Monday, December 23, 2019

Aerial survey of marine monument finds rare species

            A team of scientists from New England Aquarium has been conducting periodic aerial surveys of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, located about 130 miles off Nantucket, and has documented an impressive list of marine mammals and fish that illustrates why conservation organizations have been advocating for its protection for many years.
            A late October survey, for instance, documented three species of rare beaked whales, three kinds of baleen whales, four species of dolphins, several ocean sunfish -- the largest bony fish in the world -- and two very unusual Chilean devil rays.
            “We’re out there documenting what’s out there to show that the area is important and
Chilean devil ray (NEAQ Ester Quintana)
should continue to be protected,” said Ester Quintana, the chief scientist of the aerial survey team. “Every survey is different, and you never know what you’re going to see, so it’s always exciting.”
            The beaked whales were particularly notable, since they are rare and difficult to observe. Beaked whales are deep diving species that can remain under water for more than an hour and only surface briefly to breathe.
            “If you’re not at the location where they come to the surface, then you’re not going to see them,” Quintana said. “There are probably more of them out there that we were just not seeing.”
            The survey team observed two Cuvier’s beaked whales, three Sowersby’s beaked whales and four True’s beaked whales, the latter of which had not previously been documented in the 4,900-square-mile monument during an aerial survey, though a ship-based group of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had seen several there last year.
            Also observed were large numbers of Risso’s dolphins, plus groups of bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, and striped dolphins, along with nine fin whales, two sperm whales and one humpback.
            “We didn’t see many individual whales, but that’s just the difference between an October survey and the surveys we’ve done in the summer,” said Quintana.
            Of special note were the two Chilean devil rays observed, the first time Quintana had ever seen the species.
            “Last year we saw a big manta ray, which was a surprising sighting because we were unaware that they could be sighted this far north,” she said. “So when we saw the Chilean devil ray at the site, it was another unexpected ray. They’re not that uncommon, but in the seven surveys we’ve conducted, it was the first we saw at the monument.”
            Chilean devil rays can swim about a mile deep, and since they do not have to come to the surface to breathe, it is unusual to see them.
            The survey team flies transect lines back and forth over the three underwater canyons in the monument – Oceanographer Canyon, Gilbert Canyon and Lydonia Canyon – with most of the wildlife observed at Gilbert and Lydonia canyons. As soon as they observe wildlife to document, they depart from their transect and circle the animal to identify and photograph it. The plane is equipped with a belly camera that takes photographs every five seconds during the survey in case the two observers miss anything.
Quintana said that the survey team was unable to survey the waters around the monument’s underwater mountains or seamounts, because those sites are farther away and their small plane cannot carry enough fuel to reach them.
The wide variety of marine life observed during the survey are attracted to the monument because of its diversity of habitats.
At a lecture last February describing the monument, Peter Auster, senior research scientist at Mystic Aquarium, said: “Those canyons and seamounts create varied ecotones in the deep ocean with wide depth ranges, a range of sediment types, steep gradients, complex topography, and currents that produce upwelling, which creates unique feeding opportunities for animals feeding in the water column.”
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was designated by President Barack Obama in September 2016. It is the only marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. Early in President Donald Trump’s administration, he threatened to revoke the site’s designation, despite uncertainties as to whether he could legally do so. Those threats triggered efforts by conservation groups to document the value of the site to wildlife.
The next aerial survey by the New England Aquarium team will take place as soon as the weather cooperates. Conditions must be calm to allow for a safe flight and smooth seas so viewing conditions are optimal for observing marine life.
“We’ve never done a survey in the winter because it’s hard to plan one because of the weather,” Quintana said. “No one has ever done a survey there in the winter, so we don’t know what to expect once we get there.”

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

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Arctic whale tusk wielded in terrorism fight

