Friday, April 20, 2018

Plants are more aware than we think

            It has taken a long time, but scientists are finally coming to the realization that humans aren’t as unique and superior as was once thought. Yes, our big brains make us the most intelligent creatures around, but we’re not the only animals to use tools, communicate complex ideas, solve problems, make conscious decisions, or even show emotion.
            But what about plants? The blooming daffodils and spring ephemerals that are blooming this month have got me thinking about what talents plants may possess that few of us recognize. They don’t have a brain, so they cannot think, and yet many plants exhibit remarkable abilities to sense and react to the world around them.
            We know, for example, that plants don’t have ears, but that doesn’t mean they can’t hear – which may be a comfort to those who talk to their plants or play the radio all day to keep them
Cartoon by David Chatowsky
entertained. In one study, scientists played a recording of a caterpillar eating leaves, and nearby plants responded by secreting chemicals they use as a defense against caterpillars. There were no caterpillars present, just the sound of caterpillars eating, so clearly the plants could hear it.
            Similarly, Australian researchers played the sound of water trickling through a pipe, and the roots of nearby plants grew toward the sound of the water. Again, no actual water was trickling, and yet the plants detected the sound, recognized it was a useful resource, and reacted appropriately by extending their roots toward the faux water.
            Hearing is only one of the many senses that plants exhibit. Some researchers claim that they may have even more senses than people do.
            We’ve all seen how house plants begin to lean toward the light from the nearest window, but have you ever considered that to be a form of vision or eyesight? They detect the direction the light is coming from and grow toward it. They also know when another plant has grown over them, blocking their sunlight. And some can even detect different colors of light.
            Venus flytraps are the obvious example of a plant that has a sense of touch. As soon as a bug flies into its open trap and touches at least two hairs growing inside the lobe of the trap, the trap springs closed to capture and consume the insect. The plant can feel the prey touching the hairs and responds effectively.
            Plants can smell other plants, too. In many fruit trees, for instance, the smell of ripening fruit will induce nearby fruit to ripen more rapidly. They can also remember, sense up from down, and avoid obstacles.
            This is not to say, as University of Rhode Island botanist Keith Killingbeck warns, that plants that communicate are “old friends” or they “look out for one another.” That’s just anthropomorphism – giving human characteristics to non-human entities. "The novel research that has revealed the intricacies of plant abilities is captivating enough without the need to put an emotional smiley face on an oak tree," Killingbeck said.
            And while no one is claiming – yet – that plants have human-like intelligence or can feel pain, we do have much more in common with grasses and wildflowers and maple trees than most of us would have imagined a few short years ago.
            So next time you think you’re alone in the woods, think again. The plants may be watching you.

This article first appeared in The Independent on April 19, 2018.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Students raise rare turtles to boost wild populations

            On one side of a large greenhouse behind the Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, Mass., are a dozen shallow plastic tubs, each containing a few inches of water, some artificial vegetation and several rare Blanding’s turtles. A similar line-up of tubs – but with much less water – contain equally rare wood turtles. And four 60-gallon pools hold federally endangered Plymouth red-bellied cooters.
            All of the turtles are less than a year old, and all are part of research projects designed to boost the populations of the turtles by raising hatchlings in captivity for their first year until  
Students at Bristol Aggie collect data on Blanding's turtles.
they are less vulnerable to predation. After a year in captivity, the animals are returned to the wild.
            The effort is called “head-starting” the turtles. The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has been head-starting cooters since 1984 by collecting hatchlings at the few ponds where they live in Plymouth County – the only place they are found – and having them raised at science centers around the state. Students at Bristol Aggie got involved six years ago, and this year they are raising 66 cooters in a partnership with Mass Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
            “They’re easy to raise, so it’s gone very well,” said Brian Bastarache, a teacher in the school’s Natural Resource Management program. “We have some issues with a shell infection this year that we haven’t had to deal with before, but it’s a disease only found in captive turtles, and we expect it will clear up once they’re released.”
            Head-starting of young turtles has a somewhat controversial history, according to Bastarache, so the Blanding’s turtle project is designed to put the controversy to rest.
            “Some biologists have concerns that head-starting sounds good in principle but isn’t effective in reality,” he said. “This Blanding’s experiment is to determine if it does improve
population recruitment, as opposed to just making us feel good that we’re doing something. What’s different with this project is that the turtles will have an intensive post-release monitoring, and the larger ones will get a radio transmitter so they can be tracked.”
            Blanding’s turtles are quite rare throughout most of their range in the central and eastern United States and Canada due to habitat fragmentation and nest predation. They are unusual in that they show no signs of aging and can remain active, healthy and continue to reproduce for more than 80 years, assuming they reach maturity. The head-start program aims to help them do so.
            During a tour of the Bristol Aggie head-start facility, about 20 sophomore students were attending the Blanding’s turtles – weighing and measuring each one and sorting them by size.
            “They’re very slow growing, so you don’t really notice their growth until you look at the data,” said student Wyatt Rego of Swansea. “They have different growth rates based on their metabolism and competition for food, so we sort them by size so the smaller ones aren’t competing for food with the big ones.”
            Rego said that the turtle project is one reason he enrolled at Bristol Aggie.
            “You’re actually doing something, not just being in school and learning,” he said. “We’re actually helping in a government program to get something done.”
            Fellow student Abigail Bruno agrees. “I’ve always had a love for nature and natural resources, so getting into this program was a natural thing,” said the Rehoboth resident. “I’ve always been interested in turtles – I have a pet tortoise at home – and I like the idea of helping out endangered species.”
            Bastarache said the project not only teaches his students how to care for and study rare turtles by following strict scientific and safety protocols, they also learn to work independently and as teams.
            “They all really want to be here,” he said. “They’re learning project management, communication with team members, and the ability to assess a problem and take actions to address it. This time of year, I stand in the corner and let them run the show so they can develop those professional and survival skills. They’re also learning how to apply computer skills and math skills.”
            Nine years into a ten-year study of the head-starting of Blanding’s turtles has already shown that the effort is worthwhile. Survivorship of the turtles that spend their first year in captivity and safe from predators is much greater than those that spend that first year in the wild. A detailed analysis of the project’s results will be completed after the final year of the project in 2019.
            In May, the one-year-old Blanding’s turtles raised at Bristol Aggie will be released at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury, Mass., and Bastarache’s students will be there to wish the animals well.
            While the turtle project will continue with a new batch of hatchlings next year, Bristol Aggie will launch a new partnership with Roger Williams Park Zoo next year in which the students will also raise rare New England cottontails for release throughout the region.
This article first appeared on EcoRI on April 12, 2018.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

