Thursday, October 4, 2018

Solution to lobster shell disease remains elusive

            Despite more than 20 years of declining lobster populations in southern New England and extensive studies of the shell disease that is a major factor in their decline, scientists are still struggling to provide definitive answers to help restore hope to those working in the local lobster fishery.
            A new study of lobsters along the eastern Connecticut coast has found that the disease is linked to warming water temperatures, while progress is slow in efforts to identify probiotics to counteract the disease and to better understand why so many lobsters are blind.
            “Epizootic shell disease first appeared around 1996 and became quite prevalent around 1999, and it continues to be prevalent,” said Maya Groner, who conducted the Connecticut study
Diseased lobster (Jeff Shields/VIMS)
as a post-doctoral researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “It’s been a challenge to figure out what the pathogen associated with the disease is. The best evidence suggests it may be a suite of bacteria that chews away at the carapace, but that suite of bacteria changes over the course of the disease.”
            Her study found that the increased prevalence of the disease stems from warmer water temperatures that induce the lobsters to molt their shells earlier than usual.
            Using data on 200,000 lobsters collected over 37-years in Waterford, Conn., as part of the biological monitoring near the Millstone Nuclear Power Station, Groner found that about 80 percent of male lobsters have the disease during warm years, with females contracting the disease at a slightly lower rate.
            “Molting their shell resets their health,” she said. “If they don’t molt, there’s no way they can recover. But now that they’re molting earlier in the spring, the molt happens before they’re even challenged with the disease.” And the earlier molt allows the disease to progress longer than if the lobsters molted in summer, as they typically do.
            Groner found that for every 1.8 degree increase in the average temperature of the bottom-water in May, lobsters molted about 6 days earlier. In early-molting years, disease prevalence doubled by September.
            “It’s very consistent with trends we’ve seen with other marine diseases,” Groner said. “Organisms at the southern part of their range – like lobsters in Long Island Sound – are limited by temperature. They’re at their thermal tolerance limit. So as temperatures increase, they’re becoming stressed and less able to cope with diseases.”
            University of Rhode Island fisheries researcher Kathy Castro has been studying lobsters for more than two decades, and she decided to look for a solution to help lobsters recover from the disease even though the precise cause of the disease was still uncertain. She is collaborating with URI colleagues who are studying probiotics on oysters.
            “Why can’t we identify good bacteria that normally occur on lobsters, take the bad bacteria off, and repopulate their shells with good bacteria?” she wondered. “In essence, the idea works, but we don’t know what’s the right bacteria, how do we treat the lobsters, how often, and how to do it in a reasonable time frame.”
            In a laboratory setting, Castro’s URI colleagues David Nelson and David Rowley isolated probiotics from healthy lobsters and tested them against what they believe may be the “bad bacteria.” The strategy looked promising. Initial trials on adult lobsters were positive as well. But it may not be practical.
            “Our initial idea was that lobstermen could treat the lobsters on their boat,” she said. “But it’s hard to do; you have to do it in a lab. Maybe we still haven’t identified the right probiotic. And are we even working with the right pathogens?”
            While that work is continuing, Castro is investigating why about half of the lobsters she has tested are functionally blind.
            “That’s a more concerning issue to me than shell disease,” she said. “My question is, is it related to shell disease. The lobster’s endocrine control system is located in their eye stalk, so if a lobster is blind, is it molting incorrectly, and is that contributing to the disease.”
            Castro said a colleague in Virginia thinks the cause of the blindness may be manganese, a neurotoxin that harms optic nerves and is released from sediments under low oxygen conditions. But studies are just now under way.
            “In my mind, it has to be related to shell disease. That’s my gut feeling,” she said.
            One of the challenges to finding the answers has been inadequate research funding, Castro said, so much of the research is being done piecemeal.
“I really wish there was something fundamentally easy that we could do to solve all these problems,” she said. “That would be my greatest dream. But I know it takes time. And as much as we know about lobsters, there’s a lot more we don’t know.”

This article first appeared on on October 3, 2018.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Keep an eye out for Rhode Island's cutest animal

            Otters have been on my mind a great deal lately. That’s partly because I spent the last four years writing a book about sea otters, the adorably cute, hand-holding, tool-using marine creatures found exclusively on the West Coast. But it’s also because I’ve enjoyed several recent encounters with river otters here in Rhode Island, and I’m captivated by their playful behaviors.
            Members of the weasel family with long, streamlined bodies and a flattened head, river otters are somewhat common in the Ocean State anywhere there is fresh water. Charlie Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has found
more than 450 locations – spread throughout every community in the state except Block Island – where otters haul themselves out at the edge of ponds, lakes and rivers.
            Not that the animals are easy to see. River otters are shy and secretive. Most of my sightings have been near dusk or dawn and are typically quite brief. But your chances of seeing one are pretty good if you pay attention when passing by local waterways almost anywhere you go.
            If you catch a glimpse of one, take a moment to enjoy it, because it will surely leave you smiling.
            At the Great Swamp Management Area in Kingston, I watched as an otter darted across a dike and dragged itself through a muddy area on its way to a pond where it proceeded to give itself a bath. Near the Scituate Reservoir last winter, an otter reclined on a frozen pond while it chewed on a freshly-caught fish. And somewhere along the North South Trail in the western part of the state, two otters appeared to be doing what looked like synchronized swimming – side-by-side loop-de-loops just below the surface of the water. Whether they were chasing fish, rinsing off, or just having fun is something I’ll never know.
            My favorite river otter observation occurred in Washington, where I was looking for sea otters but instead came across a mother river otter taking her four pups on a hunting expedition. None of the young ones seemed to have much success during the 10 minutes I watched, but a pair of noisy ravens was perched on a rock nearby, looking like they were planning to steal whatever the little guys caught.
            If you want to go looking for a river otter, now is a good time, because some of the pups born last spring are beginning to venture out on their own, searching for available territories and practicing their hunting skills. And they’re at the age when they’re most playful – wrestling in the water, chasing each other around and around, sliding down hills, and practicing their fighting skills.
            It’s hard to say, but I think river otters in Rhode Island may be a little less skittish than those found in other regions. That may be because the Ocean State is the only place east of the Mississippi that does not have a trapping season. Trapping of river otters was banned by law in Rhode Island in 1970.
            That’s not to say that otters don’t have a reason to fear people – or at least their vehicles. Charlie Brown has documented nearly 100 river otters struck and killed by cars in the state in recent years, and he’s sure it happens far more often than that.
            So drive slowly near your local pond or stream, and watch for the telltale signs of what may be Rhode Island’s cutest animal.

