Friday, January 19, 2018

Rare Breed: Lou Perrotti protects less-than-cuddly species

            In the concrete block cellar of the building that houses the moon bears and snow leopards at Roger Williams Park Zoo is a brightly lit room where unrecognized visitors are welcomed with a mesmerizing clatter produced by some of the 16 Eastern timber rattlesnakes that reside there. Heated to 82 degrees, the room is lined with large, clear plastic cages along two walls, each containing an adult rattlesnake about four feet in length, two of which are believed to be pregnant. A vertical rack containing 12 plastic tubs stands against a third wall, each home to a juvenile rattler less than half the length of the adults.
            The snakes are unexpectedly attractive and strikingly patterned, some colored in yellows and browns while others are dressed in smoky gray and white. One adult male displayed a yellow triangular head with chocolate brown chevrons along the length of his golden back,
Lou Perrotti and New England cottontail. (Photo by James Jones)
which blended into a velvety black tail that didn’t stop rattling during the entire 15-minute visit.
            Lou Perrotti, 53, director of conservation at the zoo and an expert snake handler since his junior high school days, says the rattlesnakes are usually silent when their regular zookeepers attend them. “But new faces get the full treatment,” he adds.
            The subterranean room is a captive rearing center for New England’s only native rattlesnake, an endangered species that disappeared from Rhode Island in the 1960s and whose few remaining colonies in the Northeast are declining precipitously due to habitat loss and poaching. A newly-discovered fungal disease that causes skin lesions and blisters on their faces is contributing to the high mortality rate.
            When Perrotti heard about the disease, he recruited the veterinarians at the zoo to study how prevalent it was in New England. They found it everywhere they surveyed. So he partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a captive breeding effort. By taking rattlesnakes from healthy populations and breeding them at the zoo so their offspring can be released into the wild, Perrotti and his colleagues are augmenting snake populations that are barely sustaining themselves.
“And then we decided that creating a new population would be awesome,” he says. Biologists identified a small island in the Quabbin Reservoir in central Massachusetts as the ideal location. “We thought the site was brilliant. It has plenty of habitat, plenty of food, it’s off limits to humans. It just made sense to create a secure population there.”
It didn’t turn out that way. When the public got wind of the plan, their vocal objections – which Perrotti says were based on little more than fear and speculation – quickly scuttled the project.
“We were doing what we thought was the best thing to keep this endangered animal on the planet,” Perrotti says. “We can’t only protect the cute and cuddly animals. They all deserve to be protected. This project was....

Continue reading this article in the January issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Climate change, plastics combine to create rising tide of marine invasive species

            A large buoy that washed ashore on the coast of Belgium in October – trailing a 10-foot rope that was covered in hundreds of goose barnacles, crabs and shrimp – has been traced to an offshore lobster boat based in Point Judith, R.I.  The discovery of the buoy and attached marine life illustrates one of many ways that non-native marine life finds its way to distant shores. And one local scientist believes it’s a vector for invasive species that will become more and more common as climate change produces increasingly severe storms that will toss sturdy plastic debris into the ocean.
            Aaron Fabrice, 20, who describes himself as a beachcomber, citizen scientist, conservationist and nature guide, located the buoy on a beach in the town of De Panne, on the northwest coast of Belgium, on Oct. 8. He said the discovery was “like a dream” as he and a
Aaron Fabrice with buoy from Rhode Island found in Belgium (Diederick D'Hert)
friend counted 39 Columbus crabs, native to the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, nestled between hundreds of goose barnacles. He claims it is “the largest observed stranding [of Columbus crabs] on the Belgian coast ever.”
Fabrice also found numerous skeleton shrimp on polyps on the barnacles, a species he said is commonly found attached to floating debris.
After collecting samples of the crabs for the Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Science, Fabrice posted photos of the buoy to beachcombing and lobstering message boards showing the unique combination of letters and numbers printed on it. Two months later, he learned that it belonged to Rhode Island lobsterman Roy Campanale Jr. of Narragansett, who acknowledged to Fabrice that he lost the buoy off his boat Mister Marco sometime in 2016.
“We did not expect that North American floating objects would wash up on our coast,” wrote Fabrice in an email message. “Normally floating objects from North America wash up in Cornwall, U.K., or Brittany, France. There must have been an Atlantic seawater bubble coming through the channel in the North Sea.” 
According to Jim Carlton, an ecologist at Williams College who studies marine invasive species, debris from North America shows up on the coast of Europe fairly regularly, and it is often colonized by a wide variety of marine life. He said that goose barnacles and Columbus crabs are oceanic species that cannot live in the coastal zone, so they are unlikely to become established in Belgium and affect native species.
But, he added, it could be that there were species from North America that were buried within the barnacle-crab community.
Carlton has studied the transoceanic dispersal of marine life in great detail. Last fall he published a paper in the journal Science about the nearly 300 species of Asian marine life he and his colleagues found on debris along the U.S. West Coast that they traced to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
He said that natural disaster provided a greater opportunity for the dispersal of species across the Pacific than ever before because of all the plastic objects that make up modern daily life. Before plastic became ubiquitous, most storm-tossed marine debris consisted of wood, vegetation and other biodegradable materials that would disintegrate before it made it across the oceans.
“That got us thinking that the story of ocean rafting has shifted rather remarkably in the last half century,” Carlton said. “The plastic rafts at sea now are very enduring. They’re not degrading and dissolving. Animals can go on a much longer voyage now than they could have historically when they were drifting on a piece of vegetation.”
The implication is quite dramatic. Carlton believes that the tsunami-caused invasion of species from across the Pacific is only a hint of what is to come. As increasingly severe storms – the result of the changing climate – hammer coastlines around the world, more and more marine species will find their way across the oceans on plastic debris, ultimately causing a homogenization of the world’s coastlines.
“Imagine the amount of debris that came off the Caribbean islands during the hurricanes last fall – many hundreds if not thousands of buildings and all of their contents were swept into the ocean,” he said. “The climate models and evidence strongly suggest that we’re going to be entering a world of more of these cyclonic systems, making ocean rafting potentially one of the major new vectors for invasive species.”

