Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rhode Island osprey numbers continue to soar

            Rhode Island’s osprey population is continuing to grow after a highly productive year in 2016, and while the wet spring of 2017 will likely cause a decrease in nesting success this year, the once-rare fish-eating hawk is a model conservation success story. That’s the message from a new report issued by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, which has coordinated the monitoring of osprey nests statewide since 2010.
            “We’ve had an amazing long-term trend of not just active nests but successful nests and the number of young. All are going up,” said Jonathan Scoones, Audubon’s director of volunteer
Osprey by Ed Hughes
services, who coordinates the osprey monitoring program. “Only nine of our nests were not successful this year, so it seems that our ospreys are becoming experienced at raising young.”
            More than 100 Audubon volunteers recorded 159 active osprey nests in the state in 2016, with 150 of them successfully raising chicks, an increase of 28 successful nests over the previous year and 45 more than in 2014. The number of young ospreys that fledged from their nests skyrocketed from 186 in 2014 to 297 in 2016.
            “Last year was the perfect year for ospreys, mostly because of the weather,” Scoones said. “The birds have to be able to see through the water to find the fish to bring them back to their chicks. They have to be able to see down about three feet into the water. If the weather is bad, they can’t see well enough.”
            For the third year in a row, osprey nests in Barrington and South Kingstown produced the most fledglings, with 42 and 41 respectively. The Palmer River area of Barrington and Warren had the densest aggregation of osprey nests in the region, with 22 nests between the East Bay Bike Path bridge in Warren and the Swansea Country Club just over the Massachusetts border.
            Butch Lombardi, who monitors a dozen of the nests on the Palmer River, said that food availability and water conditions make the area an ideal place for osprey to nest.
            “Food is the prime reason they’re there,” he said. “The river is pretty shallow once you get past the Warren bridge, and there is very little boat traffic except for kayaks and canoes. The key is that the river is so shallow that the birds can hunt it pretty easily because the fish can’t go deep on them.
            “If you add Merriman’s Pond at the country club, which is just two feet deep, it’s like McDonald’s take-out for them. It’s an easy place for a meal,” he added.
            Ospreys were driven to near extinction in the 1960s and 1970s due to the effects of the pesticide DDT, which caused reproductive failure in many fish-eating birds, including bald eagles. When the osprey monitoring program began in 1977 – originally coordinated by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management – just eight young ospreys fledged from nests in the state.
            Today, ospreys nest in 28 cities and towns in Rhode Island, including every coastal community except Cranston, as well as inland towns like Coventry, Exeter, Scituate and West Greenwich.
            “There are probably more nests out there that we’re not aware of,” Scoones said, “so we’d love to get feedback from people who may know of nests we can’t easily access. The Scituate Reservoir probably has ospreys, but we don’t have access there to look for them.”
            While ospreys appear to be quite common in many parts of the state, Scoones does not believe the area has reached maximum capacity.
            “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said. “Westport, Mass., has 80 nests along a short stretch of the river there, so the birds can live communally rather than just one every mile or so, which is what we have here. So we can still take on more capacity.”
            He said that the Palmer River area may not be able to support many more ospreys, but there are numerous places around Greenwich Bay in the Warwick and Cranston area that are available for additional osprey nests.
            Scoones doesn’t think 2017 will be a banner year for ospreys, however. He expects to see evidence of more new nests being constructed by many of the birds that fledged from nests in the area in the last two years, but the rainy spring will probably mean that successful nests will produce fewer young than in 2016.
            “It’s just harder to find food in the rain; the birds can’t see into the water,” he said. “They don’t like to fly in the rain anyway, and the mother spends her time covering her chicks when it rains, so she can’t help find food.”
            Despite his prediction for this year, Scoones anticipates that the increasing trend in osprey numbers will continue into the future.
            “We have enough population here already that we can probably weather a few years of something going wrong, like bad weather or food not being available,” he said. “I’m excited about the future because more people are aware of the osprey and are willing to protect them. The birds are being accepted and no longer seen as a threat to fish.”
            He remains concerned, however, about continued coastal development that could limit the availability of nesting habitat.
            “They need to be able to live in trees or nests close to the water where they can get to their food,” Scoones said. “Nearshore development is forcing ospreys to leave their natural nests, and now they’re going to cell towers and power line towers.”
            Anyone interested in becoming an osprey monitor or helping to repair osprey nest poles may contact Scoones at 401-245-7500 or 

This article first appeared on on June 24, 2017. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rhode Island's citizen scientists

            When Betty Law heard that the water quality in the pond behind her house in Warwick was so poor that it was unhealthy to swim in, she attended a public meeting at City Hall to learn more. That’s when Law, now 94, first met neighbor Gisela Meyn, 73, and they decided to do something about it.
            They teamed up with the Watershed Watch program at the University of Rhode Island to conduct tests of the water in Little Pond every week from May to October. It’s a project they have now undertaken for 21 years in a row, with no plans to stop. They have the distinction of being among the longest-active participants in a program that boasts about 350 volunteers
Gisela Meyn collecting water samples (James Jones)
monitoring water quality in more than 220 water bodies in the state each year. Law is the program’s oldest volunteer by far.
            “It was a shame that we lived on the pond and couldn’t go in the water,” said Law. “I’m not a great swimmer, but I like to cool off in it.”
            The Watershed Watch protocol requires that the pond be monitored at its deepest point, so every week the women row a small boat from the shoreline behind Meyn’s house to the middle of the pond to collect water samples and measure various characteristics of the water.
            “Gis treats me like an old lady,” joked Law. “She helps me into the boat and she rows the boat, but we do the rest together. I still drive, tap dance and sing in the choir at St. Kevin’s, too.”
            When they reached the middle of the pond – both barefoot and wearing flowery blouses and colorful shorts – they went to work. To measure water clarity, Law leaned over the edge of the boat precariously to lower a black-and-white patterned device called a secchi disk into the water, then looked through a tube to determine how far below the surface she could still see the disk. At the same time, Meyn measured the water’s temperature and depth, then submerged a complicated instrument to collect water samples at various levels. Law then conducted another secchi disk test to verify her original results.
            Twenty minutes after they started, the women rowed back to Meyn’s house, with Law serving as navigator while Meyn pulled on the oars.
            Watershed Watch is one of an increasing number of citizen science projects in Rhode Island that engage volunteers and non-scientists in collaborative efforts to collect data for scientific research.  Now in its 29th year, the program provides information that is used by water conservation organizations, policy makers, regulators and state and local officials to make decisions that affect the health of the state’s water bodies....

