Friday, November 27, 2020

Botanist sows seeds of hope for plant conservation

        Thanks to lessons taught by her grandparents, Hope Leeson has always been drawn to plants. Some of her oldest memories are of trees, especially their different shapes.
        “I’ve always had this haunting sense of awareness of their forms,” said Leeson, a botanist, plant conservationist and botanical educator from South Kingstown who has walked much of Rhode Island in search of wetlands and rare plants. “I was always interested by their shapes, and by other little things on the ground that also attracted my attention, like the incredible structure of inch-high plants, sedges and flowers. There are so many different unbelievable shapes and forms that plants take.”
        Through more than 30 years of field experience, Leeson has developed an intimate knowledge of the Ocean State’s plant communities, and she has applied that knowledge to the protection of rare
Hope Leeson

species, the sustainable collection of plant seeds and the propagation of native plants for habitat restoration efforts. This work has given her unique insights into the changes taking place in the state’s natural areas and their impacts on native species.
        “There’s a lot happening in the ground that we don’t see,” she said. “And there’s certainly a lot happening because of deer eating much of what’s on the ground. Both of those are influencing the next generation of plant communities.”
        She notes that Rhode Island’s abundant deer primarily eat native plants, and they are so voracious that in many places few young plants have a chance to mature before they are eaten. And since deer avoid most invasive species, they are providing inroads for invasives to gain a foothold and spread widely.
        “I also worry that we’re not really aware of the far-reaching impact of earthworms,” Leeson said of the eight species found in southern New England, all of which originated in Europe or Asia. “The plant communities we have are adapted to a slow cycling of nutrients, and earthworms really speed that up. They also take a lot of leaf litter and pull it down into the soil, which changes the whole nutrient cycle, in terms of what’s available to plants.
        “So like deer, earthworms are opening up areas for non-native species to come in, because those non-natives come from areas that have earthworms and can take advantage of the opening that’s been created,” she added. “We can’t control where earthworms go, and they’re really changing the chemistry of the soil.”
           It’s not just soil chemistry that’s changing, Leeson said, but its soil temperature, too. And that may be affecting the mycorrhizal relationship between plants and fungi that enables plants to acquire nutrients through their roots. If that relationship is disrupted, many plant communities could be affected.
        “I just see so many places where it appears like the forest is dying, particularly areas that are more urban,” she said. “It smells different, it looks different, it’s a big change, and how that comes out in the end, we don’t know. It may all be fine, but on our human scale it seems like a loss of something – or maybe there will be a gain in another hundred years.”
        Leeson grew up in Providence and South Kingstown and earned an art degree at Brown University while also taking as many environmental courses as she could. After graduating, she spent a few years painting murals in people’s homes and creating decorative stenciling before taking jobs as a naturalist on Prudence Island and Goddard Park. That work led to jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and several environmental consulting firms.
        During one project, when Narragansett Electric Co. proposed a new power line corridor from East Greenwich to Burrillville, she walked the entire 44-mile route to locate any wetlands the route would cross.
        In more recent years, she consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Save the Bay, The Nature Conservancy and other agencies to document rare plant communities and invasive species, and worked for more than 10 years as the botanist for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.
        “Not only does Hope like to dig into the academic understanding of plants, she values the study of native plants because they connect to so many of her other interests and areas of accomplishment, including gastronomy, environmental conservation, art, gardening, teaching, and social networking,” said David Gregg, director of the Natural History Survey. “Her multi-level connection to native plants is readily apparent when you spend time with her, and is an important reason, besides the interest inherent in the projects themselves, that volunteers have been so attracted to working with her on the Survey's various Rhody Native activities.”
        Leeson’s establishment of the Rhody Native program to propagate up to 100 species of native plants for habitat restoration helped diversify habitats at wildlife refuges, salt marshes and private and public gardens. Eventually the program became so successful that she was receiving orders for thousands of plants, which was more than she could produce on her own. Without a commercial nursery willing to take it over, the program was discontinued.
        She is now completing a project to grow a rare wildflower called marsh pink, which is limited to two sites in Rhode Island and one in Connecticut. The plants she is growing will be used to bolster the Connecticut population following a restoration of the marsh.
        “We thought we might cross-pollinate plants from Connecticut with the Rhode Island populations to reduce the genetic bottleneck,” Leeson said. “But the Rhode Island populations are really small, and rabbits ate all of the seedpods before they were ripe, so I was unable to collect any seedpods. But the Connecticut seeds are sown, and they’re just resting for the winter.”
        When she’s not working, Leeson enjoys riding horses, which she says can “eat up a couple hours every other day.” But she’s never far from plants, whether in her garden or in nearby forests.
        “I’m drawn to places that are rocky, because that geography and geology is interesting to me,” she said. “And the coastal plain pond shores are endlessly fascinating to me because their geological life cycle is so interesting. When water levels are down, they have this explosion of plant species, many of them rare, and then there will be a decade when everything is underwater and you wait for ten years before they all reveal themselves again.”
        Leeson also enjoys foraging for food, including the tubers of evening primrose, which she roasts with carrots. She even occasionally cooks with invasive species – she makes pie from Japanese knotweed, pesto from garlic mustard, and enjoys the berries from autumn olive.
        As she approaches retirement age, Leeson is teaching botany and plant ecology at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is especially looking forward to teaching a five-week course in January called Winter Treewatching and a spring semester class on the Weeds of Providence.
        “That one will look at all of the areas around Providence that are vegetated by things that come in on their own,” she said. “It’s getting people to think about how we don’t even notice these things, and yet they’re performing pretty important functions, from carbon sequestration and air filtration to providing food for insects and birds.”
        Although she said that teaching online during the pandemic has been “weird,” she has been pleased to see so many people walking at Rhode Island’s parks and nature preserves.
        “It’s really helping people to slow down and look around them more, at least I hope it is,” she said. “They seem to be noticing things they never noticed before, and I think that’s a really good thing.
        “We’ve gotten so distanced from the natural world around us that there’s not an impetus to steward it or take care of it,” she said. “There’s a sense that it will always be there and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s what sustains us all. We won’t exist without it. So by noticing it, I hope people will become better stewards.”

