Thursday, January 16, 2020

Sea urchins could be Rhode Island’s next climate-resilient crop

             Atlantic purple sea urchins are common in coastal waters along the East Coast, and University of Rhode Island scientist Coleen Suckling thinks the Ocean State could become the home of a new industry to raise the spiny marine creatures for consumption in Japan and elsewhere around the world.
                She has teamed with a company called Urchinomics, which is pioneering urchin ranching around the world. Suckling is testing a sea urchin feed the company developed in Norway to see if Rhode Island’s urchins will eat the product and, in turn, become commercially appealing.
                “Sea urchins are generally good at coping with climate change; they appear to be resilient to warming and ocean acidification,” said Suckling, URI assistant professor of sustainable
aquaculture. “So they’re a good species to turn to for commercial harvest. And you can get a good return on your investment from them.”
             The global sea urchin market is valued at about $175 million per year, with about 65 to 70 percent of the harvest being sold to Japan. Urchins are primarily used for sushi, though they are also an ingredient in a variety of other recipes as well.
                Red urchins and Pacific purple urchins are harvested in California, Alaska and British Columbia, while green urchins are captured in Maine and Atlantic Canada. Little is known about how successfully Atlantic purple urchins would compete in the marketplace, but Suckling is taking the first steps to find out.
                The edible part of the sea urchin is its gonad tissue – which chefs refer to as roe or uni and Suckling describes as tasting “like what you imagine a clean ocean smells like” – but the tissue must be firm and bright yellow or orange to get the best prices.
                “Wild urchins typically have small gonads and the color isn’t great, so commercial harvesters are collecting wild-caught urchins and feeding them an enriched finishing diet in cages in the open water for a few months to allow them to grow larger gonads and develop good color,” Suckling said.
                At the Narragansett Bay Campus, URI undergraduates Max Zavell, Anna Byczynski and Alli McKenna are undertaking a three-month food trial on purple urchins caught in Rhode Island waters. The animals are being fed a variety of foods to see how well they grow and if they become marketable. The students monitor water quality and regularly weigh and measure the urchins, and by February they should have preliminary results.
            “If they become marketable, then it opens up a whole interesting range of potential options,” Suckling said. “Under future climate conditions, there may be a need to diversify what we produce in the seafood sector. And since urchins are good at coping with acidification, this could be a good opportunity here in Rhode Island to exploit sea urchins.”
             Even if the formulated diet works as expected, many additional questions remain to be answered before urchins could be raised commercially in the state.
             “It’s a local species, so we can potentially grow them here, but is it something the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Department of Environmental Management would be interested in?” Suckling asked. “Are there aquaculture farmers interested in growing them? Can we ranch them reliably? We’re just taking the first step to see if it’s worth the effort to answer these other questions.
             “Part of my role is to try to understand what seafood we may need to turn to in a sustainable manner so we can maintain food security and economic security in the future,” she added.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

