to 2017.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Niles, L., Tsipoura, N., Mizrahi, D., Dey, A., Pittfield, T. and Jeitner, C. 2017. Stakeholder contributions to assessment, monitoring, and conservation of threatened species: black skimmer and red knot as case studies. Environ Monitor Assessment 189: 60-78.

    Key Publication: Burger J. and M. Gochfeld 2016:  Habitat, Population and Dynamics and Metal Levels in Colonial Birds (CRC Press).

    1. Our current work on Delaware Bay involves examining local movements, habitat use, and long migration routes of Red Knots and other shorebirds, and interactions of people with birds. Our goal is to understand the spatial and temporal habitat needs of shorebirds to allow shorebirds and human activities to flourish.  With the use of light-sensitive geolocators we are demonstrating knots fly thousands of km non-stop between stopover sites.  Sufficient foraging space and prey (Horseshoe Crab eggs) are essential to allow them to nearly double their weight to reach their Arctic breeding grounds.  The on-going threat from overharvesting of Horseshoe Crabs for bait, and use of the intertidal for oyster culture, both require extensive study of habitat use and needs, shorebird body condition, and migration patterns.

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    Burger and Larry Niles placing light-sensitive geolocators on Red Knots at a stopover in Delaware Bay, NJ.

    While the migration patterns were generally known from banding studies, the use of geolocators has provided data on complete routes (times, locations, continuous flights) between wintering and breeding grounds, including stopover sites.  Our data illustrated that some knots overwinter in the U.S. from Maryland to Florida, and that Delaware Bay is essential to their health and well-being.  By placing geolocators on knots at key wintering, stopover, and breeding locations we are working toward understanding the effect of food availability, human development, human disturbance, anthropogenic factors (horseshoe crab overharvesting, aquaculture), and sea level rise.  One of the key questions is whether the knots can physiologically take on enough weight to migrate these long distances, and still arrive on the breeding grounds with enough reserves to lay eggs and breed successfully. The objective is to increase the populations of Red Knots (on the U.S. threatened species list), while fostering the social and economic development of Delaware Bay and other stopover sites.

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    Track of one Red Knot fitted with a geolocator at Delaware Bay (red dot # 1), New Jersey.  It went to the Arctic to breed, and then to Bahia Lomas in Argentina (red dot # 2).

    In addition we discovered that we could use the geolocators to determine whether birds bred in the Arctic, whether they incubated to term, and whether they likely raised young.  This is important because Red Knots and other shorebirds are very spaced out in the Arctic, and nests are difficult to locate.  Understanding reproductive success, in combination with information on climate change is essential to determining the pressure points for population declines.  This work is in collaboration with Larry Niles (Conserve Wildlife of NJ), Mandy Dey (NJDEP), Ron Porter and others.

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    Data from geolocators placed on Red Knots under different conditions.  In the Arctic, there is no signal because there is no night and day.  However, when the bird sits to incubate, it shows a dark pattern. 

    Our research also includes examining the effect of human disturbance on nesting and foraging birds, and the effect of fisheries (for Horseshoe Crabs) and aquaculture (for Oysters) on shorebirds.  Traditional oyster culture was farther north in the bay, where horseshoe crabs do not breed (and shorebirds normally do not forage).  On-going studies are examining Red Knot and shorebird use of the intertidal (out to 300 m from mean high tide).  Oyster racks are places at least 100 feet from shore. 

    Results to date indicate that Red Knots avoid intertidal sections with oyster racks, especially when oystermen work on them.  Further, in another experiment, we found that knots avoided untended racks, but did not avoid sections with artificial reefs or controls (see figure below).  Such studies require many years of replicates to capture the natural variation due to weather constraints, bird variations, and variations in horseshoe crab breeding.

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    Photo of oyster racks (right), and Red Knots and other shorebirds foraging near an experimental reef (left).

    Table.  Percent of surveys where Red Knots were observed, and mean number present for an experiment with reefs, racks and controls at Reed Beach (2016).


