Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Pandemic escape to nature likely to stress wildlife

              The ready access to a large number of local parks and nature preserves in southern New England has been a boon to the many thousands of people seeking a safe way to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors while also maintaining proper social distancing during the COVID19 pandemic. Parking lots have been full at Audubon, Nature Conservancy and land trust properties, as well as at state wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges, especially on weekends.
              But the increase in human visitors to these properties is not likely to have a positive impact on local wildlife. Research from around the world repeatedly finds that the more people that visit
Wilbour Woods, Little Compton, R.I. (Frank Carini)
natural areas, the more the wildlife that lives there must change their behaviors, move elsewhere, or otherwise expend energy to avoid the human invaders.
            As Scott McWilliams, a University of Rhode Island ornithologist, said, “more people usually equals more disturbance.”
            Much of the research on this topic focuses on what scientists call “the weekend effect,” in which the greater number of visitors to natural areas on weekends and holidays causes greater disturbances and forces wildlife to shift from prime feeding habitat to lesser quality habitat. The result is that – at least during the weekends – many animals have difficulty finding proper nutrition and may become less healthy overall. During the breeding season, frequent disturbance of nest or den sites may lead to the abandonment of their breeding efforts for the year.
            A study published last year tracked 30 eagles in eastern Spain that were living in two national parks. After 18 months, the researchers determined that the birds flew much farther from their typical home range during weekends due to the increased human disturbance during those days.
            It is unknown how long the COVID19 pandemic will last or how long local wildlife refuges will experience greater than normal visitation levels, but area biologists note a number of concerns that wildlife populations may face during this time.
            Nancy Karraker, a URI herpetologist who studies frogs, toads, turtles and salamanders, is especially worried about the possibility that native species discovered unexpectedly may become someone’s pet.
            “For the creatures I care most about, the greatest potential impact of more people out and about during the warm times of the day is the probability they will encounter a box turtle, spotted turtle or wood turtle and decide to take it home,” she said.
            All three turtle species are rare in the state, and one of the greatest threats facing area turtle populations is collection for the pet trade.
             Karraker also notes the problem of snakes or turtles basking in the sun and having to escape to a less conspicuous location when people walk by.
            “That’s an important concern especially for female snakes or turtles that bask to speed development of eggs or young internally,” she said. “Plunging into the water or fleeing frequently will also be an energetic concern that will have a larger effect on gravid females than on males.”
            Another way wildlife can be impacted by increased visitation to natural areas is the disturbance caused by the noise made by visitors. David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, points to research indicating that birds often have to sing louder to attract mates and take other steps when adapting to living in noisy areas.
            Although the intermittent noises from visitors to parks isn’t likely to require long-term changes to the behavior of area wildlife, if noise levels remain high for extended periods, some species may depart the area entirely to find less noisy locales.
            Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management whose office is at the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area in Kingston, has noticed a significant increase in visitors to the Great Swamp in recent weeks. He thinks that most resident animals are probably used to some level of human activity, and many – like squirrels and robins common in urban parks – will be unfazed by an increase in human visitation.
            But, like Karraker, he is concerned that those species that bask in the sun could be negatively affected by the disturbances caused by increasing numbers of visitors. He notes that the ringed boghaunter, the state’s rarest dragonfly, is among the sun worshippers that could be impacted.
            Brown’s greatest worry, however, is his observation that many people bring dogs to local refuges and let them run off their leash, which is illegal at state management areas between March 15 and August 15. Free-running dogs can cause great stress and harm to wildlife.
            “I think we’re seeing many more neophytes [visiting local refuges], people using these areas for the first time and not familiar with or knowingly disregarding regulations,” he said.
            The good news is that the timing of the COVID19 pandemic may help to avoid the most serious of impacts to local wildlife from increased refuge visitation.
            “Luckily most – but not all – birds start breeding in late May and June, so the large numbers of people in the woods will likely have calmed down by then,” said URI ornithologist Peter Paton.
            At least we all hope that the crisis will be over by then.
            To reduce the impact on local wildlife when visiting area parks and refuges, experts encourage visitors to stay on the marked trails, keep noise to a minimum, avoid walking on beach dunes, and always keep dogs leashed.