This article first appeared in The Independent on September 20, 2018.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Rare beaked whales may not be so rare after all

            A month-long survey of the deep waters from George’s Bank to the continental shelf south of Rhode Island has turned up an unexpectedly large number of a little-known whale, and scientists are excited that they were able to tag one of the animals for the first time.
            True’s beaked whales were first identified in 1913 and have seldom been observed anywhere in the world since then. Yet researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass., saw and heard several of the elusive animals almost every day during their expedition from July 20 to August 19.
            “Deep-diving cetaceans such as beaked whales are difficult to study due to their cryptic nature and their offshore distribution. But they are an important part of the deep-water marine
True's beaked whale (NOAA Fisheries under MMPA permit 21371)
ecosystem,” said Danielle Cholewiak, the chief scientist on the project. “Beaked whales are an extraordinary group of species, adapted for an extreme lifestyle. They dive to incredible depths to forage and spend long periods of time deep underwater.”
            Portsmouth native Annamaria Izzi, one of the biologists participating in the expedition, jokingly described True’s beaked whales as looking “like ugly upside-down dolphins” with no teeth inside their mouth but two teeth sticking outside their mouth that males use to fight with each other.
            Every day during the research cruise, Izzi and her colleagues deployed an array of hydrophones – underwater microphones – that were dragged behind the ship to listen for whales.
            “We went from knowing nothing about them to having interesting clicks on the hydrophone and a couple visual approaches that cued us in to what they look like and sound like,” Izzi said. The clicking sounds were created by the whales using their echolocation abilities to navigate in the darkness of the deep water. “Beaked whales are similar to bats in their use of echolocation,” she added.
            This year’s expedition was a follow-up to similar efforts in 2016 and 2017 that resulted in the discovery of what Izzi called “hotspots of acoustic detection of beaked whales,” mostly near the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument south of Cape Cod.
            “The noise they make is supersonic; you can’t hear it, so you have to see it,” explained Izzi. “A computer program takes in the sounds detected by the hydrophone and gives a visual representation of it.”
            One of the main accomplishments of the expedition was the tagging of one True’s beaked whale using what scientists call a digital acoustic recording tag attached to the whale with a suction-cup. The device recorded the movements and acoustic behavior of the whale for about 12 hours before it came off and was recovered.
            “The data from this tag gives us the first detailed glimpse into the underwater behavior of True’s baked whales,” said Cholewiak. “We are excited about the new insights we can glean about this species.”
            The scientists will soon compare the diving behavior they recorded of the True’s beaked whales to the behavior of other species of beaked whales.
            Izzi said the expedition raised a lot of new questions.
            “I’m focused on the acoustic aspect of these whales, so I’m really interested in learning more about what we’re recording with the towed array,” she said. “The hydrophones are at the surface while the whales are diving deep, and they’re only clicking when they’re down deep. I know I’m not getting all the clicks they’re emitting, so I wonder what part of the diving sequence I’m picking up. What am I hearing and how is that different from what they’re actually producing?”
            The scientists also collected water samples in the immediate vicinity of where the beaked whales swam in an effort to collect bits of whale DNA.
            “Environmental DNA, or eDNA, is DNA left in the environment when an animal passes through it,” said Cholewiak. “It’s an exciting tool that may provide a better understanding of species identity and population structure, just from sampling water.”
            A dozen eDNA samples were collected by the scientists and paired with biopsy samples and whale photographs to match the DNA samples to specific animals.
            Why are True’s beaked whales being found in good numbers in the waters off southern New England? Izzi said it’s because the whales prefer the habitat around small island chains or underwater mountains, and the edge of the continental shelf and the seamounts in the new marine monument provide that unusual habitat.
            “A lot of previous studies have been around the Canary Islands, the Bahamas, or around San Clemente Island off Southern California,” she said. “We don’t have any deep-sea islands around here, but we do have deep-sea seamounts, which are a good place for upwelling and primary productivity, where there’s more prey availability that can support large populations of whales.”
            Izzi said the next step in studying True’s beaked whales in the region is to place more tags on the animals.
            “We have information that gives us a first look at the species, but it’s only based on one tag for 12 hours. Every whale is different,” she said. “We really need to get more tags on more whales. Our chief scientist is interested in looking at group structure and creating a photo ID catalog of individual whales based on their unique scar patterns. And we want to keep working with this eDNA approach to see if it works for beaked whales.”
            The research is being conducted as part of the Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species, an annual survey sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to assess the populations of marine mammals in area waters. The program focuses on the collection of seasonal data on the abundance, distribution and behavior of marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds in the U.S. Atlantic Exclusive Economic Zone.

