Saturday, November 30, 2019

Brown herbarium documents what grows in Rhode Island

            The herbarium at Brown University has been a repository of plant specimens from throughout southern New England and around the world since it was established 150 years ago.  It maintains what herbarium director Rebecca Kartzinel calls “the physical record of a species in a particular place” – pressed leaves, flowers, stems and sometimes roots with detailed notes about where and when it was collected.
            Among the 100,000 specimens stored in folders in climate-controlled and insect-proof cabinets are samples from the early explorations of the American West, as well as from Cuba, New Zealand, New Guinea and elsewhere.
But the overwhelming majority of the 14,000 plant specimens from Rhode Island were
Herbarium Director Rebecca Kartzinel (Todd McLeish)
collected more than 100 years ago. And a great deal of the Rhode Island landscape has changed since then, due largely to the climate crisis, invasive species and habitat destruction. So Kartzinel is leading an effort to collect specimens of every plant now found in Rhode Island.
“We have a good representation of plants from 1870s Rhode Island, and we want to have a good representation of Rhode Island’s flora now,” said Kartzinel, a research professor in the Brown Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who took over the directorship of the herbarium last May. “That means we have to collect everything that grows in Rhode Island.
“Knowing what’s here now is important because things are rapidly changing,” she added. “The data could be used to compare with historic records or for producing more accurate range maps or for analyzing what factors are impacting the changes, and much more.”
The project was launched four years ago by the previous herbarium director, Tim Whitfield, who focused his own specimen collecting efforts in the Cumberland area. Botanist Beth Dickson, who worked in Alberta, Canada, for 24 years before retiring to Rhode Island, is spending much of her free time collecting specimens in South Kingstown and Charlestown.
“To actually collect every species, if it’s even possible, will probably take many years, since many plants are best found only in certain seasons and specific habitats,” said Dickson, who uses Google Earth imagery to identify various habitats to visit. “Having a good specimen gives adequate material to do comparison studies of anatomy, morphology and biochemistry that may be useful in the future.”
When in the field, Dickson carries a trowel, clippers, notebook and a field press and makes note of the habitat and the other species growing near the collected specimen. Once she returns home, she uses a dissecting microscope to identify each specimen before pressing it and letting it dry for a week or more.
While Dickson is focused on collecting the area’s most common plants, amateur botanist Doug McGrady searches statewide for rare plants to contribute to the herbarium collection. And Kartzinel is taking a systematic approach to overseeing the project by seeking out habitats and species that are underrepresented in the collection, and by identifying species from the historic records that haven’t been found recently and trying to track them down on the landscape.
Historically, herbarium specimens were mostly used in the describing and naming of species. Scientists seeking to determine whether a new species had been discovered would use herbarium specimens for comparison purposes.
While specimens are still studied in this way, most recent uses of the collection have involved DNA studies.
“That means our collecting must be done with DNA sequencing in mind,” said Kartzinel. “We often collect additional material so we don’t destroy the specimen. And we dry them with minimal heat so we don’t destroy the DNA.”
In addition, the entire collection is in the process of being digitized so scientists can conduct their studies without needing the actual specimen in hand. Anyone can view the digitized collection online. Tours of the herbarium for garden clubs and other interested groups are also offered by appointment.
Some samples are even loaned for use in exhibits. The Providence Athenaeum has included several specimens from the Brown herbarium in its Walt Whitman exhibit, which runs until January 5.
“These specimens aren’t just useful within the scientific community,” Kartzinel said. “From a museum perspective, it’s important to recognize that you never know what is going to be useful in the future. So it’s our job to keep that documentation. If we stop collecting, then that’s the end of our record. It’s the continual temporal record that’s important.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on November 30, 2019.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Beavers continue their comeback in Rhode Island