When the news broke on Thanksgiving weekend that a terrorist wearing an explosives vest and stabbing people on the London Bridge was subdued by a Polish chef wielding a narwhal tusk, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it. And then I started getting social media alerts from friends drawing my attention to the story.
That’s because I’ve been enamored of narwhals since childhood, and because I wrote the first book for adult readers about narwhals a few years ago. Now, everyone I know who
Close up of two narwhal tusks (Todd McLeish)
sees something in the news about narwhals lets me know about it.
            The growing interest in narwhals – a 15-foot long Arctic whale with an 8-foot spiral tusk – is due in part to the many children’s books featuring the animal, as well as a brief appearance in the holiday movie Elf, and numerous other obscure cultural references. Almost every shop with animal-themed gifts seems to have something with a narwhal on it these days.
            I’m glad they do. Most people have never heard of the narwhal, and many of those that have heard of it think the animal is a mythological creature, probably because its twisted tusk looks like a unicorn horn. Since we know that unicorns aren’t real, many people assume narwhals aren’t either.
            But they are, and they’re amazing! Their tusk is their left tooth. They only have two teeth. In males, their left tooth emerges through their upper lip and grows straight forward from their face, while their right tooth remains impacted in their jaw and doesn’t grow at all. Neither tooth is useful for chewing.
            The first question I usually get about narwhals is about the purpose of the tusk. Why would an animal grow a tooth half the length of its body, especially one that is so heavy that it must be a challenge to swim with? Despite early speculation, it is not used as a tool for digging for food in the seafloor or as a weapon for defense or as a spear for procuring prey. Like the lion’s mane and the peacock’s tail, it is simply a male adornment used to attract a mate and maintain social order. And in this case, size matters.
            But that’s not all. Last year some biologists using a drone to observe narwhals noted that one used its tusk to slap and stun a fish before eating it. No one knows if that’s a common behavior, but at least one inventive narwhal is using its tusk in that way.
And a dentist in Connecticut believes the tusk is a sensory organ, based on his observation of thousands of tiny microtubules that go through the tooth, allowing air and water to mingle with the nerve endings that run down the center of the tusk. Most biologists dispute that speculation, since a sensory organ would likely be a trait shared with females, and females don’t have tusks. Nonetheless, the dentist is very convincing.
Narwhals have plenty of other amazing features, too, including a collapsible ribcage allowing them to dive more than a mile deep, echolocation abilities to find food in the darkness below the ice, and a thick layer of blubber so they can live year-round high above the Arctic Circle.
Although they are highly vulnerable to the rapid changes taking place in the Arctic due to the climate crisis, they are weathering the storm so far. And they can now proudly say that their tusk has proven useful in fighting terrorism. One time, anyway.   

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on December 21, 2019.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Raptors making a comeback in Rhode Island

Even before reaching the wide-open marsh that overlooks the Palmer River in Barrington, Charles Clarkson hears the high-pitched squeaky call of an adult bald eagle, a surprisingly weak sound for such a majestic bird. But when Clarkson emerges from the forest and glances around, he sees the bird disappear around a bend. His disappointment at missing out on a closeup look at the bird doesn’t last long though.
He knows the bird will be back soon to feed its lone chick, which he finds perched on the edge of a massive stick nest about three-quarters of the way up a large pine tree. The young bird, mostly brown but with a few scattered white feathers on its chest and wings, will not grow the iconic white head and tail of its parents for five years. But it still looks to be a powerful creature, nearly full-grown despite being just three months old and unable to fly.
            According to Clarkson, an ornithologist at the University of Rhode Island who is coordinating a five-year census of breeding birds in the state, the nest site is in an ideal location for the eagles. It provides the adult birds with a clear view of their feeding grounds in the river while also hiding the young birds from nest predators like great horned owls.
            Clarkson’s objective for the day is to document eagle nest locations, collect vegetation data to create habitat maps of the sites, and get a head count of nestlings. So he sets up a
Bald eagle (Peter Green)
spotting scope to get a clear look into the nest, takes pictures and makes notes about the habitat in the vicinity, and uses a GPS device to confirm the precise nest location. As he does so, he points out several osprey – fish-eating hawks that are seemingly abundant along Rhode Island’s coastline – soaring in the distance and landing on one of three visible nesting poles. Then the adult eagle swoops back into view, circles its nest briefly, and disappears again.
            “It seems to be put off by our presence,” Clarkson says to Catherine Boisseau, a member of the board of the Barrington Land Trust, which owns the property where the eagle nest is located. “It was bee-lining to the nest, but then saw us and veered off. My motto is the less impact we have the better, so we should head out.”
            Half an hour later, Clarkson pulls his Jeep onto the shoulder of a road in East Providence to collect similar data about an eagle nest in another pine tree, this one on a golf course. On first glance, the nest looks empty, and part of the branch that supports the nest appears to have recently broken off and lay at the base of the tree. It’s a worrisome sign, since eagle nests can be five or six feet across and weigh hundreds of pounds, and the young eaglet would not survive outside of its nest at such a young age. No adult eagles are in sight, but Clarkson walks down the road to view the nest from a different angle, where he can barely see that the young bird remains alert in the nest.
             Rhode Island was home to six pairs of nesting bald eagles in the spring and summer of 2019. Several others exhibited breeding behavior but are not known to have laid eggs, and dozens more spent at least part of the winter in the state. As many as 10 eagles have been observed together on the Seekonk River in Providence in winter, and additional birds can be found almost anywhere open water remains in January and February.
            The eagles, along with peregrine falcons and osprey, have made a dramatic comeback in the state after facing near extinction due to the effects of DDT, an insecticide used from the 1940s to the 1970s that caused the birds’ egg shells to become so thin that they broke when the birds tried to incubate them. It led to almost complete reproductive failure in much of the country for all three species.
            “DDT is an organochlorine, a type of chemical with a very high persistence in the environment,” explains Clarkson. “When it gets on insects and those insects are consumed by higher trophic levels – first fish and then eagles, for instance – it bioaccumulates and gets stored in their fatty tissues. It makes the mobilization of calcium difficult, which translated into a thinning egg shell that made it impossible for large-bodied birds to support their weight on their eggs. Multiple breeding seasons of nesting failure led to dramatic population declines.”
            The pesticide was banned in 1972, and after a long absence, the birds are back in Rhode Island and their populations are growing at a remarkable rate.
            Based on historic records maintained by Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, bald eagles were not known to nest in Rhode Island in the 1900s, even before the use of DDT, but they were regularly observed in winter until the late 1950s. The first record of an eagle nest in the state, on an island in the Scituate Reservoir, was in 2003.
            “Most likely what we’re seeing now is that the populations in states around us are growing at such a rate that immature birds are engaging in exploratory flights looking for new habitat and new territories,” says Clarkson. “They’re finding their way to Rhode Island and deeming it suitable for nesting.”
            The state’s first breeding eagles originated from nests in Massachusetts, where the breeding population had disappeared by 1905 due largely to... 

