Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Whales of the Deep

        The small boat maneuvered within yards of a rare True’s beaked whale in the waters near Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The researchers held their breath as they tried to attach a digital tag to the animal’s back with a suction cup. Beaked whales seldom come to the surface for long, so the team’s window of opportunity was fleeting, and they had already made several attempts. If the whale dived again, they might not get another chance. Extending a long pole over the whale, they finally slapped the tag on the animal’s back, and the tag held tight. The team erupted in cheers — no one had ever successfully tagged a True’s beaked whale before.
        “We had all worked so hard to get to that moment, and it was a huge accomplishment,” said Danielle Cholewiak, a research ecologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the leader of the summer 2018 expedition. “For the first time, we were going to have a little more insight into the deep, underwater behavior of this elusive species.”
        Beaked whales are among the most mysterious marine mammals in the world. Because they are rarely seen and disappear underwater for long stretches of time, little is known about their behavior and
True's beaked whale (New England Aquarium)
life cycle. What are they feeding on? Why do they seem to prefer deep canyons? Do they travel widely or remain in one area for most of the year? Where do they reproduce? What is their social structure? The marine national monument 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is one of the few known places that is home to several beaked whale species, and scientists conducting research there are hoping to answer some of these questions about the unfamiliar cetaceans.
        Beaked whales have a distinct snout like that of a dolphin, and males can be identified by two tusklike teeth. The whales range in size from about 15 to 40 feet long and can weigh more than 12 tons. More than 20 species traverse the world’s oceans, and they prefer deep, offshore waters — unlike most of the best-known whale species, which spend much of their lives on the continental shelf. Most beaked whales are also shy and difficult to approach. Many species look so similar that even scientists find it challenging to tell them apart, and a couple of species are known only from dead specimens that have washed ashore.
        “Often the best way to identify a dead one on the beach is to cut off the head, freeze it and send it to an expert to make the ID from the clean skull,” said Robert Kenney, a retired marine mammal researcher at the University of Rhode Island.
        Three species of beaked whales — True’s, Cuvier’s and Sowerby’s — have been observed in the Northeast Canyons monument, a 4,900-square-mile protected area established by President Barack Obama in 2016 for its diverse habitats and abundant marine life, which includes billfish, tuna, sharks and more than 50 species of corals. The only marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, it features four underwater mountains, or seamounts, and three 1-mile-deep canyons at the edge of the continental shelf. The topography facilitates upwelling, a process that brings nutrient-rich cold water to the surface and sustains numerous species, from cod to North Atlantic right whales.
        The monument is “one of the least human-impacted areas of the East Coast,” said marine ecologist Peter Auster from the Mystic Aquarium and University of Connecticut, who started studying the area in 1984.
        In 2020, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation that lifted restrictions on commercial fishing in the monument. NPCA has been advocating for the restoration of the monument’s protections, and the Biden administration is reviewing the legality of the proclamation.
        Since confirming in 2016 that True’s beaked whales visit the monument area, Cholewiak has spent two to four weeks each summer or fall studying the whales at sea. During every expedition, she and her colleagues scan the surface of the water with supersized binoculars mounted on the ship to locate whales up to 7 miles away. Because the animals remain submerged for extended periods, the researchers also use a variety of acoustic tools to detect them and learn about their underwater movement patterns. Cholewiak’s research vessel tows an array of up to eight hydrophones, and the team laid acoustic recorders on the seafloor, for instance, to listen for the unique echolocation sounds the beaked whales make as they forage for squid and other prey.
        “It’s above our hearing range, so we don’t actually hear it ourselves, but we watch for their signals to come in on a computer screen,” Cholewiak said.
        In addition to Cholewiak and her team, researchers from the New England Aquarium in Boston conduct several aerial surveys in the monument each year to count marine mammals and other wildlife visible at the surface. They fly six transects over the monument’s canyons in a twin-engine plane with two observers aboard, and when they spot marine mammals such as beaked whales, they depart from their route to get a closer look.
        “When we see some, we wonder how many we flew past that were down on a dive when we flew over,” said Orla O’Brien, assistant scientist at the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “They’re such a cryptic species that every sighting is important.”
        Based on five years of survey data, Cuvier’s and Sowerby’s beaked whales appear to be more common in the monument than True’s, though the aquarium team has observed all three species swimming in the canyon area in most years.
        Cholewiak’s research group, which is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is slowly learning details of True’s beaked whales’ behavior. The team was the first to distinguish the echolocation sounds made by True’s (pictured below) from those of the closely related Gervais’ beaked whale, for example. And thanks to the data collected from the tagged whale, they finally have an idea of how long and how deep the whales can dive. The tag remained attached to the whale for 13 hours before falling off and floating to the surface. Once it was retrieved, it indicated that the whale had dived nine times to a depth of about 3,200 feet and that each dive lasted between 25 and 40 minutes.
        Data from just one whale isn’t enough to make generalizations about the species, however, so Cholewiak and her team are continuing their efforts to monitor beaked whales. The pandemic halted progress in 2020, but the researchers were planning to return to the monument this September. One of their longer-term goals is to tag both True’s and Cuvier’s beaked whales to track their movements and interactions to better understand how the two species may be sharing or partitioning their habitat.
        “I feel really excited and energized by this work,” she said. “We still have a lot to learn, but we’re definitely learning something new about beaked whales every time we get out there.”

