Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Tree kangaroos, hornbills and otters, oh my!

“A lot of cleaning, and then some more cleaning.” That’s how Christine Goodrow describes her job as a zookeeper at Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence. But cleaning and caring for giraffes, elephants, tree kangaroos and river otters, among many other species, is never boring. And when the cleaning and feeding is finished, she enjoys spending time observing the animals, making sure their needs are met, looking for hints of an illness, and ensuring that their interactions with the other animals in their exhibit are positive. A resident of Middletown and Newport for 17 years before moving to Jamestown last fall, Goodrow, 49, started working at the zoo after a brief career in finance. Like the frogs she sometimes cares for, she said she’s glad she took the leap.

Which animals do you care for?
I like to work in all different areas. I fill in as needed. But today I’m responsible for Matschie’s tree kangaroo, Bali myna, fruit doves, tawny frogmouth, kookaburra, wrinkled hornbills, river otters, and bintarong, which they call a bear cat.

What do you feed them?
The otters are carnivores, so they eat fish and meat. They’re fed four times a day minimum. Some of that is for nutrition, but it’s also to see their interest level in the food. A lack of interest would show me that something was off. Most of the animals get some form of a pellet that’s a complete nutrient, and then they get added items like fresh vegetables. I usually save their favorite food items for training, and it might be provided in a puzzle feeder so they have to work to get their food.

What do you train them to do?
Generally, there’s crate training for all of them. If they need to take a trip to the hospital for an illness or an injury, we want it to be an easy normal part of their routine to get in and out of a crate for transport. It reduces the need for sedation. Some animals are trained to present themselves for feather trims for their wings, to trim their nails, to get on a scale. It’s always need-based training, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. As long as the work gets done, then we can put the fun element into it once they’re secure in that behavior. I toss fruit to my hornbill, for instance, but originally they thought I was throwing it at them. It took them awhile to get used to the game of playing catch. And the old hornbill used to toss things back. He was a good boy.

Do you have a favorite animal?
Birds, in general, are my major fascination, and wrinkled hornbills in particular. They’re monogamous. The female will find or create a hollowed-out cavern in a tree for her nest site, and she’ll use mud, food or feces to wall herself in, leaving just a slot big enough for her mate to fit his beak through. Then she is 100 percent dependent upon him for nutrition while she sits on her eggs. And once they hatch, his offspring are also entirely dependent on the male. I like the dedication they have to each other, the level of teamwork they have to create their nest.

You’re working today in the World of Adaptation exhibit. What kind of adaptations are highlighted there?
Every animal has special adaptations that it needs to survive. The otters have webbed feet and can stay under water for eight minutes. The hornbills have a beak and for noisemaking that is very specific to hornbills. Their style of breeding to protect their nest and eggs to keep them secret is another adaptation.

What’s happening during the month of May with the animals you work with?
Our new male wrinkled hornbill will be out of quarantine and placed in a room next to our female – we call it a howdy – so they can become acclimated. And then they’ll be placed together and begin to bond as a breeding pair. We’re bringing in a female binturong that will be placed beside our male and then placed together for potential breeding. We’ll know at the end of May or early June whether our tree kangaroos will be giving birth. And our three baby otters will be on exhibit as a family unit.

You sound so proud of the animals you care for, almost like you’re their parent.
There’s definitely a level of pride that comes with it. I want to showcase their amazing abilities. The same feeling that parents have when their child takes their first step or they take a gymnastics class and they do this really-not-so-great cartwheel. The level of pride I feel for my animals is similar to that. It’s the greatest feeling to have them showcased, have them learn a new behavior. No matter how awkward it is that they’ve accomplished a task, I’m proud of them. They’re really not mine, not my pets, they’re not here for entertainment in that respect, but they shine, and I want people to enjoy it or see it or experience it. I want people to know how amazing they really are.

What do you like best about your job?
This institution allows the keeper staff to have freedom, and that could be freedom to change what animals you work with, freedom to be creative in the training process. They have a lot of belief that we can manage what’s best for each animal, and that’s hard to find. It’s really a plus here that they have faith that your abilities, your energy, your efforts and your knowledge can create something that works for the animals.