How birds get from there to here

Robins have already returned to southern New England from their wintering grounds to the south, and soon many millions of other birds — warblers, orioles, swallows, vireos, flycatchers and others — will follow suit. Scott McWilliams, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island, has been curious about bird migration since his childhood in Ohio. He chose to work at URI in part because of its proximity to Block Island, where bird migration
URI Professor Scott McWilliams (Photo by Michael Salerno)
research has been conducted for many years. For more than two decades, McWilliams has studied the physiological changes that birds undergo as they prepare for migration, especially the changes to their digestive system.

How did you get interested in birds?
When I was growing up, I was always fascinated with seasonal changes, and the birds leaving for the winter and coming back in spring were something that really caught my attention. We were surrounded by Amish families, and they had German-Dutch names for all the birds, so I got to learn two or three different names for every species. They knew a heck of a lot about the natural history of the birds, too. Birds were a good talking point with them, and also one of those fascinating things about the harbingers of spring and fall.

What’s the most interesting thing about birds?
The answer depends on who you’re talking to. What I do know is that people are fascinated by birds. Birds are in our backyards and around us, there’s tremendous variety in terms of colors and behaviors, and many of the species have adapted to be around people so they make it impossible for us to ignore them. For me as a scientist, I really like the idea of studying dinosaurs that live with us today. Essentially, they are the remnants of the dinosaur era that have made it successfully despite the dinosaur’s decline. They occur on every continent on the globe, so they are a tremendous example of adaptation and acclimation to various environments.

How do you describe the research you do?
I study birds that migrate and how they interact with their environment and how what we do impacts their life.

What is it about Block Island that’s notable to migrating birds?
The geography of southern New England is such that we have mostly an East-West Coast, with Block Island about 20 kilometers off that coast. Block Island has always been a place where tens of thousands of migrating songbirds end up each fall as they travel south. It allows you to study how the birds’ migration directly interacts with the quality of the environment and the weather patterns that occur. And if you look at the population dynamics of most any songbird, most mortality occurs in the first year during fall migration, so decisions that birds make during that time have much larger consequences for the population of those particular species.

Why do birds migrate in the first place?
Birds that migrate live in seasonal environments, so they’re primarily migrating to get to places during especially cold periods of the annual cycle when it’s too cold and they can make a better living elsewhere. All the birds that migrate have evolved to migrate in part to respond to the seasonality of the environment.

But not all birds migrate. Why not?
Some have decided to weather the storm, so to speak. Many of those species that are resident here do so because they can tolerate really cold temperatures; they’ve evolved an ability to deal with the cold. It’s a minority of species. The vast majority of species do some sort of migration to avoid seasonal declines in temperature or food resources.

How do they know when it’s time to migrate?
I love to think about these kinds of things. Almost all species use the environmental cue of photoperiod [daylight length] as a way to tell them when migration should occur. We can put birds in captivity and isolate them from the environment and just change the light schedule, and we can put them into a migration state — they start jumping around at night, they start fattening up, they start eating lots more. Photoperiod is the environmental cue that underlies the migration tendencies of birds. It tells you when spring happens, when fall happens. But almost all birds also use other cues, like weather patterns. Photoperiod defines the window of opportunity of when you’re going to migrate, but then you use weather and other environmental cues to decide exactly the day and time when you’re going to move.

How do they know what direction to go and when they’ve arrived at their destination?
It’s in their genes. The birds actually migrate for a certain number of days, and that certain number of days is what we call endogenously encoded. The genes they’ve inherited tell them that migration is roughly 40 to 50 days or it’s 20 to 30 days or whatever. There’s a migratory restlessness period that you can define in captivity – they’ll be restless for a certain number of days and then they’ll just shut it off. That tells them the duration. The direction is also coded for most songbirds in their genes. But there are other migration strategies as well. Cranes and geese, for example, learn where to go by following their parents.

What does it take for birds to prepare for migration? Like physiological changes?
Migration takes guts.

What do you mean by that?
Birds have a part of their brain that detects light levels and tells their brain what the photoperiod is. When that happens, there are brain hormonal responses that basically tell the bird it’s time to eat more, and they will increase how much they eat by two, three, four times on a daily basis, and so they start to fatten. Most birds use the amount of fat as their own internal indicator as to whether they are ready to migrate. Then, if it’s warm and the winds are favorable, they’ll take off and burn some of that fuel. Then they’ll end up at a stopover site somewhere and do it again.