        This article first appeared on on November 27, 2020. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Saving the planet, one turtle at a time

        Callie Veelenturf was nearing the end of a five-month sea turtle research project in Panama when the nation’s borders were closed due to the pandemic, forcing her to remain in the country for three months longer than planned. She had just completed her first project as a National Geographic Explorer, documenting nests of endangered sea turtles, investigating human interactions with the turtles, and educating residents about the threats turtles face.
        The founder of The Leatherback Project, a sea turtle conservation organization, Veelenturf spent her unexpected additional time in Panama launching an international campaign for a universal
Callie Veelenturf excavates a leatherback turtle nest.

declaration of the rights of nature, a concept similar to human rights but which states that every species of wildlife has the right to exist and persist without fear of extinction from human causes. Just two countries, Ecuador and Bolivia, recognize these rights in their constitutions, and Veelenturf aimed to encourage other countries to support the idea as well.
        “It’s a concept that really resonated with me, and I think it needs to be the basis of the global change we need to see for the planet,” she says. “We must consider the planet and nature when planning future development.”
        Within weeks, she connected with several lawyers, conservationists, and other advocates in Africa, Australia, and South America; met with the first lady of Panama; and worked with a Panamanian senator to draft legislation that is now before the country’s National Assembly. She also made a virtual presentation to the United Nations—her third time speaking to the global intergovernmental organization—to make her case on World Oceans Day.
        It was a whirlwind of activity, but that’s nothing new for Veelenturf. She has already had a lifetime of experiences in just the last few years. She studied sea turtles in Costa Rica, Equatorial Guinea, and Saint Kitts; traveled in a deep-sea vehicle 700 feet below the ocean surface as part of a shark research expedition; won a photography contest sponsored by the journal Nature; was named a fellow of The Explorers Club; tagged hammerhead sharks with conservationists in Colombia; and launched a project to reduce fisheries bycatch of sharks and sea turtles in Ecuador, where she will return for six months beginning in January. And last summer she was selected for the National Geographic Society’s prestigious Early Career Leadership Program.
        “I can’t believe all this is happening,” she says. “It’s like my dreams are coming true.” 