A tangled knot: Plastics and wildlife

           Almost every day, Geoff Dennis walks the beaches of Little Compton with his dog Koda and picks up the trash he sees along the way. Most of it he discards in a proper trash receptacle, but some of the plastic he finds – bottles, balloons and straws, for instance – is saved and recorded with a photograph at the end of the year to document its annual accumulation.
            In the summer of 2018 alone, he picked up 2,946 plastic bottles, 129 cigarette lighters, and 529 straws on just one beach. And that’s just the trash he counted and photographed. He picked up many many more plastic cups and plates, Styrofoam take-out containers, plastic bags, and an untold number of other plastic items. One day last May he collected 282 balloons on the beaches he frequents, and two weeks later he picked up another 89. This year he noted
Koda and balloons collected on RI beaches (Geoff Dennis)
the growing number of plastic pods from Keurig coffee makers, and blue rubber gloves are on the rise as well – 70 one day in September and 30 more three weeks later.
            “They’re small, as some people say in defending the use of plastic straws, but still part of the plastic problem,” said Dennis. “Smalls add up.”
            He estimates that about half of what he picks up is generated by local beachgoers and the other half from people and industries many miles away, since it shows evidence of having drifted on ocean currents for some time.
The growing problem of plastics pollution is due in part to our throw-away society and because plastic degrades very slowly in the environment. It persists for hundreds of years, at least. And unless we change our consumer behaviors and the plastics and packaging industries reform themselves, the problem won’t go away anytime soon. The recycling rate of plastics is floundering at dreadfully low levels while plastics production is expected to increase by about 40 percent by 2025.
“Plastic pollution has been an issue for Audubon for a long time, largely because of its impacts on wildlife,” said Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director for policy. “The global focus on plastics in the oceans and the attention it has received through social media has made it an issue of top concern to us. And in the context of climate change, plastics are made by fossil fuels, which we are trying to transition away from.
“Our throw-away society wasn’t created by accident,” she added. “It’s a very intentional industry push to create a throw-away world so the industry has a use for its products. They greenwash the ability to recycle and reuse, knowing full well that only a small portion actually gets recycled or reused.”
Jamie Rhodes agrees. A Providence-based attorney who has been working on plastics reduction initiatives around the country for the last decade, he said that consumer product manufacturers and those who use plastic for packaging and shipping have no incentive to reduce their use of plastics because it costs so little and its creation is subsidized by the oil industry.
The plastics industry emerged after World War II as the oil industry sought uses for the byproducts of the process of refining crude oil into gasoline and other fuels.
“They realized that the chemicals that came from the fossil fuel refinement process could be turned into plastics, which are among the most flexible chemical compounds out there,” Rhodes said. “The growth of plastics was a way for the fossil fuel industry to find value in what had been an industrial byproduct. They were drilling for oil, and plastics became a byproduct.
“Now we’re at the point where the tail is wagging the dog,” he continued. “Our use of oil for transportation and heating is declining, and a lot of the large fossil fuel companies have realized that the future of oil extraction is in plastics. There has been a significant shift in oil extraction efforts to cater to the needs of the plastics industry. We’re now seeing a growth in the construction of cracking plants in the U.S., which crack the chemical chain into component parts for specialized plastic resins.”
The results of all of that plastic production can be seen everywhere you look.
Approximately 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, and only about 9 percent has been recycled. Drink companies alone use about 500 billion single-use plastic bottles each year. Much of it finds its way into the oceans and across the landscape where it affects wildlife of every sort.
According to a 2016 report by the United Nations, more than 800 species have been harmed by marine debris, mostly through ingesting or becoming entangled in plastics, which causes suffocation, starvation and drowning. As many as 40 percent of cetaceans and 44 percent of seabird species have been documented to have ingested marine debris.
Because plastic floats, small pieces are often accidentally consumed by seabirds, which may be the most likely wildlife to be harmed by plastic. University of Rhode Island Professor Peter Paton said the “classic example” is the laysan and black-footed albatrosses on Midway Island in the Pacific, which soar for thousands of miles around the ocean in search of food and often bring pieces of plastic back to their nests to feed their chicks, sometimes pieces as large as toothbrushes.
“If you go to Midway, you see dead chicks everywhere with their crops and gizzards completely full of plastic,” said Paton, a member of the Audubon board of directors.