This article first appeared on on September 20, 2018.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Educators become oceanographers-in-training with Teachers-at-Sea program

The water 110 miles south of Rhode Island is a beautiful translucent blue-green, with bits of sargassum weed drifting north on the Gulf Stream from the Sargasso Sea. It was hot during the first days of August, and despite it being hurricane season, the skies were blue and the waters calm.
A group of eight schoolteachers traveled here aboard the R/V Endeavor, the University of Rhode Island’s 185-foot research ship, as part of the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program, to get experience as oceanographers. With the help of Oceanography Professor David Smith and several deckhands and marine technicians, they deployed oceanographic instruments, collected sediment samples from a mile deep, studied plankton and analyzed data about the physical properties of the water column.
“Every summer I like to do something related to my curriculum that I can learn from and
can use to explain things to my students about what real scientists do,” said Beth Brocato, a science teacher at Exeter-West Greenwich Middle School.  “I can show them and tell them that I was there when we put that device down in the water and collected that data. Everything we did is applicable to my classes.”
Sponsored by the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, the three-day expedition is designed to establish partnerships between ocean scientists, researchers and teachers who live and teach in Rhode Island. It is funded by the Rhode Island Endeavor Program, a state-funded effort to provide URI researchers and local educators with access to the scientific and educational capabilities of an ocean-going research vessel.
In addition to the hands-on science, the teachers also learned about the ship’s operations and the physical aspects of working at sea.
“Our main objective is to try to get teachers to understand how science really happens at sea,” said Smith, who also serves as associate dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography. “Working at sea is a lot more difficult than working on land, and the variability of the ocean itself somewhat limits what you can do and observe about it.
“We also want to let people around Rhode Island know about this incredible vessel that has served as an ambassador for the state for so many years,” he added. “By bringing educators aboard, the experience gets into the classroom, and if their students are anything like my kids, they’ll be talking about it over dinner.”
Burrillville Middle School science teacher Pat Lapierre said that everything she learned aboard ship applies to the lessons she teaches during the first few months of the school year.
“It’s given me a huge amount of background knowledge, especially working with equipment and science safety,” she said. “And it’s also providing me with things to make my teaching entertaining to my students. It’s given me a bag of tricks of examples – pictures, data, scientists – to keep my students engaged.”
At St. George’s School in Middletown, Corey Cramer teaches high school English, including a course on maritime literature. He used his time at sea to think about the perspective of the scientists and crew.
“Ships throw different people together from different worlds and different backgrounds, but we’re all here for some semblance of the same purpose,” he said. “I want to ask my students what the shipboard experience does to time – the ship is constantly moving, we go to bed in one place and wake up 80 miles away, different people are on different schedules. I’ll ask my students to consider how different concepts of time apply to literature.”     
The experience aboard the Endeavor was not just useful to teachers in the upper grades, however. Several teachers of early elementary students found the program equally beneficial.
Cynthia Sime, who teaches kindergarten students in Spanish as part of a dual language program at West Kingston Elementary School, said that it’s important for teachers at all grade levels to be well-rounded and informed about important issues.
“I need to have that knowledge when I talk about the ocean. I need to know the background and the science, even for kindergarten,” she said. “People don’t think kindergarteners do science, but we do as much as the fifth graders do. So if I have the background and passion and experience like I got from this program, I can bring it to my students.”
Second grade teacher Amy Fratantonio agrees. “Second graders can get it,” she said of her Richmond Elementary School students. “They’re really sponges; they’re up to the challenge. And they can grasp the concept of how important this work really is. They’re so ready for it.”

Monday, September 10, 2018

Grasshoppers an unexpectedly important player in salt marsh ecosystem

           As efforts are being undertaken to protect salt marshes – and the threatened salt marsh sparrow – from the rising seas, scientists may be ignoring an unexpectedly important player in this environmental drama: grasshoppers.
            According to Becky Gumbrewicz, a University of Rhode Island senior who studied insects at three salt marshes in the Ocean State this summer, grasshoppers and their close relatives constitute the greatest insect biomass per individual on salt marshes in the region, and they are probably an important food source for the sparrows. But as dredged sand and mud are deposited on some marshes to raise their elevation to combat sea level rise, the grasshoppers may get lost in the mix.
            “We’re curious about how adding that layer of dredged material to the marsh is going to affect the insect populations, like the grasshoppers, that could possibly be buried,” said
Gumbrewicz, a resident of Oxford, Conn., who is majoring in environmental science and management. “We’re trying to get an idea of how to balance combating sea level rise to preserve the salt marshes and benefit the sparrow but also figure out how the insects are impacted and may need to be supported.”
            Working in collaboration with URI Professor Steven Alm and the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, she collected insects at three salt marshes – one inland undisturbed site on the Narrow River, one undisturbed coastal marsh on Ninigret Pond, and a disturbed site on Ninigret Pond that is undergoing restoration by adding a layer of dredged material to raise its elevation. Among the mass of flies, crickets, spiders, moths and beetles she collected were large numbers of grasshoppers.
            “We found most of the grasshoppers near the upland woody vegetation, which is where we think they might be laying their eggs,” Gumbrewicz said. “So if we were to suggest a way to improve salt marsh restoration efforts, it would be to plant more woody vegetation.”
            In addition to her field studies, she also kept grasshoppers in a cage with salt marsh grasses and other upland vegetation to see where the insects lay their eggs.
            “We’re still going over our data and finalizing our numbers, but hopefully with what we’ve collected so far we can make a strong suggestion for further research to be done and possibly revise some of the strategies used in marsh restoration,” she said.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Introduced natural enemies take fight to pests