What do you mean when you say that migration takes guts?
If you or I were going to run a marathon, the last thing we’d want to do is begin by getting really fat. Our digestive system won’t allow that, we’ll get too full, and that’s true of birds, too. Birds have evolved this incredible flexibility in their digestive system. When the hormones come from their brain in response to the photoperiod that tells them to start eating more, their digestive system responds by increasing in size by three or four times over the course of a couple days. Then they’re able to consume lots more and convert it to fuel. When they migrate, they may fly for several days and not eat at all. They basically reduce the size and the function of those digestive organs during that time, and then once they land, they have to build it back up. They’ve evolved this tremendous flexibility in their digestive system to accommodate this alternating feeding and fasting period.

What else is interesting about bird physiology?
A lot, especially the physiology of those that stay here for the winter. They have some incredible adaptations, like how ducks can stand on ice and still keep their feet warm, or how tiny songbirds can stay warm on very cold winter nights. They’re pretty amazing creatures.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on March 20, 2018.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Longer days trigger nature's activities

            Around this time each year – oftentimes even earlier – most of us are pining for budding trees, migrating birds, and even the appearance of flying insects. Those environmental cues are a sure sign that the cold of winter has retreated for another year and shorts-and-sandals season will soon be upon us. Even though we had a record warm February this year, it didn’t appease our desire for even warmer weather.
            Part of the reason for this feeling has little to do with the actual temperature and more to do with the short length of winter days. Those short days can lead to what many of us call the
Cartoon by David Chatowsky
winter blahs, and as days grow longer we are reinvigorated and start to feel happier.
            In ecological terms, the length of daylight in a given day is called the photoperiod, and it is an important trigger for all sorts of natural history events. We sometimes assume that the awakening of wildlife in spring is linked to warming temperatures, and for some species it is. But for many others, it’s the increasing photoperiod that launches these activities.
            Birds are the perfect example. They use an ancient part of their brain called the pineal gland to detect light and dark through their thin skulls. When the daylight length is just right, it triggers them to prepare for migration by doubling their food intake and becoming active at night, which is when most songbirds migrate. In laboratory experiments at the University of Rhode Island, researchers have artificially manipulated the photoperiod to which birds are exposed, which cues the physiological changes required for migration even if it’s the wrong time of year.
               Using daylight length as a trigger for migration isn’t always a good thing, however. Those bird species that do so are having the most trouble adapting to the changing climate. During years when spring comes late, those species arrive when it’s still too cold to raise a family; during years when spring comes early, they’ve missed out on the early-flying insects they need to fuel reproduction. The birds that combine day length with temperature in determining when to migrate seem to be responding better to climate change.
                According to Hope Leeson, a botanist at the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, many plants are also triggered by daylight length to launch the next stages in their life cycle. Norway maples in Rhode Island, for instance, are one of the earliest trees to sprout leaves each spring, even though in their native Norway the trees don’t leaf out until later in the season. That’s because the leaves are triggered to emerge by a certain photoperiod, which occurs in Rhode Island several weeks earlier than in northern Europe.
                The bloom time and growth of many flowers in the aster family are also regulated by day length. Their growth is delayed – when compared to many other local flowers – until the days are sufficiently long, and they don’t flower until the day length gets shorter again in the fall, regardless of the temperature.
                The longer days of spring also trigger reproduction in many species, from green frogs to mink, and other aspects of some animals’ life cycles, like growth rates and molting of fur, can also be affected. Many humans are influenced by it, too. As I told my wife the other day, I’ll take out the trash as soon as the sun comes up a little earlier.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on March 17, 2018.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Volunteers needed for 'funny-looking' bird study

            One of the region’s most unusual birds is the subject of a research project by University of Rhode Island doctoral student Erin Harrington, and she’s seeking at least 80 volunteers to become citizen scientists to contribute to her work. All it takes is a commitment of 38 minutes at dusk on four dates between April 20 and May 10, plus attendance at a two-hour training session.
             The subject of Harrington’s study is the American woodcock, which she calls “a funny-looking bird with short stubby legs and a variety of silly nicknames that makes arguably the silliest sounding mating call known to mankind.”
She’s not kidding.
            “They’re an ideal bird for citizen scientists to work with because they’re unique and goofy looking, but their goofiness is endearing in a way that makes them distinctive and easy to identify,” she said.
            Sometimes called the timberdoodle, woodcocks are chunky, brownish birds with large eyes, short tails, and long beaks that they probe into the ground in search of earthworms to eat.
They are found throughout the eastern United States, but their populations have been declining throughout their range. Little is known about their habits and habitat preferences in Rhode Island.
            “We want to figure out where woodcocks are showing up in Rhode Island and where they aren’t,” Harrington said. “Where they’re showing up and where they aren’t are equally important because that tells us a little about what kind of habitat they prefer. And in areas where they are showing up, we’re also interested in how many are there. Areas of high numbers likely indicate a preferred habitat area.”
            According to Harrington, woodcocks are considered an umbrella species for forest management. They require young forest habitat to thrive. If forestry officials manage habitat for woodcock, then many other species with similar habitat needs, including the rare New England cottontail, will also benefit.
            Participants in the research project will listen for the mating call of the male woodcock, which Harrington described as a nasal peent, which is very distinctive. They also perform what she calls a sky dance, an elaborate aerial display that includes a twittering sound made by their wing feathers. However, they only perform these rituals for a short period at dusk.
            “The males start peenting on the ground, move around in a circle and peent in different directions, then fly up into the air and essentially dance in the air before flying back down to the same spot they came from,” she explained. “Hopefully, their sky dance will be appealing enough in some way for a female to think, ‘yes, that bird is worth mating with.’”
Using a protocol developed by woodcock researchers elsewhere, participating volunteers will drive a designated route, stopping every 0.4 kilometers to listen for the birds for two minutes before proceeding to the next stop. Depending on the weather conditions, volunteers must start the route exactly 15 or 20 minutes after sunset and be finished within 38 minutes before it gets too dark and the birds stop displaying.
“After we have a few years of data, we hope to have better information about where they are, where they aren’t, and where they are in high numbers, and apply that information to forest management,” said Harrington. “Data from this study will be combined with data from other studies that tracked woodcock movement patterns and measured habitat characteristics so we can predict where the birds should turn up.”
No experience or knowledge is necessary to participate in the project as a citizen scientist.
“You don’t have to know anything at all about woodcocks,” she said. “We’re interested in people who feel comfortable driving at night, think the birds are cool, and are excited about participating in the project. That’s all.”
Training sessions will be held on Tuesday, April 3, or Friday, April 6 from 6 to 8 p.m. in Weaver Auditorium in the Coastal Institute building on the URI Kingston campus. For more information about the project, or to register as a volunteer, email Harrington at or visit