        This article first appeared in the fall 2021 issue of National Parks magazine.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Tracking Brook Trout

        At Breakheart Brook in the Arcadia Management Area in Exeter, Ellie Madigan bushwhacks along the edge of the stream carrying a hand-held antenna and receiver to listen for an electronic beep that indicates a brook trout is nearby. During a half-mile of walking, she hears only the sounds of the gurgling brook, a few songbirds, and the buzzing of insects. So she heads in the opposite direction.
        Madigan, a University of Rhode Island student, is joined in the search by fellow student Mitchell Parizek and Corey Pelletier, a biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental
DEM biologist Corey Pelletier and URI students (M. Derr)
Management, who devised the research project to track the movement of the state’s only native trout species. After capturing 75 trout in May and implanting a tracking device in each of them, Pelletier, Madigan and Parizek are trying to relocate each of the fish every week throughout the summer to figure out where the fish go as water temperatures rise.
        “One of the things brook trout need for survival is cool water during the summer and high levels of dissolved oxygen,” said Pelletier. “That dictates the habitats they can spend time in and survive in. But often there are significant numbers of impoundments — dams dating to pre-industrial times that not only inhibit trout movement but also warm up the water.
        “One reason why we find brook trout in these small streams is because the streams are often fed by groundwater — whether through seeps in the woods or seeps that come through the streambed — and groundwater is cool and contains enough oxygen,” he added.
        Most of the state’s small number of brook trout are found in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed in South County, so that’s where Pelletier and his team are spending most of their time.
        Brook trout are considered “a species of greatest conservation need” in Rhode Island. They typically grow no larger than 12 inches, and often only 6 to 8 inches, because their limited habitat in small streams keeps them from growing larger. The chief threats they face are changing environmental conditions – mostly warming waters and low dissolved oxygen – as well as pollutants due to run-off from nearby developments. Stocked trout are also a concern, since they are usually non-native species that are larger than brook trout and can outcompete the native species for food and habitat.
        That’s why the state will no longer be stocking trout in the Beaver River, and fishing there will be limited to catch-and-release only to create a stream specifically managed for wild brook trout. Last year the state also increased the minimum size of trout that can be harvested in Rhode Island waters to eight inches, which means that most brook trout will have to be released if caught.
        Charlestown resident Jim Turek supports these efforts to protect brook trout and their habitat. An enthusiastic trout fisherman who has little interest in catching stocked trout, he calls brook trout an iconic species for New England.
        “They’ve always been here, and they’ve sustained local communities for centuries as a source of food and enjoyment,” he said. “It’s a heritage fish that looks better and tastes better than trout grown on food pellets in a hatchery.”
        Turek is one of dozens of Rhode Island trout fishermen who are committed to protecting the species and who are strict about not revealing the location of their favorite trout streams.
        “We believe we should do all we can to save these fish,” he said. “Brook trout populations are so small that if we tell the public where to go fish for them, they’ll remove some of the bigger ones and we won’t have a sustainable population any more. We’re happy to just walk along a stream and see a beautiful fish and know they’re still there. We don’t even need to catch them.”
        Even among the fishermen there is disagreement, mostly about the most appropriate fishing method for catching brook trout. The fly fishermen say that using flies is less likely to cause injuries to the fish that could lead to their death, enabling the fish to be released unharmed. The bait fishermen disagree.
        Pelletier isn’t taking sides. He’s mostly interested in learning as much as he can about where the trout go in summer so those areas can be protected from development and fishing pressure and to figure out how to keep the water temperature in those locations from getting too high.
        “The optimal water temperature for brook trout is 12 to 18 degrees Celsius, because that’s when they exhibit their highest growth rate, but above 18 you get into stressful conditions for them,” Pelletier said. “Above 23 and they don’t exhibit positive growth, and above 25 is potentially lethal, but it depends on how long they’re exposed to those temperatures.”
        His tracking study ran into difficulties immediately after the tagged fish were released in May because a stretch of hot weather in early June forced the fish to move much farther than Pelletier expected.
        “Wherever they were in May is now too warm for them, so they’ve had to go somewhere else,” he said. “But it seems like when temperatures are suitable, they can remain in the same spot for weeks.”
        Back at Breakheart Brook, the research team found just two tagged brook trout by the end of a long day of tracking. But they weren’t discouraged. They had many more miles of shaded streams to search to find the heart of the brook trout’s summer range.
        “The information that comes out of this study will be very important for the future management of this species,” Pelletier said. “We’ll understand the areas necessary to support trout through the very stressful high-temperature periods. It’s going to give us insight into management actions we can take to further protect the species.”