Monday, June 19, 2017

The edge of the world

            I don’t like the heat, so when I make travel plans, it’s usually to the north. Far north. Like to Iceland in winter, Alaska in spring, and way above the Arctic Circle in summer. There’s something about the wide open spaces when you’re above the tree line that has always been appealing to me. It’s the opposite of the sometimes claustrophobic forests of southern New England. The abundant tundra wildflowers, stunning blue-green icebergs, and close-up looks at unusual wildlife helps to complete the picture of a travel destination that appeals to all the senses in unexpected ways.
            The infinite vistas in the Arctic can be deceiving, however. It’s difficult to judge how far away things are or how large certain geographic features may be. Trust me – everything is larger than you imagine and much further away than you would guess. Bylot Island, a migratory bird sanctuary off the north end of Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic, is 16 miles
across Eclipse Sound from the village of Pond Inlet, but it looks like it’s just a mile or two distant. Don’t try to kayak there before breakfast, as I once considered, especially during polar bear season.
            But Pond Inlet, a village of about 1,300 people, mostly native Inuit whose first language is Inuktitut, is an excellent place to start your exploration of the Arctic. It’s the second largest community in the territory of Nunavut and a picturesque place to learn about Inuit culture, begin a kayak trip, or hire a guide to search for wildlife. But be prepared for the slow pace of life and the uncertain weather conditions that often delay flights and expeditions on the water by a day or two. Be certain to build in extra time in your itinerary.
            The accommodations are nothing to boast about – Sauniq Hotel is the only option aside from camping, and the hotel’s cafeteria is the only choice for meals. But no one travels this far from civilization to be pampered. Instead, plan on exploring local ice caves, hiking into the mountains that surround the village, or taking a springtime snowmobile or dogsled tour. Pond Inlet is also conveniently located near Tamaarvik Territorial Park and Sirmilik National Park, both excellent destinations for hiking and wildlife watching.
            My first trip to Pond Inlet was part of a research expedition to observe and study narwhals, the small whale with the spiral tusk that helped spawn the unicorn myth. Our guide
took us four hours west by boat to Koluktoo Bay where we camped for a week and explored the nearby fjords for wildlife. The 24-hours of daylight in early August and spectacular wildlife observations compensated for the mostly overcast and occasionally sodden weather.
            On our third night, we awoke near midnight to the sound of heavy breathing outside our tent, but instead of the feared polar bear we found a pod of narwhals rubbing their tusks against each other just 50 feet from the beach where we camped. The behavior, which looks in still photographs to be an aggressive form of swordplay was instead more akin to a gentle nuzzling, a bonding gesture among friends. Later, as we observed several small pods of narwhals around our boat, we dropped a hydrophone into the water and listened to the cacophony of barnyard sounds they emitted beneath the surface – clucking, clicking, mooing, squeaky doors and other entertaining vocal expressions. We also observed killer and beluga whales, ringed and harp seals, Arctic foxes, gyrfalcons, long-tailed jaegers and an impressive list of other wild denizens.
            Behind our campsite, we discovered an archaeological site – complete with a partially exposed human skull – from the Dorset and Thule people, ancient ancestors of the modern Inuit. The Pond Inlet Library has an excellent exhibit about the 2,500-year cultural history of the region, including displays from the turn of the 20th century when the village was a whaling station and trading post.
            Numerous other Inuit communities dot the islands and bays of the eastern Canadian Arctic, including Grise Fjord, Resolute, Rankin Inlet and Arctic Bay, many of which are worth exploring if time allows. But be prepared – flights are limited and most involve smaller aircraft and even more challenging conditions.
            Across Baffin Bay to the west coast of Greenland, summer visitors can explore several native villages, where Greenlandic is the first language, Danish the second, and English is
spoken by few but those in the tourist trade. But don’t let that stop you. It’s a chance to completely immerse yourself in a slightly different Inuit culture than that in
Canada. Fly as far as you possibly can up the west coast to the northernmost municipality on Earth, Qaanaaq, where the only accommodation is a four-room bunkhouse with home-cooked meals that are an adventure in themselves.
            Qaanaaq is a subsistence hunting village – little is available to eat for most of the year except what residents can capture themselves. They hunt polar bears and walrus in the fall, seals in winter, and narwhals and seabirds in summer, the latter season being the only two ice-free months of the year.
            The entire village can be walked end to end in less than 20 minutes, but take your time – you have no choice, since only one flight a week arrives and departs, and there is little else to do. On another narwhal research trip, I hiked the steep hillside behind the village to the receding glaciers that cover all but a narrow coastal strip of Greenland, then walked the quiet beach lined with sled dogs resting for the summer and gazed out at the innumerable icebergs slowly drifting by, some the size of a city block. I later spent an hour in the tiny Qaanaaq Museum, where an impressive collection of artifacts tells the story of the Dorset and Thule people, and in the village’s only giftshop, which sells beautiful jewelry and trinkets carved from walrus and narwhal tusks.
            The museum is the former home of ethnographer Knud Rasmussen, a Danish missionary who was the first to map northern Greenland and the first person to cross the Northwest Passage by dogsled in 1921. The house was originally 19 miles south in the village of Thule, but it was moved after a forced relocation of the entire village in the 1950s when the U.S. established a secret military base there. The natives were dropped off in what is now Qaanaaq with no housing or supplies and forced to survive a winter of -30 F temperatures in one of the saddest stories in Greenland’s history.
            Mads Ole Christiansen, the leader of the hunting association in Qaanaaq, occasionally invites visitors to his camp a two-hour boat ride away to observe a narwhal hunt and learn about the importance of whales in the Inuit culture. It’s a challenging experience – both physically and emotionally – to watch the impressive animals be killed with harpoons thrown from hand-made kayaks and then to eat their raw blubber, but there’s no better way to learn about the difficult lives of those residing in the far north.
            Traveling to Pond Inlet and Qaanaaq isn’t easy, and it’s quite expensive – especially considering the modest accommodations – but it’s a learning experience like no other and an adventure not to be missed.