Why did you decide to pursue a career at the zoo?
The minute I walked through the gates, I felt like I was home. There’s a real innocence to interacting with the animals. It’s pure. They have no motive. If you get the opportunity to interact with them on their level, to meet their needs – even if that means keeping your distance – it’s so fulfilling. You’re peeking into their behaviors and their world, and it’s calming and fascinating and genuine.

What message do you want the zoo’s visitors to take home with them?
Certainly that the animals are well cared for. But also that there is a higher goal to what we’re doing. They should do more than just stop for 30 seconds, look at the animal, and move on. If you just take a little extra time, you’ll see some of the highlights and the spark that they give.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on May 16, 2018.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Sound unseen

It was near midnight on a late May evening a few years ago that I walked along the mile-long sandspit of Napatree Point in Westerly, one of a handful of volunteer citizen scientists counting breeding horseshoe crabs. During a break in the action, I stared toward the crashing waves and saw what appeared to be a brief blue-green flash of light. And then another. In that moment, it reminded me of a distant flash of lightning or the green flash some say is visible at the instant the sun sets. It wasn’t until later that I realized it was a mass of tiny marine organisms that have the remarkable ability to illuminate themselves when they are disturbed, a phenomenon called bioluminescence.
I had read about it and heard that there were places in Puerto Rico and Malta and Japan where bioluminescence could be observed regularly. But here in Little Narragansett Bay, at the
eastern edge of Long Island Sound? Not likely. I convinced myself that I was mistaken, until I called Cris Sodergren at Mystic Aquarium, who has spent much of his life traversing the Sound day and night in all kinds of vessels.
Cris reminded me that most people only stare at the waves in the daytime, and they completely overlook what happens in the marine environment at night. He said the Sound is alive after dark, and during certain times of the year, it emits a radiant glow that can be mesmerizing, like our own version of the northern lights. He described several species of jellyfish-like creatures called comb jellies about the size of a golf ball that can look like shimmering green orbs, as well as single-celled dinoflagellates and a couple varieties of algae that also put on a light show when the crashing waves irritate them.
“Sometimes when I go fishing at night, with every paddle stroke of my kayak, the water sparkles,” he said.
I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes. But then again, there are plenty of other creatures in the Sound that generate a similar sense of wonder and make me feel lucky I live nearby.
For instance, grab a dive mask and swim in any shallow cove less than 10 feet deep where the long blades of eelgrass grow. If you look close enough, you may spot another unexpected native creature, a lined seahorse. These adorable animals – technically they’re a type of fish – use their prehensile tails to hold onto the eelgrass while waiting for microscopic plankton to swim by, which they eat by inhaling them through their snout. They’re cryptically colored in earth tones, so they’re easy to miss, but at 5 to 6 inches from tail to crown, you should be able to spot one with a little patience.
While you’re there, watch for other small creatures in the vicinity. The habitat serves as a nursery ground for fish, so tiny versions of flounder, tautog, bluefish, striped bass and other species will be hiding among the grasses. You might even come across a spiny pufferfish, which are becoming increasingly common as the waters of the Sound become warmer.
Eelgrass beds are also the best place to find bay scallops, which sit on the sediments filtering tiny organisms and watching for predators using their three-dozen bright blue eyes. When the shadow of a predator approaches, they clap their shells together to lift themselves off the seafloor and escape into the murky distance. This unusual skill makes them the only mollusk that doesn’t bury itself in the sediment or attach itself to a rock.
If those modest creatures don’t get you excited, then imagine traveling to the deepest depths of the Sound, more than 200 feet down, where you might come across an Atlantic wolffish hiding in the nooks and crannies of a rockpile. Five feet long and 40 pounds, with an eel-like body and a mouth full of frightening teeth, they have the reputation for biting through broom handles – though why anyone would give a fish a broom handle, I don’t know – and fighting their way into and out of lobster traps. Sharing the depths with the wolffish are several kinds of sharks, including sand tiger and sandbar sharks, as well as skates, squid, stripers, hake and many other species, even an occasional tuna.
Back at the surface, I’m always pleased when I catch sight of one of the handful of marine mammals that make their home in the Sound during parts of the year. Harbor seals are easiest to find in winter, but harbor porpoises – the smallest marine mammal in the North Atlantic – get my heart racing whenever I see their pint-sized dorsal fin pierce the water line. And although I haven’t spotted one yet, I know several varieties of sea turtles ply our waters in late summer and are regularly spotted taking a breath at the surface.
There are many more amazing marine creatures to seek and observe in the Sound, from crabs and starfish in tidepools to anadromous fish like sturgeon, herring and eels on their way back to our local rivers to spawn. And while the warming waters are becoming less attractive to cold water species, southern species are filling in the gaps, like kingfish, Spanish mackerel, red drum and bonito.
Whether you observe them at the end of a fishing line, with a snorkel in your mouth, or from your favorite lookout, get out there and pay attention. The Sound is a wonderful treasure trove of marine life to behold.