        This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of South County Life magazine.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Thanks to rain, it's been a mushroom summer

        The incredible volume of rain that was dumped on southern New England last month has made for an unusual summer.
        While the drought-stricken southwestern United States is no-doubt jealous of our abundant precipitation, I’m not so thrilled with it. All that rain has made my weedy lawn grow so fast that I can’t mow it fast enough. It has also accelerated roadway runoff into local water bodies, increasing levels of pollutants in ponds and streams and leading to more algae blooms than usual.
         On the other hand, the rain has made it a banner year for mushrooms. During a five-minute walk around my yard last month, I counted more than 90 mushrooms of 11 different species. While I admit that I don't know a great deal about mushrooms, I know enough not to pick and eat any of them, since
Chestnut bolete (Todd McLeish)
many can be deadly and most are notoriously difficult to identify. And yet they are intriguing for their beautiful colors and forms, and they are vitally important to the health of trees and forests.
        I just love how some mushrooms look like coral and others like mounds of jelly; some are round puffballs and others like tiny parasols; some look like giant pancakes while others remind me of tree rings. In my yard alone, I’ve seen them in red, purple, yellow, white, brown and orange. And some even have bioluminescent qualities. Shine a black light around your yard at night and some of your mushrooms will probably glow in the dark.
        Strangely enough, those biology lessons in high school that probably instructed you that every living thing is either a plant or animal were wrong. Mushrooms don’t fall into either category. They belong to their own kingdom because, among other reasons, they differ from plants and animals in the way that they obtain their nutrients. Unlike plants, which use photosynthesis, and animals, which consume their food internally, mushrooms grow into and around their food source and digest it externally.
        The mushroom we see at the surface is only a tiny part of the entire organism, however. Simply put, the mushroom is the reproductive part of a fungi, sort of like the fruit of a plant. Once the mushroom distributes its spores, it melts away, but the rest of the fungal organism lives on, often for many years.
        Here’s another high school biology lesson that wasn’t entirely accurate – trees in the forest don’t actually take up water and nutrients through their roots. The underground part of mushrooms is responsible for that job. Healthy forests are dependent on hundreds of thousands of miles of fungal threads called hyphae to gather water and nutrients and supply it to the tree’s roots. (Some scientists say that these hyphae make up 90 percent of the life living in our soils.) In return, the trees give the fungus sugars they produce in their leaves. Without this symbiotic relationship – called mycorrhizae – our forests would cease to exist as we know them.
        But that’s not all we get from mushrooms and fungi. They are an important source of pharmaceutical compounds, too, and they have the unique ability to penetrate hard wood and biodegrade it. Yeast fungi also play a key role in the production of bread and wine, which puts them high on my list of the world’s most important organisms.
        All this, and mushrooms taste good, too. I only wish we didn’t have to get flooded out of our homes to see so many of them.