This article first appeared on on March 15, 2018.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

And the dams come tumbling down

            South County is rightfully proud of its rich industrial history, but the legacy of that history includes a long list of rivers and streams with old, unsafe dams that contribute to localized flooding and prevent native fish from reaching their spawning grounds. As a result, a movement is underway to remove many of the dams to restore the waterways to their natural paths.
            “All those dams were built to power mills during the Industrial Revolution, but the mills aren’t in operation any more and the dams no longer serve an industrial function,” said Scott
Bradford Dam prior to removal (Ayla Fox)
Comings, associate director of the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy, which is a partner in several dam removal projects. “Dam removal is beneficial for flood abatement, it reduces the risk of dam failure, and reconnecting the river is important for target fish species like river herring and shad.”
            The Pawcatuck River has been the main focus of dam removal efforts in the region for several years. The White Rock dam – the first obstruction that fish encounter as they try to make their way upriver – was removed in 2015. The Potter Hill dam, a few miles further upstream, was left in place, but improvements were made to its fish ladder in 2016 after sediment build-up around the ladder created what Comings called a reverse eddy, which spun the fish around and directed them away from the ladder.
            The next dam on the Pawcatuck, the Bradford dam, was removed last year in a six-month project that involved construction of a temporary bypass channel to divert water around the dam, demolition of the dam, and the repositioning of hundreds of boulders into the river to create a series of step-like weirs and pools to enable fish to swim upstream. It also allows canoes and kayaks to navigate the waterway safely without portaging and reduces the risk of upstream flooding.
            “Connectivity is the golden word in this project,” Comings said. “By reconnecting the river, everything that depends on the river will benefit – not just the fish, but freshwater mussels, mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians, too.”
            The next dam to be removed in South County is in North Kingstown adjacent to the Shady Lea Mill on the Mattatuxet River. The former textile mill is now being used as artist studios. Following the 2010 floods, the state inspected the dam and deemed it a high hazard, which increased the liability on the dam’s owner and required preparation of an emergency action plan. The owner ultimately decided to have the dam removed, and she is working with Save the Bay to complete the project this year.
            “We’re always looking for good habitat restoration sites,” said Rachel Calabro, Save the Bay’s Riverkeeper and the coordinator of the Shady Lea project. “There’s a large fish run just downstream at the Gilbert Stuart Museum, and this will open up another half mile of the river for herring, eels and trout.”
Work began last October, when a section in the middle of the dam was removed to lower the water level behind the dam so the sediments could dry out. It also allowed archaeologists to examine and photograph the historic dam, which was found to have been originally constructed of fieldstone in the 1800s and later capped with cement.
This spring and summer, contractors will remove the sediments, which have already been tested and found to be free of contaminants, and then the spillway will be dismantled.
“We can already see that the stones are really loose, so I know when we go in to remove it, the dam will come down in a day,” said Calabro. “Some of those stones will be placed in the channel below the dam to create pools and make riffles in the stream for the fish to navigate. That’s the finesse part of a habitat restoration project like this.”
Once the dam is removed, Calabro said that native plants will sprout to revegetate the site.
“We’ll let the river naturally find its channel, and we’ll end up with a nice stream running through a vegetated wetland,” Calabro said.
Save the Bay will use this project as a showcase of dam removal techniques to encourage other private dam owners to undertake similar efforts to remove their liabilities and restore habitat.
“We’re not just interested in getting fish from point A to point B,” Calabro said. “We want native species to be able to migrate and also have better water quality, better dissolved oxygen, and the other things that happen when you remove a dam. We’re always looking for opportunities to improve stream health, which also improves resilience by removing vulnerable infrastructure.”
            Not every dam in the region can or should be removed, however. Some deserve to be protected for their historic attributes, for aesthetic reasons, or because there are alternatives to removal.
            “Every site is different,” said Andres Aveledo, a conservation engineer for The Nature Conservancy and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “The best conservation alternative is through removal of the dam, but we sometimes select alternative approaches because stakeholders want the impoundment to remain.”
            The dam on the Saugatucket River near Main Street in Wakefield, for instance, is on the state’s list of historic places, and the town of South Kingstown did not want to lose its attractive waterfall. Yet the site’s fish ladder, which was built in the 1960s, was not working. So in 2016 the fish ladder was re-engineered to ensure more herring make it over the dam and into Indian Lake.
            A similar effort is planned this year at the 12-foot dam at the Palisades Mill Complex in Peace Dale, enabling fish to swim even further up the Saugatucket.
            And in Charlestown, fish now have better access to Factory Pond from Green Hill Pond and the Charlestown Breachway, thanks to an aluminum device called a steep pass that was installed in 2017 to help fish surmount the modest private dam on Factory Brook.
            “That little run can now support about 20,000 river herring,” said Aveledo. “That’s a lot of bang for our buck.”
This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Serving up seeds