Closer to home, an ongoing study of chemical contaminants in the tissues of great shearwaters off the New England coast by a URI doctoral student turned into a study of plastics after she found plastic inside every one of the 350 dead birds on which she conducted a necropsy (an animal autopsy).
“It’s been quite jarring,” said Anna Robuck, who examined birds that were found dead between 2007 and 2019. “There hasn’t been a bird I’ve cut open that hasn’t had plastic in it. I’ve analyzed about 400 pieces of the plastics I found in the birds, and most are recyclable polyethylene.”
Among the plastics Robuck has found in great shearwaters are fragments of bottle caps, food wrappers and tangled up balls of microfibers. Most are smaller than 5 millimeters in size, which are considered microplastics, though many are considerably larger, large enough to pose a choking hazard. Some birds were found to have more than 100 pieces of plastic in their bodies, but they averaged 7 to 10.
“Great shearwaters are opportunistic foragers at the water’s surface, which means they’re probably ingesting the plastic directly,” she explained. “Most pieces are large enough that their prey – primarily small fish called sand lance – didn’t consume it first.”
While it is uncertain if the ingestion of plastic was the primary cause of death of the birds, it is likely to have been a contributing factor. And because chemical contaminants easily adhere to plastics, the plastics may also serve to deliver toxic chemicals to the birds and other animals that ingest them.
Not all plastics are equally hazardous when consumed by wildlife, however. Balloons are especially deadly.
A study published last summer by researchers in Australia found that balloons are more likely to kill seabirds than any other kind of plastic debris. In an evaluation of 1,733 dead seabirds, the researchers noted that 32 percent had ingested plastic debris. And while soft plastics like balloons accounted for only 5 percent of the items ingested, they were responsible for 42 percent of the seabird deaths. In addition, although just 2 percent of all ingested plastic were pieces of balloons, the birds that ingested balloon pieces were 32 times more likely to die than if the bird had ingested a hard plastic. According to the research team, balloons are especially lethal because they are easily swallowed and can squeeze into a bird’s stomach cavity, where they reduce the space available for food.
But pelagic seabirds aren’t the only birds negatively affected by plastic pollution.
Paton said that gulls often include a wide variety of plastic debris in the construction of their nests, some of which pose an entanglement threat to the birds and their chicks.
“Leg injuries in gulls and shorebirds are common due to entanglements,” he said. “One of the first piping plovers I caught for my research had fishing line entangled around one foot and the leg was swollen. It causes them to have a hard time foraging, and they often lose their leg because of it.”
It’s not just coastal birds that are at risk, however. Paton received a call in September about a great blue heron in Burrillville whose neck and wing were entangled in plastic debris, making the bird unable to fly.
Examples abound of marine mammals and sea turtles being similarly affected by plastic pollution in the marine environment. A Cuvier’s beaked whale died on the coast of the Philippines last spring with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. A month later, a pregnant sperm whale in the Mediterranean Sea was found dead after having swallowed 48 pounds of plastic. Then there’s the harp seal found dead in Scotland with plastic wrappers in its intestines and the viral photo of the sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nostril.
“When baleen whales feed, they aren’t selectively nibbling on their very tiny prey. They swim across the water with their mouths open, and they take in a lot of water and whatever else happens to be in the water,” said Janelle Shuh, the stranding coordinator at Mystic Aquarium. “When they filter the water out with their baleen, any plastics in the water get stuck inside their mouths.”
Shuh calls ocean plastics a significant problem for all species living in the ocean environment, and it’s a problem she sees regularly in the animals she rescues from beaches throughout the region. She regularly responds to calls about seals entangled in monofilament fishing line and other plastic debris, which often causes wounds and infections. She once conducted a necropsy on a dead harp seal and found several plastic bags in its stomach.
“I’ve also done plenty of sea turtle necropsies where we’ve seen plastics in their stomach and esophagus,” she said. “Leatherback turtles eat jellyfish, and a floating plastic bag can have the appearance of a jellyfish and they’ll eat it assuming it’s prey. Loggerheads also tend to have had plastics in their system. They munch on crabs on the sea bottom, and if there’s a plastic bottle cap down there, they might accidentally ingest it along with the crab.”
While it’s often difficult to determine whether the plastic items were the primary cause of death of the animals, Shuh believes the plastic is usually a contributing factor.
“Our narrative needs to shift,” she concluded. “I grew up in the 70s with the mantra of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’ But we’ve only really focused on recycling, and that’s becoming more challenging. We need to shift our mindset to ‘reduce and reuse’ so the materials aren’t getting into the environment in the first place. That’s the direction we need to go in now.”