This article first appeared in Coast and Country on May 7, 2018.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

In hopes of surviving, saltmarsh sparrow advocates gender equality

            Saltmarsh sparrows continue their struggle to survive. The formerly common bird that lives exclusively in coastal marshes on the U.S. East Coast is predicted to go extinct within the next 50 years due to rising sea levels resulting from the changing climate. New research by scientists at the University of New Hampshire finds that the birds are advocates of gender equality, a reproductive strategy that may benefit their populations, but it’s probably too little too late to extend their time on Earth.
            According to UNH Assistant Professor Adrienne Kovach, female birds of many species – from songbirds and seabirds to parrots and raptors – can control whether they produce male or female offspring. It can sometimes be a beneficial strategy from an evolutionary perspective
because environmental circumstances or other factors may favor the success of males versus females.
            “Evolutionary theory suggests that if the potential benefits of raising one sex over the other vary in relation to environmental or maternal conditions,” she said, “then females should favor the production of that sex. Typically, high-quality sons are more beneficial to mothers because they have the potential to produce far more grandchildren than daughters can, as males can mate many times but females are limited by how many eggs they can produce, incubate and raise to fledging.”
            But there is a risk to producing more sons than daughters, too. Kovach said a male-biased population “may be especially troubling, as females are the ones who produce the eggs and offspring.” In addition, daughters often require fewer resources to reach maturity, and if they survive they almost always reproduce. Males, on the other hand, can be “competitively inferior” and may not reproduce at all.
            “With this in mind, one could logically say that producing daughters represents the safe bet,” said Kovach’s colleague Bri Benvenuti. “You might get a smaller payout in terms of numbers of offspring, but you know you’ll get something.”
            The saltmarsh sparrow’s tenuous situation raised interesting questions for the researchers.
“We thought that the saltmarsh sparrow system provided a neat set of circumstances in which females might be expected to manipulate their offspring sex ratios,” Kovach said.
The birds are considered one of the most promiscuous in the world, with almost every chick in a typical nest fathered by a different male. The species’ likely extinction is linked to their preference for nesting in marsh grasses just inches from the ground. The rising sea level and increasingly severe storm surge floods their nests and often causes reproductive failure.
Since male offspring are larger and therefore may be more likely to survive a flooding event, Kovach and Benvenuti speculated that female saltmarsh sparrows might intentionally produce more sons. So they collected nesting data from breeding sites in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts and analyzed the DNA of chicks to determine the sex of the offspring. They also evaluated whether environmental conditions, maternal health or other factors influence the sex ratio.
The researchers were surprised to find an even sex ratio when averaged across the five years of the study. While they did find a pattern of yearly variation in sex ratio, it always corrected itself the following year.
“Females respond to higher frequencies of one sex by increasing production of the rarer sex, which would have a temporary fitness advantage,” said Kovach. “Our findings overall show support for balanced offspring sex ratios at a population level over time.”
Independent biologists Steve Reinert and Deirdre Robinson study saltmarsh sparrows at Jacob’s Point in Warren, and even though they captured 32 males and just 20 females last year, they believe the sex ratio of the population is 1-to-1.
“This probably relates to the way the males move in and out of our study site seeking copulations…while the females are nesting and staying put,” Reinert said. “It would be easy to get the wrong idea on sex ratios without intimate knowledge of the population.”
Although production of more males may give the birds a better chance of survival, given the rising seas, Kovach and Benvenuti think a balanced sex ratio may have even greater benefits. They said that if the sex ratio leans too heavily in one direction or the other, it may not be good for the long-term trajectory of the population.
“If saltmarsh sparrows manipulated their offspring sex ratios in response to environmental conditions, then the consistent environmental changes predicted by rising sea levels could result in skewed population-wide sex ratios, which can be detrimental for declining species and small populations,” Kovach said. “Knowing that saltmarsh sparrow sex ratios will not be biased in response to these future changes is one bit of good news for this species that is already in trouble.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on May 9, 2018.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Molecular tool shows that animals are what they eat