            Small mammals like squirrels, chipmunks, mice and voles play a surprisingly significant role in determining the tree composition of most forests. That role is based largely on their choice of which seeds to eat. By consuming the seeds of some species – thereby denying them a chance to grow – and hiding other seeds, which helps them germinate, the animals determine which tree species thrive or decline. At the same time, the availability of different seeds influences the population cycles of some mammals.
            Those are among the findings of a series of research studies conducted by a University of Maine biologist who combined data from a 33-year population study of rodents with experiments in the Holt Research Forest, Penobscot Experimental Forest and Acadia National Park.
            “Small mammals can reach extremely high densities; in some years up to 100 individuals per acre,” said Alessio Mortelliti, assistant professor of wildlife conservation. “They can actually eat every single seed of the species they like, which means they can have a massive impact on forest regeneration.”
            By pointing trail cameras at plates left in the forest with different tree seeds, Mortelliti found strong preferences among different animal species. None of the animals liked the seeds of balsam fir, for instance, which Mortelliti said is one reason why there are so many balsam firs in Maine forests. Paper birch seeds were also avoided by most of the animals. Mice had a preference for red oaks, which voles ignored, and all of the animals liked white pine, spruce and maple seeds.
            In another study, the researcher found that different seeds affect the vole population differently, and the effects were largely dependent on the animal’s population density. White pine seeds were found to be especially important when vole populations were low by helping them survive and reproduce in greater numbers. The animals only ate paper birch seeds when the vole population was high and few white pine seeds were available.
            Mortelliti hopes to use his research findings to help forest managers minimize the impact of small mammals on the most commercially valuable tree species.
            “With a little more research, we should be able to figure out how to optimize timber production by understanding how small mammals are affecting the regeneration of the forest,” he said. “We hope to be able to give timber companies prescriptions for the best way to manage the forest so they can maximize the regeneration of the trees they want.”
            He said this will become especially important as the climate changes and new tree species expand their ranges northward.
            “Tree species composition is going to change, and small mammals will play a key role in affecting the expansion,” Mortelliti said. “They’re the gatekeepers. They’re going to decide which plants will regenerate. The results of our studies will tell us what tree species will be blocked by the animals and which will be favored, and that will inform the management actions that can be taken to deal with this process.”
This article first appeared in the winter 2018 edition of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Go easy on the salt

            The use of salt on snowy roadways is effective at melting snow and ice and making driving safer. But when that salty snowmelt runs off into nearby lakes and ponds, it can make the waters toxic to aquatic ecosystems. While that has long been believed to be true, there was little data from a broad geographic region to back it up. Until now.
            A study by a Dartmouth College graduate student and 14 collaborators from throughout North America found that 44 percent of the 371 lakes analyzed had “undergone long-term salinization” as a result of salt run-off from roads, driveways and parking lots.
            Flora Krivak-Tetley said that 26 of the lakes had salt concentrations over 100 milligrams per liter, more than five times that of rain water. “Salt at high levels like that starts to be directly toxic to large lake organisms like fish and amphibians,” she said. “For the most part, our lakes here in New England are below that level and aquatic life can handle it.”
            But 14 of the lakes in the study are predicted to increase to levels above the Environmental Protection Agency criterion that places aquatic life at risk.
            “Our big question, though, is what happens at lower salt concentrations, those between 20 and 100 milligrams per liter and slowly rising over time,” Krivak-Tetley said. “Phytoplankton and zooplankton communities might not be directly killed, but it may cause shifts in community composition.”
            She said that smaller organisms can lose their ability to compete against others for resources in high salt environments. And because many of the less common native species tend to be intolerant of salty conditions, she believes that increasing salt concentrations could lead to a loss of biodiversity.
            In a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy ofthe Sciences, Krivak-Tetley and her colleagues found that the primary drivers of increased salt in lakes was a high density of roads and parking lots around the water bodies.
            “Impervious surfaces around lakes puts them at risk,” she said. “Even as little as one percent impervious surface correlated to rising salinity. That may seem like a small number, but a small amount of development around a lake and the use of salt in that area is having an impact on most lakes.”
            The good news, she said, is that most of the lakes studied in the Northeast, especially those in the Adirondack region and in Vermont and New Hampshire, are not in highly developed areas, especially compared to those in the urbanized Midwest.
            “It’s nice to see that we have a lot of lake systems that are really healthy in our area, and even some of those that are increasing in salt concentration are still pretty low,” Krivak-Tetley said. “So if we make a point of good management and limit development around our lakes, or if homeowners around the lakes don’t over-salt their driveways, then that can make a difference and help keep our ecosystems in good shape.”

This article first appeared in the winter 2018 edition of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Beware: Frogs, salamanders on the move