            At the Cumberland Land Trust’s nature preserve on Nate Whipple Highway, beavers created numerous dams on East Sneech Brook in the years after their arrival in 2014, flooding the property and forcing the organization to detour its hiking trail and build a boardwalk over the wettest areas. Worse, the flooding killed many trees in the Atlantic white cedar swamp, a very rare habitat found at just a few sites in Rhode Island.
            It’s a sign that beavers are continuing their comeback in Rhode Island after being extirpated from the region about 300 years ago.
            “There’s a historic culvert on the property, and we noticed it was being plugged up with
Beaver lodge and drain pipe at land trust property (Todd McLeish)
sticks, but we didn’t know how,” said Randy Tuomisto, president of the land trust. “So we removed the debris, but it subsequently got filled in again. That’s when we noticed small twigs were being cut, telltale signs of a beaver.”
            When the white cedar trees began to die, the land trust took action to address the situation. They hired a Massachusetts beaver control expert to advise them on how to install a series of water flow devices – a combination of wire fencing and plastic pipes going through the beaver dam that tricks beavers into thinking their dam is still working but which allows the water to flow down the stream unhindered. While Tuomisto said he believes there are six or eight beavers on the property, along with a six-foot tall beaver lodge, flooding has been reduced considerably.
            “Now they’ve moved down Sneech Brook to other areas in town, to Diamond Hill Reservoir and Abbot Run Valley Stream. And they’re aggressively on the Blackstone River,” he said. “If you take a trip on the Blackstone bike path from Manville to Valley Falls, you’ll see the destruction of all the trees that they felled.”
            According to Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, beavers were probably the first animal to disappear from the New England landscape after the arrival of European settlers. Their fur was in great demand by Native Americans and the new arrivals, and many beaver pelts were shipped to Europe as well. Brown speculates that the animals were extirpated from the area by the end of the 1600s.
            It took until 1976 for the first ones to return. That’s when a beaver lodge was discovered on the brook that leads into Carbuncle Pond in Coventry.
            “They’ve been expanding ever since,” said Brown. “By 1982, my predecessor Charlie Allen did a float trip around Coventry and Foster and found several colonies within that watershed.”
            Communities in western Rhode Island have been dealing with the inevitable flooding that beavers create for more than 30 years, but Brown said the animals have only recently arrived in the area of the lower Blackstone, Pawtuxet and Moshassuck rivers, where municipal public works officials are now being called on to address flooding issues.
            “Beavers have been entrenched in Burrillvillle and other parts of western Rhode Island for some time, and the towns there know how to deal with them. But they’re still finding new habitat and expanding elsewhere in the state,” Brown said. “It takes them a while to move around and get established in new areas. They were pioneering into the Cumberland and Lincoln area about 10 years ago, and now they’ve become a regular part of the landscape there.”
            Brown had meetings with Cumberland officials to discuss how to address the flooding caused by beavers at the Monastery and Diamond Hill State Park, and he often has similar meetings with officials in other communities. He offers counsel about beaver behavior and life cycle and offers advice on how to reduce the flooding using water control structures and how to protect notable trees with perimeter fencing.
            Sometimes he advises officials to consider hiring a trapper to capture the beavers during trapping season, which runs from Nov. 1 through mid-March. Rhode Island fur trappers typically harvest about 100 beavers each year, many of which are captured due to nuisance situations.
            Despite their reputation for damming streams and flooding roadways, beavers play an important role in the environment by creating habitat upon which many other species depend, from river otters, mink and muskrats to ducks, dragonflies and amphibians.
            “Great blue herons gravitate toward newly flooded areas with dead standing trees,” said Brown. “But beaver ponds aren’t perpetual. They come and they go. Beavers create a dynamic state of change that can benefit a lot of things.”
            According to Ben Goldfarb, author of the award-winning 2018 book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter, beaver ponds also help to recharge aquifers, dissipate floods, filter pollutants and ease the impact of wildfires. A 2011 report he highlighted estimated that restoring beavers to one river basin in Utah would provide annual benefits valued at tens of millions of dollars.
            “Even acknowledging that beavers store water and sustain other creatures is insufficient,” Goldfarb wrote. “Because the truth is that beavers are nothing less than continental-scale forces of nature, in large part responsible for sculpting the land upon which we Americans built our towns and raised our food. Beavers shaped North America’s ecosystems, its human history, its geology. They whittled our world, and they could again – if, that is, we treat them as allies instead of adversaries.”
            Randy Tuomisto of the Cumberland Land Trust has a similar perspective.
            “We want to keep the water level high enough so the lodge can sustain the beavers through the winter. We would rather live with beavers because they provide an ecological benefit in creating wetlands and wildlife habitat,” he said. “We understand the destruction they cause to neighbors and roadways, and we could have trapped them out. But we’re willing to take the bad with the good.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on November 29, 2019.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Birds and windows a deadly combination

            A horrific NASCAR crash made the news for a few days last month, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with car racing. Instead, the crash happened at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in North Carolina, and those involved were all birds.
About 300 chimney swifts – birds often described as looking like cigars with wings – struck the building’s large windows during their evening migration, and more than a third of them were killed instantly. Another third were critically injured with broken wings and legs and had to be treated by wildlife rehabilitators. The rest were stunned but recovered without treatment.
The sad event illustrated an ongoing problem that I’ve been struggling with at my
house for many years. Window collisions cause vast numbers of bird deaths each year around the globe. By some estimates it is the second leading human cause of bird mortality after domestic cat predation. And it’s mostly preventable.
A study in 2014 found that a whopping 600 million birds in the United States die each year in collisions with windows. Other experts suggest the true number is closer to a billion bird deaths. And that doesn’t account for the birds killed flying into communications towers and power lines, which may kill another 200 million birds.
Unlike the NASCAR situation, most birds strike windows during the daytime when they perceive images of trees and sky reflected in the windows as real, and they figure they can fly right through. If they aren’t flying too fast or they realize their mistake in time, they may just bump into the window and continue on their way. At my house, that seems to be the most typical case, since I always jump up to investigate any thump on the window, and I seldom find an injured bird.
But occasionally a bird may be stunned by the collision, making it vulnerable to predation or weakened enough that bad weather or other factors do them in. The worst case is those birds that break their neck and die instantly.
Those of us with bird feeders that attract an unnatural abundance of birds are probably increasing the odds that birds will strike our windows, so we should take steps to reduce collisions as best as we can. I’ve tried several popular ideas through the years, but few of them work well and most disrupt our view out the window too much.
Decals of hawks, for instance, placed on the exterior of the window aren’t particularly effective, but strips of tape placed a few inches apart to break up the reflection will usually do the trick. I’ve even used soap to draw closely-spaced lines on the outside of the window, and it worked well in a pinch when a large flock of birds spent a few days eating berries in my front crabapple tree and were colliding with the glass. The soap washed away in the next rainstorm. Window screens are perhaps the best idea, since birds that still try to fly through will bounce off.
This year I’m trying a new product from a company called Feather Friendly Technologies – easily applied opaque dots spaced two inches apart that are hardly noticeable when I look out the window but that have seemingly ended my bird/window collision problem. I’m planning to give the product as Christmas gifts this year to my bird-loving friends. It’s the least we can do for the backyard birds that provide us with so much entertainment and enjoyment.