This article first appeared in Aspire on June 18, 2017.

Slow down for better wildlife discoveries

            If you’re anything like me, you often find yourself rushing from place to place, and from responsibility to responsibility, seldom lingering long enough to smell the proverbial roses. But I recently found out how much I overlook when I do so.
            It has been 35 years since my childhood interest in nature blossomed into an all-consuming passion to observe as many different kinds of birds as possible. I plan my vacations around bird watching, and between trips I study up on the identifying features, habitat preferences and songs of the birds I hope to see.
Yet I learned more about birds last year – without leaving Rhode Island – than I did in the previous three decades of obsessively seeking out new species all around North America. All it took
was a concerted effort to slow down and spend time getting to know each bird by watching it a bit longer than usual.
Charles Clarkson, who runs the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, calls it “slow birding.” It’s the strategy he recommends that atlas volunteers use to document the breeding behaviors of local birds. And it’s a strategy that has opened my eyes to so many new discoveries.
Like the day last May when I heard a red-bellied woodpecker repeatedly calling from high in a tree. It’s a sound I instantly recognized and have heard hundreds or thousands of times. But this time the bird just kept calling and calling every 10 or 15 seconds.
Rather than mentally check off the species on my daily bird list, I searched for it and eventually saw the bird’s head peeking out of a hole in an oak. Moments later, it’s mate arrived and they traded places – the male flew off to feed while the female entered the tree cavity to brood her eggs. I had never observed that behavior before, and yet days later in a different forest I heard the same repeated calls and saw another pair of woodpeckers trading places.
The woodpecker in the nest was apparently telling its mate that it was ready to escape the duty of keeping the eggs warm. Maybe it was hungry or bored or just wanted a break. And its mate obliged.
Why hadn’t I ever seen this behavior before when it is apparently so common during the breeding season? Probably because I wasn’t paying enough attention. I won’t let that happen again.
Last month I spent 20 minutes watching a group of tree swallows darting over a pond, one of which carried a small white feather in its beak. As it flew higher, the bird dropped the feather and another swallow snatched it from the air and repeated the process. This wonderful game continued for several minutes until one of them eventually deposited the feather in its nest.
I also observed a pair of black-billed cuckoos mating, after which one delivered a meal of a small dragonfly to the other. And I saw a female Baltimore oriole collect long grasses in her beak and use them to weave an intricate basket-like nest beneath a branch overhanging a pond. And three times I saw gray catbirds carrying large leaves to begin construction of their nests.
I had never seen any of these behaviors before, even though I see those species regularly every spring and summer. All I had to do was slow down and pay attention.
It’s a good lesson for all of us. Take your time, keep your eyes open, and there’s no telling what natural wonder you’ll see.

This article first appeared in The Independent on June 16, 2017.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Snake Den State Park blitzed by nature enthusiasts