            During last week’s warm spell, Emilie Holland saw and heard something she seldom detects this early in the year – the first movement of frogs and salamanders from their woodland wintering grounds to their springtime breeding pools. She observed wood frogs, spring peepers, spotted salamanders and even a rare marbled salamander near her house not far from the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in South Kingstown.
            “We often get pretty early activity here,” said Holland, an environmental scientist for the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and a board member of the Rhode Island Natural
Marbled salamander by Emilie Holland
History Survey. “For whatever reason, the micro-climate is good for them. The problem is that my hotspot is along a road, and the frogs and salamanders are often crossing it,” which puts them at risk.
            During the same warm days last week, other observers reported hearing spring peepers in North Kingstown and Cumberland and seeing a red-backed salamander in Middletown.
            According to amphibian expert Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at Roger Williams Park Zoo, frogs and salamanders don’t typically migrate to their breeding ponds until mid-March in most areas of the state. During the cold winter of 2015, when many ponds were still frozen until April, amphibian migration was delayed by almost a month. But it’s not unusual for rain showers during an especially warm period in late February to trigger an early migration.
            “When that happens, the migration period tends to get extended,” Perrotti said. “A snowstorm or cold snap shuts things down for a while, and then it picks back up again. You don’t have the usual massive explosion of breeding activity all at once. It trickles along instead.”
            What happens to the frogs in the ponds when the cold returns and the ponds freeze over again? Not much. Perrotti said the animals are adapted to survive such conditions for short periods of time. In fact, University of Rhode Island herpetologist Peter Paton said he commonly sees wood frogs and spotted salamanders swimming beneath the ice of local ponds in late winter. And wood frogs are uniquely adapted to freeze solid and thaw out later with no negative consequences.
            The bigger concern – as Holland expressed – is that many frogs and salamanders must cross roads to reach their breeding ponds, and untold thousands of them get run over by vehicles each year in Rhode Island in the process.
            “It’s a huge problem, one of the biggest threats to amphibians and reptiles in the area,” Perrotti said. “I’ve seen nights where there were hundreds of smashed wood frogs at just one site. Toads get hammered, too, because they typically have huge breeding explosions over a period of two or three nights. And gray tree frogs, too, which are pretty clumsy on the ground.”
            Amphibian movement to and from their breeding ponds will likely continue through April – some species, like green frogs, migrate later than others – but it typically happens at night when it is raining. So Perrotti and Holland recommend driving carefully at night along back roads in wetland areas during rain showers.
            “It’s hard to avoid every frog in the road, especially if you catch it on a good night for migration when they’re everywhere,” Perrotti said.
            One strategy that Perrotti said has been employed in western Massachusetts to avoid the problem of amphibian roadkill is the installation of what he calls “salamander tunnels” beneath roadways in areas where large numbers of frogs and salamanders migrate across roads. Barriers along the roadside funnel the animals toward the tunnel, which avoids much of the mortality.
            The idea has been discussed in Rhode Island, but the cost is high and finding funding in municipal budgets is an impediment. Signage encouraging drivers to slow down at certain locations is another strategy that officials in the state have considered, though few have been installed to date.
            Holland notes that homeowners with sump pumps should regularly check the system for amphibians that wander in and cannot escape.
            “I’m constantly fishing salamanders and frogs out of mine,” she said. “People should monitor the sump in their basement and maybe they can keep a local breeding population healthy by not letting the adults die in a pitfall trap that they didn't even know they had.”
            Those interested in learning more about local amphibians and participating in a related citizen science project should consider signing up for Frogwatch, a national program administered locally by Roger Williams Park Zoo. Volunteers attend a training program to learn the breeding calls of the various frog species that reside in Rhode Island, then visit a designated pond in the evening once a week from March through August to document breeding activity.
            The next training session is Saturday, March 3 at 1:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 4 at 1 p.m. Perrotti said that families with children over 10 are encouraged to sign up together.
            “Kids are especially good at it because they’re inspired by the program and they’re good at remembering the calls,” he said.

This article first appeared on on March 1, 2018.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Seal of approval

            The five harbor seals relaxing at Citing Rock, a tiny islet 100 yards from the eastern edge of Rose Island, weren’t bothered by the 42-degree water temperature or the 40-degree air temperature. They were swathed in a six-inch layer of blubber that kept them warm in even icier conditions than Rhode Island offers. In fact, the conditions were perfect for the 300-pound marine mammals, which spend the warmer months far to the north and consider the Ocean State a tropical paradise in winter.
            But what the animals were bothered by was the kayaker who paddled just a little too close for comfort. So they awkwardly slipped off the rocks and beneath the water’s surface,
never to be seen again. At least not by the two dozen observers on a Save the Bay education vessel that had come to see the animals. With disappointment on their faces, the participants – including six 10-year-olds celebrating a birthday and five young women aboard as part of a bachelorette party – turned to the boat’s captain, Eric Pfirrmann, who smiled and said, “I guess that means we’ll have to go to my super-secret spot to find some more.”
            Rhode Island’s official marine mammal, harbor seals have become common winter residents in state waters since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 made it illegal to hunt or harass them. Paul Webb, a harbor seal expert at Roger Williams University who describes the animals as “fat sea dogs,” said that the legislation eliminated the bounties once placed on the seals out of fear the animals were eating too many fish.
            “They were concentrated up around Maine back then, but once they were protected their numbers really took off,” he said. “They’ve now expanded their range as far south as New Jersey, and there are even small haul-out colonies in Virginia.”
A statewide survey of harbor seals in Narragansett Bay conducted last March by Save the Bay staff and volunteers found 566 seals at the known sites where the animals haul out to rest, a total that University of Rhode Island oceanographer Robert Kenney says means the population – including animals the surveyors missed – is probably between 1,400 and 1,700.
             But not all the news is good. Kenney believes that the harbor seal population in New England waters may be declining, despite their local abundance. “It’s probably because of harassment from gray seals,” he said of the largest seal in the region, whose population is booming on Cape Cod. “But they’re unlikely to have a major effect on harbor seal numbers in the bay.”
            Harbor seals are still easy to see, though. They begin to arrive in Narragansett Bay from Maine and the Canadian Maritimes in September, and they keep coming until March, when they reach their peak numbers. They all depart for their breeding grounds by late April. During the six or seven months they are in the Ocean State, the best way to see them is on a Save the Bay tour, which depart weekly from Newport Harbor (and less frequently from Fall River).
            When the seals were chased from Citing Rock, Pfirrmann steered the vessel north along the west side of Aquidneck Island to Coddington Cove and a hidden group of unnamed rocks visible only from the water or from a seldom visited corner of the Navy base.
            As the rocks came into view, the seal watchers pointed and cheered and raised their cameras and binoculars to get a view of the nearly three dozen seals lounging in the sunshine. The animals were dressed in a mottled mix of earth tones, from pale sandy hues to coffee and milk chocolate – the darker ones still wet from recently emerging from the water. Most barely gave the boat and its enthusiastic observers a second look, but the animals appeared to happily pose for pictures and enjoy their moment in the limelight.
            Without getting too close, Pfirrmann maneuvered the boat so everyone onboard was satisfied with their views, then slowly headed back to the harbor. Passing Citing Rock again, several seals were visible bobbing in the water, their shiny gray basketball-sized heads and large puppy-dog eyes making everyone smile.
            It’s not necessary to have access to a boat to see harbor seals in nearby waters, however. They are easily visible to landlubbers as well. Pfirrmann said they are frequently observed hauled out on Seal Rock, which can be seen from several locations along Newport’s Ocean Drive (though binoculars are needed). The animals are also regularly spotted swimming in the waters around Beavertail State Park in Jamestown and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown. The most reliable place to observe harbor seals in season is at low tide on the rocks at the end of the trail to Rome Point in North Kingstown, where their numbers build to as many as 100 in late February and March.