This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Audubon Report.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Scientists work to save world's smallest sea turtle

            The combination of the curving shape of Cape Cod, the region’s strong winds and currents, and the rapid cooling of the ocean in October and November make for a deadly threat to the rarest and smallest sea turtle on Earth.
            That’s the problem being addressed by a series of research projects conducted by an oceanographer at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., and a doctoral student at the University of Rhode Island. The scientists used satellite-tracked oceanographic instruments called drifters to determine where Kemp’s ridley turtles that are late to return south in the fall are most likely to float ashore near death.
            The critically endangered turtles lay their eggs on beaches on the Gulf Coast of Mexico
Kemp's ridley turtle being released on Cape Cod. (Todd McLeish)
in a mass nesting event called an arribada. After spending their first couple years far offshore in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda, many of the young turtles visit the waters of the Gulf of Maine to feed on crabs and other small marine creatures that live on the seafloor.
            “There are little warm water bridges from the Gulf Stream that come up here, and we think some of the turtles are riding those into the area,” said URI student Felicia Page. “The problem comes when those little bridges close off and the water in Cape Cod Bay and the Gulf of Maine stay warm, which keeps the turtles here longer than they should instead of heading south in September.”
            Not realizing that they must swim north to escape Cape Cod Bay before migrating south, the turtles “hit a wall of cold water” and become hypothermic or cold-stunned as the water temperature rapidly cools, slowing their heart rate, respiration and metabolism, according to Page. Unable to swim, the animals drift on the currents and eventually land on the shores of Cape Cod Bay.
            It’s a problem the turtles have faced for many years, but because the climate crisis has caused the Gulf of Maine to warm faster than almost any other body of water, the turtles are increasingly finding themselves trapped in New England waters.
            “It can kill them if they can’t recover, and they can only recover if the water warms up,” Page said. “They have to be rescued in order to survive.”
            In the 1970s and 80s, fewer than 100 Kemp’s ridley turtles were found stranded on Cape Cod beaches each year, but by 2014 the number reached 1,100. Volunteers with Massachusetts Audubon wander the coastline each fall to rescue as many as they can. Many are brought to New England Aquarium and other agencies to be rehabilitated before being released the following summer.
            To help the volunteers identify the most likely beaches to search from day to day, Page and oceanographer James Manning deployed drifters built by local students to see if they could forecast where the turtles would land based on winds and currents. They also deployed sensors on commercial fishing gear to identify how the water temperature changes at different depths.
            “What physical processes are causing the turtles to suddenly come ashore at certain days and places?” asked Manning. “It’s a combination of currents and water temperature, we think.”
            The challenge is that the speed and direction of the current at the surface is often different from that on the seafloor, he said, and no one knows at what depth the turtles spend most of their time. The scientists have used surface drifters, underwater drifters, and even drifters shaped like sea turtles, and they all travel a different route.
            “We’ve shown how complicated it is,” Manning added. “We can’t yet make predictions about stranding locations yet.”
            So far, they have confirmed that the turtles do not begin to strand on Cape Cod beaches until the water drops below 52 degrees. In most years, that means the stranding season begins in late October and continues through the end of December, when most turtles have either escaped south, washed ashore alive or died.
            Page is continuing her research this winter to examine how underwater currents affect the stranding locations of Kemp’s ridley turtles.
            “A lot of the turtles don’t float at the surface; they’ll swim to deeper waters trying to escape the cold or they’ll sink to the bottom if they get cold-stunned at the surface,” she said. “So we’re looking at different levels of the water column to see how the current at different levels affects stranding locations.”
            By next fall, when the stranding season begins again, Page expects to have an app or software program developed so volunteers can plug in data about wind direction, wind speed and water temperature and know the best area to search for cold-stunned turtles.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on January 8, 2020.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Aerial survey of marine monument finds rare species