This article first appeared on on April 1, 2020.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Conservationist inspires artists and scientists to work together

            She’s worked as a wildlife veterinarian, directed the National Zoo, testified before Congress, appeared in a 13-part television series, and led an effort to care for wild mountain gorillas in Africa. But Lucy Spelman isn’t satisfied that she has done enough to get people to care about protecting wildlife.
So the Barrington resident is encouraging artists and scientists to work together to inspire conservation action by founding the non-profit organization Creature Conserve. A part-time lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design and a full-time exotic animal veterinarian at Ocean State Veterinary Specialists, she is helping local and international artists
Lucy Spelman speaking at TEDx Providence
learn from scientists – at workshops and in the field – about the issues facing wildlife and what can be done to help.
“I was teaching my first course at RISD, called the biology of human/animal interactions, and at the end of one class I saw a student’s doodle about what I had just talked about, and realized that she had just distilled my entire lecture into a single image,” said Spelman, who also chairs the board of the Rhode Island Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. “She actively listened to what I was saying and picked up on the science that interested her and made it visual.”
That doodle convinced Spelman to change the final requirement of the course from a paper and a presentation to a paper and a work of art. Students choose an endangered species, study the relevant science, and learn about conservation options. After three years of collecting photos of these final art projects, she had several folders full of art that she wanted to share with the world.
“Then, in the course of preparing a TEDx talk in Providence, I realized that what I really wanted to do next was encourage more artists to get involved in conservation, to help them raise their science literacy, so their art would be more powerful, have more punch, and so it would help more people see that the solutions for endangered species exist, and that it is up to us to take responsibility for them and take action,” she said.
So Spelman started Creature Conserve to bring artists and scientists together to save species. Today, she links artists with scientists, hosts workshops at which scientists inform artists about wildlife issues, and raises funds to send artists on field trips with scientists to Africa and South America.
“I know that artists think very similarly to scientists,” she said. “We both ask why are we here, what’s happening, we make something – art or science – to interpret the situation, and we share it with our peers.
“The difference,” she added, “is that scientists communicate in a technical language and to a fairly narrow audience. Art is a universal language, and artists reach a much broader audience. I’m interested in connecting art and science so we share what is happening with animals and what we can do about it with everybody. And in this way, we’re trying to change the way we problem-solve around conservation.”
Spelman took a rapid, round-about route to reaching this point in her career. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Brown University and a veterinary degree at the
'Electrical Box Landscapes' by Sophy Tuttle
University of California at Davis. Along the way she studied animal pathology at the San Diego Zoo, cared for retired animals used in entertainment in Los Angeles, and learned about animals used in laboratory research at the now-closed New England Primate Center. By 1995, she was the youngest person to be a board-certified zoological medicine veterinarian and was hired as an associate veterinarian at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Five years later she was in charge of the whole zoo.
“Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my time at the National Zoo is that it is easier to feel immediately responsible for the creature in front of you than to an animal in the so-called wild that you may never see,” she said. “I also learned that nothing is truly wild. Humans have touched all parts of the Earth.”
After leaving the National Zoo, she found herself caring for wild mountain gorillas in the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda as the regional veterinary manager of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.
            “These are wild gorillas, not zoo gorillas, so we only intervened if there was a problem caused by humans,” Spelman said. “
It was a triage job. We checked on the gorillas daily. We also supported initiatives to help local farmers and human health clinics. Over the course of three years, we did 16 interventions to remove snares or treat them for respiratory illnesses while I was there, and we documented for the first time that human visitors to the gorillas can transmit viral diseases.”
 When her stint in Africa was over, she returned to Rhode Island to teach and, eventually, to launch Creature Conserve.
“The organization is all about planting seeds among artists and scientists,” she said. “I can’t tell you what animals to protect. You have to be informed, and if you’re not interested, you’re not going to act. The art is a way of engagement, and it’s more powerful than anything.”
This article first appeared on on March 29, 2020.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Our Roots are Showing

            An awakening of sorts is underway—at URI and across the globe. There’s growing recognition that the 20th century’s industrial approach to farming and food production is unhealthy for people, animals, soil, and the environment, and is environmentally and economically unsustainable. So what’s to be done? At URI, where agriculture is central to our history and mission as a land grant university, our faculty, students, and alumni are rediscovering our agricultural roots, taking a new, interdisciplinary approach to practical agriculture, and leading the way for a new generation of farmers and food producers.