            A new oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island has developed a unique molecular-scale tool for measuring the effect of climate change and other factors on the health of ecosystems. Kelton McMahon has already used it to discover how penguins have been affected by environmental changes around Antarctica, and now he is turning his attention to southern New England and focusing his technique on seabirds, commercial fisheries and the marine food web of Narragansett Bay.
            According to McMahon, who grew up in southeastern Connecticut and joined the faculty of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography last August, his new tool is based on the age-old concept that you are what you eat. He said that animal tissues contain the chemical fingerprint of their diet, as well as that of the climate and the structure of the food web.
            “The basic idea is that the ratio of heavy to light isotopes of elements like carbon or nitrogen in your diet gets passed on to you in predictable ways,” he said. “We can calculate what
an organism is eating because we know how the ratio of isotopes change as they move from diet to consumer. It allows us to predict who is connected to whom in the ecosystem.”
            Isotope ratios have been used by scientists to study food webs for more than 40 years. But rather than taking an average ratio for an entire animal, McMahon’s new technique enables him to focus on the isotope ratio of individual amino acids, which provides him with a great deal more detail about how an organism processes and allocates resources.
            By studying the isotope ratios of amino acids in the egg shells and feathers of wild Gentoo penguins and comparing them to those of museum specimens more than 100 years old, he has revealed insights about how the environment in the Southern Ocean has changed in recent decades. He found, for instance, that the penguins ate mostly fish a century ago, but they shifted to krill and then back to fish over the last 80 years.
            McMahon believes that humans are probably the cause of that shift. During the commercial whaling era in the late 1800s, krill-eating whales were hunted to near extinction, so more krill was available for the penguins to eat. When whale populations began to recover in the 1960s and 1970s, the penguins returned to a diet dominated by fish. And now that krill is being harvested in large quantities for use as fish oil supplements, this diet shift back to fish is getting further exacerbated.
            Isotope ratios also reveal a story about climate change in Antarctica.
            “As the climate is warming, ice in the area is disappearing and allowing more sunlight to penetrate into the water, stimulating plankton to grow, which increases the value of the nitrogen isotopes at the base of the food web,” he said. “We’re seeing a climate change signal in our samples on top of an anthropogenic signal from whaling, and both are acting synergistically to alter the food web.”
            Now that he has successfully demonstrated the value of his new tool by studying penguins, McMahon is beginning to use it to evaluate the changes in local food webs. He is assessing how climate change is influencing regional commercial fisheries and the availability of cod on the continental shelf off the coast of Rhode Island.
            “There have been some interesting changes in cod dynamics,” said McMahon, who is collaborating on this work with URI graduate student Joe Langan. “We’ve seen a larger increase in the cod population in southern New England than you might expect, since cod prefer cold water. They should be declining, yet we’re seeing pockets where cod are expanding in population off the shelf. We want to figure out what’s driving that.”
            He is discussing with another URI graduate student, Anna Robuck, how his technique could help her assess how the role of seabirds in marine food webs influences the accumulation of contaminants in their tissues. And he has joined a group of scientists from around Rhode Island to quantify how changes at the bottom of the food web in Narragansett Bay affect the population dynamics of the species at the top of the food web.
            “I’ve used the technique on a wide range of things, from sharks in the Pacific to deep sea corals to penguins to people,” McMahon said. “Anything that produces amino acids in their biological tissues has the capacity to be studied through these techniques. We can use it to answer a wide range of questions about the sources and cycling of organic matter from all over the world.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI on May 2, 2018.