            A team of scientists from New England Aquarium has been conducting periodic aerial surveys of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, located about 130 miles off Nantucket, and has documented an impressive list of marine mammals and fish that illustrates why conservation organizations have been advocating for its protection for many years.
            A late October survey, for instance, documented three species of rare beaked whales, three kinds of baleen whales, four species of dolphins, several ocean sunfish -- the largest bony fish in the world -- and two very unusual Chilean devil rays.
            “We’re out there documenting what’s out there to show that the area is important and
Chilean devil ray (NEAQ Ester Quintana)
should continue to be protected,” said Ester Quintana, the chief scientist of the aerial survey team. “Every survey is different, and you never know what you’re going to see, so it’s always exciting.”
            The beaked whales were particularly notable, since they are rare and difficult to observe. Beaked whales are deep diving species that can remain under water for more than an hour and only surface briefly to breathe.
            “If you’re not at the location where they come to the surface, then you’re not going to see them,” Quintana said. “There are probably more of them out there that we were just not seeing.”
            The survey team observed two Cuvier’s beaked whales, three Sowersby’s beaked whales and four True’s beaked whales, the latter of which had not previously been documented in the 4,900-square-mile monument during an aerial survey, though a ship-based group of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had seen several there last year.
            Also observed were large numbers of Risso’s dolphins, plus groups of bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, and striped dolphins, along with nine fin whales, two sperm whales and one humpback.
            “We didn’t see many individual whales, but that’s just the difference between an October survey and the surveys we’ve done in the summer,” said Quintana.
            Of special note were the two Chilean devil rays observed, the first time Quintana had ever seen the species.
            “Last year we saw a big manta ray, which was a surprising sighting because we were unaware that they could be sighted this far north,” she said. “So when we saw the Chilean devil ray at the site, it was another unexpected ray. They’re not that uncommon, but in the seven surveys we’ve conducted, it was the first we saw at the monument.”
            Chilean devil rays can swim about a mile deep, and since they do not have to come to the surface to breathe, it is unusual to see them.
            The survey team flies transect lines back and forth over the three underwater canyons in the monument – Oceanographer Canyon, Gilbert Canyon and Lydonia Canyon – with most of the wildlife observed at Gilbert and Lydonia canyons. As soon as they observe wildlife to document, they depart from their transect and circle the animal to identify and photograph it. The plane is equipped with a belly camera that takes photographs every five seconds during the survey in case the two observers miss anything.
Quintana said that the survey team was unable to survey the waters around the monument’s underwater mountains or seamounts, because those sites are farther away and their small plane cannot carry enough fuel to reach them.
The wide variety of marine life observed during the survey are attracted to the monument because of its diversity of habitats.
At a lecture last February describing the monument, Peter Auster, senior research scientist at Mystic Aquarium, said: “Those canyons and seamounts create varied ecotones in the deep ocean with wide depth ranges, a range of sediment types, steep gradients, complex topography, and currents that produce upwelling, which creates unique feeding opportunities for animals feeding in the water column.”
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was designated by President Barack Obama in September 2016. It is the only marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. Early in President Donald Trump’s administration, he threatened to revoke the site’s designation, despite uncertainties as to whether he could legally do so. Those threats triggered efforts by conservation groups to document the value of the site to wildlife.
The next aerial survey by the New England Aquarium team will take place as soon as the weather cooperates. Conditions must be calm to allow for a safe flight and smooth seas so viewing conditions are optimal for observing marine life.
“We’ve never done a survey in the winter because it’s hard to plan one because of the weather,” Quintana said. “No one has ever done a survey there in the winter, so we don’t know what to expect once we get there.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on December 23, 2019.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Arctic whale tusk wielded in terrorism fight

When the news broke on Thanksgiving weekend that a terrorist wearing an explosives vest and stabbing people on the London Bridge was subdued by a Polish chef wielding a narwhal tusk, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it. And then I started getting social media alerts from friends drawing my attention to the story.
That’s because I’ve been enamored of narwhals since childhood, and because I wrote the first book for adult readers about narwhals a few years ago. Now, everyone I know who
Close up of two narwhal tusks (Todd McLeish)
sees something in the news about narwhals lets me know about it.
            The growing interest in narwhals – a 15-foot long Arctic whale with an 8-foot spiral tusk – is due in part to the many children’s books featuring the animal, as well as a brief appearance in the holiday movie Elf, and numerous other obscure cultural references. Almost every shop with animal-themed gifts seems to have something with a narwhal on it these days.
            I’m glad they do. Most people have never heard of the narwhal, and many of those that have heard of it think the animal is a mythological creature, probably because its twisted tusk looks like a unicorn horn. Since we know that unicorns aren’t real, many people assume narwhals aren’t either.
            But they are, and they’re amazing! Their tusk is their left tooth. They only have two teeth. In males, their left tooth emerges through their upper lip and grows straight forward from their face, while their right tooth remains impacted in their jaw and doesn’t grow at all. Neither tooth is useful for chewing.
            The first question I usually get about narwhals is about the purpose of the tusk. Why would an animal grow a tooth half the length of its body, especially one that is so heavy that it must be a challenge to swim with? Despite early speculation, it is not used as a tool for digging for food in the seafloor or as a weapon for defense or as a spear for procuring prey. Like the lion’s mane and the peacock’s tail, it is simply a male adornment used to attract a mate and maintain social order. And in this case, size matters.
            But that’s not all. Last year some biologists using a drone to observe narwhals noted that one used its tusk to slap and stun a fish before eating it. No one knows if that’s a common behavior, but at least one inventive narwhal is using its tusk in that way.
And a dentist in Connecticut believes the tusk is a sensory organ, based on his observation of thousands of tiny microtubules that go through the tooth, allowing air and water to mingle with the nerve endings that run down the center of the tusk. Most biologists dispute that speculation, since a sensory organ would likely be a trait shared with females, and females don’t have tusks. Nonetheless, the dentist is very convincing.
Narwhals have plenty of other amazing features, too, including a collapsible ribcage allowing them to dive more than a mile deep, echolocation abilities to find food in the darkness below the ice, and a thick layer of blubber so they can live year-round high above the Arctic Circle.
Although they are highly vulnerable to the rapid changes taking place in the Arctic due to the climate crisis, they are weathering the storm so far. And they can now proudly say that their tusk has proven useful in fighting terrorism. One time, anyway.   