This article first appeared in fall 2020 issue of URI Magazine.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

An invasion of finches

        Every once in a while, Rhode Islanders who pay close attention to the birds at their feeders have a particularly exciting winter season. That’s when birds that typically spend the whole winter in Canada and northern New England don’t have enough of their favorite foods available, and they head south in large numbers to feast on the seeds we provide.
        This year is already turning out to be one of those years. Birders call it an irruption – different from an eruption, which happens to volcanoes – or an invasion, and it typically occurs with a group of a half dozen species of finch, though a few others are sometimes included in the mix.
        It started in October when nearly every birdwatcher I know reported seeing large numbers of pine siskins at their feeders during the third week of the month. These small birds look somewhat like
Pine siskin (Simon Pierre Barrett)

streaky versions of our common American goldfinch, and we usually only see them during irruption years. They typically feed on spruce cones in the boreal forest of Canada, but apparently this hasn’t been a good year for spruce cones up there, and sunflower and thistle seeds appear to be a satisfactory substitute.
        One morning last month I noticed one siskin scavenging the spilled seed beneath my feeder, and 20 minutes later there were nine. By the end of the day there were more than 50. I spent the next several days repeatedly counting and watching this mass of dainty birds far outnumbering my usual feathered visitors. And I couldn’t have been happier – though I immediately knew my bird feeding budget was going to skyrocket this winter.
        Around the same time, a red-breasted nuthatch made its first appearance in my yard in several years. These little sprites are closely related to the white-breasted nuthatches that are common residents in Rhode Island, but with a pale rusty chest and belly and black-and-white stripes on the side of its face. Although they aren’t a finch and a few are seen in Rhode Island every year, they only appear widely across the region during irruption years.
        A few other invading finches are staying home this winter. Common redpolls, which feed on the catkins of birch trees, apparently have enough to eat in Canada, so they aren’t expected in Rhode Island this year. The same is true of red crossbills, with their oddly crossed beaks, who feed on the cones of white pines. They occasionally invade the Ocean State, but not this year.
        The most anticipated of this year’s invaders is the evening grosbeak. Dressed in gold and black and cream with an oversized seed-crunching beak, they look somewhat like a gigantic goldfinch. They used to be regular winter visitors 40 or 50 years ago, but not any longer. So birders are forced to wait for irruption years to get a look at them. And while there are usually enough pine siskins around during a big year for almost everyone to see one at their feeders, evening grosbeaks seldom turn up in huge numbers, so birders often have to scout out their neighbors’ feeders to find one.
        I still haven’t come across an evening grosbeak yet this season, but I know they’re around. It’s one of the species that makes winter birding in Rhode Island exciting. For while most events in the natural world can be counted on to occur at the same time every year, the cycle of the irruption of winter finches into our area is difficult to predict. And I’m determined not to miss it.
This article first appeared in The Independent on Nov. 14, 2020.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Fungal disease plagues porcupines