        This article first appeared in the Independent on Aug. 14, 2021.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Soggy July was good and bad for wildlife, environment

        Rhode Island experienced the third-rainiest July on record, with most areas receiving more than twice the average monthly precipitation and some areas receiving much more, especially in the northwest corner of the state. Local scientists said all that rain likely had an impact on wildlife and the environment, in both positive and negative ways.
        In many neighborhoods, it was the mushrooms that were the most visible winners. Mushrooms of numerous species sprouted from lawns, gardens, forests, meadows and elsewhere in huge numbers. Abundant rainfall brings to life the underground portion of a fungi — called the mycelium — resulting in the production of mushrooms, according to Ryan Bouchard, founder of the Rhode Island-based Mushroom Hunting Foundation.
        “You end up with larger flushes of mushrooms, species not normally seen in such abundance, and
Jackson's slender amanita (Ryan Bouchard)

species seen in uncharacteristic size,” he said. “This wasn’t just an extra rainy July, though. It was a comeback from the prolonged terrible mushroom season of 2020 when we had a lack of rain throughout the year that left the mycelium mostly dormant and weakened.”
        The near-daily July rains provided what Bouchard called “a kick in the pants to the mycelia to get back into action.” He said it was an especially good month for Jackson’s slender amanita, a brightly colored edible mushroom that is usually hard to find but which was abundant in many places in July. Black trumpet mushrooms and chantarelles also had a major comeback following a year in which Bouchard saw only one.
        Other wildlife didn’t fare nearly as well as the mushrooms, however. Butterflies, moths and dragonflies were barely noticed in many areas for much of the month, though that doesn’t mean the insects were killed by the rain. Most were probably just in hiding. They are typically visible only during sunny days, and since July had few sunny days, most species did not make their presence known.
        Butterflies and moths in their caterpillar stages, though, may have succumbed due to the rain. Martin Wencek, a butterfly expert and a supervisor in the Freshwater Wetlands Division of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said any insect that goes through a caterpillar stage faces high mortality during especially wet years.
        “The dampness can promote bacterial growth that does them in effectively,” he said.
        An isolated month of extreme rain isn’t likely to have a serious impact on dragonflies, said Virginia Brown, author of Dragonflies and Damselflies of Rhode Island. But if torrential rains result in dam breaches, it could affect dragonfly populations and their habitats.
        “The problem from an odonate [dragonfly and damselfly] perspective is that when a dam breaches, the water it holds back — usually in the form of a pond or reservoir — is released downstream and, poof, there goes the pond habitat and all the aquatic critters like eggs and larvae in the water,” Brown said. “The pond becomes a stream channel, and then the hydrology and vegetation change.”
        Brown believes several populations of rare damselflies disappeared from the Ocean State in just this way as a result of the floods of March 2010.
        On the other hand, she said, “all this rain will probably result in high mosquito populations, which will mean more food for odonates.”
        More mosquitoes means more food for insect-eating birds as well. But since the rains occurred during the peak of bird nesting season, it may have negatively affected the ability of some birds to fledge their young successfully. According to Steven Reinert, an ornithologist who monitors the nests of one of Rhode Island’s most-imperiled birds in a marsh on the Bristol/Warren line, when heavy rains coincide with extreme high tides in salt marshes in mid-summer, saltmarsh sparrow nests can become flooded.
        “Rains coinciding with flooding events not only raises the elevation of the floodwaters, but also keeps water levels at or near nest level for longer periods of time,” he said. “Thus, the extensive rain of July likely cost the lives of nestling saltmarsh sparrows at Jacob's Point, but the extent of damage is impossible to quantify.”
        The abundant precipitation provided a significant boost to lawns and wild plants, but many cultivated plants, especially vegetables, struggled to survive. Heather Faubert, who directs the Plant Protection Clinic at the University of Rhode Island, said the rains led to significant impacts on tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, squash and other varieties from foliar diseases. Many fruiting shrubs were affected by pest insects as well.
        “Spotted-wing drosophila [a nonnative fruit fly] love high humidity, so they are doing great infesting blueberries, blackberries and raspberries,” Faubert said.
        Water quality in area lakes, ponds and streams was likely affected by the abundant rainfall, too, but not always in the same way. Elizabeth Herron of the URI Watershed Watch program said some lakes and ponds receive contamination from stormwater runoff, while others that are already contaminated may be improved by having stormwater flush out the contaminated water.
        “Increased runoff does mean we are seeing higher levels of bacteria in many of our sites, even in rural areas, after rainfall events,” she said. “We are also seeing some increased staining in our lakes and ponds due to water being flushed out of wetlands. Tannic acids often color the water like tea or even coffee. The darker stained water reduces water clarity and may impact algal and plant growth. In some places that can be a good thing, in other places that reduces productivity, potentially limiting growth of fish, zooplankton and other critters.
        “In other words, it is all very complicated. But ultimately I would argue that having more water in July is preferable for water quality than drought.”