            The announcement last month that the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills native ash trees, had been found in Rhode Island has raised questions about how to eradicate the invader before it wreaks havoc on the attractive trees found in parks, roadsides and forests.
            One strategy being employed against many other invasive species is biocontrol, the use of one organism to control another. And while it may be too late to use it to fight the emerald ash borer and save area trees in many locations, the strategy may help combat the beetle in the future so the next generation of ash trees can thrive.
            “Biocontrol is essentially reuniting natural enemies with a target organism,” said Lisa
Emerald ash borer
Tewksbury, an entomologist at the University of Rhode Island who manages the URI Biocontrol Lab. “They have an evolutionary relationship in which one organism feeds on another organism. So through biocontrol we’re re-establishing that relationship.”
            Typically, that means finding an insect in the region where the pest originated – often Europe or Asia – testing to make sure the insect only feeds on the pest, seeking a permit from the government, releasing the insect wherever the pest resides, and letting nature take its course. It’s considered an effective alternative to the widespread use of pesticides.
            In July, for example, Tewksbury announced that she had released a moth from Eastern Europe whose caterpillar eats nothing but invasive black and pale swallow-wort vines. The vines were introduced to North America in the 19th century and quickly spread throughout the East Coast. Not only do the vines outcompete native species and alter soil chemistry, they harm monarch butterfly populations. If monarchs lay their eggs on swallow-wort leaves instead of the closely related milkweed, the larvae that hatch are unable to survive.
            Tewksbury and her students spent 10 years testing a Hypena moth to ensure that its caterpillars do not eat any native plants in the U.S. – only the invasive swallow-worts – before getting a government permit to release it in Charlestown and on an island in Buzzard’s Bay last year.
            The practice of biocontrol has its critics, however, who worry that the release of non-native insects could create additional harm to native wildlife in the United States. They point to several unregulated horror stories from a century ago, including the release of mongooses in Hawaii and cane toads in Australia. But for many invasive pests that are well established, there is no alternative to biocontrol.
            URI has been conducting biocontrol research for several decades and has released numerous pest enemies through the years. Many of those pests are no longer a significant concern, thanks to the arrival of the pests’ natural enemies.

Birch Leafminer
            A parasitic wasp from Europe was tested and released in North Kingstown by Tewksbury and her colleagues in 1989 to combat the birch leafminer, an invasive insect that “mines” between the surfaces of birch tree leaves. The leafminer was a significant pest in the Northeast in the 1970s and 80s, turning leaves brown in about 80 percent of the region’s birch trees, though killing very few. The wasp lays its eggs in the leafminer, and when the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae consume the leafminer from the inside.
            In addition to the Rhode Island site, the wasp was released in many other locations throughout the Northeast in the 1980s and 90s. Birch leafminers are no longer considered a pest in the region, and damage from the insects has not been observed in Rhode Island since 2004.

Purple Loosestrife
            A leaf-eating beetle native to Europe was released at Roger Williams Park Zoo and other locations in Rhode Island to control the spread of the invasive wetland plant purple loosestrife in the late 1990s. The beetles reproduced so well at a site in North Kingstown that some were collected there and redistributed elsewhere.
            “In areas that had large infestations of purple loosestrife, the beetles have cut it back quite a bit,” Tewksbury said. “The beetle does best in open water areas, but the plant is still growing in shady areas like along rivers. It’s been a nice long-term success at keeping loosestrife under control, but it hasn’t eradicated it. Biocontrol of weeds doesn’t typically eliminate the pest, but just provides long-term management.”

Lily Leaf Beetle
            A beetle that consumes ornamental lilies was accidentally introduced in Cambridge, Mass., in 1992, and many gardeners in southern New England gave up trying to grow lilies due to the damage from the beetle. URI scientists identified three parasitic wasps from Europe that control the lily leaf beetle, tested them in their lab for several years, and released the wasps at many locations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
            According to Tewksbury, anecdotal evidence suggests that the beetle is no longer a significant problem in Rhode Island, though it can still be found in a few isolated gardens. She continues to raise the wasps in her lab to provide to colleagues in other states as the beetle continues to spread elsewhere.
Winter Moth
            The caterpillars of invasive winter moths, which are native to Europe, have defoliated tens of thousands of acres of trees in Rhode Island in recent years, but a European fly introduced at about eight sites in the state since 2011 has helped to keep the moth population under control.
            According to entomologist Heather Faubert, a URI colleague of Tewksbury, the fly lays its eggs on tree leaves at about the same time that the caterpillars are feeding on the leaves. When the caterpillars consume the fly eggs, the eggs hatch inside the caterpillar and the fly larvae feeds on the inside of the caterpillar.
            “Moth numbers have really come down, and they don’t seem to defoliate much anymore, other than blueberry and apple trees,” she said. “Some of that is due to the fly, but I’m also seeing mice and beetles eating a lot of moth pupa, and birds love to eat the caterpillars.”

            Two moths whose caterpillars feed inside the stems of the invasive wetland plant phragmites are being tested at the URI lab, and Tewksbury will soon seek government approval to release them in the area. Phragmites is often controlled with the application of herbicides, which should not be used in salt marshes and other coastal locations where phragmites grows extensively.

Mile-a-Minute Vine
            A weevil native to the Far East is the weapon of choice in the fight against a fast-growing invasive vine that was first found on Block Island in 2008 and has spread to at least seven communities in the state. Tewksbury has released more than 60,000 weevils – some she has reared herself, others she obtained from a biocontrol lab in New Jersey – and she is continuing annual releases at many of the sites.
            “The weevils are definitely established and having an impact,” she said. “I can see the feeding damage they’re having. But this plant is a really tough one to combat, and I’m not sure how well it’s going to do. It will probably prevent the vine’s spread, but I don’t see populations going away any time soon.”
            Regardless of the level of success the weevil has achieved against mile-a-minute vine, most scientists agree that biocontrol is a vital option in the battle against invasive species.
            “Having this lab enables us to have an impact on a lot of natural areas in Rhode Island by controlling introduced pests without using pesticides,” Tewksbury said. “The costs are low compared to chemical methods, and you hope for a long-term ecological solution.”