        Porcupines are quite common across the northern tier of the United States, but scientists at the New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory have discovered a crippling fungal disease that is often fatal, and it could have implications for the long-term health of porcupine populations in the region.
        As part of a study of porcupine mortality in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, pathologists at the lab examined 44 dead porcupines during a 7-year period and found 12 had died from a disease caused by a fungus known to cause ringworm in wild and domestic animals.
        “The fungus usually causes localized, often minor skin infections in animals and people,” said
Porcupine with fungal disease (NH Veterinary Diagnostic Lab) 

veterinary pathologist David Needle. “In porcupines, however, the skin lesion becomes severe and spreads to the whole body, resulting in debilitation and death if not treated. The pattern of disease caused by this fungus has never been reported in porcupines.”
        The porcupine’s response to the fungus is to try to slough it off by growing a large quantity of keratin, which Needle describes as “a self-adhesive sheet of dried-out cells.” But because the fungus thrives in keratin, and because no inflammation blocks the fungus, the fungus eventually grows over the animal’s entire body, including its eyes and ears in some cases.
        Because the disease has only been diagnosed in the three states – plus a new case in Connecticut – Needle believes that a regional subpopulation of porcupines may be susceptible to the pathogen. Additional cases have been identified by wildlife-rehabilitation clinics in the region, and a newly developed treatment protocol is having modest success at healing the animals.
        The fungus is zoonotic, which means it can be transmitted from animals to humans, although there are no reported cases of humans becoming infected by porcupines. But it is emerging at the same time that several other fungal diseases are affecting other wildlife populations around the world, from bats and frogs to snakes and salamanders.
        How the disease found its way into porcupines is unknown, but Needle speculates that it probably emerged in the last decade and may be spreading. Because porcupines are not commonly rehabilitated and not studied extensively, it is unknown how common the disease is at this time.
        “Porcupines are quite populous in some areas and are sometimes viewed as a pest, so concern for their population numbers isn’t a high priority,” Needle said. “There isn’t a groundswell of financial backing to investigate the disease further. But in areas where fishers had been extirpated and have been recently reintroduced, there has been a plummet in porcupine populations. Added pressure from this fungus is not helping them. They are still common enough in New England that we are not aware of a significant population decline, but studies to assess this may be lacking.”
        To get a better idea of how widespread the disease is, Needle is now assimilating data from 400 dead porcupines studied at diagnostic labs across the country during the last 20 years. “We just started, but this new disease might be the most common diagnosis,” he said.

This article first appeared in the autumn 2020 issue of Northern Woodlands.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Search for rare salamander takes place in the dark