        This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on August 9, 2021.

Friday, July 23, 2021

North America's largest butterfly expands into Rhode Island

        The largest butterfly in North America has been expanding its range from the South and Midwest in the past 20 years and is now showing up in Rhode Island in increasing numbers. The giant swallowtail, which features wide, yellow stripes across its brown wings and a slow wingbeat, has made it as far north as northern Vermont, but it isn’t expected to go much further.
        “When it comes flying at you, you swear it’s a bat because it’s so big,” said Kent McFarland, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who has studied the swallowtail’s range expansion. “It’s huge and unmistakable.”
        Until recently, the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) was considered a “historic” species in Rhode Island, meaning it had been recorded in the state many years ago but is no longer found here. It
Giant Swallowtail (Stock)
was likely a resident species in the late 1800s through the 1920s, but then it disappeared, according to Harry Pavulaan, a butterfly expert in Virginia who lived in Rhode Island in the 1980s and has become the Ocean State’s unofficial recordkeeper of butterfly observations.
        He said one wayward giant swallowtail was reported from Charlestown in the 1960s, and a small colony was observed in the Arcadia Management Area in Exeter from 1983-85. Many have been observed throughout Rhode Island in the last four or five years, however, including in Tiverton, Little Compton, Bristol, Warwick, Westerly and South Kingstown.
        “They’ve been steadily moving eastward from the Midwest into New England over the last 10 years or so, and now we’re finding them in Rhode Island,” Pavulaan said. “They’re definitely breeding in Rhode Island, too.”
        Why the species is expanding its range is unknown. McFarland believes it has to do with the changing climate and the range of its host plant, a shrub called prickly ash. Prickly ash is one of the only plants that the butterfly’s caterpillars will eat, and the shrub is found in scattered pockets in much of the Northeast. As the climate has warmed and winters have become milder, the butterfly has moved north and east as far as they have been able to find prickly ash.
        “They’ve expanded wherever there’s a host plant, and they can expand north because of the warming climate,” McFarland said. “It’s all about winter climate change; they can withstand some pretty cold temperatures, but not super cold.”
        The species isn’t expected to continue its range expansion much further north, however, because prickly ash isn’t found north of New England.
        “They’re trying to keep going north, but it’s a dead end for them,” McFarland said. “They strike out for new territory and have shown up in the Canadian Maritimes and Quebec City, but they’ve outrun their host plant.
        “The caterpillars can feed on gas plant, too, and a lot of people are planting that in their gardens, so it might spread around a little bit more. Somehow they find it and lay their eggs on it. It’s a little like a bird feeder — we’ve made islands of refuge for them with gas plants.”
        McFarland and Pavulaan said one of the most interesting features of the giant swallowtail is that its caterpillars look like bird poop to camouflage themselves from predators.
        “They even have a greasy look to them like they’re wet, but they’re not,” McFarland said. “And if looking like bird poop doesn’t keep you away, if you touch them, they have these bright orange horns that come out of their head and give off a foul-smelling and foul-tasting chemical.”
        Pavulaan said they also have another notable feature to avoid predators.
        “I’ve never heard anyone else mention this, but they have this characteristic pose when they open their wings flat to sun themselves,” he said. “Imagine looking into the mouth of a serpent with teeth. The row of spots on the hind wing looks like a giant serpent’s mouth. I suspect that when predators like birds see that, they stay clear.”