    % Observations with Knots

    Mean + SE


        2 reefs


    72 + 14


        1 reef


    64 + 15


        Oyster racks


    12 + 3




    70 + 11


    Key Publications:

    Burger, J., L. Niles, R. Porter, A. Dey, S. Koch, and C. Gordon. (2012). Using a shorebird (red knot) fitted with geolocators to evaluate a conceptual risk model focusing on off shore wind. Renewable Energy 43:370-377.

    Burger, J., L Niles, R. porter, A. Dey, S. Koch, and C. Gordon (2012). Migration and overwintering of Red Knots (Calidris canutus rufa) along the Atlantic coast of the United States. Condor 114: 302-313.

    Niles, L., burger, J., Dey, A., Van de Kam, J. 2012. Life along the Delaware Bay. Cape May, Gateway to a Million Shorebirds. Rutgers University Press, 176 pp.

    Burger J., and L. Niles. 2013. Shorebirds and stakeholders: Effects of beach closure and human activities on shorebirds at a New Jersey coastal beach. Urban Ecosystems 16: 657-673.

    Burger J, Niles LJ, Porter RR, Dey AD. 2014. Using geolocators to reveal incubation periods and breeding biology in Red Knots. Wader Study Group Bulletin 119: 26-36.

    Burger, J., L.J. Niles, A.D. Dey, T. Dillingham, A.S. Gates & J. Smith. 2015. An experiment to examine how Red Knots Calidris canutus rufa and other shorebirds respond to oyster culture at Reed’s Beach, Delaware Bay, New Jersey. Wader Study 122: 89–98.

    Burger, J., and L.J. Niles. 2017. Habitat use by Red Knots (Calidris canutus rufa): Experiments with oyster racks and reefs on the beach and intertidal of Delaware Bay, New Jersey. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. 194:109-117.

     Burger, J. 2018. Use of intertidal habitat by four species of shorebirds in an experimental array of oyster racks, reefs and controls on Delaware Bay, New Jersey: Avoidance of oyster racks. Science of the Total Environment624, 1234-1243.

    Burger, J., Mizrahi, D., Tsipoura, N., Jeitner, C., Gochfeld, M. 2018. Mercury, Lead, Cadmium, Cobalt, Arsenic and Selenium in the Blood of Semipalmated Sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) from Suriname, South America: Age-related Differences in Wintering Site and Comparisons with a Stopover Site in New Jersey, USA. Toxics6, 27.

    Burger, J., Niles, L., Jeitner, C., Gochfeld, M. 2018. Habitat risk: Use of intertidal flats by foraging red knots (Calidris canutus rufa), ruddy turnstones, (Arenaria interpres), semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla), and sanderling (Calidris alba) on Delaware Bay beaches. Environmental Research, 165, 237-246.

    1. Factors affecting behavioral development in reptiles and birds is investigated in our lab, particularly with respect to birds and Pine Snakes. Laboratory and field experiments with the effects of incubation temperature on Pine Snakes have demonstrated that low incubating temperatures result in behavioral deficits in locomotion, anti-predator behavior, and foraging ability. These deficits result in hatchlings being generally unable to find hibernation sites before onset of cold weather in the fall, decreasing parental fitness.  These low incubation temperatures, subsequently found in other snakes and other reptiles, contribute to determining geographical ranges of reptiles.   Similar studies with turtles in our lab indicated similar behavioral deficits.  This work is in collaboration with Michael Gochfeld, Robert Zappalorti (CEO, Herpetological Associates), and Emile DeVito (Conservation Foundation of NJ).

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    Poaching is a problem as in some years 40 % of our marked nests were poached by snake collectors.  We are countering high rates of poaching by head-starting hatchlings, obstructing the free access to nesting sites, and working with officers to reduce these effects.  We demonstrated that off-access to key nesting sites can increase productivity and populations.  Further, Pine Snakes require open exposed places within the Pine Barrens, and many of these are succeeding into dense Pine forests.  Continued restoration and management are required to keep nesting sites optimal.  These studies are in conjunction with Michael Gochfeld, Robert Zappalorti, and Emile DeVito, and numerous graduate students.