            In late October, a section of the University’s agronomy field is blooming with gorgeous purple saffron flowers. Although 90 percent of the global harvest of saffron—the world’s most expensive spice—comes from Iran, plant sciences professor Rebecca Brown has demonstrated that the Ocean State has the potential to claim a share of the market as demand grows in the United States.
            “It’s tolerant of arid conditions, which is why it’s mostly grown in the poor, dry soils of southeastern Iran,” she says. “But until now, no one had tried to grow it in southern NewEngland's moist, rich soils." 
            With the help of postdoctoral fellow Rahmatallah Gheshm, who grew the spice in Iran for 27 years, last year’s campus saffron yield per acre was about triple that of Iran’s.
            “It’s an attractive crop because you don’t need sophisticated farm equipment or technology to grow it,” she says. “It’s a lot less work to grow than vegetables, though it’s more
labor intensive to harvest, which is why saffron is so expensive. It also doesn’t have insect or disease problems here, and you don’t have to water it. All of that is attractive to farmers.”
            The saffron experiment is just one of URI’s many sustainable agriculture initiatives, which include numerous research projects, new faculty members, an academic major, and several campus measures designed to develop agricultural practices, products, and policies that reduce the environmental impact of food production while also considering economic sustainability and social justice for farming communities. The efforts attest to URI’s long history in agricultural research and education, and its commitment to leading a new generation of growers in an effort to create a sustainable system of food production.
            Plant Sciences and entomology assistant professor John Taylor is looking for ways to produce more food in smaller plots by using different nutrient inputs and tillage strategies and by cultivating several crops in the same space in a practice called polyculture.
“In polyculture, you’re growing multiple species together to get more production from a unit of area compared to growing those crops in monoculture,” he says. “It’s a way to maximize the use of space. In Chinese-origin household gardens, they sometimes double production because they have a vine crop growing vertically on a trellis with a leafy ground layer below. It helps the household be more food secure.”
He is also teaming with the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence to evaluate the use of urban-adapted high tunnel systems, temporary greenhouses that help to extend the growing season. By pairing raised beds in the tunnel with native flower beds that capture rain dripping off the tunnel, he is helping urban residents intensify production in small spaces.
            “If we’re going to meet the goal of producing 50 percent of the region’s food needs by 2060,” as proposed in a report prepared in 2014 by Food Solutions New England, “then a lot of our food is going to have to come from small scale production in urban backyards and vacant lots,” says Taylor, the first of several new professors hired as part of the sustainable agriculture program. He is finding that the yield from his... 

Read the rest of this story in the Spring 2020 University of Rhode Island Magazine.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Warm winter disrupts seasonal patterns

            It’s been another year of wacky winter weather, with more record-breaking warmth and a near-total absence of snow. It’s seeming more and more like this is the new normal. And unless you’re a skier, you probably don’t mind. But the warm weather is disrupting the natural seasonal patterns of local wildlife – what scientists call phenology – and it has the potential for significant impacts on their long-term survival.
Many people posted pictures of trees and shrubs budding and blooming in February, when temperatures hit 60 degrees several times. Early-blooming spring flowers like crocuses and tulips emerged from the soil even earlier than usual as well. These plants aren’t likely to suffer any ill effects from their early arrival, however. New England has always had enough variability in its winter weather that they have evolved to be able to handle wide swings in temperature.
That’s not to say that they won’t be affected, though. It takes energy for plants to grow and bloom, and if they start the process early and then have to shut down again when normal cold temperatures return, it’s energy they’ve wasted. They may not have enough energy left to try again at a more appropriate time. While that won’t affect the survival of the plants, it does mean they may lose an entire year of reproduction if they can’t bloom when the pollinators are active.
On the other hand, some pollinators – bees especially – have been observed out and about during our winter warm spells when there aren’t any flowers to pollinate or nectar to feed upon. For bumble bees, it’s the pregnant queens that emerge first, and if she uses up all her energy searching for food that isn’t yet available, she may die, and with her goes the hopes for her entire colony.
This mismatch in the timing of the emergence of plants and insects due to the changing climate is affecting bird migration as well. Many bird species time their migration to arrive in their breeding location right when an abundance of insects is emerging so the birds have plenty to eat and feed to their young. But when the insects emerge early, the peak of their abundance may be over by the time the birds arrive, leaving the birds with a challenging search for additional resources.
It’s less of a problem for short-distance migrants, however, than it is for those that travel long distances, like warblers and vireos that winter in the tropics. Birds that migrate from the southern United States may notice the signal of a warm winter and early spring and begin their migration early. But long-distance migrants from Central America and South America aren’t aware that the weather far to the north has been unusually warm, so they don’t know to fly north earlier than usual. Those birds are unlikely to arrive in time for the abundance of insect prey they need for reproduction.
The migration of amphibians is being affected as well, even though most travel only a few hundred yards from their wintering grounds to their breeding ponds. Wood frogs were observed in late February, long before they should be active, and while they can tolerate freezing and thawing cycles, what the short winter means for their life cycle is uncertain.
But just because we’ve had a wacky winter doesn’t mean we won’t have a more typical spring. If we have more seasonable temperatures in March and April, perhaps things will get back to normal for the local wildlife. But don’t count on it.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on March 28, 2020.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Wing Man