        This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 22, 2021.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Tracking indoor creatures turns up more than you'd guess

        Last year at this time, I wrote about participating in the Backyard BioBlitz, an event aimed at identifying every species of living thing in your own yard to document its biodiversity. I was thrilled to record nearly 250 species of life in my yard, mostly plants and insects. I even documented a rare orchid hidden among the wetland shrubs in the corner of my property.
        But it got me thinking about what I may have missed by only looking for wildlife outside my house. What might I find inside? Surely there would be a few indoor creatures in the nooks and crannies of my house, like spiders in the basement, moths in the birdseed, and maybe even a beetle or two. I know I have mice in the woodpile in the garage.
        Then I picked up a book that changed my view of this exercise entirely. "Never Home Alone" by Rob Dunn highlights the research conducted to discover the number of creatures that live inside a typical home. And the results were pretty creepy.
        The author, a scientist at North Carolina State University, says he has documented more than 200,000 different species living in homes, mostly in North America. About three quarters of those are bacteria found in dust, water, food and elsewhere. Most of the rest are fungi, with insects, plants and other stuff making up the remainder.
        “The species in our homes are a measure of our lives,” he wrote. “The early cave paintings of our ancestors documented the species they watched, stalked and feared. The dust on our walls, in turn, documents the species with which we wake up each day.”
        Ick.
        So I wandered around my house to see what I could find. There were definitely cobwebs in the corners of many of my rooms – an indication of my poor housekeeping and also a confirmation that there are plenty of spiders of some sort in the house. That doesn’t bother me, since I know that most spiders feed on other pest insects, so keeping a few spiders around the house is actually beneficial. In fact, Dunn found that those who are the best housekeepers probably have more pest insects in their house than those who aren’t, since it’s easy to find and eradicate spiders and much harder to find and eradicate all the pests that spiders eat.
        When I checked my windowsills and light fixtures, I discovered the remnants of other bugs that called my house their home – flies, daddy longlegs, midges and lots more that I couldn’t identify. The North Carolina researcher said that every house he sampled, including his own, had at least 100 species of spiders, flies, ants, beetles and other bugs living inside. Most go entirely unnoticed.
        The surprising truth about the abundance of life living in our homes is that most of it is good for us. Biodiversity, whether in the rainforests or the African plains or inside Rhode Island homes, is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Scientists say it builds up our resistance to allergens and strengthens our immune system. The thousands of species that live in the average home are working together to keep bad things at bay and good things in manageable numbers.
        So don’t worry too much about disinfecting your home to eradicate all non-human life. You’ll never succeed. And nor should you want to. The more diversity in your home the better. Up to a point.

        This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on July 19, 2021.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Cultured quahog pearls the next big thing?

        Brendan Breen dug hundreds of thousands of quahogs as a part-time commercial fisherman during high school while growing up in Duxbury, Massachusetts, hoping to eventually find a pearl inside one of them. He never did, but the desire never left him, even though he knew it was unlikely. Fewer than one quahog in a million contains a naturally formed pearl, and only a small fraction of them are of gem quality.
        As a student at the University of Rhode Island, Breen learned how pearls can be cultured in oysters and other mollusks, and it made him want to try to culture pearls in quahogs, a feat never before accomplished. He successfully cultured the world’s first quahog pearl in 2016, and patented that
Brendan Breen (photo by Ayla Fox)

method of inducing quahogs to make pearls. “When I saw those first pearls, I was elated,” says Breen. “No one had ever done something like this before, and it was such a mystery. But it was also so exciting. I had to learn from methods around the world, and create a unique pearl culturing method that worked for the quahog.”
        After graduation, he legally formed his business, Mercenaria Pearl, a company named for the Latin name for quahog. Breen is now pursuing growing cultured quahog pearls on a larger scale and is hopeful for future results. Because of their unique arrangement of calcite and aragonite crystals, he says they refract the light differently from conventional pearls, resulting in a porcelain-like finish in a variety of shades ranging from white to deep purple.
        While anticipating his first crop, Breen sought out the owners of wild quahog pearls around the country and bought every one he could. In August of 2020, he made wild (not cultured) quahog pearls from his collection available to the public, and launched a line of fine quahog shell jewelry. He is now the owner of the world’s largest collection of quahog pearls, which he sells to private clients, jewelry designers, collectors of exotic gemstones and anyone else who desires a close connection to Rhode Island’s state shellfish from locals to collectors all over the world. Four wild pearls recently sold at auction for more than $32,000.
        “They come in so many different shades, shapes and sizes,” he says. “It’s fun to work with clients to find the pearl that speaks to them most.”
        Breen has also worked with local quahoggers and jewelry designers to create wampum jewelry made from the polished inside of quahog shells in various shades and patterns of purple and white. His pearls and jewelry can be purchased from his website or at the shop, Style Newport, in Newport. mercenariapearl.com.

        This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.