    Key publication:

    Burger, J. 2007. The behavioral response of emerging pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) to people: implications for survival and protection. Urban Ecosystems, 10:193-201.

    Burger, J., B. Zappolorti, Gochfeld, M., Burket, D., Schneider, D., McCort, Jeitner, C. 2012. Long-term use of hibernacula by Northern Pine Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus). J. Herpetology 46: 596-601.

    Burger, J. and R. Zappalorti. 2011. The Northern Pine Snake (Pituophis melanoleucus) in New Jersey: Its Life History, Behavior and Conservation. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. New York.

    Burger, J. and R. Zappalorti. 2015. Hibernation site philopatry in northern Pine Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) in New Jersey.  Journal of Herpetology 49: 245-251.

    Burger, J., Zappalorti, B. 2016. Conservation and protection of threatened Pine Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) in the NJ Pine Barrens, USA. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 11:304–314.

    Burger J., M. Gochfeld, R.T. Zappalorti, E. DeVito, C. Jeitner, T. Pittfield, D. Schneider, and M. McCort. 2017. Stakeholder Contributions to Conservation and Protection of Threatened.  Species: Pine Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) in the New Jersey Pine Barrens as a Case Study. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. 11(2), e142.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Jeitner, C. Zappolorti, R., Pittfield, T. and DeVito, E. 2017.  Arsenic, Cadmium, Chromium, Lead, Mercury and Selenium Concentrations in Pine Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) from the New Jersey Pine Barrens.  Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 72:586-595.

    Burger, J., Zappalorti, R. T., Gochfeld, M. 2018. Hatchling survival to breeding age in Northern Pine Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) in the New Jersey Pine Barrens: Human effects on recruitment from 1986 to 2017. PloS one13(5), e0195676.

    5.  Our laboratory is conducting long-term biomonitoring of heavy metals in fish, birds, and mammals to assess possible effects on the organisms themselves, and on predators that eat them (including people who consume fish).  These fate and effects studies have focused on lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and radionuclides.  Lead and cadmium have generally decreased since the early 1970s, but mercury (largely from atmospheric deposition) have not.  Our laboratory experiments have indicated that levels equivalent to the highest exposure gulls obtain in the wild can cause behavioral deficits (cognitive problems), and that these can lead to increased mortality. 

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    In other laboratory experiments we showed that lead disrupts individual recognition (a cognitive ability).  With time, recognition increases in the controls, but does not for the lead birds and by 20 days of age there is still a significant difference in their ability to recognize their parents (see graph below).  In the wild, this leads to lower survival (young that don’t recognize their parents wander into neighbor’s territories, and are killed).  These, and other laboratory experiments, can be used to develop paradigms for understanding behavior of people.

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    We have long-term data on heavy metals in birds (and some on fish) from other bays and estuaries from Chesapeake Bay to Boston Harbor.  This work on heavy metals in birds is the longest-running data set on birds in the U.S., involving several species (gulls, terns, skimmers, herons, egrets).  Mercury is a major problem for humans and other biota, particularly in marine and coastal environments.  Mercury causes locomotory and cognitive deficits.  Birds are excellent indicators of contaminants in the environment because they reflect level humans obtain when eating fish, and of the exposure of other predators (Osprey, herons, other species).   We have been monitoring levels in eggs of Common Terns since 1970.  These levels have been analyzed in our lab (and we continue to do so) using the same methods (see below).  It is VERY important to continue these studies at a time when China is adding coal-fired power plants every week, and national regulations concerning mercury from our own power plants are being reduced.

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    Levels of lead, mercury and cadmium in the eggs of Common Terns from Barnegat Bay.

    Key publication: 

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld.  1995.  Behavioral impairment of lead-exposed herring gulls in nature. Fundamentals of Applied Toxicology 23:553-561.

    Burger, J. 1995. A risk assessment for lead in birds.  J. Toxicology & Environmental Health. 45:369-396.

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld.  1997. Lead and Neurobehavioral development in Gulls:  a model for understanding effects in the laboratory and the field.  NeuroToxicology. 18:2 79-287.