The article first appeared on EcoRI.org on January 18, 2018.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Extreme cold puts animals to the test

            The extreme cold of the past two weeks has Rhode Islanders avoiding the outdoors as best as they can and loading on extra layers when they must go outside. Which raises the question of how wildlife will fare during this unusually cold period.
            Local biologists agree that most species of wildlife that spend their winters in Rhode Island are well adapted to weather the cold. They have evolved numerous strategies to deal with the conditions, from hibernation and torpor to thick fur coats and layers of fat.
Birds, for instance, have developed a number of adaptations that enable them to survive the extreme cold. According to Scott McWilliams, a physiological ecologist at the University of
Rhode Island, ducks can stand on ice for hours at a time and swim around in the icy water without suffering frostbite in their feet thanks to a counter-current heat exchange system in their legs. The warm blood flowing down to their feet warms up the cold blood flowing back to their core, and the blood in their feet is so cold that the difference between their foot temperature and the ice ensures that they lose little heat through their feet.
Birds also huddle together to stay warm, fluff up their feathers to provide an insulating layer around them, and lower their body temperature to save energy.
But not all birds are prepared for the cold.
“Most sensible birds will migrate to warmer places, thereby avoiding having to contend with the cold,” McWilliams said. Some of those that stick around, however, “ are less well-insulated or otherwise poorly adapted to living in cold places." 
He points to the Carolina wren, a southern species that has expanded its range northward in recent decades. Southern New England is at the northern part of its range, and during extreme and extended cold spells in Rhode Island, many of the birds do not survive. That was the case during the winter of 2015, when the state had a record snowfall and the state’s Carolina wren population declined. When favorable weather returns, however, the wren population bounces back again until the next severe winter.
Cold-blooded creatures like reptiles and amphibians – animals that cannot regulate their own body temperature – are also well prepared for extreme cold. Wood frogs, for instance, have what some scientists call antifreeze in their blood that enables their tissues to freeze solid without harmful effects. In some winters, the frogs experience several freeze-thaw cycles.
Herpetologist Scott Buchanan said that adult painted turtles, snapping turtles, and spotted turtles are also extremely cold tolerant and will likely fare well. But some painted turtle hatchlings, which overwinter in their nest cavity, may die if the temperatures are extreme for an extended period of time.
"The invasive red-eared slider, on the other hand, is less tolerant of extreme cold - both the adults and hatchlings," Buchanan said. "Hatchlings, which also overwinter in the nest, are more vulnerable to these cold periods and would exhibit a greater rate of mortality than painteds or snappers.
"From a conservation perspective, this would be a good thing, as it would slow down the invasion," he added.
Wildlife that lives in the upper layer of the soil or in the grass at the surface may be particularly vulnerable to extreme cold, especially cold temperatures without a thick layer of snow to serve as insulation. David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, speculates that the dearth of leaves on the ground – thanks to two years of gypsy moth defoliation – may mean there will be less insulation for species that hibernate in the forest floor, such as box turtles and salamanders.
“Low temps and thin snow is also probably tough for small mammals like voles, which tunnel around in the grass,” Gregg said before this week’s blizzard. “Of course, that might make life easier for owls and hawks that need to be able to find voles.”
He also wonders about the impact of the cold weather on aquatic mammals when all of the local ponds are frozen solid. During the week before New Year’s, he twice observed a muskrat wander up from a nearby frozen river to scratch for food in his lawn.  And in the winter of 2015, a river otter emerged from the same frozen river to forage in his compost pit.
Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, isn’t worried about those aquatic mammals, however. He said the range of muskrats, river otters and beavers extends far to the north in Canada, where they likely experience much longer periods of extreme cold than they do in southern New England.
“So around here, they’re probably living the easy life,” he said.
Those animals typically gravitate to areas of moving water, like dams and spillways, during extreme cold, Brown said, and otters can even chew holes in the ice to gain access to pond water.
Brown is more concerned about how big brown bats will fare. He said that most bat species that spend time in Rhode Island migrate to caves to hibernate or travel south to warmer climates to avoid the winter conditions. Big brown bats are the only species that lives in the state all year. And even those should survive without much difficulty.
“We’ve had some pretty cold winters in the past, but rarely have I ever seen any evidence of bats dying from exposure,” he said.
The big picture, according to Gregg, is that the creatures that winter in the state do so for a reason, and there’s probably a logical reason for those that don’t survive the chill.
“I think that hard cold like this helps to hold back the northward expansion of southern species, like fire ants, kudzu and lizards,” he said. “The kind of animals and plants we think of as typical here are either helped or hurt in the appropriate ways by cold, so the net effect is good even though there are animals and plants that go up and others down.”