            The cool and wet month of May provided at least one bit of good news – it boosted the total number of mushrooms and other fungi counted by volunteers at the 18th annual Rhode Island BioBlitz to a record high on Friday and Saturday.
The 185 naturalists participating in the 24-hour event sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, which is used to assess the biodiversity of a parcel of land, counted a
total of 1,073 species of wildlife at Snake Den State Park in Johnston, including 102 varieties of fungi. The previous record for fungi was 88.
Among the other findings were 366 vascular plants (the second highest total on record), 73 birds, 13 mammals, 77 beetles, 24 butterflies, 146 moths, 21 mosses, 67 lichens, 30 spiders, 14 dragonflies, 20 ants (nearly doubling the previous record), 14 mollusks, 12 bees, 4 fish, 6 amphibians and 8 reptiles (despite finding no turtles).
David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey, said the totals were particularly notable because the 1,000-acre site was not on the coast, so no marine species were counted. He expects that when the final identifications are confirmed, the 2017 BioBlitz will
have the fourth highest species count since the event began, behind only Jamestown, Little Compton and Narragansett, all of which included a marine component.
“The other take away is that this year’s site is near Providence and it’s a working farm, so there are limits to how much you can expect to find,” Gregg said. “It’s not a pristine ecosystem like you’d find in Hopkinton or Glocester, and yet it’s actually a really good total and there are a lot of interesting things to see there. It’s well worth having protected the property.”
While the wet spring helped boost the mushroom numbers, Gregg said it probably depressed the counts of many insects, like dragonflies and butterflies, which may have delayed their activity until the weather warmed up.
The weather may have affected spider numbers, too. In a good year, spider experts typically tally 40 to 50 species, but they found just 30 this year. Mike Kieron of East Providence, curator of the Roger Williams Park Museum of Natural History, said there is a great diversity of spiders in the state, but finding them can be difficult.
“We found a lot of jumping spiders, which are one of the most active kinds of spiders, and some fishing spiders that can get up to two inches across,” he said. “Jumping spiders are ambush hunters, so they just sit there and wait for something to come by and they jump on it. They have two enormous eyes that give them such personality. They’re cute little guys.”
Mark Mello of New Bedford, the research director at the Lloyd Center for the Environment in Dartmouth, Mass., may have found the most notable species of the day, a black-bordered lemon, a tiny yellowish moth with a black line along the rear edge of its wings. It’s a species that he believes has never previously been recorded in Rhode Island.
“We’re at the northern edge of its range and its habitat is restricted, so it’s a good find,” he said as he sorted and pinned moths captured in light traps during the overnight hours.
Jason Crockwell traveled from Pittsfield, Mass., to participate in BioBlitz and search for slugs and snails, a category few volunteers paid much attention to in previous years.
“I started out interested in mushrooms, but I kept coming across slugs eating mushrooms, which prompted me to start looking into the slugs,” said Crockwell, who travels throughout the United States and Canada looking for slugs and participating in BioBlitz events. “I had a hard time finding information about them, since apparently nobody else is studying them, so I figured that was a niche I could hone in on. And maybe one day they’ll get their day in the sun”
Crockwell found all four of the slugs native to Rhode Island, and several species of snails as well.
One group of BioBlitz volunteers calls themselves the Litter Bugs.
“We’re really interested in all the members of the animal kingdom that live in leaf litter, on the forest floor or in the upper level of the soil,” explained Robert Smith of Providence, a medical researcher with an avocational interest in field biology. “We mostly end up identifying macro-invertebrates – things like millipedes and springtails and spectacular pseudo scorpions.”
They scoop up small quantities of soil and leaves and sort through it until they find living creatures, which they then identify under a microscope.
“What appeals to me about this is that in one trowelful of litter and soil you really have an entire ecosystem,” he said, noting that the Litter Bugs typically identify 20 to 30 species at each BioBlitz. “You don’t have to walk miles through a forest to find them. Most of the organisms probably live their entire lives in a very constrained area. You’re looking at the whole spectrum of an ecosystem in one scoop.”

This article first appeared on on June 13, 2017.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The state of Rhode Island's sharks