This article first appeared in the Independent on November 17, 2019

Monday, October 28, 2019

Our forests are transforming right before us

Just before the leaves started to turn color and drop to the ground, I wandered around the woods in my backyard and saw something I hadn’t seen in many years. Sunlight was streaming through the canopy and creating large bright patches on the forest floor. What had once been completely shaded during the growing season was no longer as I remembered.
            So I investigated each site, worried that someone had illegally cut down some of the trees on my property. I shouldn’t have been concerned, because what I found was completely
natural. It’s a process that foresters and biologists call succession, and it’s been happening here and in every forest everywhere since the first forests grew. Trees die – whether from disease, age, storms or from beavers or humans cutting them down – and when that happens, sunlight penetrates the forest floor again and new growth emerges.
            In the new patches of sunlight, I found waist-high shrubs of sweet pepperbush, spicebush and mountain laurel where only ferns and mushrooms had previously grown. The sunlight had allowed such rapid growth of new plants that the abundant deer in the area, which had suppressed the growth of so many understory plants, hadn’t been able to keep up.
            As in much of the forested parts of Rhode Island in recent years, the dead trees that led to this new growth were the result of the voracious appetites of gypsy moth, winter moth and forest tent caterpillars. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management says that as much as 25 percent of the state’s forests were killed by the insect pests during a three- or four-year period. As in my yard, the dead trees appear in patches scattered across the landscape rather than in large continuous swaths, which means that every forest owner was probably affected, but only in a limited way.
            What’s going to happen next is a big question. The shrubs that grew up in the sunny spots will only grow so tall, and eventually trees will sprout and fill in the canopy and shade out the shrubs, just like it always has. But what tree species will they be? The iconic ones like oaks, maples and birches that used to be there, or something else?
            Local foresters tell me that it’s probably going to be something else.
            New varieties of invasive pest insects are arriving in our area and killing targeted tree species. One is expected to kill all the state’s ash trees in the next decade, another has already wiped out most of our hemlocks, and still another may take out our oaks, just as diseases wiped out all of our chestnut and elm trees long ago.
Scientists believe that these infestations of tree-killing pest insects are likely to worsen in years to come, but that doesn’t mean the forests will become unhealthy. They’ll just change, like so much of the rest of our environment. The changing climate will likely spur the growth of tree species more acclimated to warmer temperatures – like black cherry, yellow poplar and southern varieties of oak and hickory – replacing many of our old favorites.
So don’t fret too much over those dead patches of trees you see across the landscape. Instead, appreciate how the natural process of succession is already stimulating new growth in those patches. And then imagine what that forest will look like a generation or two into the future. It almost certainly won’t be akin to what your grandparents saw.

This article first appeared in The Independent on Oct. 24, 2019.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Seafood Apostle

            As a child, Kate Masury said that her favorite food was lobster. Even while earning a degree in environmental studies and later teaching marine conservation, she still proclaimed her love for eating seafood. But her friends saw a conflict in her culinary and conservation passions.
            “They didn’t see how my conservation side and my love for eating seafood fit together,” she said. “But that’s how I became interested in sustainable fisheries. I thought that eating it gave me a closer connection to the ecosystem.”
            A native of Kittery, Maine, who moved to Newport three years ago, Masury is the
program director of Eating with the Ecosystem, a nonprofit group that she said promotes “a place-based approach” to preserving New England’s fisheries.
            “It’s all about eating in balance with the ecosystem, eating diverse species in proportion to their natural abundance,” she explained. “Species don’t exist in isolation from each other; they interact with each other. So if we eat only one or two species, it has cascading effects down the food web.”
            But that’s exactly what most people in coastal New England do. According to a study conducted by Masury and a team of volunteers, although more than 50 species are captured in commercial fisheries in the region, just five species dominate the marketplace – lobster, scallops, soft-shelled clams, cod and haddock.
            “There’s a lot of room for growth if we want to eat in balance with the ecosystem,” she said.
            For instance, whiting is abundant in local waters and captured in great volume by the commercial fishing industry, but almost all of it is shipped to markets in New York. It’s seldom eaten in Rhode Island. Butterfish, scup, dogfish, skate and many others face a similar fate.
            “A lot of consumers don’t know that those species even exist here,” Masury said. “At farms we can see what’s growing, but on the seafood side, a lot is hidden from the average consumer unless they spend a lot of time on the docks. And if people do know they exist, they don’t really know how to cook with them; they’re not sure what the flavor profile is and if they’re going to like it.”
            So Masury is trying to do something about it.
            She hosts a series of public dinners around the region – in conjunction with chefs, fishermen and scientists – that feature local seafood species that are underutilized by local consumers. At each event, a fisherman or scientist talks about the species being served.
            “We try to curate a menu that tells a story about the marine ecosystem,” Masury said. “And people have really liked learning about the different species that call that ecosystem home.”
            She also conducts extensive market research on what local species are available at area seafood markets and grocery stores.
            “There’s not much information about seafood after it hits the dock. No one tracks where it goes once it’s landed. So in order to promote different species, we help to track their availability in the seafood supply chain,” she said.
            Last year she sent citizen scientists to dozens of seafood markets around New England to see what species were available, where they were caught, and how much space was devoted to each. She plans to continue this effort in years to come to track how the availability of local species changes through time.
            “Monkfish used to be underutilized, for example, but now we’re seeing it in markets competing with haddock and cod for price, which means consumers are starting to demand it more,” Masury said. “But we also found that the marketplace consisted of only 25 to 30 percent local species, with the rest from outside the region.”
            To help spread the word about what species are available and how to cook them, Masury has co-authored a cookbook called Simmering the Sea, which provides recipes for such locally abundant species as sea robin, scup, razor clams and slipper limpets. And a food truck in the shape of a boat travels to farmer’s markets and other events to offer cooking demonstrations by area chefs and provide information about local fisheries. She has also started an online seafood club on Facebook and Instagram called New England Seafoodies where people can share recipes, discuss where to buy certain species, and hear from fishermen about what they’re catching.
            “If we eat a wider diversity of species in proportion to their natural abundance, then we have minimal impact on the food web,” Masury concluded. “If we don’t take care of the ecosystems that provide our food and the habitats that our seafood relies on, then we won’t have healthy fisheries or healthy ecosystems.”