This article first appeared on on September 5, 2018.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Citizen scientists document breeding birds in every corner of Rhode Island

            At the edge of a 40-acre hayfield behind St. Theresa’s church in Burrillville, long-time Audubon member Cindy Szymanski called out the names of the birds she heard singing – house wren, blue-winged warbler, eastern wood peewee, common yellowthroat, tufted titmouse, Baltimore oriole and several more. She spotted additional species darting across the field and soaring overhead.
But identifying the birds was only the first step in Szymanski’s morning of birding. She patiently watched each species she saw for any obvious signs that the birds were breeding. A bird carrying a caterpillar – without swallowing it – was a sign it was bringing food to its nestlings, for instance, or a bird flying away with grass in its beak was an indication it was building a nest.
Those observations are crucial data being collected by more than 240 volunteers as part
of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, a five-year effort to document the breeding status of every species of bird found in the state. The project, now in its fourth year, divides Rhode Island into 165 blocks, each 10-square-miles in size. Volunteers scour the various habitats in each block during the breeding season for as many bird species as they can find – day and night – and record any behaviors they observe that indicate whether the species is possibly, probably or confirmed breeding in the block.
Szymanski recorded 77 species in her block by July 1 and had confirmed that 41 were breeding.
Atlas coordinator Charles Clarkson, a member of Audubon’s board of directors, said that the Breeding Bird Atlas is a way of gathering data to understand the health of bird populations by measuring their distribution, density and use of habitat.
“Birds are bio-indicator species that can tell us a lot about the health of ecosystems. How well bird populations are doing tells us how their habitats are doing,” he said. “The data we collect helps us better direct our conservation efforts. The atlas is a useful conservation tool used by non-profits like Audubon as well as by state agencies.”
Clarkson describes the process of collecting data as “slow birding,” because it requires volunteers to watch individual birds for extended periods of time while waiting for them to exhibit behaviors indicative of breeding. It requires a great deal of patience, but the payoff in seldom-seen behaviors is high.
In addition to the data being collected by individual volunteers in their assigned blocks, similar information for the atlas is gathered during nocturnal bird surveys seeking to document the breeding behavior of owls, woodcocks and nightjars. Biological technicians also conduct “point counts” at designated sites to assess bird abundance. Long-term bird survey data from other sources, like Audubon’s osprey monitoring program, local bird banding station data, e-Bird and Project Feederwatch, will also be incorporated into the final report, which will take the form of a coffee table book with species accounts and distribution maps. The data will also be available online at the conclusion of the project.
            Sponsored by the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas is a follow-up to an identical effort conducted in the 1980s, when 68 volunteers documented 164 species breeding in the state. The current atlas has already documented 167 species, but the detailed results will likely be quite different from the previous atlas, due largely to...

Read the rest of the article in the fall 2018 issue of Audubon Report.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Diving deep for new drug therapies

            Humans have relied on a wide variety of natural compounds from plants, fungi and other organisms for their medicinal properties for many thousands of years. What today are called “natural products” by the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries were once simply considered traditional medicines, folk remedies and potions. And the active ingredients of some of them have still not been identified.
            The search for new medicines to treat diseases has long relied on these natural products, so much so that approximately 75 percent of the medicines in use are believed to have originated from molecules isolated from wild species. The most widely used breast cancer drug, for instance, was isolated from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, and the anti-inflammatory agent in aspirin is derived from the bark of the willow tree. Penicillin, codeine, quinine and many other well-known medicines originated in this way as well. Only about 10 percent of the world’s biodiversity has been evaluated for its potential for medicinal use, however, and the challenge has become how to access likely candidate species, especially those in the oceans.
            David Rowley has accepted that challenge, a challenge that some have described as a global scavenger hunt. The professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical science at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Pharmacy is leading the search for bioactive compounds from the marine environment. He has collected samples from water bodies around the world – from Narragansett Bay to the South Pacific – and he collaborates with scientists who travel to even more extreme environments to find compounds to test.
            “The marine environment is the biggest source of biodiversity on the planet, and the tiny microorganisms there produce some truly novel chemistry in the course of their pursuits,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated by those molecules and the fact that they’ve been produced for a purpose, though that purpose is often unknown.”
            Much of Rowley’s research has focused on finding microbes with antibiotic properties. He said that one of the world’s biggest health threats is the growing number of bacterial infections that are resistant to antibiotics, so he is trying to find new sources of antibiotics developed from marine organisms.
            “With our current challenge of trying to overcome drug resistance, it would seem that the marine environment is one area we need to explore more fully if we’re going to... 

Read the complete story in the Summer 2018 issue of 41North magazine.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Seeking seabirds between the swells