    Burger, J., M. Gochfeld. 2000. Effects of Lead on Birds (Laridae): A review of Laboratory and Field Studies. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, part B. 3:59-78.

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld. 2003. Lead in Young Herring Gulls: Paradoxical effects of exercise on Tissue Concentrations. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. 66:181-197.

    Burger, J., M. Gochfeld. 2004.  Effects of Lead and Exercise on Endurance and Learning in Young Herring Gulls. Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. 57:136-144.

    Burger, J and M. Gochfeld.  2005.  Effects of Lead on Learning in Herring Gulls: An Avian Wildlife Model for Neurobehavioral Deficits. NeuroToxicology. 26:4:615-624.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Jeitner, C., Donio, M., and T. Pittfield. (2012). Lead (Pb) in Biota and Perceptions of Lead Exposure at a Recently-designated Superfund Beach Site in New Jersey.  Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. 75 (5): 272-287. 

    Bellinger, D., Burger, J., Cade, T., Cory-Slechta, D., Finkelstein, M., Hu, H., Kosnett, M., and P. Landrigan. 2013. Health risked from lead-based ammunition in the environment. Environmental Health Perspectives. 121:178-179.

    Burger and Gochfeld 2016 (see # 1 above).

    1. It is essential to understand the risk perceptions and concerns of people about any number of issues that affect the health and well-being of species and ecosystems. Our research in this area has included understanding concerns and perceptions of people about fish consumption (including fishing behavior, consumption patterns, and risk from contaminants in fish, see above), understanding the concerns and perceptions about the value of healthy coastal ecosystems and natural resources, understanding the concerns, perceptions and future preparedness of people following Superstorm Sandy.  These studies are both ecological and responsive to emerging problems (such as Sandy).

                Fish consumption studies in NJ, NJ, Idaho, South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Washington and other places (including Singapore) have shown that often people are aware of the risk from contaminants and know about the health effects, but not how to balance the risks and benefits.  Mercury is the greatest risk from fish consumption (determined from studies in our lab with a range of fish at different trophic levels), but can be reduced by selecting fish low on the trophic, eating a variety of fish species, and limiting portion size.  Further, our laboratory studies have demonstrated the relationship between selenium (protective against mercury) and mercury levels in different fish, and the relationship between fish size and these levels.

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    To understand how much, and why people eat contaminated foods, Studies on the levels of radionuclides and heavy metals must be examined, and consumption rates must be determined.  One of our studies in Amchitka Island (in the Bering Sea) examined radionuclide levels in foods consumed by the Aleuts (Native Americans), as well as fish, crabs and other foods eaten by people in the lower 48 states (over half of our fish come from the Bering Sea.  From 1965-1971 the US conducted 3 underground nuclear tests, and contamination in biota, subsistence foods and commercial foods were not examined. This was a CRESP project, and involved Aleuts on the expedition, as well as an expedition on a NOAA fishing trawler.  We have continued the work at other DOE sites (see below).

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    Burger 19  Burger 20

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    To build support for the protection of coastal habitats (dunes, beaches, marshes) in natural conditions, it is essential to understand how people view these resources.  People only support (both emotionally, politically, and financially) things that they understand and appreciation.  Over the years we interview people periodically about their attitudes and perceptions of the value of ecological resources (including endangered species, birds, fish, marine mammals, algae).  This allows us to provide managers with information of how these values change over time.    With this background of data, we were able to design and implement a survey of people in both coastal and inland New Jersey following Hurricane Sandy (within 100 days of the storm).  We found that during Sandy, medical issues were the primary concern of shore respondents, while secure and safe food and water were the major concerns for inland NJ residents.  Before the storm many people did not heed warnings and evacuation orders, but were worried about property damage.  After concerns were for health and safety of family and friend

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    Within 100 days of Sandy, most people did not recognize the importance of soft, ecological barriers to prevent damage in their communities.  Their concerns focused on property damages and inconveniences (see below)