            From his earliest days exploring the natural world in his native Virginia, Charles Clarkson always gravitated toward birds. They were easy to see almost everywhere he went, and by high school he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to them.  
            Today, the 38-year-old Middletown resident leads a massive effort involving more than 200 volunteers to document every species of bird that breeds in every corner of the Ocean State. And several times each year, he leads birdwatching tours to Panama and other countries around the world.
            “When I see a bird, something emotional stirs inside of me,” he says. “Seeing birds in their natural habitats doing what they’ve done for millions of years seemed otherworldly.”
            A member of the board of the Aquidneck Land Trust and the Audubon Society of Rhode
Keel-billed Toucan (Charles Clarkson)
Island, Clarkson marvels at the remarkable adaptations of the creatures he calls little metabolic hotrods.
            “They operate at the maximum of their physiological capacity, they’re the epitome of movement and grace, and it just seems impossible to me that they are capable of surviving and thriving on every continent on the planet and in extremely hostile environments,” he says. “And yet they figured it out. If the going gets tough, birds get tougher.”
As a teen obsessed with birds, however, Clarkson felt a bit like an outsider.
            “Every Friday night I would pack my backpack and set out on the Appalachian Trail by myself, birding and camping,” he says. “But I never really got the feeling that I was missing out on anything. I look back at my time spent alone in the woods with a great deal of fondness.”
            His passion for birds even made him miss his graduate school commencement ceremony because he was leading a birdwatching excursion to Scotland and Iceland. But again, he claims not to feel as if he missed anything. “Viewing Atlantic puffin colonies definitely takes priority,” Clarkson says.
            Luckily, he has a supportive wife who sees the benefits of his ornithological activities. She even joins him occasionally and participates in pre- and post-trip gatherings with his birdwatching friends and clients.
            According to Clarkson, Newport County is an ideal place to look for birds at any time of the year. The region has an abundance of warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows and other songbirds that breed in the area, and is a significant spot for wintering waterfowl. He notes that Miantonomi Park is one of the best locations in the state to observe songbird migration in the spring, and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge is “unparalleled” for its abundance of ducks in the winter — as well as for the regular appearance of snowy, short-eared and barn owls.
            It’s not necessary to be a scientist to appreciate birds, so Clarkson encourages everyone to be attentive to the winged creatures around them.
            “They’re one of the most observable wildlife on Earth,” he says. “Watching birds lends itself well to everybody — to family groups, to children. It’s accessible to a large audience, and there’s not a lot of startup costs. Birding is a gateway drug to learning about the entire ecosystem. Birds are the harbingers of things to come.”
            Clarkson’s main activity for the last five years has been as leader of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, which has documented the breeding status of more than 165 bird species in the state and the habitats each prefers.
            “Knowing this information gives us the tools for effective conservation,” he says. “It helps us figure out what we need to do to attract certain suites of species and to manage for overall biodiversity.”
            For those interested in learning about birds beyond the local area, Clarkson leads several tours each year to Panama and occasionally to Iceland, South Africa and other destinations through his company, Antbird Tours. Home to more than 1,000 species of birds, Panama’s location between North and South America means it sees huge numbers of migrating birds traveling back and forth each year, and it is one of the best places in the world to see migrating hawks. The resident species are spectacularly colorful, and include toucans, parrots, tanagers and dozens of kinds of hummingbirds.
            “All of this occurs in a country roughly the size of South Carolina,” Clarkson says. “It’s easily accessible, and I can cater a trip to whatever you want to see. In five days, you can get a good introduction to tropical birding. And it’s impossible to go there without returning with a good sense of how tropical ecosystems work and the role of birds.”
            Clarkson notes that it’s not necessary to be a birdwatcher to enjoy his Panama tours. In addition to birds, his clients also usually see several kinds of monkeys, sloths, anteaters and lots of beautiful butterflies, among a long list of other creatures.
            “It doesn’t matter what your interests are; I’m happy to take you there just to show you the magnificent biodiversity of the tropics,” he said. “When I take people to Panama and show them how a healthy rainforest operates, they become changed by the experience.”