            Traveling aboard the University of Rhode Island research ship Endeavor earlier this month, I spent way more time than I probably should have staring out at the gray seas, scanning between the swells in search of birds. It’s my natural inclination when I’m in an unusual place – to watch for whatever birds or other wildlife may be about -- and many miles from land is indeed an unusual place.
            I was traveling with a group of local teachers and oceanographers, learning about ocean science as part of the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program, which provides educators with an opportunity to get hands-on research experience that they can use to illuminate their classroom
Wilson's storm petrels (Dan Izirarry)
lessons. And as energizing as it was to cruise the high seas, deploy oceanographic instruments, and gain a better understanding of how science works, I frequently found myself with one eye on the horizon wondering if a rare seabird might be darting by as we were collecting data.
            The birds I was looking for were species that most people have never heard of – shearwaters, storm-petrels and jaegers.  These seabirds are unknown to but the hardiest of birdwatchers because they are almost entirely pelagic, spending nearly their whole lives far out at sea and only returning to land – mostly on inaccessible, uninhabited islands in the Southern Hemisphere – for short periods to breed.
            To get a good look at these remarkable creatures usually requires a lengthy boat trip 15 or more miles offshore, out to where the swells churn your stomach and land is nowhere in sight. So the Endeavor was the perfect platform to find them. At a spot between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard called the Mud Hole, where the ship stopped to deploy some equipment, seabirds were everywhere.
            Mixed in among some gulls were hundreds of shearwaters, which always send my heart racing.  To the untrained eye, shearwaters look like dirty gulls.  But their stiff-winged flight just above the cresting waves gives them away.  They fly so close to the waterline that it’s easy to lose them as the waves rise and fall. 
            The most unusual part of a shearwater’s anatomy is its beak.  It appears to have tubular nostrils on the upper mandible -- hence their colloquial name “tubenoses.”  This odd growth is actually an adaptation that allows them to drink seawater and to rid their system of excess salt, since they never have access to fresh water. 
            Like shearwaters, storm-petrels are tubenoses, but that’s where their resemblance ends.  These robin-sized brown birds flit and flutter butterfly-like among the waves, often playing patty-cake with their feet on the water as they search for tiny edible morsels.  As their name suggests, storm-petrels tend to be most active and abundant in stormy, white-capped seas with gray skies.
            Then there’s the jaegers, perhaps the most unpredictable of the seabirds.  Sometimes they soar high overhead like a hawk or low to the water like a shearwater, and at other times they may initially go unnoticed and arrive with a flock of gulls. But they quickly give themselves away.
            For those who find the behavior of gulls or crows unappealing due to their aggressiveness and scavenging habits, you’ll definitely dislike jaegers.  They seldom find their own food, instead spending their feeding time harassing smaller birds into relinquishing their meal. 
            Far out to sea, beyond the reach of most of mankind, this behavior has allowed them to find a niche in the brutal oceanic world, and to flourish.  But at my dinner table, that’ll earn you confinement to your room.

This article first appeared in the Independent on August 16, 2018.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Seabird die-off remains a mystery

            Aboard the University of Rhode Island research ship Endeavor during the first days of August, seabirds were abundant in the waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. The birds weren’t the focus of the trip – it was really about providing local teachers with an opportunity to get hands-on science experience through the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program – but the birds couldn’t be ignored. They were constantly in view.
            Most were shearwaters, long-winged birds that skim the surface of the waves as they search for marine organisms on which to feed. And last year at this time, many were unexpectedly dying and washing up on beaches throughout southern New England and Long Island.
            The population appears to be healthy this year, but scientists have not yet figured out the cause of last year’s die-off.
            “We’re still trying to piece it together,” said seabird researcher David Wiley, research
Great shearwaters (istock)
coordinator at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. “We’re studying their livers to look at their toxicology to see if something killed them. And a team at Woods Hole is looking at birds caught as bycatch in gillnets. But we haven’t come up with anything definitive yet.”
            Scientists speculate that the birds, which breed on islands in the South Atlantic and migrate to the East Coast in summer, arrived in local waters last year in such poor physical condition that they could not survive. Whether that is because of a lack of food or an accumulation of toxins or something else entirely is unknown.
            “It could be something here [in the North Atlantic] as well,” Wiley said. “It could be a toxic algal bloom that’s caused the problem here. That’s another thing to look into. But right now, it’s all speculative.”
            Although few birds have been found dead in the region this year, Wiley and a team of scientists hope to find some answers in a continuing study of great shearwaters, the most common of the shearwaters in the region, that began in 2013. Each year they capture 10 shearwaters and place satellite tracking tags on them to monitor their movements. The researchers hope to learn how and where the birds spend their time in the region.
            To capture the birds, they toss bait into the water from a small boat, and they use a hand-held net to catch any birds that get close enough to reach. They then weigh and measure the shearwaters, place a band around a leg, take blood and feather samples, and release them back into the wild.
            So far their research has confirmed that the most important feeding area for the birds is in the Great South Channel, a deep-water site east of Chatham, Mass. Unfortunately, the area is also an important commercial fishing destination, where hundreds of the birds are caught and drown in gillnets each year, mostly in August and September.
            “Everybody is eating sand lance – the birds, the whales, the fish – so that’s where the fishermen go, too,” Wiley said. “Sand lance is the key to the southern Gulf of Maine.”
            A tiny eel-like fish, sand lance are a favorite food of humpback whales, sharks, cod and other ocean predators. They spend their nights buried in the sand on the seafloor. Their cyclical population abundance drives changes in populations of the species that prey on them. And when sand lance numbers are high, conflicts arise between the whales, birds, fish and fishermen.
            The scientists are trying to figure out how to reduce the fishing by-catch of shearwaters, but they have had little success to date. The fishermen bait their nets to attract dogfish, and the baiting attracts the birds. If they don’t bait their nets, the nets must remain in the water longer as the fishermen wait for the fish to arrive, which increases the likelihood the nets will capture or entangle whales, porpoises and other marine mammals.
            Four years of data from 40 great shearwaters has confirmed that the birds move around a great deal, making it difficult to employ management strategies to protect them.
            “Some static management measures like marine protected areas may not be as effective as they used to because the ocean is changing,” Wiley said. “We may be able to use our satellite tagged birds to look at where the hot spots are occurring in almost-real time. Then management can be as dynamic as the oceans themselves. We’re trying to get ahead of the curve to see if there are other ways of managing the ocean.”
            URI doctoral student Anna Robuck is examining the birds from a different perspective. She is conducting toxicology tests of the birds to determine whether they are contaminated with any of a long list of chemical compounds, from long-banned pollutants like DDT and PCBs to such industrial compounds as flame retardants and perfluorinated compounds, which are used as water repellents and in non-stick cookware and many other consumer products.
            While she expected to find some of the contaminants in the birds’ tissues, including DDT, which is ubiquitous in the ocean, she was surprised to find some of the more than 4,000 perfluorinated compounds in the seabirds at similar concentrations to those found in gulls that live in Narragansett Bay.
            “That was totally unexpected,” Robuck said. “The shearwaters live in the remote South Atlantic, so we weren’t sure we were going to be able to detect measurable concentrations, because we were uncertain that the compounds would be found in the oceanic environment. They’re found in surface water in Narragansett Bay at much higher concentrations than offshore, so we’re not sure why they’re in the seabirds.”
            Birds in the bay are contaminated with a different set of perfluorinated compounds than those in offshore waters, which suggests to Robuck that the compounds are finding their way to the offshore environment via the atmosphere.
Nonetheless, she isn’t convinced that the contaminants have anything to do with the mass mortality of shearwaters last year.
            “The contaminants aren’t lethal in the way we saw happening to the birds last year,” she said. “No way was it related to their contaminant burden. There are so many variables at play. I thought we’d test for something and figure it out pretty quick, but it’s turned into something much more complex.
            “It’s probably an interplay of a lot of things – oceanographic conditions, food, stress from climate change,” Robuck concluded. “It’s a lot of stressers adding up. It’s really sad to see.”