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on December 21, 2019.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Raptors making a comeback in Rhode Island

Even before reaching the wide-open marsh that overlooks the Palmer River in Barrington, Charles Clarkson hears the high-pitched squeaky call of an adult bald eagle, a surprisingly weak sound for such a majestic bird. But when Clarkson emerges from the forest and glances around, he sees the bird disappear around a bend. His disappointment at missing out on a closeup look at the bird doesn’t last long though.
He knows the bird will be back soon to feed its lone chick, which he finds perched on the edge of a massive stick nest about three-quarters of the way up a large pine tree. The young bird, mostly brown but with a few scattered white feathers on its chest and wings, will not grow the iconic white head and tail of its parents for five years. But it still looks to be a powerful creature, nearly full-grown despite being just three months old and unable to fly.
            According to Clarkson, an ornithologist at the University of Rhode Island who is coordinating a five-year census of breeding birds in the state, the nest site is in an ideal location for the eagles. It provides the adult birds with a clear view of their feeding grounds in the river while also hiding the young birds from nest predators like great horned owls.
            Clarkson’s objective for the day is to document eagle nest locations, collect vegetation data to create habitat maps of the sites, and get a head count of nestlings. So he sets up a
Bald eagle (Peter Green)
spotting scope to get a clear look into the nest, takes pictures and makes notes about the habitat in the vicinity, and uses a GPS device to confirm the precise nest location. As he does so, he points out several osprey – fish-eating hawks that are seemingly abundant along Rhode Island’s coastline – soaring in the distance and landing on one of three visible nesting poles. Then the adult eagle swoops back into view, circles its nest briefly, and disappears again.
            “It seems to be put off by our presence,” Clarkson says to Catherine Boisseau, a member of the board of the Barrington Land Trust, which owns the property where the eagle nest is located. “It was bee-lining to the nest, but then saw us and veered off. My motto is the less impact we have the better, so we should head out.”
            Half an hour later, Clarkson pulls his Jeep onto the shoulder of a road in East Providence to collect similar data about an eagle nest in another pine tree, this one on a golf course. On first glance, the nest looks empty, and part of the branch that supports the nest appears to have recently broken off and lay at the base of the tree. It’s a worrisome sign, since eagle nests can be five or six feet across and weigh hundreds of pounds, and the young eaglet would not survive outside of its nest at such a young age. No adult eagles are in sight, but Clarkson walks down the road to view the nest from a different angle, where he can barely see that the young bird remains alert in the nest.
             Rhode Island was home to six pairs of nesting bald eagles in the spring and summer of 2019. Several others exhibited breeding behavior but are not known to have laid eggs, and dozens more spent at least part of the winter in the state. As many as 10 eagles have been observed together on the Seekonk River in Providence in winter, and additional birds can be found almost anywhere open water remains in January and February.
            The eagles, along with peregrine falcons and osprey, have made a dramatic comeback in the state after facing near extinction due to the effects of DDT, an insecticide used from the 1940s to the 1970s that caused the birds’ egg shells to become so thin that they broke when the birds tried to incubate them. It led to almost complete reproductive failure in much of the country for all three species.
            “DDT is an organochlorine, a type of chemical with a very high persistence in the environment,” explains Clarkson. “When it gets on insects and those insects are consumed by higher trophic levels – first fish and then eagles, for instance – it bioaccumulates and gets stored in their fatty tissues. It makes the mobilization of calcium difficult, which translated into a thinning egg shell that made it impossible for large-bodied birds to support their weight on their eggs. Multiple breeding seasons of nesting failure led to dramatic population declines.”
            The pesticide was banned in 1972, and after a long absence, the birds are back in Rhode Island and their populations are growing at a remarkable rate.
            Based on historic records maintained by Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, bald eagles were not known to nest in Rhode Island in the 1900s, even before the use of DDT, but they were regularly observed in winter until the late 1950s. The first record of an eagle nest in the state, on an island in the Scituate Reservoir, was in 2003.
            “Most likely what we’re seeing now is that the populations in states around us are growing at such a rate that immature birds are engaging in exploratory flights looking for new habitat and new territories,” says Clarkson. “They’re finding their way to Rhode Island and deeming it suitable for nesting.”
            The state’s first breeding eagles originated from nests in Massachusetts, where the breeding population had disappeared by 1905 due largely to... 