This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Resilient local coral may help tropical relatives

            The ongoing decline of tropical coral reefs around the world is causing a domino effect that could impact the one-quarter of all marine life that depends on this ecosystem. Reefs are becoming bleached and dying as warming waters force corals to expel the algae that live in their tissues and produce sugars to provide food for the coral.
            A Rhode Island scientist is co-leading a collaborative effort to determine if New England’s only hard coral species – a variety that can survive bleaching – could provide a solution to the coral bleaching problem in the tropics.
            The northern star coral is found in the waters all around the Rhode Island coastline. Its range extends from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico.
            “Some corals in Florida can have hundreds to thousands of individuals in one colony, and they can be 10 to 20 feet high. Here in Rhode Island, most of our coral colonies are about
Northern Star Coral (Roger Williams University)
the size of a silver dollar. They don’t get big, mainly because they don’t grow during the winter,” said Koty Sharp, Roger Williams University associate professor of biology, marine biology and environmental science. “They’re also not super charismatic; they’re not as visually impressive. But under a microscope we see beautiful structures, tentacles, mouths, different colors. So to me they’re beautiful because I can see their inner beauty.”
            Sharp believes that the northern star coral’s adaptability to life in both temperate and tropical waters may provide insight into how corals handle the stress of changing environmental conditions, which could ultimately help tropical corals be resilient to the climate crisis.
            “Because the northern star coral lives in this large latitudinal range, individuals of the same species experience really different temperature changes and really different environmental shifts throughout the year,” she said. “They’re exposed to different thermal regimes – drastic shifts up here and stable temperature conditions down south. That gives us the flexibility to learn more about how an individual’s history or experience of temperatures and water quality conditions may influence the physiology of the organism and how that influences its resilience.”
            Sharp and colleagues from throughout the species’ range are conducting a wide variety of experiments to learn about the symbiotic relationship between algae and the northern star coral, as well as investigations of its thermal resilience, tolerance for heavy metals and how it responds to other threats. Sharp’s focus is on the bacteria that live in and on the coral.
            “The peculiar thing about this species is that because it goes through winters where water temperatures drop to 2 degrees C, they go through a period of dormancy in winter when they retract into their skeleton and shut up for the winter,” she said. “We don’t know much about what happens during that period of inactivity, but from our bacterial data, it looks like there is very little regulation of the surface microbiome of the coral in winter, and then in spring there is a reorganization of the microbiome.
            “We’re focused on finding the processes that happen so they can have this spring awakening,” Sharp added. “Every New Englander can relate to this; what do we do to regroup and reboot? That’s the key to coral’s resilience to such extreme temperatures and conditions that are unfavorable to most coral species.”
            Sharp and a team of Roger Williams undergraduates are conducting several laboratory experiments designed to identify the factors that influence coral health and its relationship with its algal partners. They are also using DNA sequencing to identify the types of bacteria that live in the corals, culturing those bacteria, and determining what role each plays.
            “We’re finding there are bacteria in and on the coral that we think are very important for defense against marine diseases,” said Sharp. “Some are actively inhibiting the growth of potential coral pathogens.”
            How the results of Sharp’s research can be transferred to helping tropical corals become resilient to warming temperatures is uncertain.
            “We’re hoping to learn more about how corals recover from disturbance, whether a thermal disturbance like a warming event or a winter event up here in New England,” Sharp said. “My lab is interested in what that recovery looks like from a microbial perspective. But it’s not necessarily the goal to apply microbes from New England to tropical reefs. What’s more broadly useful is identifying the mechanisms they use for recovery.
            “If bacteria provide the ability to resist or recover from stress, then what’s the biochemistry of that success? It may be as simple as the production of certain chemicals that kill other pathogens. It may be that there are certain compounds the bacteria make in the springtime that support the growth of the coral host. We just don’t know a lot about the functional significance of associated bacteria, but we’re excited to learn more about the partnership and how it can be translated to corals in the tropics,” she said.
            Sharp is pleased with each of the small successes she and her students are achieving, like their recent ability to spawn corals in the lab and create the conditions the larval corals need to settle on a rock and start to grow. This will enable her to grow multiple generations of larval corals that her colleagues around the country can use in their own studies.
            “It’s a New England coral that we can learn a lot from about coastal ecosystems in New England, but we also want to translate our findings to the tropics in new and powerful ways,” Sharp said. “We need all the information we can get.”

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on October 11, 2019.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Improved water quality in upper Narragansett Bay attracts more fish