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    This data base allowed us to conduct a study for CDC on the experiences of patients in Federally-Qualified Health Centers.  It is important to understand the relationship between effects (physical), perceptions of damage, understanding of man’s role, and future preparedness to helping design new preparedness plans for future events.  This information is critical to allow State and Federal Agencies to deal with new hurricanes (such as Harvey, Irma), and to help NJ State managers to be prepared for future storms.  This project is a collaboration with Michael Gochfeld (Rutgers Medical School) and Cliff Lacey (Director of Rutgers Preparedness Center).  Understanding the perceptions, concerns, and effects from severe events such as Superstorm Sandy allow individuals, communities, and governments to better prepare for future events.  

    Interestingly, three years after the storm, people were more convinced that storms are due to climate change, they will come more often, and these changes are likely due to human activity.  However, they still did not fully recognize the importance of salt marshes and sand dunes to prevention of flooding.

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    Key references:

    Burger, J. 2008.  Perceptions as Indicators of Potential Risk from Fish Consumption and health of Fish Populations.  Environmental Bioindicators 3: 90-105. 

    Burger, Joanna. 2009. Perceptions of the risks and benefits of fish consumption: individual choices to reduce risk and increase health benefits. Environmental Research. 109: 343-349.

    Lowenstein, J., Burger, J., Jeitner, C., Amato, G., Kolokotronis, S., and M. Gochfeld. 2010. DNA barcodes reveal species-specific mercury levels in tuna sushi that pose a health risk to consumers. Biology Letters 6: 692-695.

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld. 2014. Health concerns and perceptions of central and coastal New Jersey residents in the 100 days following Superstorm Sandy. Science of Total Environment. 481: 611-618.

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld. 2014. Perceptions of Personal and Governmental Actions to Improve Responses to Disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. Environmental Hazards. 13 (3):200-210.

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld. 2015. Concerns and perceptions immediately following Superstorm Sandy: ratings for property damage were higher than for health issues. Journal of Risk Research. 18:249-265.

    Burger, J. 2015.  Ecological concerns following Superstorm Sandy: stressor level and recreational activity levels affect perceptions of ecosystem. Urban Ecosystems 18:553-575.

    Burger J, Tsipoura N, Simnor A, Pittfield T, Jeitner C, Mizrahi D, and Niles L. 2017. Perceptions of coastal users about avian resources and beach restoration following Hurricane Sandy. Urban Ecosystems 20: 363-373.

    Burger J, O’Neil KM, Handel SN, Hensold B, and Ford G. (2017). The shore is wider than the beach: Ecological planning solutions to sea level rise for the Jersey Shore, USA. Landscape and urban Planning 157: 512-522.

    Burger J, O’Neil KM, Handel SN, Hensold B, and Ford G. (2017). The shore is wider than the beach: Ecological planning solutions to sea level rise for the Jersey Shore, USA. Landscape and urban Planning 157: 512-522.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Pittfield, T. and Jeitner, C., 2017. Responses of a Vulnerable Hispanic Population in New Jersey to Hurricane Sandy: Access to Care, Medical Needs, Concerns, and Ecological Ratings. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A. 80(6):315-325.

    1. On-going studies on the Department of Energy sites are aimed at understanding the risk to humans and ecological receptors from radionuclide and chemical contamination (as well as physical disruption). Our work includes studies at Amchitka Island (Aleutians, Bering Sea), Hanford Site (Washington), Idaho National Laboratory, Los Alamos (New Mexico), Brookhaven Laboratory (Long Island), Oak Ridge (Tennessee), and Savannah River Site (South Carolina).  Specific studies include evaluating ecological resources on sites, understanding risk to ecosystems, ways to reduce risk during remediation, preserving these relatively pristine ecosystems (usually < 10 % are industrialized), protecting human health, assessing risk to humans from fish consumption, understanding perceptions about the importance of ecological resources, and fostering stakeholder involvement and consensus.

    This work is in collaboration with the Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation (CRESP), including David Kosson, Chuck Powers, Michael Gochfeld, and many others, including Native American Tribes and other environmental justice communities.