Continue reading the rest of this article in the December 2019 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

New book examines amphibian conservation in Rhode Island

            A new book about the 18 species of amphibians that live in Rhode Island is shedding light on the conservation needs of frogs, toads and salamanders in the region. Proceeds from the book will help to fund local protection efforts on their behalf.
            Chris Raithel, a retired endangered species biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, has had a lifelong interest in amphibians, but it wasn’t until he had been monitoring the animals for several years that he came up with the idea for the book, Amphibians of Rhode Island.
            “A lot of the species were very poorly documented, like four-toed salamanders, and
nobody had seen them for a long time,” he said. “So when I started looking for them and started to
Bullfrog (Todd McLeish)
accumulate a bunch of survey information, one thing led to another and I ended up writing a manuscript.”
            Raithel, who retired in 2018 and received the Rhode Island Distinguished Naturalist Award from the Rhode Island Natural History Survey last spring, describes his 316-page book as a conservation guide. It includes detailed accounts of each species, sections about the threats they face and their need for conservation, and numerous photos and graphics.
            “Most important is that I put all that information into a conservation context – here’s what we have, where they are, what’s happening to them, and what can be done about it,” he said.
            Although some parts may be somewhat technical, he said the book is “very user-friendly and readable. School kids can pick it up and be jazzed by the photos, it could be used as a college coursebook, and there’s plenty of parts that apply to a wide readership.”
            Many amphibian species in Rhode Island are facing serious threats to their populations, and he highlights these conservation challenges in the book.
            “It’s the same old thing for a lot of wildlife – habitat loss and fragmentation,” he said. “Some amphibians migrate long distances, they’re vulnerable at many life history stages, there are issues of hydrology and habitat alteration and road mortality, then throw on disease and a couple of other things. They can’t fly away from this stuff, they don’t disperse well, and there’s a whole gamut of things that influences them.
            “The bottom line is that when they get a lot of habitat fragmentation, their habitat patches get smaller, and many of them don’t persist in small areas like that,” he added. “Some species are really tolerant of habitat fragmentation; I’m not worried about bullfrogs because they’ll live in cities. But those that need large areas and have to move around between different sites, those are the ones with conservation concerns.”
            While most people interested in wildlife are probably familiar with the region’s most common species, like bullfrogs, green frogs, American toads and red-backed salamanders, the book also features the more obscure species that are seldom seen in the Ocean State.
            Spring salamanders, for instance. According to Raithel, spring salamanders are extremely rare and very difficult to observe. They were discovered in the state only about 30 years ago and are now known from only a handful of sites in northwestern Rhode Island.
            “It had been speculated that they were here, but nobody had seen one until another biologist found one,” Raithel said. “They’re permanently aquatic, and in some cases they live down under the substrate in the groundwater. We caught one of them deep in a well.”
            His favorite of the obscure amphibian species in the state is the eastern spadefoot toad, which hadn’t been reported in Rhode Island for about 40 years until Raithel started searching for them.
            “I knew they had to be out there, and eventually I found them in a few places, and then I branched out and found them in Connecticut where they had never been known to occur. Now they’re a conservation issue, as they should be,” he said. “They’re fun to look for because it’s like storm chasing; you have to go out in thunderstorms to find them.”
            Raithel is now working on a similar book focusing on the 20 species of reptiles in the state, which he expects to be completed in a couple years.
            Funding for Amphibians of Rhode Island was provided by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the State Wildlife Grants Program. It can be purchased by sending a check for $20 to the DEM Great Swamp Field Headquarters, 277 Great Neck Road, West Kingston, R.I. 02892. It can also be purchased in person at the same location, or at the DEM Division of Boating and Licensing, 235 Promenade Street, Providence.