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Concerns grow in Northeast over amphibian diseases

            As frogs and salamanders emerge from winter hibernation and migrate to their breeding ponds, herpetologists throughout the region are paying close attention to the growing number of amphibian diseases threatening frogs and salamanders in the Northeast.
            The most worrisome is an infectious fungal disease called chytridomycosis, or chytrid, which has caused major die-offs of frog populations in the tropics and elsewhere and is blamed for numerous frog extinctions in Latin America.
According to University of Rhode Island herpetologist Nancy Karraker, chytrid grows on the skin of frogs, and when it is found on their drink patch – a site on their belly where they
Bull frog (Todd McLeish)
absorb water into their bodies – the fungus makes it impossible for the frogs to regulate how much water they absorb, causing them to become desiccated and die.
            “Chytrid has been found in multiple species of frogs in the Northeast, but we haven’t seen massive die-offs here,” said Karraker, URI associate professor of natural resources science, who has studied frogs around the world. “But that doesn’t mean that die-offs haven’t occurred, just that they haven’t been at the scale we’ve seen in South America. So we can’t say it’s not a problem here, and it certainly could become a serious problem.”
            Some scientists believe that the disease originated in African clawed frogs, which were shipped around the world for use in human pregnancy tests from the 1940s to the 1960s. Many of the frogs escaped from captivity and could easily have spread the disease to native frogs in many places. Other scientists think the fungus was ubiquitous around the globe and that, initially, the only frogs that died were those with compromised immune systems.
            “I don’t know where the greatest weight of support is for those ideas today,” Karraker said. “But maybe our frogs aren’t as susceptible because they’re not facing the kinds of stressors that may have impacted frogs in other places. Or it could be something to do with their natural history. We just don’t know, and that’s partly why I’m worried.”
            In 2010, Antioch University New England graduate student Mandy Gaudreau, working in collaboration with Lou Perrotti, conservation director at Roger Williams Park Zoo, swabbed 47 frogs and toads at 11 sites in Rhode Island and detected chytrid in 21 percent of her samples.
            “What struck me about her results is that most of the ponds where she found chytrid were manmade ponds – farm ponds, retention ponds,” Perrotti said. “Why was it in those and not in the natural wetlands?”
            He also wonders whether climate has an effect.
            “Frogs in Panama got wiped out. Costa Rica got wiped out. It seems like it’s worst at that certain temperature range,” he said. “Maybe our winters knock it back and keep it from becoming prevalent. Tropical frogs don’t have the seasonality that we have here.”
            Yet chytrid isn’t the only disease threatening amphibians and reptiles in the area.
Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, is particularly concerned about ranavirus, an infectious disease that has caused die-offs of reptiles, amphibians and fish in 20 states, including box turtles in the Northeast. In frogs and toads, it especially affects the tadpole stage, causing skin hemorrhages, erratic swimming, buoyancy problems, and the inability to right themselves in the water.
“We know it’s here, it’s in our environment, but if and when it becomes active is hard to predict,” he said.
Buchanan is also tracking a fungal disease in snakes, a herpes virus in turtles, and chytrid in salamanders.
“Salamander chytrid has had devastating effects on salamanders in Europe over the last 5 to 10 years, and it’s considered an eventuality that it will be brought into the U.S. one way or another and run through our salamanders,” he said. “The eastern U.S. is a global hotspot of salamander diversity, and a lot of research is going on now to determine how virulent it is, are particular species susceptible, and what are their natural defenses.”
“What’s notable for us,” added Karraker, “is that it’s usually really hard to change the rules for importing animals for the pet trade, but in 2016, legislation was passed that prevented the import of 201 species of salamanders to prevent the introduction of the disease into the U.S. That’s a landmark bit of legislation to protect our native species.”
Buchanan said that it is up to biologists and others working in area wetlands to follow strict protocols to prevent the spread of the diseases, like regularly disinfecting their boots, equipment and tools as they move from site to site around the region.
“We have to be vigilant about potentially transferring diseases from one wetland to another,” he said. “Because we move from one wetland to the next throughout the day and throughout the season, there’s real potential that we could move it around with us, and we often go to the most important sites and monitor the most sensitive species.
“It’s something we take really seriously,” Buchanan added. “We know how quickly things can change here, we know disease pandemics can happen quickly, move around quickly, and cause devastating impacts on populations. And if it doesn’t wipe them out completely, it can take decades for them to recover.”