This story first appeared in the February 2018 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Survey of Rhode Island breeding birds finds surprising results

            Three years into a five-year project to document the distribution of breeding birds in Rhode Island, and volunteers are turning up some rather unexpected results. Nearly a dozen species have been found to be breeding in the state that were not recorded during an identical effort 31 years ago, and some of those discoveries are quite surprising.
                Charles Clarkson, coordinator of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, said that bald eagles, common ravens, black-throated blue warblers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers all breed in at least two locations in the state, although they were not found in Rhode Island during the previous
Yellow-bellied sapsucker
survey. In addition, volunteers documented the first occurrence of breeding Kentucky warbler, black vulture, common eider, pied-billed grebe, yellow-crowned night heron, black rail and chuck will’s widow.
                Clarkson said the yellow-bellied sapsucker is especially noteworthy.
                “That really took me by surprise because I wasn’t expecting to ever find it breeding here,” Clarkson said. “Their traditional breeding range doesn’t come anywhere close to Rhode Island. The closest they usually come to breeding here is in western Pennsylvania and New York.”
                The Breeding Bird Atlas divides the state into 165 blocks, each 10 square miles in size. About 170 volunteers work to document all of the bird species that breed in each block. The program is sponsored by the University of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers have so far been found breeding in two blocks, bald eagles in six blocks, and common ravens in 20 blocks. A total of 167 species have been recorded as possibly, probably or confirmed breeding in Rhode Island, three more than were recorded during the first atlas. The most widespread species are the American robin and gray catbird.
                “When all these volunteers get out in the woods looking for birds, they tend to find things that aren’t usually noticed,” said Clarkson.
                The common raven, bald eagle and black vulture were not unexpected birds to be added to the state’s list of breeding species, since they have been seen in increasing numbers in the last decade. But the black rail, a small, secretive chicken-like bird that breeds in marshes and wet meadows and vocalizes almost exclusively at night, was another surprise.
                “They’ve been declining range-wide, so that gives us a glimmer of hope for the species,” Clarkson said.
                Among the other notable findings was the growing number of pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers breeding in the state. Pileated woodpeckers, the largest member of the woodpecker family in the United States, were found in just two blocks during the first atlas in the 1980s, but it has been recorded in 35 blocks so far in the present project. The distribution of the red-bellied woodpecker increased from 4 blocks to 88.
                “We’ve had a massive increase in distribution for those species, and the reason for their growth is very different,” said Clarkson. “In the case of the pileated, it’s a result of the natural succession of its wooded habitat – they like older forest habitat. For the red-belly, it’s a slow persistent expansion of its range northward, primarily due to climate change.”
                Osprey numbers have also increased dramatically from 14 blocks during the first atlas to 50 blocks today. Clarkson said the increase in nesting osprey is due to the banning of the pesticide DDT in the 1970s, which had caused widespread reproductive failure in the birds in the 1950s and 60s.
                On the downside, several species documented 31 years ago as breeding in Rhode Island have not been found during the first three years of the current atlas project. These include northern bobwhite, magnolia warbler, green-winged teal, common gallinule, upland sandpiper, yellow-breasted chat and long-eared owl.
                “Most of those are species that I’m not surprised we haven’t found yet,” Clarkson said. “The majority of them were not found here in big numbers during the first atlas. Some of them may still have breeding populations in the state but they’re at low enough densities that we just haven’t found them yet. We still may find them.”
                The species with the steepest decline is the purple finch, which was recorded in 76 blocks during the first atlas but in only 11 blocks during the current atlas.
                “It could be that there is an actual decline in the species brought on by habitat loss or competitive exclusion with the related house finch,” explained Clarkson. “We know they have been in decline in the eastern portion of their range where they overlap with house finches. But it could also be misidentification by our volunteers.”  The two species can be difficult to tell apart.
                Volunteers for the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas will continue to collect data for two more breeding seasons. They are also collecting information during other times of the year about species that winter in the Ocean State or migrate through the region.

This article first appeared on on February 21, 2018.

Friday, February 16, 2018

What's living under the ice?