            Just off Conimicut Point in Warwick, Heather Kinney navigated The Nature Conservancy’s 21-foot workboat to a buoy marking the location of an unbaited fish trap she had set in 14 feet of water four days previously. About the size of a lobster pot, the trap was deployed as part of a research project to document the abundance, diversity and size of the fish that spend at least part of the year in upper Narragansett Bay.
            When Kinney, the Conservancy’s coastal restoration science technician, and colleague
Tim Mooney and Heather Kinney set a fish trap. (Todd McLeish)
Tim Mooney pulled in the trap, it contained three black sea bass, two feisty blue crabs and an oyster toadfish, an ugly golden creature with brown stripes and spots that can survive in poor water quality. True to its name, the toadfish even croaks.
            “The sea bass have dorsal spines and the toadfish will bite, so there’s plenty to be careful of when you’re handling them,” Kinney warned as she and Mooney removed the fish and measured them before tossing them back into the water.
            As Kinney zigzagged back and forth across the upper bay to the 12 trap sites between Rocky Point in Warwick and Watchemocket Cove in East Providence, she and Mooney repeated the process of pulling in traps and setting new ones. The results were usually similar to their first haul, though at several sites they also used eel traps that targeted smaller fish and often captured dozens of juvenile black sea bass and scup. One trap contained more than 20 spider crabs.
            “When the Narragansett Bay Commission reduced the nitrogen output of its wastewater plants by 50 percent, there was no record of how that affected the fish population,” said Kinney. “There was anecdotal evidence that more fish were coming into the area, but no one was quantifying it. So that’s what we’re doing. We want to see what the juvenile fish population is up here. As pollution goes down, we wanted to have a sense for how the populations have changed.”
            With funding from the federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program and assistance from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the fish survey began in 2015 using fine seine nets at 12 locations from Conimicut Point to the Pawtucket boat ramp on the Seekonk River. Two years later the fish trap survey was added. Both surveys are conducted monthly from May to October.
            “I don’t think anyone was expecting to find many fish in the Seekonk River, so everyone is surprised at the number of fish we get there,” Kinney said. “The diversity of species is surprising.”
Because the net mesh is smaller, the seine nets catch the most fish – sometimes thousands of menhaden and silversides, plus summer and winter flounder, pipefish, pufferfish, needlefish, killifish, mummichogs, striped bass, hogchockers and more. Where rivers flow into the bay, they often catch freshwater species like largemouth bass, perch, mullet, bluegill and sunfish.
The abundance of black sea bass in all of the traps is notable, according to Kinney, because it may be a signal of the changing climate. Black sea bass, which prefer warmer waters, were seldom caught in significant numbers in Narragansett Bay until relatively recently. But, she said, most of the fish are in the upper bay because water quality has improved.
“We’ve reduced nutrients and improved water quality, but now we’re seeing how much of the story now is about habitat loss,” added Mooney. “Water quality is better but shoreline habitat is lacking in a lot of places. Fish are returning but the habitat they’re finding isn’t great.”
To learn more about habitat loss, the Conservancy is conducting a video survey of the bottom of Narragansett Bay using a camera attached to a sled that is towed behind a boat. Funded by Rhode Island Sea Grant, the project will identify seafloor habitat in the region – is it muddy, rocky, sandy or cobble – as well as the marine invertebrates that live there and the general health of the habitat. The results of the video survey will help to identify priority areas for habitat restoration.
The first fish habitat restoration project will take place in the waters off Sabin Point in East Providence beginning in late October, when large concrete “reef balls” will be placed just offshore.
“The purpose of the reef balls is to test whether the structures are an effective strategy for increasing juvenile fish survival rates and increasing overall productivity,” Mooney said. “By attracting adult fish, it should also enhance recreational fishing opportunities.”
The fish trap surveys will continue for another 3 to 5 years, while the seine surveys have no scheduled end date.
“These surveys are critically important to understanding the changes taking place in our fish communities,” Kinney said.

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on October 3, 2019.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Rescue Mission

            When Kathy Castro’s beloved horse Santana died in 2004, she was heartbroken. The animal had a mind of its own, which made him challenging to train and ride, but he also taught Castro so much about herself.
            “That horse was just amazing,” she recalled. “He taught me about trustworthiness and how to be patient. He was hyperactive, too – never connecting his body and mind together – but he was the most wonderful friend and companion.”
            To honor Santana, Castro established the Santana Center at her home in North Kingstown, a non-profit organization that rescues horses destined for slaughter and works to
Kathy Castro, right, at the Santana Center (Mike Derr)
place horses in loving homes. Last year she rescued and found homes for 11 horses, which helped her win a $10,000 grant from the ASPCA through its Help a Horse contest. Through the first three months of 2019, she is already well ahead of her winning pace.
            The problem, according to Castro, is that there are just too many horses in the United States. “We don’t need to breed a million thoroughbreds,” she said. “We have too many racehorses, too many quarter horses, too many wild horses. It also becomes too expensive for many owners to keep their horses. And when a horse gets old or sick, they don’t know what to do with it.”
            As a result, about 100,000 horses are sent to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered each year. Congress is now considering a bill to ban the shipping of horses to slaughter, a practice many consider barbaric, but if the bill passes, it will result in an enormous number of homeless horses.
            “Horse rescues like the Santana Center are a Band-aid,” said Castro, who works as a fisheries scientist at the University of Rhode Island. “I’ve found homes for 40 horses, but 75,000 died. We’re only addressing the side problem. The bigger issue is who’s giving up horses and how do they end up in the slaughter pen. Is there a way to address that so people can keep their horses?”
            When she started the Santana Center, Castro worked with the Rhode Island SPCA and the state to conduct a survey to determine how many horses resided in the Ocean State. The result – between 6,000 and 7,000 – was far more than anyone had guessed. Yet a national study found that there are plenty of homes available for horses. It just takes some effort to find them.
            So Castro took that as a sign. She started visiting the websites for horse auctions – the horses that aren’t sold are sent to slaughter – and began identifying animals she thought she could find homes for.
            “We see these horses online, and we fall in love with them,” she said. “It’s the look in their eyes. We fix them and then we adopt them out.”
            Like Luna, a beautiful paint that Castro’s daughter took a liking to. They started raising money to purchase her from the auction house, when a woman from Michigan expressed interest in her.
            “We didn’t need to keep Luna, so we worked together to save her,” she said.
            As she saves more and more horses from slaughter, Castro is building a nationwide following for the Santana Center.
“People take notice that we’re pulling horses from the auctions, and they start fundraising for us and talking about us – people I’ve never met. It’s a big network,” she said. “Just about every horse we’ve adopted out in the last year has found a home through word of mouth.”
Castro has found homes for her recently rescued horses in California, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., as well as in Foster and Middletown, R.I., and elsewhere. And she still has 12 horses in residence at the Santana Center awaiting homes, including Kyah, a 17-year-old Belgian quarter horse; Maverick a 16-year old quarter horse; Beau a yearling quarter horse; and Ivy, a 12 year old thoroughbred, not to mention two mini-mules, Sam and Frodo.
“It’s hard to stop from taking more. I get calls from horse owners all the time who say they have old horses they’re trying to get rid of, but they’re not horses I can place somewhere,” she said. “We’re not a sanctuary, so we need to take horses that are place-able, horses I can move once I fix their problems. Two came just last week, and now we’re in an economic hole that we have to crawl out of because they need vet care.”
Luckily, Castro has many great volunteers – high school girls, families, older women, URI students, and others who have any number of reasons for committing themselves to the cause. And she enjoys financial support from numerous donors and grants. The latest support comes from After the Finish Line, a California-based group that helps thoroughbreds find new careers after their racing days are over.
“What we really need to do is solve the problem of horse overpopulation,” she concluded. “I love rescuing horses, but I don’t need 12. I know what to do with the horses; I can fix them. And If I can’t, I can find the people that can. But we need to fix the unwanted horse problem.
“For me to go out of business because we don’t need to rescue any more, I would love that,” she said. “And then I would just ride.” 