Some 50 different species of this most famous of marine predators regularly patrol the waters of coastal New England. Globally, shark numbers are dropping, but scientists say the news here is good—unless you’re a seal on Cape Cod.
Most people are familiar with one species of shark: the misunderstood great white, made infamous by the movie Jaws and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. But more than 500 species of sharks ply the oceans of the world, and about 50 species can be found at one time or another along the East Coast, from the modest smooth dogfish to the massive basking shark. Many of them are studied by a handful of University of Rhode Island alumni and faculty—who tell a very different story about sharks than is conveyed by the popular media.
Unless you’re a fisherman or boater who spends considerable time in offshore waters, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see a shark in southern New England, says Nancy Kohler, along with Lisa Natanson and Camilla McCandless. The three study the life history of sharks in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Apex Predator Program, based right next door to the URI Narragansett Bay Campus. They also conduct coastal surveys to monitor shark abundance, and collect biological data about sharks captured at recreational fishing tournaments.
They ticked off a long list of sharks that spend at least part of the year in the area: blue, mako, common thresher, sand tiger, smooth and spiny dogfish, basking, great white, porbeagle, and occasionally tiger, hammerhead and sandbar sharks. But the species most likely to be caught by fishermen in offshore Rhode Island waters is the blue.
“Blue sharks use different parts of the Atlantic for different parts of their life history,” explains Kohler, who studied the species for her doctoral dissertation. “This area is mostly a mating ground for them, which is why many of the larger sharks that fishermen catch are adult males. They pup on the other side of the Atlantic.”
One result of Kohler’s long-term tagging study of the species is a map of the impressive migrations they undertake—they travel through almost every part of the Atlantic Ocean. She says blues might, for instance, be tagged off New England and recaptured south of the equator, and they often return to the exact same place in local waters year after year.
Fishermen also catch a great many spiny dogfish, though few fishermen are happy when they do. The four- to five-foot sharks are often reeled in by recreational fishermen targeting cod and other groundfish. While there is little market for them in the U.S., Natanson said there is a regional commercial fishery for them to meet the demand for fish and chips in Europe.
Natanson, who recently started a study of the reproduction of dogfish, says spiny dogfish have a unique distinction among the sharks of the world. “They’re pretty small in the world of sharks,” she says, “but their two-year gestation is the longest of all the shark species.” That doesn’t mean they are necessarily slower to reproduce than other sharks, however. “Most sharks have a two-year reproductive cycle—they’re pregnant for one year and then they rest for one year,” she explains. 
While dogfish are the most likely shark species to be captured close to shore and in lower Narragansett Bay, they aren’t the only ones. McCandless says commercial fishermen using fish traps in the bay sometimes catch small sand tigers and even small white sharks, and recent evidence suggests that sand tigers are regular visitors to Rhode Island’s coastal waters.
“We currently survey shark nursery habitat along much of the U.S. Atlantic coast and have plans to look at Rhode Island coastal waters for this purpose, and Narragansett Bay is an obvious fit for that study,” McCandless says. “We’ve done some exploratory sets in the Bay, and we’ve primarily caught dogfish and skates. We haven’t caught any sand tigers yet, but we know they come up here in the spring time, and they have been caught in fish traps in the Bay.”
One of the most charismatic sharks to visit southern New England waters is the mako, a species prized by fishermen and one that URI Professor Bradley Wetherbee has studied for many years. He and colleagues from Nova Southeastern University have tagged more makos in the Atlantic than any other scientists. Their research is aimed at learning about the health of mako populations, the migratory routes they travel, and the locations of the preferred feeding grounds for what he calls the “fighter jets of the shark world” for their swimming abilities.
He tracked one mako on a year-long,6,500-mile migration in 2015 and 2016, but it was caught and killed a short time later by commercial fishermen off the coast of North Carolina. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. More than a third of the more than 50 mako sharks he has tagged have been killed by fishermen.
Wetherbee doesn’t object to shark fishing. In fact, his research is aimed at collecting information about the animals so they can be better managed and available for sustainable harvest for many years to come. He just hopes that any fisherman who catches a shark with a satellite tracking tag on its fin will release the shark back into the water unharmed.
The shark species that has received the most media attention in the region lately has been the great white, because their numbers have increased in recent years as they feed on the growing number of gray seals that breed on Cape Cod beaches. And caught up in the media frenzy has been Greg
Skomal, a shark biologist for the state of Massachusetts.
He has cataloged 258 great whitesharks in southern New England since 2014, a number he says rivals other hotspots around the world where the species has been intensively studied. He is trying to get a sense for the total size of the population, what they’re doing while they’re here, and where they go when they leave the area—both to help conserve the species and to address public concerns.
“Our approach has been that the more we know about its population size and where it spends its time, the better equipped we’ll be to advise beach managers to enhance public safety,” Skomal says. “The public is worried, but they shouldn’t be. Attacks happen so infrequently. The probability is so low that their bigger concerns should be rip tides and car accidents.
“Many people are also fascinated by them, though,” he adds. “People come to the beaches hoping to see one. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me. I see a lot of positives coming from it.”
While most people are fearful of sharks, Wetherbee says sharks have much more to fear from people than people have reason to fear sharks. An estimated 70 million sharks are killed each year by commercial and recreational fishermen—mostly to meet the demand in China for shark fin soup—and there is concern that the rate is unsustainable.
Skomal said the greatest concern for global shark conservation is in countries far from the United States where harvest levels are high and there is little or no fishery management. “You really have to look at where it’s happening and what species,” he says. “If most of the harvest is in a certain region, then those sharks are in serious trouble. There is so much diversity in the shark world, though. Some species are prone to over-exploitation and others can be harvested sustainably.”
Sharks in U.S. waters, however, are being managed well, the scientists said, and the data suggest an optimistic outlook.
“The indexes are going up, indicators like our coastal survey have shown a steady increase, and even the shark fishing tournaments are regulated,” says Kohler. “I’m not seeing the doom and gloom here that we hear about elsewhere.”

This article first appeared in QuadAngles, the University of Rhode Island alumni magazine, on June 7, 2017.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Too late, baby, now it's too late

            When Rhode Island House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan sent a letter to Governor Gina Raimondo on May 2 asking that a plan be developed and launched to eradicate gypsy moth caterpillars throughout the state, she was likely responding to the highly-visible emergence of masses of tiny caterpillars from their eggs that week. Her reaction could be considered understandable, since just walking outside in proximity to trees left many residents with specks of moth larva clinging to their clothing.
            According to one expert, however, a statewide eradication program is unnecessary and may even backfire. And by the time the caterpillars hatch, it’s already too late to plan and
implement an eradication program.
            Heather Faubert, an entomologist who directs the Plant Protection Clinic at the University of Rhode Island, agrees that the state is in for another year of forest defoliation that will likely be similar to the 230,000 acres that were defoliated by gypsy moth, winter moth and forest tent caterpillars in 2016.
            “But by the end of this growing season, the population of gypsy moth caterpillars will crash and they won’t be a problem next year,” said Faubert, who monitors caterpillar populations for the state’s fruit growers. “The diseases that usually control the population start spreading when the population is high and when we have wet weather in May. We’re having a wet May, so I expect the population to crash all on its own this year.
            “But not before the gypsy moths that are already here do quite a bit of damage,” she added.
            She said that the only way to eradicate gypsy moths throughout the state would be through aerial spraying of an insecticide.
            “There’s no other solution,” Faubert said. “And it would need to be done by the third or fourth week of May. Logistically it’s not even possible to organize a spraying program that quickly.”
            She said that the usual insecticide used to kill gypsy moth caterpillars in aerial spraying is not available commercially and must be ordered by state governments in the autumn. The next best choice is one of the so-called Bt insecticides, which attack all caterpillars, not just gypsy moths, wiping out all moth and butterfly populations in the area sprayed.
            “There was opposition to aerial spraying in the early 1980s, and there would be a lot more opposition now,” said Faubert.
            Even if a plan were developed, the insecticide acquired, opposition quelled, and spraying took place during the most optimal time, Faubert believes it would likely prolong the gypsy moth outbreak.
            “If we spray, there will certainly be lots of pockets of places that don’t get sprayed,” she said. “And the chemicals are never 100 percent effective. So if, say, 15 percent of the caterpillars in the state survive, the caterpillar population won’t be dense enough to spread the diseases that usually kill them off, so we’ll be facing the same problem next year.”
          Unfortunately, while the prognosis for next year is good, the state is in for a rough summer this year. Even if May remains wet and the diseases spread throughout the caterpillar population as Faubert predicts, the caterpillars won’t die until they are full grown and have already eaten a huge number of leaves.
Sadly, it’s not just the trees that will be affected.
            A number of local ecologists have noted that forest defoliation allows more direct sunlight onto the usually shaded forest floor, which means sun-loving invasive plants have a greater opportunity to spread through the forest; shade-loving frogs and salamanders may struggle to remain cool and moist; and some birds and small mammals may find it more difficult to hide from predators.
            The increased sunlight through the trees also means that the water temperature in many forested streams and ponds will likely increase, resulting in a reduction in dissolved oxygen levels in the water that can cause distress in sensitive aquatic species.
            On the other hand, URI ornithologist Peter Paton said that several species of migratory songbirds that feast on gypsy moth caterpillars, especially black-billed and yellow-billed cuckoos, will likely benefit from the abundance of caterpillars in the forest this year. Birdwatchers in the area noticed an unusually large number of cuckoos last year, and this year’s population should be even greater. Indigo buntings, which prefer open habitat, also tend to experience short-term increases when trees are defoliated.
            David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, said that he found unusually healthy populations of some spring wildflowers in Snake Den State Park in Johnston this month, which he attributes to the defoliation from last year’s gypsy moth outbreak.
            “Most forest floor plants are adapted for growing in the dark of the forest canopy, but some are still capable of growing faster and better if they have more light,” he explained. “So when there's defoliation, they have a good year. That means they put away a lot of food into their roots and have a good next spring.
            “But,” he added, “most of the rest of the gypsy moth news is bad.”