    One of our major projects has been working at Hanford and Oak Ridge, examining the risk t ecological receptors and humans, and examining the relationship between future land use and remediation levels.  The risk work is described briefly below.

    Evaluation of risk to human and ecological receptors from remediation at Hanford Site (state of Washington).   When World War II and the Cold War ended, nations were left with lands contaminated with radioactive and chemical wastes that require cleanup to allow rehabilitation and productive uses and to reduce risk to humans and the environment.  Cleanup should be completed in a cost-effective manner that minimizes the risk to people and the environment both during and after remediation, and that assures sustainability.  Assessing the effects of remediation and restoration is an important societal goal, and leads to sustainability of future lands uses, including maintenance of healthy ecosystems that support native plants and animals. 

    The Hanford Site has the largest Department of Energy cleanup task, which is expected to continue into 2090 and beyond.  The site is in relatively pristine shrub-steppe habitat, and they have suffered far less loss of this habitat than the surrounding eco-region.  Less than 10 % of the Hanford land is in industrial development, and the rest is shrub-steppe.  The site has protected these valuable shrub-steppe habitats from development.  The Hanford Site, however, has many contaminated areas within the site, and remediation is planned for them.

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    CRESP (Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Participation) undertook a Hanford site-wide risk review aimed at understanding the risk to receptors currently, during remediation, and in the post-remediation phase.  Receptors considered were humans (workers, public), groundwater, the Columbia River ecological, and eco-cultural.  Methods were developed to assess the risk to these receptors.  A team of engineers, social scientists, ecologists, lawyers, and physicians worked together to develop methods, and Burger headed the ecological methods development and implementation.  My role was to develop methods to evaluate risk to the environment before, during, and after remediation, develop methods to determine the effect of delaying remediation on humans and ecosystems, and apply these evaluations on Hanford Site of the US Department of Energy.  The methods developed can be used for other contaminated or disrupted sites worldwide to determine risks to ecosystems, to compare risks and benefits among and within sites, and to assure sustainability of ecosystems.

    The Ecological Evaluation Methodology includes three phases: 1) general steps, 2) ecological descriptions, and 3) ecological ratings.

    1. General steps:
      1. Identify value of resources (0-5, where 5 is most valuable).
      2. Identify remediation evaluation facilities (e.g. sites to evaluate).
      3. Identify appropriate buffer area around each facility where ecological resources may be impacted.
      4. Identify remediation options already determined.
      5. Develop a risk rating scale that is qualitative and ordinal (e.g. not discernible, low, medium, high) for degradation of resources.
      6. Decide on time frames (current, during, and after).
    2. Ecological description:
      1. Determine whether ecological resources have been inventoried on each facility and its buffer (e.g. are there valuable resources on each facility).
      2. Conduct field evaluations to examine current conditions (% cover by high quality species or unique habitats).
      3. Include listed species, invasive species, connectivity, patch size.
      4. Summarize resource total value.
    3. Determine ecological ratings of risk to ecological resources for facility + buffer (based on resource value, ecological descriptions + remediation options).

    The value of ecological resources were:  5 = Irreplaceable habitat or federally threatened and endangered species. 4 = Essential habitat for state threatened or endangered species; 3 = Important habitat for plants, animals, and viable ecosystems; 2 = Habitat with high potential for restoration; 1 = Industrial developed area; 0 = Paved with built facilities.  The ecological risk ratings were ranked from not-discernible to very high, where very high meant permanent destruction of high quality resources (rated > 3). 

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    Sometimes cost, personnel and schedule make it impossible to complete all remediation tasks at once, and sites must Prioritize and Delay Remediation, and the method described above can be applied.  The effects of delaying remediation differ for people and ecological resources. Workers are most at risk from delay because buildings can decay or collapse, exposing them to accidents and radiological/chemical exposure.  Without maintenance, risks may increase (Figure below), but decay of radionuclides and new technology may offset these costs (adverse effect is shown by gray areas). 