This story first appeared in EcoRI.org on Dec. 12, 2019.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Researchers study corals in hopes of saving them

               University of Rhode Island coral biologist Hollie Putnam is teaming with experts in computer science, nanotoxicology, structural engineering and systems biology to study the intricacies of how corals grow and function in an effort to find new ways to help coral reef systems survive the damage being caused to them by the changing climate and other environmental stressors.
                The research team has been awarded a two-year $1.7 million grant by the National Science Foundation to decipher the reasons why certain environmental conditions damage corals and to find ways to repair them.
                “The complexity of corals makes conserving and restoring reefs very challenging,” said
Putnam, URI assistant professor of biological sciences, who studies coral symbiosis and physiology.
Hollie Putnam
“Corals are made up of many different organisms, including the animal host and the algae, bacteria, viruses and fungi that co-exist with it. They’re more like cities than individual animals, as they provide factories, housing, restaurants, nurseries and more for an entire ecosystem. Everything found on a reef is there because corals build the reef structure.”
                The project will focus on three key coral capabilities: they create calcium carbonate skeletons that provide three-dimensional structures in which diverse sea life can live; they can heal damage and regenerate their tissues; and they live in symbiosis with other organisms. The ultimate aim of the study is to understand these processes well enough to control them in the lab.
                “We’re digging into these three areas to understand coral biology better and looking at all the data to see who the key players are,” Putnam said. “And we’ll be building a model system of coral – a synthetic coral – to test and understand how corals work.”
                According to Putnam, a massive amount of data is now available about corals, fisheries, oceanography, climate, coral bleaching, molecular biology and genomics that will be synthesized by the researchers in new ways to address the challenges facing corals.
                “We’re at a tipping point,” she said. “We have data that will lead us to a better understanding of the coral ecosystem, but we need to harness these data in a different way. And we’re at a time of urgency because of the state that our corals are in.”
                The scientists will analyze the available data to identify the critical molecules involved in building reef structures, wound healing and symbiosis, and they will test their interactions in natural and 3D-printed models of synthetic corals. Then they will disrupt the model system and examine the resulting interactions to better understand the relationships at a molecular and organism level.
                “Our goal after two years is to have a better resource platform for all the data – from oceanographic to cellular. We’ll have cell cultures and coral polyps, biological models and protocols and other tools for future studies. And we’ll understand what it is about the coral symbiosis that facilitates these symbiotic relationships,” said Putnam.
                Ultimately, the researchers will end up with the data that will help natural resource managers and conservationists protect coral reefs from a variety of harmful human impacts.
                “We could end up with conservation or restoration recommendations for how corals are grown or the properties they need to settle new coral recruits on,” Putnam added. “Primarily, though, we’ll end up with an improved data aggregation platform and a greatly improved understanding of coral biology and the tools we need to understand the system and apply science-based solutions.”
                Included in the grant funding will be resources to hire graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, who will rotate among the labs at each participating institution. The research team will also provide educational outreach to the public at aquariums, schools and other venues.

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.