This article first appeared in Newport Mercury on May 23, 2017.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mowing less does more good

            Farmers, gardeners and others whose livelihoods depend on a healthy population of wild bees to pollinate cultivated crops and other plants have become increasingly worried in recent years. The global decline of bees – due to pesticides, climate change and natural parasites and pathogens – has led to reports that the world food supply may be threatened, along with millions of jobs and an unknown number of ecosystems.
            As worrisome as it is, there appears to be little that most of us living regular lives in suburbia can do to improve the situation. Yes, we can plant native pollinator gardens to provide
nectar to bees and butterflies in our yards. And if you haven’t already done so, then I encourage you to take that step. But not everyone has room for a garden or the time and money and physical ability to plant and maintain one.
            But recent research by an urban ecologist in Massachusetts suggests that there is an even easier step we all can take to benefit local bees. And rather than requiring that we do something more, it instead requires that we do less than most of us already do.
            Susannah Lerman at the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Amherst sought to determine whether lawns could somehow provide useful habitat for bees. So she spent two years regularly visiting 16 suburban lawns in Springfield, Mass., some of which were mowed weekly and others every other week or every third week.
What she found was quite surprising.
            During her visits to the lawns – none of which were treated with pesticides or herbicides – she discovered 64 flowering plant species growing among the blades of grass, including dandelions and clovers, of course, but also violets, smartweed, cinquefoil, rockcress and others considered by everyone to be wildflowers. These “spontaneous flowers,” as she called them, were not intentionally planted, but they still provided an abundance of pollen and nectar to bees.
            What was even more surprising is that Lerman and a colleague collected and identified 111 different kinds of bees on the properties. That’s about one quarter of the total number of bee species ever found in Massachusetts. One yard had an amazing 53 species. And even more astonishing than that – the most abundant species of bee was a sweat bee that had not been recorded in the state since the 1920s.
            So how can we do less to help our local bees? By mowing our lawns less often, Lerman said. It turns out that the lawns with the largest number of bees on them were the lawns mowed every two weeks instead of every week. That extra week in between mowing allowed some of the slower-growing spontaneous flowers the time they needed to bloom and provide nectar to the bees.
            Lerman concluded that the best thing most homeowners can do to reverse the decline in bees is to forego the use of chemical lawn treatments, plant a pollinator garden if possible, and only mow the lawn every other week at most.
            Some of the lawn-obsessed among us may find it challenging to follow these suggestions because they see dandelions and clovers as weeds. But Lerman told me that “we need to change their perceptions and show that those plants are really providing wildlife habitat.”
            So do a little less to your lawn this year, and feel good that you’re actually doing a little more for your local bees at the same time.

This article first appeared in the Independent on May 22, 2017.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Documenting Rhode Island's ant diversity