This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of South County Life magazine.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Building resilient communities

            When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Alex Wilson was the publisher of Environmental Building News, a trade publication he had founded 15 years earlier in an effort to encourage the construction industry to pursue more sustainable building methods. The magazine had a significant influence in the development of building design and construction practices that were more environmentally responsible and resource efficient.
            But the hurricane got Wilson thinking in a somewhat new direction, one that focused on construction principles that emphasized resiliency when living conditions were not optimal.
            “I noticed that older homes in the Gulf that weren’t flooded but still lost power for 
Storm damage in Florida following Hurricane Michael (Shutterstock)
weeks or months were more livable than newer homes in the same circumstances,” Wilson said. “Older homes, constructed before air conditioning came along, were built with passive features to keep them comfortable, with wrap-around porches that shaded windows from the direct sun, designs that channeled summer breezes through the building.”
            He knew that Katrina was not going to be the last storm that resulted in lengthy power outages, so he thought about how to design buildings that would ensure the safety of their occupants. He called it passive survivability.
            “The idea is that buildings should be designed to maintain habitable conditions passively when the power goes out,” said Wilson. “I initially got excited about the concept because I saw it as a motivation to get people to build greener buildings. I argued that even people who didn’t care about the environment still probably wanted to keep their families safe.”
            Over time, he shifted his terminology from passive survivability to “resilient design” so people didn’t think he was advocating for the installation of survivalist bunkers. And then he reduced his involvement in Building Green Inc., the company he had founded to encourage green building practices, and launched the Resilient Design Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the idea of passive survivability so buildings and communities are better prepared to weather the next storm.
            “The climate is changing, and it’s changing in a way that’s increasing vulnerabilities to a lot of different threats – more intense storms, more frequent tornadoes, increasing drought conditions, flooding, sea level rise, wildfires,” he said. “There are a lot of these risks that we’re facing, and it’s becoming ever-more-clear that we need to make our buildings and communities more resilient to them.”
            To Wilson, the idea of resiliency is about creating buildings that are better able to bounce back from disturbances – whatever those disturbances may be. It may mean raising mechanical equipment out of basements so they don’t get flooded, building with fireproof materials, designing structures to resist wind damage, or improving energy performance.
            “The first task is understanding the vulnerabilities,” he said. “The vulnerabilities in Ithaca will be a lot different than in Tuscaloosa, and it’s important to understand what those vulnerabilities are and what can be done to mitigate them for particular locations.”
            Wilson used these ideas in contributing to the design of a state park lodge in Alabama to be resilient to hurricanes, and he helped develop resilient building guidelines for the cities of Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. He also led an effort to create credits for resilient design in the LEED rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council.
            At the same time, he is also looking toward the next chapter in his life. As he begins to think about transitioning to retirement, he is searching for the right individuals to take over the Resilient Design Institute so he can spend more time on his farm in southern Vermont.
“I want to build a writers cabin by the pond we have,” Wilson said. “I want to finish up revisions to the paddling guides I’ve written for the Appalachian Mountain Club. And I’m looking forward to my first grandchild.”
           
This article first appeared on the Ithaca College website on September 25, 2019.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Time for hawk migration

            It’s bird migration season, a time when billions of birds undertake the most dangerous time of their lives – the long journey south to avoid the unpleasant winter weather in the north. Many of them travel several thousand miles to Central America, South America or the Caribbean, often completing the exhausting journey in just a few days.
            As exciting as the migration season is for nature lovers, it isn’t something that’s easy to observe. Almost all of the songbirds migrate high in the sky in the middle of the night, so all we can do is note the appearance or disappearance of species on the ground as they come and go. We can’t actually watch them migrating.
            But that’s not true of hawks, eagles and falcons. They migrate during the daylight hours
A kettle of hawks in migration (bvg23 via Flicker CC)
and are large enough to be seen relatively well – at least through binoculars – as they traverse our area. And now is the time to watch for them.
            Most raptors soar southward on thermals of rising warm air that keep them aloft with little need to flap their wings. And on days when the weather patterns are just right – winds from the north after the passage of a cold front – hawks from throughout the region could all be on the move at the same time.
            The first time I ever went in search of migrating hawks was one of those ideal days. The weather was perfect at Mt. Tom in central Massachusetts, and raptors of a dozen varieties – bald eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, peregrine falcons, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, and more – put on a parade like no other. We must have seen several thousand hawks that day, and it was enough to convince me to make a point to spend time every fall watching for hawks.
            The most spectacular of the birds to observe were the broad-winged hawks, a species that migrates in huge numbers through the Northeast in aggregations called kettles, which can sometimes contain as many as a thousand birds. And that day we saw numerous kettles pass over us one right after another.
            Imagine a couple hundred broad-winged hawks high in the sky circling ever higher on rising currents of warm air, never flapping their wings even once. And when they get so high that the warm air begins to cool, they shoot off one by one in a southerly direction until they find another thermal that carries them upward again. Repeat the process a few dozen times in a day, and the birds will have traveled several hundred miles toward their winter residences.
            The best places to watch migrating hawks are along mountain ridges, but since Rhode Island has no mountains, the best bet is to try an open hillside in the western part of the state. Or, since most hawks don’t like to migrate over open water where there are no thermals, they follow the coastline, so they can sometimes be seen in good numbers almost anywhere along the south coast of the state. Napatree Point in Westerly can be an especially good spot when the weather is right.
Although I’ve never had as good a day of hawk watching as that first time, I always have my eyes to the sky at this time of year. If you catch it just right, it’s an impressive spectacle to enjoy.