Continue reading the rest of this article in the December 2019 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

New book examines amphibian conservation in Rhode Island

            A new book about the 18 species of amphibians that live in Rhode Island is shedding light on the conservation needs of frogs, toads and salamanders in the region. Proceeds from the book will help to fund local protection efforts on their behalf.
            Chris Raithel, a retired endangered species biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, has had a lifelong interest in amphibians, but it wasn’t until he had been monitoring the animals for several years that he came up with the idea for the book, Amphibians of Rhode Island.
            “A lot of the species were very poorly documented, like four-toed salamanders, and
nobody had seen them for a long time,” he said. “So when I started looking for them and started to
Bullfrog (Todd McLeish)
accumulate a bunch of survey information, one thing led to another and I ended up writing a manuscript.”
            Raithel, who retired in 2018 and received the Rhode Island Distinguished Naturalist Award from the Rhode Island Natural History Survey last spring, describes his 316-page book as a conservation guide. It includes detailed accounts of each species, sections about the threats they face and their need for conservation, and numerous photos and graphics.
            “Most important is that I put all that information into a conservation context – here’s what we have, where they are, what’s happening to them, and what can be done about it,” he said.
            Although some parts may be somewhat technical, he said the book is “very user-friendly and readable. School kids can pick it up and be jazzed by the photos, it could be used as a college coursebook, and there’s plenty of parts that apply to a wide readership.”
            Many amphibian species in Rhode Island are facing serious threats to their populations, and he highlights these conservation challenges in the book.
            “It’s the same old thing for a lot of wildlife – habitat loss and fragmentation,” he said. “Some amphibians migrate long distances, they’re vulnerable at many life history stages, there are issues of hydrology and habitat alteration and road mortality, then throw on disease and a couple of other things. They can’t fly away from this stuff, they don’t disperse well, and there’s a whole gamut of things that influences them.
            “The bottom line is that when they get a lot of habitat fragmentation, their habitat patches get smaller, and many of them don’t persist in small areas like that,” he added. “Some species are really tolerant of habitat fragmentation; I’m not worried about bullfrogs because they’ll live in cities. But those that need large areas and have to move around between different sites, those are the ones with conservation concerns.”
            While most people interested in wildlife are probably familiar with the region’s most common species, like bullfrogs, green frogs, American toads and red-backed salamanders, the book also features the more obscure species that are seldom seen in the Ocean State.
            Spring salamanders, for instance. According to Raithel, spring salamanders are extremely rare and very difficult to observe. They were discovered in the state only about 30 years ago and are now known from only a handful of sites in northwestern Rhode Island.
            “It had been speculated that they were here, but nobody had seen one until another biologist found one,” Raithel said. “They’re permanently aquatic, and in some cases they live down under the substrate in the groundwater. We caught one of them deep in a well.”
            His favorite of the obscure amphibian species in the state is the eastern spadefoot toad, which hadn’t been reported in Rhode Island for about 40 years until Raithel started searching for them.
            “I knew they had to be out there, and eventually I found them in a few places, and then I branched out and found them in Connecticut where they had never been known to occur. Now they’re a conservation issue, as they should be,” he said. “They’re fun to look for because it’s like storm chasing; you have to go out in thunderstorms to find them.”
            Raithel is now working on a similar book focusing on the 20 species of reptiles in the state, which he expects to be completed in a couple years.
            Funding for Amphibians of Rhode Island was provided by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the State Wildlife Grants Program. It can be purchased by sending a check for $20 to the DEM Great Swamp Field Headquarters, 277 Great Neck Road, West Kingston, R.I. 02892. It can also be purchased in person at the same location, or at the DEM Division of Boating and Licensing, 235 Promenade Street, Providence.

This story first appeared in EcoRI.org on Dec. 12, 2019.