            James Waters calls ants “the most ecologically dominant animal on Earth,” which may sound like an exaggeration from an enthusiastic ant aficionado. But the assistant professor of biology at Providence College can back it up.
Ants have colonized nearly everywhere around the globe except Antarctica; more than 12,500 species are recognized; and they are social creatures that have a division of labor, communication between individuals, and the ability to solve complex problems. There are so many ants, in fact, that their total biomass surpasses the biomass of every human in the world.
            And yet very little is known about the ants that call Rhode Island home.
            That’s where Waters comes in. At a lecture on May 11 sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, he outlined his efforts to characterize the biodiversity and natural history ofthe ants living on the PC campus, as well as a broader effort to do so for the entire state.
            Waters said he is following in the footsteps of Rev. Charles Reichart, a PC professor for 50
years who died in 1997 and whose collection of thousands of insects now resides at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
            “Three years ago my students started taking photos of the local ants on campus, and now we’re taking a more scientific approach to figuring out what ants live there,” said Waters, who joined the PC faculty in 2014. “We set up a grid on campus, set up three pitfall traps per grid with soapy water in them, and collected any ant that fell in.”
            It turned out that counting and identifying all of the collected specimens was a laborious task. In 10 weeks, Waters and his students amassed more than 2,000 specimens, and it took almost two years of work to sort and identify them. They found 16 species of ants on the college campus, although since they only placed their traps on the ground, they probably missed many other species that live in trees and other habitats.
            The most common ants the students collected were pavement ants, carpenter ants, labor day ants, and the bizarrely named somewhat silky ants and yellow-legged crazy ants. Among the rarest species documented were the short-horned slender ant, long-spined acorn ant, tawny seed-harvesting ant, pale ant and Asian needle ant.
            The discovery of the Asian needle ant was particularly unexpected, since it had never before been recorded in New England. An invasive species, it arrived in the United States in the 1930s and has become common in the mid-Atlantic states, but the closest it was believed to have come to Rhode Island was New York.
            “So I told all my students that if they found another one on campus they wouldn’t have to take the final exam,” Waters said. “Most of them found one, almost all around one building on campus. I have no idea why they were at that one building, but they haven’t been found anywhere else on campus, or in Rhode Island or New England.”
            Among the other species found on the Providence College campus by Waters’ students was the common vampire ant, a species so small that it can barely be seen with the naked eye. “They don’t drink our blood,” Waters said, “but they do puncture their own babies and drink the hemolymph,” a blood-like fluid in invertebrates.
            Also found were five species of acorn ants -- tiny insects that live inside acorns – and many citronella ants, which smell like citronella oil.
            According to Waters, most ants produce a distinctive odor from trace amounts of a natural oil they put on their exoskeleton. Some ants can even distinguish what colony an individual ant is from based on its odor. And he said that some ant experts at Harvard University are adept at identifying ant species by their odor alone.
            Waters can’t do that yet, but he’s learning. He became interested in ants while in graduate school at Arizona State University, where he modeled the flow of air through insect lungs as part of a study of insect metabolism. Other students were studying social insects, including ants.
            “I asked them about the energy use of an ant colony, and no one knew the answer,” he said. “I only got interested in the natural history aspect of ants after grad school. I had all this data on the energy use of these species, but I didn’t know what they did on a daily basis. I wound up in Rhode Island and didn’t know anything about the ants here. Now I’m just trying to discover what I can about our local species.”
            Over the next two years, he plans to develop and conduct a systematic survey of ants throughout the state. As a relative newcomer to Rhode Island, he is still trying to identify interesting places with unusual habitat to survey. He also intends to visit the Smithsonian to review Reichart’s insect collection to see what ant species the former PC professor found in the mid-1900s.
            “So far, we’ve identified lots of new state and county records,” Waters said, noting that he estimates that about 100 ant species live in Rhode Island. “But we still have a long way to go.”

This article was first published in on May 18, 2017.

Friday, May 12, 2017

A secret sensor

            Anyone who has paid even a little attention to plants and trees in late winter and early spring know how responsive they are to temperature. In years when the winters are warm, many trees and flowers bud early. But until now, the molecular mechanism that allows them to detect temperature has been unknown.
            A team of scientists from the University of Cambridge in England has revealed what they call the “thermometer molecule” that enables plants to develop according to seasonal temperature changes. During the day, the plants use the molecules, called phytochromes, to detect light, but they change their function in darkness to become a cellular temperature gauge to measure heat at night.
            Their research was published last fall in the journal Science.
            According to lead researcher Philip Wigge, who compares phytochromes to mercury in a thermometer, the pace at which the molecules change is directly proportional to temperature – the warmer the temperature, the faster the molecules change to stimulate plant growth.
            Sunlight activates the molecules during the day, binding themselves to DNA to slow plant growth. The phytochromes are rapidly inactivated when plants become shaded, enabling them to grow faster to find sunlight again. Wigge said this is how plants compete to escape each other’s shade. Light driven changes to phytochrome activity can occur in less than a second.
            But at night, the molecules gradually become inactive in a process called dark reversion. “Just as mercury rises in a thermometer, the rate at which phytochromes revert to their inactive state during the night is a direct measure of temperature,” Wigge said. “The lower the temperature, the slower phytochromes revert to inactivity, so the molecules spend more time in their active, growth-suppressing state. This is why plants are slower to grow in winter.”
“Warm temperatures accelerate dark reversion,” he added, “so that phytochromes rapidly reach an inactive state and detach themselves from DNA, allowing genes to be expressed and plant growth to resume.”
Not every plant species relies equally on their phytochromes, however. Some, like ash trees, rely more on measuring day length to determine their seasonal timing, whereas oaks rely primarily on temperature, meaning they use their phytochromes to dictate their development.
            The research was conducted on a mustard plant, but the scientists say the phytochrome genes are found in crop plants as well.  In fact, Wigge said, in light of the increasingly unpredictable weather and temperatures due to climate change, the discovery could help in the breeding of more resilient crops.
            “It is estimated that agricultural yields will need to double by 2050, but climate change is a major threat to such targets,” he said. “Key crops such as wheat and rice are sensitive to high temperatures. Thermal stress reduces crop yields by around 10 percent for every one degree increase in temperature. Discovering the molecules that allow plants to sense temperature has the potential to accelerate the breeding of crops resilient to thermal stress and climate change.”

This article first appeared in Northern Woodlands magazine on May 10, 2017.