        After dark at a well-hidden vernal pool in Richmond, Peter Paton shined his flashlight back and forth at the moss-covered ground around the nearly-dry pond basin. He was searching for marbled salamanders, the only autumn-breeding salamander in New England, and one that is seldom seen except on rainy fall evenings. It didn’t take him long to spot one.
        “I got one,” he called out. “Over here.”
        Marbled salamanders are the second largest salamander in the region – after only the spotted salamander -- and their attractive black-and-white patterning makes them unmistakable. The one Paton found, a male, was on his way out of the pond basin, indicating that the animal had completed his
mating duties and was headed to the forest to spend the winter underground.
        Female salamanders were likely hidden in the sphagnum moss around the pond, where they remain for a month or more to guard their eggs until rain fills the pond and the eggs are protected from predators and the elements. The eggs hatch within days after being covered in water, and the larvae overwinter in the pond.
        Paton, a professor of natural resources science at the University of Rhode Island, was confident of finding
Marbled salamander (Todd McLeish)
marbled salamanders at the Richmond site, since it was a place he studied and monitored in 2000 and 2001, when he and colleagues conducted an amphibian survey of 137 vernal pools around the state. Marbled salamanders were found in just four of the pools, however, making it one of the rarest pond-breeding amphibians in the region.
        Previous efforts in the 1980s and 1990s by Chris Raithel, a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, documented as many as 50 marbled salamander breeding sites in the state, mostly in Kent and Washington counties. There are no records from Bristol county or from areas adjacent to Narragansett Bay and few from the Blackstone Valley.
        “The present localized distribution of marbled salamanders in Rhode Island may be related to habitat fragmentation and patch isolation,” Raithel wrote in his 2019 book, Amphibians of Rhode Island. “If this effect is real, the species is secure only in the larger contiguous habitats of southern and western Rhode Island, and additional range retraction should be evident to future generations.”
        Marbled salamanders require a very specific habitat for breeding – ponds that are surrounded by sphagnum moss and dry up in the summer, keeping fish and large dragonfly larvae from inhabiting the pond and preying on the salamander larvae.
        “They tend to like relatively small ponds, and there aren’t many sites available that fill their habitat requirements,” Paton said.
        In addition to habitat fragmentation, road mortality is also a significant concern for the species, because they are often crushed by vehicles as the adults cross roads to reach their breeding ponds or as juveniles disperse to find territories.
        On the other hand, Paton said it’s possible that the changing environmental conditions associated with the warming climate may make southern New England more favorable to marbled salamanders in the future. Their current range extends as far south as northern Florida and eastern Texas, and populations in warmer climates tend to be considerably larger than those in Rhode Island.
        “They aren’t very tolerant of the cold, so we’re at the northern limits of their range,” Paton said. “The larvae don’t grow much in the winter because it’s too cold, but once wood frogs arrive to breed in early spring, the salamander larvae feed on the frog tadpoles as their main fuel source to undergo metamorphosis.”
        After metamorphosis, the salamanders leave their ponds and spend the rest of their lives in the forest, except for brief breeding periods each fall.
        Despite how few marbled salamander breeding sites were found during the last amphibian survey, a recent graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Boston thinks a new survey method may detect the salamanders more effectively than traditional sampling methods.
        Jack He, who graduated in May, used eDNA – environmental DNA collected from water or soil – to detect the presence of marbled salamanders even when the animals could not be seen.
        “Everything sheds DNA in one form or another, like from skin cells or blood, and they release it into the environment,” He said. “Ideally we can collect water or soil samples containing those cells and extract that DNA and sequence it to determine what species are present.”
        He detected marbled salamander DNA in a number of water and soil samples from vernal pools in western Massachusetts. He calls it a less labor-intensive method of determining if the salamanders are present at a site than using dipnets to capture larvae in the spring, which is how Paton conducted his survey.
        “I’ve done dipnet studies and compared them to eDNA, and I found that eDNA was a bit more effective,” he said.
        Paton, however, isn’t convinced.
        “My impression is that larvae are relatively easy to find, but I could be biased,” he said. “Maybe they’re in there and I missed them a lot. But however you do it, I suspect that marbled salamanders are still fairly rare in Rhode Island.”

This article first appeared on on October 22, 2020.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Some bats are migratory contrarians