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    If there are valuable ecological resources on site the greatest risk is from physical disruption, which varies by the severity of remediation options (worst = soil removal).  Delaying remediation on sites with quality ecological resources delays the time when these resources can recover to a climax community (Fig. 2 above).  The climax shrub-step (at Hanford), from 9000 to the present, shown on left side of graph: the effects of delaying remediation is shown on the right 2/3 of graph.  Although new technologies may reduce disruption to eco-resources, any disruption will require time for the system to recover.  New technology may decrease recovery time.  It is better to protect resources, and reduce remediation disruptions than it is to try to restore resources.  The assessment methodology described above can be used to determine the risk to resources from remediation, followed by considerations of the effect of time delay.

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    Key references

    Burger, J., Clarke J., and M. Gochfeld. (2011). Information Needs for Siting New, and Evaluating Current, Nuclear Facilities: Ecology, Fate and Transport, and Human Health. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment. 172(1-4):121-34.

    Burger J and M Gochfeld. 2016. Initiating events, functional remediation, and assessment of risk to ecological resources. Ecological Indicators 71:32-40.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Bunn, A., Downs, J., Jeitner, C., Pittfield, T., and Salisbury, J. 2016. Functional Remediation: a method of evaluating the effects of remediation on risks to ecological receptors. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. 79:957-968.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Bunn, A., Downs, J., Jeitner, C., Pittfield, T., Salisbury, J., and D. Kosson. 2017. A Methodology to Evaluate Ecological Resources and Risk Using Two Case Studies at the Department of Energy’s Hanford Site. Environmental Management, 59: 357-372.

    Burger, J, Gochfeld M, Bunn A, Kosson D, Salisbury J. 2017. Ecological resource values, remediation options, and impacts: case studies from Hanford. Waste Management Proceedings, Phoenix, AZ. 

    Burger, J., Kosson, D., Powers, C., Gochfeld, M. 2018. An Information Template for Evaluating the Relative Priority of Remediation Projects that Pose a Risk to Receptors.  Waste Management Symposium, 2018. Phoenix, AZ. 18674. 

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., & Jeitner, C. (2018). Risk valuation of ecological resources at contaminated deactivation and decommissioning facilities: methodology and a case study at the Department of Energy’s Hanford site. Environmental monitoring and assessment190 (8), 478.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Kosson, D.S., Brown, K.G., Bliss, L.S., Bunn, A., Clarke, J.H., Mayer, H.J. and Salisbury, J.A., 2019. The costs of delaying remediation on human, ecological, and eco-cultural resources: Considerations for the Department of Energy: A methodological framework. Science of The Total Environment, 649, 1054-1064.


    In Today’s World it is essential to be able to translate science for managers, public policy makers, and the public.  Governments, agencies and people will only protect (and finance) the things they understand, appreciate, and feel are important.  Making science accessible to the public is a key responsibility of researchers.  Our science can be made available through articles in popular journals or on-line blogs, through books designed for the public, public lectures and talks, meetings, and involving the public in the design and implementation of research.  Two other important aspect require mentioning: 1) commitment to always remember and include diversity, and those who are vulnerable, and 2) always include a range of stakeholders in science. 

    Key references:

    Burger, J., M. Gochfeld, K. Kosson, C.S. Powers, B. Friendlander, J. Eichelberger, D. Barnes, L. K. Duffy, S. C. Jewett, and C. D. Volz. 2005. Science, Policy, and Stakeholders: Developing a Consensus Science Plan for Amchitka Island, Aleutians, Alaska. Environmental Management.35:5:557-568. 

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Jeitner, C., Burke, S., Stamm, T., Snigaroff, R., Snigaroff, D., Patrick, R., Weston, J. 2007. Mercury levels and potential risk from subsistence foods from the Aleutians. Science of the Total Environment, 384:93-105.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Powers, C.W., Kosson, D.S., Halverson, J., Siekaniec, G., Morkill, A., Patrick, R., Duffy, L.K., Barnes, D. 2007. Scientific research, stakeholders, and policy: Continuing dialogue during research on radionuclides on Amchitka Island, Alaska. Journal of Environmental Management, 85, 232-244.