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on January 7, 2018.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Forest birds decline in Vermont

In one of the longest-running studies of its kind in North America, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies has documented a 14.2 percent decrease in forest birds in Vermont over the past 25 years. While not all of the 125 species included in the report are declining – and some are even increasing – the researchers say that the overall state of forest birds in the region raises critical concerns about birds and forests alike.
            Unlike the North American Breeding Bird Survey, which has conducted an annual assessment of bird populations along roadsides since 1966, the Vermont study provides data about birds in interior forests away from the effects of roads.
            “Forests are vital to our economy in Vermont, and birds are vital to the health of the
Canada warbler (Garth McElroy)
forest,” said biologist Steve Faccio, the lead author of the report. “This should serve as a wake-up call to focus our efforts on maintaining healthy forests and thinking about how we should do that.”
            The study used highly-skilled birders who traveled 31 forested transects twice during each breeding season and counted all of the birds they saw or heard at five sites along each transect. Most of the population declines they observed occurred during the first ten years of the study. After stabilizing for about a decade, bird numbers began decreasing again in 2008.
            An in-depth analysis of 34 of the most widely distributed species found that 13 have experienced significant declines, including Canada warbler, white-throated sparrow, great crested flycatcher and veery. Populations of just eight species have increased, among them American robin, red-eyed vireo and ovenbird.
            Faccio said that forest fragmentation, climate change, invasive species and threats on the birds’ wintering grounds could all be contributing factors to their decline. “Just because we’re seeing lower populations here doesn’t necessarily mean it’s something happening on the breeding grounds that’s causing the decline,” he said.
            Changes in habitat due to maturing forests could explain some of the declines. Habitat for species that nest or feed in the lower or middle canopy layers, for instance, could be affected through the natural progression of forest growth.
The birds that fared the worst in the study are the “aerial insectivores,” those that catch and eat insects on the wing, such as Eastern phoebe, Eastern wood pewee and least flycatcher.  The 11 species in this group declined by 45 percent.
            “That leads us to believe that there’s something going on with their prey, probably a combination of effects like pesticide use, changing climate and habitat,” Faccio said. “Polarized light pollution is having a devastating effect on broad groups of insects, which could lead to reproductive failure of some water-breeding insects.”
            The report recommends that those interested in managing their forests for birds should consider creating more structural diversity to emulate natural disturbances in mature forests, while also retaining a high proportion of large trees to support canopy and cavity nesters. Land managers should also focus on protecting uncommon forest types, contiguous forest blocks of more than 250 acres, and corridors that connect conservation areas.