Changes in ranges

            Researchers have long believed that the changing climate will force most species of birds to shift their range to follow their preferred climate niche. Rather than adapting to the new climate conditions in their current range, birds will in most cases move north or higher in elevation as the planet warms.
            But a new study by a former University of Massachusetts ecologist overturns that long-held assumption. Joel Ralston, now at St. Mary’s College in Indiana, found that a previously ignored factor also plays a role in determining how and if birds will shift their range – population trend.
            Ralston discovered that birds that have increased in abundance over the last 30 years now occupy a wider range of climate conditions than they did 30 years ago, and declining species are occupying a smaller range of climate conditions than 30 years ago.
            “It was previously thought that as species expand their ranges, they would do so while maintaining their climate niche,” Ralston said. “We show that as species become more abundant, they are actually moving into new climate conditions, and declining species are disappearing from some of the climate conditions they used to be found in.”
            The researchers compared data from Breeding Bird Surveys from 1980-82 and 2010-2012 for 46 species, and overlaid the climate conditions each species occupied during those years to establish their “climate niche breadth.”
            Using this methodology, Ralston found, for instance, that the wood thrush, a close relative of the American robin, declined in population by about two percent each year for the last 30 years, and during that time it also showed a 7.5 percent decrease in its climate niche breadth. Grasshopper sparrows, a species of conservation concern due to loss of habitat and a resulting decline in population, have experienced a 43 percent decline in climate niche breadth.
            Many of the bird species that are increasing in abundance and increasing the breadth of their climate niche are species commonly found in suburbia. And Ralston said that there is an important lesson in this fact.
            “Anything we can do to increase bird populations – maintaining bird feeders, planting native plants, keeping cats indoors – can indirectly help those species respond to climate change.  A lot of the species that are doing best at tracking climate, like bluebirds and red-bellied woodpeckers, are those that are benefitting from human activities.”
            He said the implications for this study are significant.
            “Currently, when conservation biologists make predictions about how species will respond to climate change in order to make decisions about what habitats to protect, they are assuming that these species in the future will be occupying the same conditions as today,” Ralston said. “We show that that isn’t necessarily true. These future models might over-predict the conditions declining species will be found in. We’d be better informed if we try to include population trend and its effect on climate niche breadth when planning what habitats to protect.”

This article first appeared in Northern Woodlands magazine on May 10, 2017.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Gypsy moths bring more bad news to region

            It’s almost gypsy moth caterpillar season again, a time of tree defoliation, caterpillar droppings raining down upon us, and a variety of other environmental impacts. Now comes the news that last year’s infestation may have also affected water quality in the region and will likely do so again.
            Gypsy moth caterpillars – along with winter moth caterpillars and forest tent caterpillars, but mostly gypsy moths – defoliated about 230,000 acres in Rhode Island last year, according to University of Rhode Island entomologist Heather Faubert, who coordinates the Plant Protection Clinic, making it the worst defoliation since
at least the early 1980s.  More than half of the state’s 400,000 forested acres were affected.
The defoliation also allowed sunlight into areas usually shaded by the forest canopy, which local ecologists said allowed sun-loving invasive plants to spread into the forest, denied native birds and small mammals protection from predators, and made it difficult for frogs and salamanders living on the forest floor to remain cool and moist.
Coupled with last year’s drought, it also resulted in what botanist Keith Killingbeck called “a muted display” of fall foliage.
The water quality implications from the caterpillars, reported last month by URI researcher Kelly Addy at a research conference at Brown University, were a coincidental result of a comparative study of how rainstorms affect stream water quality in forested, urban and agricultural watersheds. Addy said that sensors in Cork Brook in North Scituate picked up a “signature” of gypsy moths that lasted for many months.
“When you lose canopy cover, you have more sunlight hitting the streams, which warms up the water, and warm water cannot hold as much oxygen, so dissolved oxygen levels go down,” she explained.
Addy said that dissolved oxygen levels were further suppressed when large quantities of additional carbon – from caterpillar excrement, the caterpillars themselves, and fragments of leaves – dropped into the water from above.
“All that carbon fuels the organisms living in the water, causing them to flourish,” she said. “Suddenly you have more biomass of life in the streams, which sounds good, but they are then consuming more oxygen, and dissolved oxygen levels decline even more.”
In Cork Brook, dissolved oxygen was measured at 8 milligrams per liter in the summer of 2014 and 2015 but just 5 milligrams per liter last summer.
“At that level, you can start getting oxygen distress in sensitive species,” Addy said.
The low levels of dissolved oxygen in Cork Brook remained through at least last fall, when the sensors were removed.
“If gypsy moths are not a big issue this spring, then the water will likely recover,” she said. “But if it happens repeatedly, then the streams won’t bounce back as easily, and each spring it may remain low.
Unfortunately, gypsy moths are poised for another big year, with one caveat. “How bad it will be will depend somewhat on the weather,” said Faubert.
 In years when it’s rainy in May, the moisture abets several fungal diseases that get passed back and forth between gypsy moth caterpillars, causing the population to crash.
“But even if almost all of our gypsy moth caterpillars die off from the diseases, they don’t die until they’re already large caterpillars, so they will have already eaten a lot of leaves,” she said. “So we’re in for a lot of gypsy moth damage, regardless of the weather.”
That means the likelihood of many more dead trees, since the botany rule of thumb suggests that three consecutive years of defoliation will usually kill most trees. And even one year of defoliation of spruce or hemlock trees can kill them, Faubert said.
The only good news is that Faubert found fewer winter moth eggs this spring than in the past two years, so winter moth caterpillars – which typically hatch in early- to mid-April and feed on leaves and tree blossoms for about a month – may have a lesser impact on local trees this year than previously expected.

This article first appeared on on May 4, 2017.