This article first appeared on on August 9, 2018.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Trawling for insights into a changing bay

            After dropping an oceanographic measuring device over the side of the Cap’n Bert, a University of Rhode Island research boat, Joe Zottoli records data about water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen levels between Fox Island and the northwest shore of Jamestown. Then he and Captain Steve Barber deploy a small commercial fishing net behind the vessel and tow it along the floor of Narragansett Bay for 30 minutes. After covering approximately one mile, they haul the net back in, dump their catch on deck, and sort the animals by species into colorful baskets.
It’s a process they undertake twice every Monday throughout the year to sample the changing composition of marine life in the bay, a research project that began in 1959 and has revealed a great deal about how the bay has changed from season to season and year to year.
            An early spring storm brought poor visibility and rough conditions, but the first tow turned up some species finally on the move after a chilly winter. The season’s first spider crabs
 and horseshoe crabs were among the dozen species in the net, a sign that the crustaceans were returning to the bay after wintering in deeper waters offshore. On the other hand, a rare winter flounder was on its way out to sea after spawning in the bay.

            “The species in Narragansett Bay are a lot like people in Rhode Island,” said Zottoli, a URI graduate student. “Some species are resident, and other species are temperature dependent, so when the water is warm they’re here and they leave when it gets cold again.”
            As Zottoli entered data about the number and size of each species captured, Barber steered the boat toward the mouth of the bay, where they will start the process all over again.
            The original objective of the research project, one of the longest continuing studies of its kind in the world, was to assess the seasonal occurrence of marine life in the bay. No one imagined that the study would still be happening 59 years later. But because it is, the project is providing scientists with a unique window into how the changing climate and other factors have affected the composition of fish in the bay.
            According to URI oceanography professor Jeremy Collie, who has managed the project since 1988, the total biomass of fish and marine invertebrates in the bay hasn’t changed dramatically through the years, but the particular species present has. When the study began in 1959, the dominant species captured were those that preferred cold water, like winter flounder, cunner and hake, and the abundance of fish was evenly spread out throughout the year. But the bay has warmed by about 2 degrees Celsius since then, so warm water species like scup and butterfish have become more abundant, and fish numbers are high in summer and quite low in winter.
            Scup is now the most abundant species captured in the trawl net, with approximately 25,000 individuals caught last year, mostly in the summer and early fall.
            “In the 1990s we thought overfishing was the problem, but since 2000 it’s been clear that climate change has been the big driver of fish communities,” Collie said.
            Other changes have occurred, as well. The community of marine life in the bay has shifted from mostly fish to mostly invertebrates like crabs and squid, probably because invertebrates can consume a wider variety of prey than fish, which often specialize in a small number of prey species. The bay also has fewer species that live on or near the bottom than it used to, because most of the available food is now higher in the water column.
            Over the years, more than 130 different species have been captured in the trawl net and returned to the sea, with a peak of abundance in the 1990s.
            Is there likely to be another shift in fish species coming soon?
            “There is speculation about how the reduction of nutrient inputs from wastewater treatment plants is affecting the overall productivity of the bay.” Collie said. “But there isn’t a clear shift happening yet.”
            He also expects that the composition of marine life in Narragansett Bay will begin to more closely resemble estuaries to the south, like Delaware Bay or Chesapeake Bay. While he has joked that Rhode Islanders may soon have to switch from eating lobster rolls to crab cakes, Collie said “we’re not there yet. We had a couple of really warm years in 2010 and 2012 when we had a lot of blue crabs in the bay, but that peak hasn’t been sustained.”
            The data collected from the study is used by scientists around the world. In addition to URI researchers, it is used by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management in its assessments of fish stocks that are important to commercial and recreational fisheries. The data is also incorporated into analyses of fish population trends around the world.
            “It’s important to have a baseline of what things used to be like so you can look at trends over time, like the impact of climate, changes in water quality, and the impact of human activities like power plants,” said Collie.
            The second trawl of the day begins at a spot between Beavertail and Narragansett and covers another mile of seafloor. While sorting, weighing and measuring his catch, Zottoli said it was exciting to see three different kinds of flounder – including one he had difficulty identifying -- plus several skates, blue and rock crabs, and a variety of other species. He called it a hint that spring was finally around the corner.
            Unlike the catch of the first trawl, which is representative of the species found in the middle of Narragansett Bay, the second trawl typically catches species more typical of the open water south of the bay.
            “The water is generally warmer at the first station, so we get more warm-water tolerant fish and a lot more juveniles,” Zottoli said. “Closer to Rhode Island Sound, we get more cold-water species and deep-water species, which is why we got all those little skates.”
            Although the number of individual fish captured was relatively low, Collie said it isn’t surprising or worrisome.
            “I like to think of our fish trawl as monitoring the pulse of Narragansett Bay,” he said. “It’s one indicator of how well the ecosystem is working. We measure its pulse every week and see how the fish population is humming along, like the way you measure your own heart rate. As long as we’re going out there and filling our net over the course of the year and we’re getting healthy specimens, that tells us that we have a healthy bay,” he said.