        October is one of the busiest months of the year for migration.
        Millions of songbirds that spent the summer breeding in the Northeast – warblers and flycatchers and orioles, for instance – are winging their way southward to Central America, South America or the Caribbean to enjoy the warm climate and to feed on the abundance of insects that are mostly absent during our northern winters. They’re joined by an equal number of their offspring, all of whom are making the dangerous journey for the first time.
        At the same time, geese and ducks and finches and many sparrows are heading southward from the north, destined to spend the winter eating from our bird feeders or carousing in our ponds or along our
Little Brown Bat (Kentucky Fish and Wildlife)
 coastlines. For them, the New England winter is their version of the Tropics. They’re accustomed to chilly winters and adapted to eating seeds or mussels or whatever else we have available in winter.
        Our few migratory butterflies and dragonflies have departed by now, too, in their search for warmer temperatures to the south. Reptiles and amphibians are also on the move, just not nearly as far – mostly to nearby underground lairs or to the muddy bottoms of ponds and streams.
        But strangely enough, one group of animals is going in the opposite direction. Most of our bats are migratory contrarians. October is the time when they are moving northward instead of south, toward caves and mines in Vermont, New Hampshire and the Adirondacks.
        They’re seeking out a very precise environmental condition – high humidity and a temperature that will remain stable a bit above freezing for the next five months. That’s where they’ll hang together from the ceiling, sometimes in large numbers, in a state of inactivity and slow their metabolism so they don’t have to eat or drink for the entire winter. Rhode Island doesn’t have any suitable caves or mines in which bats can hibernate, so most of our bats head to those closest to us, all of which are to the north and northwest.
        These bat caves – officially called hibernacula – are the perfect location for their long winter naps. But because the bulk of the region’s bat populations are all gathered together in a very few sites, it made it easy for an unexpected disease to rapidly spread among them. Bunched together wing to wing, a deadly disease called white nose syndrome was quickly passed from one bat to another – sort of like Covid-19 among party-goers – and over a few short years close to 90 percent of our bats died.
        That’s why we’re seeing far fewer bats now than we did 20 years ago. The one exception is a species called the big brown bat – as opposed to the little brown bat, which used to be the most abundant species in the Northeast. A few big browns have found enough old buildings, underground bunkers and earthen crevices in Rhode Island with adequate enough conditions to keep them home for the winter. Which may be one factor – along with good genes and naturally occurring probiotics – that has allowed them to survive the disease in greater numbers. Their populations only crashed by about 50 percent.
        I wouldn’t want to suggest that the bats that migrated in the opposite direction of all the other wildlife on our continent are like the clumsy Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, but there’s something to be said for the bat that simply chose to stay home. Maybe, by not migrating at all, the big brown bat is the true migratory contrarian. 

This article first appeared in The Independent on Oct. 11, 2020.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Survey of knowledge, beliefs about coyotes seeks to inform management

        A University of Rhode Island graduate student is seeking to inform coyote management in Rhode Island by conducting a survey of Ocean State residents to gain insights into their knowledge, beliefs and feelings about the controversial carnivore.
        Kimberly Rivera, of Westchester County, New York, is examining the relationship between what people know and believe about coyotes and their first-hand experience with the animals. She will also factor in their personal environmental beliefs and demographics.
        “Coyotes aren’t going anywhere, so the better we understand where we stand with them, the better we’ll be able to coexist with them,” said Rivera.
        She is seeking at least 500 Rhode Islanders from throughout the state to take the survey before the end of November. It takes about 10 minutes to complete and can be found here.
           According to Rivera, about half of all nuisance wildlife calls received by state wildlife officials are about coyotes, which may have more to do with people’s beliefs about coyotes than it does about the actual threat the animals pose.
        Rivera plans to combine the results of her survey with data from a statewide camera trap study of
Eastern coyote (Todd McLeish)

coyotes to see if people’s opinions about coyotes are more or less positive in areas where the animals are most abundant.
        “We’re going to take what we learn from these surveys and disseminate it to wildlife managers so they can incorporate the data into their management practices,” she said. “If there are areas with greater conflict or where people are especially antagonistic toward coyotes, then maybe we can manage them better for both the coyotes and the people.
        “I’m especially interested in learning about interactions between pets and coyotes,” Rivera added. “There are lots of stories about missing pets suspected of, or witnessed, being taken by coyotes, and I’d like to learn how often it really happens and how often people think it happens.”
        The survey also aims to gauge opinions about current management practices, such as trapping coyotes with foothold traps, which is illegal in the state. Results of the survey may be used to inform future management decisions related to the harvesting of coyotes.
            Rivera’s coyote survey is the result of a survey she had planned to conduct with farmers in Madagascar about conflicts between carnivores and livestock. The pandemic cancelled her travel plans to the island nation off the east coast of Africa, so she sought to focus on a related issue closer to home.
            “I fell in love with spotted hyenas while doing an internship in South Africa while I was an undergrad,” Rivera said. “They’re considered vermin there because they are presumed to depredate livestock. It got me thinking about how perceived interactions can change how people think about a species. Those opinions are important. If people don’t care about animals, we’re not going to be able to conserve or coexist with them.”