This article first appeared in The Independent on Sept. 20, 2019.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Invasive snake worms spreading in Rhode Island

                Just hearing the name of one of Rhode Island’s newest invasive species is enough to make local residents queasy – snake worms.
                Even though they look similar to the region’s more common earthworms and they’re not much larger, their behavior easily identifies them. Not only do they slither through the grass like snakes, they also jump away if you try to pick them up. In their native Korea and Japan, they are called Asian jumping worms.
                “That jumping is how they get away from predators,” said worm expert Josef Gorres, an
Snake worm in Vermont garden (Josef Gorres)
associate professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont who formerly taught at the University of Rhode Island. “It scares them.”
                It scares people, too.
                “They can be a bit of a pest when you have a Fourth of July party and you have a new patio and they crawl around like snakes,” said Gorres, who has found the worms in his home garden in Vermont. “They make people squeamish.”
                The new invader has probably been in the United States for more than 50 years. The story told about their arrival involves a shipment of cherry trees from Japan that was sent to Washington, D.C., and the worms were in the soil around the tree roots. Whether that’s true or not, Gorres isn’t sure, but he believes the worms have probably been in Rhode Island for a decade or more. Residents are just now beginning to notice them.
                A survey of URI Master Gardeners conducted by Gorres in 2015 found snake worms in Slater Park in Pawtucket and in gardens and mulch piles in Barrington, Jamestown, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Richmond. Today, the worms are common at URI’s East Farm, where the Master Gardeners maintain several gardens and greenhouses, and they have been reported at other scattered locations around the state as well.
                Nan Quinlan, who coordinates the Master Gardeners’ vegetable demonstration garden at East Farm in Kingston, suggests that the worms may have arrived there in deliveries of mulch, soil or potted plants or even on the tires or fenders of cars or trucks.
                “There are so many possibilities here that I strongly hesitate to blame any one source,” she said. “What makes the most sense is that the Asian worms were already present in the soil at East Farm for a long time and found their way to areas like mulch piles and the compost pile we built and maintain inside the garden.”
                Quinlan’s speculation that they may have come from deliveries of soil or potted plants aligns with Gorres’ understanding that they are commonly transported in plant material via the horticulture and nursery industry.
                “Folks in horticulture should worry because the worms can negatively affect their stock of plants,” Gorres said. “The castings the worms produce are very granular, very loose, so if anything tries to grow in the castings, the roots will have a hard time getting a foothold. Plants need something more stable to hold onto. It makes the plant wilt and look like they’re experiencing drought symptoms.”
                Snake worms can be a problem in forests as well. They consume the top layer of the soil and dead leaves – called the duff layer – where the seeds of plants germinate.
                “Once that layer is gone, the plants don’t have a place to put their seeds where they will survive until the following year,” said Gorres. “You end up with a forest with fewer understory plants, and all that’s left are saplings of trees that deer will feed on. The end result is a lack of regeneration of the forest.”
                This concern is also true of the other earthworms found in the Northeast, all of which are non-native and could be impacting forests in a similar way. Any native earthworms in the region were crushed by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Most of the worm species found in New England today arrived following European colonization of the area.
                “We’re now experiencing the second wave of earthworm invasions,” Gorres said.
                “One of the things I’m especially worried about is that the loose castings will make the soil highly erodible,” he added. “Castings from European worms stick together. The soil on a slope where snake worms are found might easily erode away.”
                To reduce the likelihood of the spread of snake worms, Gorres suggests that consumers ask vendors selling plants, mulch or soil whether the worms have been found in their products.      
“They’ll probably say they haven’t been, but if they’re truthful they may say it’s the new normal, which it may be,” he said.
                Gorres is studying several varieties of insect-killing fungi that may control the worms. He also said that some people swear by a golf course fertilizer that is formulated to control earthworms called Early Bird by Ocean Organics, though he notes that there is no certified pesticide to control earthworms.
                David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, cautions that those investigating whether they have snake worms in their gardens should not confuse them with worm snakes, which are native to New England and may be Rhode Island’s rarest snake. Worm snakes grow only about 10 inches long and may look like a large scaly worm. “Worm snakes = good, snake worms = bad,” he wrote in an email message.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on Sept. 23, 2019.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Swimming with whale sharks is part of URI shark class