This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Invasive Asian crab outcompeting young lobsters

            Speculation about the cause of the decline of lobster populations in Narragansett Bay has focused on an increasing number of predatory fish eating young lobsters, warming waters stressing juveniles, and a disease on their shells that is exacerbated by increasing temperatures.
            A new study by a scientist at the University of North Carolina points to another contributing factor – invasive Asian shore crabs.
            The crabs were first observed on the coast of New Jersey in 1988, where they probably arrived in the ballast of cargo ships. They quickly expanded up and down the East Coast – arriving in Rhode Island in 1996 – and they are now found at densities of up to 200 per square meter in the intertidal zones of southern New England.
            “If you flip over a rock, it’s like going into an old basement and turning on a light and
Asian shore crab (RIMEIS)
watching the cockroaches scatter,” said Christopher Baillie, who conducted the study as a doctoral student at Northeastern University. “They’re really abundant.”
            The dramatic increase in the density of Asian shore crabs in the region was followed by a massive decline in the density of green crabs. The green crabs are also not native to the region, having been introduced more than 100 years ago, “but it’s an indication of what the Asian shore crab could be doing to native species,” Baillie said.
            Adult lobsters live in much deeper water than the shallow intertidal zone inhabited by Asian shore crabs, so the two species seldom interact. But some larval lobsters settle in the intertidal and subtidal zones, which they use as nursery habitat. Prior to the arrival of the Asian shore crabs, it was an area that had fewer predators and an abundance of food. But now the young lobsters are finding themselves in competition with the crabs for food and shelter.
            When Baillie surveyed the shoreline in Nahant and Swampscott, Mass., over a five-year period, he found a dramatic increase in the density of Asian shore crabs concurrent with a decrease in the density of juvenile lobsters. He then conducted several laboratory experiments that found that smaller juvenile lobsters lost out to the crabs when competing for food and shelter, especially as the crab numbers increased.
            “We saw that the presence of Asian shore crabs significantly reduced the amount of time the lobsters were able to spend in the shelter,” Baillie said. “The more crabs we introduced, the more times the lobster was displaced. When the crabs were at higher densities, the lobsters spent the entire time fleeing from predation attempts by the crabs.”
            In similar tests, lobsters that were slightly larger than the crabs were able to obtain food and shelter, but the lobsters fed more frequently and ate faster in the presence of the crabs.
            “It appeared that they perceived the crabs as a competitor, and sometimes the lobsters even attacked the crab,” said Baillie. “So while that sized lobster was the dominant competitor, there is a potential energetic cost to battling the crab as well as a potential for injury in those battles.”
            According to Niels-Viggo Hobbs, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Rhode Island who studies Asian shore crabs, Baillie’s research confirms what many scientists have suspected – the crab has a substantial negative impact on young lobsters.
            “There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “There may also be a positive impact for lobsters. The crabs may provide a food source for adult lobsters. Lobsters love to eat smaller crustaceans, as well as bivalves and other things. The take home message for me is that even when we talk about invasive species, we can’t always say they’re 100 percent bad.”
            Although the crabs arrived in Rhode Island waters at about the same time that lobster numbers began declining in Narragansett Bay, Hobbs said it’s unclear if the crabs were a major factor in the lobster decline.
            “The problem is that on top of Asian shore crabs showing up, we also had lobster shell disease, increasing water temperatures and other factors working to make life for lobsters more difficult. The Asian shore crab certainly didn’t help. It’s difficult to say how bad an impact it had, but it was certainly poor timing if not worse.”
            The long-term implications of Baillie’s study are unclear, since most lobster nursery grounds are in deeper waters than where Asian shore crabs are found.
“But as the crabs continue to expand their range into the northern Gulf of Maine, there is potential for further interactions with juvenile lobsters,” Baillie said. “And while there’s a number of things going on with lobster populations, we’ve shown that the Asian shore crabs may be reducing the value of this nursery habitat for lobsters.”
            Unfortunately, there is little that can be done about the invasive crabs. They are occasionally used as bait by tautog fishermen, but not enough to affect population numbers. And they are too small to be a valuable commercial fishery. A parasite in the crab’s native range in East Asia is believed to castrate the crabs, rendering them unable to reproduce, but releasing the parasite in local waters would likely cause more harm than good.
            “It would be incredibly dangerous to go down that rabbit hole,” said Baillie.
            “The crabs are established and here to stay,” added Hobbs. “So the best we can do is keep an eye on how they impact our native species, and then hope that maybe there’s some good that comes out of it.”
Baillie hopes his study will at least draw attention to the effects the crabs have and prompt government leaders to prioritize what he calls “fairly simple changes in policies” – like requiring the discharge of ballast water in the open ocean – that could be implemented to prevent future introductions of invasive species to the marine environment.

This article first appeared on on August 1, 2018.