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld. 2009 Changes in Aleut concerns following the stakeholder-driven Amchitka Independent Science Assessment. Risk Analysis. 29(8): 1156-1169.

    Burger, J. 2009. Stakeholder involvement in indicator selection: Case studies and levels of participation. Environmental Bioindicators, 4 (2): 170-190.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., and K. Pletnikoff. 2009. Collaboration versus communication: The department of Energy’s Amchitka Island and the Aleut Community. Environmental Research. 109(4): 503-510. 

    Burger, J. and M. Gochfeld. 2009 Changes in Aleut concerns following the stakeholder-driven Amchitka Independent Science Assessment. Risk Analysis. 29(8): 1156-1169.

    Burger, J., Harris, S., Harper, B., and M. Gochfeld. (2010) Ecological information needs for environmental justice. Risk Analysis. 30 (6) 893-905.

    Burger J., and M. Gochfeld. (2011). Conceptual Environmental Justice Model: Evaluation of Chemical Pathways of Exposure in Low-Income, Minority, Native American, and Other Unique Exposure Populations American Journal of Public Health. 101 Suppl. 1: S64-73.

    Burger, J. (editor) 2011. Stakeholders and Scientists: Achieving Implementable Solutions to Energy and Environmental Issues. Springer, New York, New York.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., and T. Fote. 2013. Stakeholder Participation in Research Design and Decisions: Scientists, Fishers, and Mercury in Saltwater Fish. Ecohealth. DOI: 10.1007/s10393-013-0816-8

    Burger J., and L. Niles. 2013. Shorebirds and stakeholders: Effects of beach closure and human activities on shorebirds at a New Jersey coastal beach. Urban Ecosystems 16: 657-673.

    Burger, J., Gochfeld, M., Niles, L., Tsipoura, N., Mizrahi, D., Dey, A., Pittfield, T. and Jeitner, C.2017. Stakeholder contributions to assessment, monitoring, and conservation of threatened species: black skimmer and red knot as case studies. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 189: 60-78.

    Burger J., M. Gochfeld, R.T. Zappalorti, E. DeVito, C. Jeitner, T. Pittfield, D. Schneider, and M. McCort. 2017. Stakeholder Contributions to Conservation and Protection of Threatened.  Species: Pine Snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) in the New Jersey Pine Barrens as a Case Study. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. 11(2), e142.


    One of my graduate students (Jeremy Feinberg) and I discovered, and described and named a new frog (with other collaborators) from the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area (truly unexpected).  This involved ecological, acoustic, morphological, distributional, and DNA-laboratory studies.  The new species of Leopard Frog (Rana kauffeldi), called Atlantic Coast Leopard Frog.  This finding, and the associated publications, indicates the importance of interdisciplinary disciplines and universities collaborations in modern-day biology.

    Burger 26

    Key publications

    Newman, C., Feinberg, J.A., Riseler, L.J, Burger, J. and Shaffer, H.B. 2012. A new species of leopard frog (Anura: Ranidae) from the urban northeast.  Molecular and Phylogenic Ecology 63:445-455.

    Feinberg, J.A., Newman, C.E., Watkins-Colwell, G.J., Schlesinger, M.D., Zarate, B., Shaffer, H.B., and Burger, J. 2014.  Cryptic diversity in metropolis confirmation of a new Leopard Frog species (Anura:Ranidae) from New York City and surrounding Atlantic coastal regions.  PlosOne 9: e1082213.

    Schlesinger MD, Feinberg JA, Nazdrowicz NH, Kleopfer JD, Beane JC, Bunnell JF, Burger J, et al. (2018) Follow-up ecological studies for cryptic species discoveries: Decrypting the leopard frogs of the eastern U.S.. PLoS ONE 13(11): e0205805. https:// doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0205805

  • PubMed Publications:

    For CBN's main publication search, click here.

  • Research Summary:

    Animal behavior, avian ecology, behavioral toxicology, ecological evaluations and risk

  • Recruiting New Research Assistants: Not Currently Recruiting