            University of Rhode Island students interested in learning about sharks enjoyed the experience of a lifetime last month by swimming with blue sharks in Rhode Island waters and with hundreds of whale sharks – the largest sharks in the world – off the coast of Mexico. They all returned home motivated to pursue careers in marine science and excited to get back in the water with these charismatic animals.
                The harmless, plankton-eating whale sharks provided the most memorable experiences for the students.
                “I went into the class with the expectation that we’d see only a few, but before we even got in the water on the first day we saw the dorsal fins of hundreds of them swimming around our boat,”
Student Alexa Farraj snorkels above a whale shark. (Choy Aming)
said Bethany Deloof, a junior marine biology major from Strongsville, Ohio. “Once we jumped in the water, it was an incredible experience snorkeling with huge sharks swimming all around me. There were so many that one even bumped into me.”
          “We were surrounded by them from all sides and it was an extremely beautiful experience, but also a humbling experience,” added senior Alexandra Farraj, a Park Ridge, New Jersey, native studying marine biology. “They were just so large and yet so gentle, not even caring that we were there.”
                Brad Wetherbee, the URI professor who taught the class, calls whale sharks “the gentle giants of the ocean.” Although they can grow up to 60 feet long, most of those swimming around the students were about 30 feet in length.
                Twelve students were enrolled in the two-week class designed to introduce them to shark ecology and shark research methods. The first week was spent at URI, where the students attended daily lectures followed by boat trips into Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound to fish for dogfish – a small common shark – and snorkel with blue sharks. The second week was spent at Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, Mexico, where scientists discussed their shark research and the students swam with whale sharks and snorkeled at coral reefs. At night they observed sea turtles nesting on area beaches. Each student was also required to give a presentation about whale shark research.
                “They could sit in a classroom for a hundred days and not learn as much as they did in this class,” said Wetherbee. “The ocean was our classroom, and it was a great learning experience for them.”
                The students all agreed.
                “I especially liked being in the field and meeting scientists who do this work,” said senior Maranda Ealahan from East Lyme, Connecticut, a marine biology major. “We met multiple researchers from different countries who do research on different species of sharks and rays. Being side by side with them while they did their job was very cool.”
                “What I enjoyed most was being able to finally see animals in person that I have only ever read about,” added Laura Berard, a senior marine biology major from Cumberland. “I also found it to be a different experience seeing certain animals in their natural habitats versus seeing them in an aquarium environment.”
                Not only did the students have great adventures and learn about sharks, they also learned a great deal about themselves.
                “I learned that sometimes you just need to go out of your comfort zone,” said Ealahan. “Before this summer, I was scared of being in the water with sharks. Then, on our last day in Rhode Island, we had the amazing opportunity to swim with blue sharks. I was pretty scared at first, but I decided to just jump in with a 9-foot long blue shark. It made me appreciate large sharks even more.”
                Perhaps most important, the class affirmed the students’ interest in marine science and inspired them to work even harder to achieve their career goals.
                “I greatly enjoy the research environment, and taking this course confirmed that I love being involved in field research,” said Berard.
                “This class showed me how different people can navigate this field and have amazing careers doing what they love,” Farraj said. “I’ve always wanted to study coral reefs, sharks or marine mammals, and this class definitely gave me a new appreciation for marine biology and for sharks and coral reefs.”
                “After taking this class, I have no doubt that I want to be in the field as a marine biologist,” said Deloof. “Sitting on a boat looking out at the open ocean, I realized that was how I want to spend every day of my future career.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Sharks, rays, lobsters affected by underwater electric cables

            Little is known about how marine life will respond to the electromagnetic fields emanating from the spiderweb of cables carrying electricity from the Block Island Wind Farm and the many other offshore wind power installations planned for the East Coast. But a new series of studies by a team of oceanographers at the University of Rhode Island suggests that some organisms will definitely be affected.
            “The concern is that DC currents generate permanent electromagnetic fields, and we don’t really know how organisms will relate to them,” said John King, a professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “We know that some organisms, like sharks and skates, are sensitive to these things. So the question becomes, if you build offshore power facilities, will
migratory organisms cross the cables or not. Will it affect eels that migrate to the Sargasso Sea or lobsters that have an onshore-offshore annual migration?”
            To find out, King and postdoctoral research fellow Zoe Hutchison conducted a series of field experiments around the Cross Sound Cable that carries electricity from New Haven to Long Island. They attached acoustic tags to skates and lobsters and placed them in an enclosure around the cable. An array of hydrophones in the enclosure detected the animals’ movements. Additional animals were placed in a second enclosure farther from the cable to compare the results.
            “We definitely saw effects in behavior in both lobsters and skates, though it was more dramatic in the skates,” said King, who serves on the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s Habitat Advisory Board for offshore wind development. “The skates liked to spend time in the areas that had the highest EMFs. Their swimming behavior was definitely altered as they approached the cable. We didn’t see any evidence that a single cable is a migratory barrier, but they could definitely detect it and reacted to it.”
            “The skates moved slower around the cable but also moved more often and covered a longer distance,” added Hutchison. “They did a lot more turning, like an exploratory behavior, as if they were looking for food.”
            Sharks and skates have a sensory ability to detect the electromagnetic fields generated by the circulatory system of their prey, according to King, and they may also use it to find mates.
            “They might think the cable indicates a food source, so they spent time around the cable thinking they’re going to get fed,” he said.
            The experiment found that lobsters moved less freely around the cable, but the electromagnetic fields did not prevent them from crossing it.
            “The lobster response was much more subtle than the skates,” Hutchison said. “They had an increased exploratory behavior, too, but it wasn’t as pronounced as the skates. We know that spiny lobsters in the Caribbean use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves and to figure out where to go, so we postulate that American lobsters may have a similar ability to detect magnetic fields.”
            King and Hutchison will conduct a similar study with migratory eels this fall to assess how they are affected by the cables. (They attempted it last year, but little electricity was traveling through the cable at the time.) Rather than placing the eels in an enclosure around the cable like they did with the skates and lobsters, they will release tagged eels to see how they behave as they cross the cable on their way to the Sargasso Sea, where they spawn.
            “Previous studies have shown that eels slow down and investigate every cable they cross. One study found that when eels had to cross multiple cables, they slowed down every time,” said King. “So we wonder if they have a whole bunch of cables to cross, does it slow them down enough that they never get to the Sargasso Sea.”
            The researchers pointed out that just because the behavior of the animals they tested was affected by the cables, it does not necessarily mean they were negatively impacted by them. They are, however, worried about the cumulative impacts of the electromagnetic fields from the numerous cables that will likely be installed for many offshore wind turbines in the future.
            “There’s going to be hundreds or thousands of turbines off the East Coast, so it would be nice to understand these effects and how it translates into impacts before they get built,” King said. “Right now the government is pushing full speed ahead to get these things built, and I don’t think they really care that much about their impacts. The environmental reviews are being done really fast.”
            King is also worried that the results of his studies are being downplayed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which funded the research, due to political pressure.
            “They hired a consulting company to produce a public document about our studies, and they minimized EMF as a concern and misinterpreted our study,” he said. “We didn’t say that we saw something that needed to be addressed immediately, but we also didn’t say that what we saw is OK and not to worry about it.”
            King believes more studies need to be done before any conclusions can be drawn about the effect of electromagnetic fields from power cables on marine life.
            “From a marine spatial planning context, it probably makes sense to have cable corridors rather than randomly distribute the cables all over, and that would probably have different results than studies of just a single cable. So we still have some questions to answer.”

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on Sept. 11, 2019.