This article first appeared in the fall 2017 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Roasting chestnuts may make a comeback

It’s been about a century since Americans have been able to celebrate the holidays by roasting native chestnuts over an open fire. Almost every one of America’s more than 4 billion chestnut trees from Maine to Georgia was wiped out by chestnut blight, a fungal disease that spread like wildfire after its accidental introduction into the U.S. from trees imported from Japan to the Bronx Zoo in 1904.
The tree’s disappearance has dramatically changed the landscape of eastern North America. Chestnuts were once the dominant tree in eastern forests, and its wood was used for fence posts, railroad ties, utility poles and anything else that required rot-resistant lumber.
American chestnut tree, via The Rural Blog
Many of Rhode Island’s historic homes were once sheathed in it.
In addition, the edible nuts provided vital nutrition to wildlife and were an important element in cattle and hog feed. And because the nuts ripened right around Thanksgiving, they became a popular snack during the holiday season (and a key lyric in that most popular of Christmas carols).
All but the caroling ended soon after the blight took hold. The few chestnuts we eat these days come from non-native species imported from overseas.
But that may not be the case in the coming years, thanks largely to efforts by the American Chestnut Foundation and a little help from local volunteers. A number of research projects are underway designed to develop blight-resistant trees so the species can be restored in our forests.
URI Master Gardener Rudi Hempe is one of the volunteers. He and a team of about 25 other master gardeners who call themselves Rudi’s Rangers are growing a one-acre breeding orchard and a two-acre seeding orchard of chestnut trees on land owned by the South Kingstown Land Trust.
The trees they planted originated with seeds from a single tree in East Greenwich and another one in Exeter that apparently have a genetic abnormality that makes them immune to the blight. Those two parent trees are among the very few mature American chestnuts that did not succumb to the disease, and they are giving scientists a starting point for studying disease resistance.
When the trees planted and maintained by the master gardeners grow tall enough, Rudi’s Rangers will inoculate them with a low-dose of the blight in hopes that some will develop a resistance to the disease. Similar efforts are underway at three other locations in Rhode Island and at dozens more in Massachusetts, Maine and elsewhere in the tree’s original range.
In a separate study, the chestnut foundation is also crossing American chestnuts with a similar species from China that is naturally resistant to the disease. Five of those hybrid trees were planted at URI’s East Farm several years ago, and three of them are still going strong.
It is uncertain whether any of these studies – or others approaching the problem using biotechnology tools – will bear fruit. It’s likely to take a decade or more to find out. But we’ve waited far longer than that already. The wild trees have been gone for so long that almost no one alive today has any recollection of how stately a chestnut forest looked before the blight.
But hopefully, in the not too distant future, singing about roasting chestnuts will have a new, deeper meaning to carolers – and all Americans – once the majestic trees make their heralded return.

This article first appeared in the Independent on December 21, 2017. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A merry year for Christmas tree growers

            Jean Bento knows that the weather is the primary factor determining the success or failure of local Christmas tree farms. As the owner of Patchet Brook Tree Farm in Tiverton, she’s happy to report that the weather in 2017 has been ideal.
            “The weather affects almost everything about this business,” she said.
            Bento explained that the rainy spring came along at just the right time to stimulate growth and keep newly-planted seedlings alive, but there wasn’t so much rain that it caused a fungus to build up on the needles. The summer wasn’t hot enough to dry out the trees or make the needles susceptible to dropping too soon. And the weather on Thanksgiving weekend – the first big weekend for sales – was perfect for families to visit local Christmas tree farms and tag or cut their trees.
            “It’s definitely been a good year for growing Christmas trees,” agreed Eric Watne, owner of Clark’s Christmas Tree Farm in Tiverton and president of the Rhode Island Christmas Tree Growers Association. “Rain in spring is key, but you also need some rain in the summer, too. When fir trees think they’re going to die, which will happen when we don’t get rain in the summer, they start producing pine cones, which is their way of propagating the species. That’s bad for Christmas trees because the tree’s nutrients go to the cones and the needles die.”
            That didn’t happen this year.
It also wasn’t a bad year for pests, according to University of Rhode Island entomologist Heather Faubert, despite concerns that gypsy moth caterpillars were going to feast on the needles.
“The gypsy moths didn’t turn out to be as bad as we feared,” she said. “Spider mites and scale insects are the other pests that can be a concern for Christmas tree growers. A few aren’t a problem, but if you get high numbers of them, the trees lose their color and the needles start to drop.”
            The conditions were so good this year, in fact, that the growers said that any trees negatively affected by last year’s drought have probably recovered.
            The only concerns Christmas tree farmers face this year have to do with competition from artificial trees, which have improved in appearance in recent years, and from the big box stores and street-corner sellers that typically get their trees from Quebec or Nova Scotia, where they are cut down as early as October.
            Jan Eckhart, owner of Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown, isn’t worried. He said nothing can compare to locally grown trees. And besides, “Christmas trees are a renewable resource. It’s like growing broccoli. The freshest you can possibly get is a farm grown tree from right here in Rhode Island.”
            While the window for selling Christmas trees is condensed into a few busy weeks, the growers agree that it’s their favorite time of year.
            “When people start showing up to buy their trees, they’re in such a great mood,” said Watne. “I get to be a little part of everybody’s Christmas. It’s a month-long Christmas party.”