            It’s one of my fondest memories of childhood, ice skating on the one-acre pond in my backyard in North Kingstown. We often skated several times each day – before school, after school and even after dinner, thanks to the lights my father installed to illuminate the area. And weekends were for skating parties, hockey games and general silliness on the ice.
            That’s also when I first began to wonder about the creatures that were living in the water beneath the ice. Occasional spots of clear ice seemed to serve as a window into the underwater world, and I never ignored an opportunity to lie on the ice to see what was there.
I often saw very little, just mud and leaves and floating sediment. But every once in a
Cartoon by David Chatowsky
while, something else came into view – mostly aquatic insects, fairy shrimp, tiny fish and, once, a giant snapping turtle. I’ll never forget lying face-to-face with that snapper, wondering if he was frightened of me and worrying that he was as cold as I was.
            To this day I still think about that turtle every winter. I had assumed that most turtles bury themselves in the mud and hibernate through the cold months, but apparently not all do. Snapping turtles are particularly cold tolerant and well known for remaining active beneath the ice, though even they reduce their metabolism and move very slowly.
            Peter Paton, a reptile and amphibian expert at the University of Rhode Island, said that he has seen wood frogs, spotted turtles, and spotted salamanders swimming under the ice on occasion. It’s more likely to happen, he said, during cycles of melting and refreezing, especially during rainy periods in late winter. That’s when many frogs and salamanders begin to move from the land to the ponds in search of a mate. When temperatures plunge at night and the ponds refreeze, it may lock the animals in, but they seem to survive just fine.
            Aquatic creatures that cannot live on land – like fish, fairy shrimp and insect larvae – are locked beneath the ice, too, but they’ve evolved to live through such conditions and thrive. For some, the cold, icy conditions are a necessary trigger for the next stages of their growth and development.
            And as any ice fisherman will tell you, there are plenty of fish that remain active beneath the ice. That’s because there is still plenty of food available to sustain them: crustaceans keep creeping along, algae still bloom, plants still photosynthesize when enough light penetrates the ice, and tiny zooplankton continue to swim, feed, and reproduce.
            The larval form of dragonflies, stoneflies and mayflies are among a very few aquatic insects that remain active beneath the ice throughout the winter. Some can even live a short time encased in ice, which is especially helpful when shallow ponds freeze all the way to the bottom. And when the ice eventually melts and reaches a certain temperature, the bugs transform into their adult form and fly away.
            Which is what I’d like to do about now – fly away south. My ice skates no longer fit, our ponds seldom freeze thick enough to skate on any more, and general silliness on the ice is no longer as attractive as it once was. But I’d relish another opportunity to go face-to-face with a snapping turtle lurking beneath the ice.

This article first appeared in the Independent on February 15, 2018.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Hydrothermal vents speed development of deep-sea skate eggs

            A team of scientists from the University of Rhode Island and the Charles Darwin Research Station exploring the seafloor northwest of the Galapagos Islands in 2015 made an unexpected discovery. Large numbers of egg cases of a deep-sea skate – relatives of sharks and rays – were observed adjacent to the hot water emitted from hydrothermal vents, which the scientists said the skates use to accelerate the development of the embryos.
                It is the first time such behavior has been recorded in marine animals. The discovery is published this week in the journal Scientific Reports.
                Brennan Phillips, URI assistant professor of ocean engineering, was leading the operations team of remotely-operated vehicle operators during the expedition to explore the underwater
Robotic arm picks up Pacific skate egg from ocean floor (Ocean Exploration Trust)
mountains around the Galapagos. He said they didn’t recognize the significance of the aggregation of skate eggs until much later.
                “We were on a really deep dive in a hydrothermally-active rift valley, with walls 30 meters tall on either side, and the ROV was meandering back and forth looking for vents,” Phillips explained. “We started noticing all these egg cases, and we recorded their location and collected a few but then just kept going.”
                Later, when the egg locations were analyzed and compared to hydrothermal vent locations and recorded water temperatures, the scientists concluded that the eggs were likely intentionally placed by the skates where the water was warmer than average.
                In total, 157 mobile-phone-sized egg cases were observed, which DNA analysis revealed to be from the Pacific white skate (Bathyraja spinosissima). About 58 percent of the egg cases were found within 20 meters of a black smoker, the hottest kind of hydrothermal vent, and 89 percent of the egg cases were laid in water that was hotter than the background temperature of 2.76 degrees Centigrade.
                “The eggs weren’t right next to the active vents, because the water can get so hot – hundreds of degrees – that it would kill them,” Phillips said. “We found most of them in the lukewarm water not far from the vents and near some extinct vents.
                “The kicker is that we showed our data to a bunch of shark experts, and they had seen anecdotal evidence of shark and ray egg cases near hydrothermal vents, but they never had the data to put the story together,” he added.
                Several land animals have been recorded laying their eggs in similar situations. A rare bird native to Tonga, the Polynesian megapode, often nests in volcanically-heated soils, for instance. Fossils of some sauropod dinosaurs of the Cretaceous era are believed to have done so as well.
                This isn’t the first time Phillips has observed unexpected behaviors by shark family members in heated water. In 2014, he investigated an underwater volcano near the Solomon Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, where he watched several species of shark swim right through the bubbling hot water in the volcano’s crater.
                “Our cameras caught images of schools of sharks, smaller fish and even jellyfish living in the hot acidic plume,” he said at the time. “This presumably toxic environment supports a whole community of life, even though every once in a while it blows up.”
                Coupled with his hydrothermal vent observation, Phillips believes that sharks, rays and skates – which evolved about 500 million years ago – have adapted to the unusual conditions.
                “Seafloor volcanism comes and goes, and it is often one of the causes of mass extinctions,” he said. “It’s interesting to me that we’re seeing sharks and skates thriving around volcanoes and vent sites, like they’re especially resilient and have evolved to withstand the hot water environment.”