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on December 14, 2017.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Forecast calls for a snowy owl winter

            It’s looking more and more like the winter of 2017-18 is going to be a big year for snowy owls in southern New England. Large numbers of the iconic white birds have been observed throughout the Upper Midwest and Northeast since late November, and many have turned up in Rhode Island.
            Project SNOWstorm, a volunteer-based snowy owl tracking organization, is predicting that the attractive birds will invade much of the northern tier of the United States this winter. Hundreds of birds have already been sighted, including some as far south as North Carolina, Oklahoma and Missouri.
            Scott Wiedensaul, director of Project SNOWstorm, said it’s difficult to predict how many birds will travel to the area or how long they will stay. “There’s a little bit of voodoo and black magic in all of this,” he told Audubon magazine. But the signs point to it being a good year for snowy owl watching.
            Rhode Island has so far had visits by at least 17 snowy owls in recent weeks, according to Rachel Farrell, a member of the state’s Avian Records Committee. University of Rhode Island ornithologist Peter Paton reported seeing seven snowy owls on Block Island last week, and local birdwatchers have reported additional owls at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, East Matunuck State Beach in South Kingstown, along the shores of the Narrow River in Narragansett, and elsewhere. One was even photographed perched on a chimney in a residential neighborhood in Providence, and another Providence bird – or perhaps the same one – was located at the headquarters of Save the Bay.
Just one or two snowy owls usually visit Rhode Island during a typical winter.
Snowy owls spend most of their lives in the Arctic feeding on lemmings on the tundra. But Farrell said that about every four years, when lemming numbers are high, the owls lay more eggs than usual. Many of the birds that hatch from those eggs end up migrating south in winter after being forced from their Arctic habitat by adult owls due to the reduced availability of food in the deep snow.
“It’s all due to the population cycling of lemmings,” she said. “They’re a boom or bust animal.”
Canadian scientists reported that snowy owls successfully raised an especially large number of young birds last summer.
This year’s irruption of snowy owls into the U.S. is not unprecedented. Four years ago, the the country experienced the largest influx of snowy owls since at least the 1920s, when several thousand owls spent the winter south of the Canadian border. Some traveled to places they had never before been reported, including Jacksonville, Fla., and Bermuda. More than 400 were observed in Pennsylvania alone, a state that seldom records more than 10 in a year.
            The birds that visit Rhode Island are usually found on beaches, farm fields and airports, which mimic their tundra homes, where they search for mice and voles. Owls that spend time in coastal locations often hunt for wintering ducks, something they don’t often eat on their breeding grounds.
            As exciting as it is to see a snowy owl, they can also be a nuisance and a safety hazard at airports. Paton and fellow URI professor Scott McWilliams will attempt to capture and relocate any owls that show up at Quonset State Airport and other undesirable locations this winter.
            The large number of snowy owls visiting the area is not necessarily a sign that the breeding population is growing, however. Farrell said that the population of snowy owls breeding in North America has declined by about 64 percent since 1970, though scientists are not sure why.
Unlike so many other rare birds that occasionally turn up in southern New England, snowy owls are easy to identify. Weighing in at about six pounds, it is the heaviest owl species in North America, and its white plumage and piercing yellow eyes make it unmistakable. Adult males may be pure white, the perfect camouflage for a bird that spends much of its life in a snowy environment. Younger birds are much more visible, with contrasting gray barring on their white bellies and wings that make them stand out as they perch on fence posts, beaches and snow-covered fields.
The Audubon Society of Rhode Island advises that those interested in going in search of snowy owls in the area should bring along binoculars or a spotting scope and stay at least 200 feet away from the birds, as the owls can be skittish. It also recommends staying quiet and refraining from making sudden movements that may frighten them. The owls are already rather stressed after their long migration and their efforts to find food in unfamiliar places, and rambunctious humans will add to their stress.
            “We still don’t know the magnitude of this year’s irruption yet,” concluded Farrell. “But it has already been fairly substantial. And it started a little earlier than the last one, so that may be a good sign for what’s to come.”

This story first appeared on EcoRI.org on December 14, 2017.