This article first appeared on on March 14, 2020

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Small mammals, big personalities

            The seed dispersal habits of small mammals have long been known to have a significant bearing on the health and growth of forests. Now a doctoral student at the University of Maine has found that the various personalities of those small mammals also determines whether seeds germinate and grow.
            “People are generally willing to accept that dogs and cats have personalities because they can see behaviors that consistently differ among individuals of the same species. The
Recording a mouse personality (Holland Haverkamp)
same is true of mice,” said Allison Brehm, who conducted a study of how the personalities of small mammals affect forest structure. “Some are consistently more active or bolder than others, and we wanted to know whether small mammal personality influences seed predation and seed dispersal.”
            She captured 648 mice, voles and shrews and put them through a series of behavioral tests that determined their timidness, docility and anxiety. Then she released them into forests undergoing three silviculture treatments, dispersed seeds of various sizes nearby, and watched what happened.
            “We know small mammals have personalities; we know they play a role in seed dispersal; but the main question was whether all individuals contribute in the same way or are some individuals playing an especially important role and does personality predict their decisions in terms of seed dispersal,” Brehm said. “We wanted to see if personality influenced their selection of seed size, dispersal of seeds, the probability of them consuming the seeds, and if it influenced where they cached the seeds.”
            And she found that in almost every case it did.
            For instance, Brehm found that mice that were especially active when compared to others were more likely to remove seeds from where they were found and consume the seeds rather than cache them. She also found that bold voles dispersed seeds farther than timid ones, perhaps because they are more willing to risk attack by predators while carrying seeds a greater distance. More docile voles, however, tended to store seeds in locations that were more optimal for germination, like close to a fallen log.
            She also discovered that the distribution of small mammal personalities differed by silviculture treatment. She captured few timid mice in even-aged forests, for example, but equal numbers of bold and timid mice in an unmanaged 100-year old forest.
            “It may be that the even-aged forest is a riskier environment to live in, so it pays off to be a bolder individual, since there may be fewer resources available and bolder individuals are better competitors,” Brehm said.
            The study suggests that it may be worthwhile to promote the diversity of personalities within small mammal populations as a way of helping to conserve ecosystems. How exactly to do that is uncertain.
            “Promoting behavioral diversity is probably best done by promoting diversity in the environment,” said Brehm. “Diverse environments will lead to a greater diversity of personality types that can survive there.”

This article first appeared in the winter 2020 issue of Northern Woodlands magazine.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Whale behaviors make them vulnerable to ship strikes, entanglements

            Recent advances in technology have allowed scientists to learn so much more about wildlife during times when the animals are inaccessible to human observation. Songbirds are now capable of wearing tiny backpacks equipped with sensors and satellite technology that are revealing insights into their migratory behavior, for instance. Even bees, butterflies and dragonflies are being tagged to track their movements.
            In the marine environment, scientists are using suction cups to temporarily attach
Breaching humpback whale (Todd McLeish)
whales with a variety of devices that capture video and audio and the depth and location of their underwater activities. That information is being used to better understand how and why whales are at risk of being struck by large ships or becoming entangled in fishing gear.
            In a lecture Feb. 13 at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus, sponsored by Rhode Island Sea Grant, the research coordinator at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, David Wiley, discussed the feeding strategies used by humpback whales in the sanctuary located in the waters between Boston and Provincetown and how those behaviors increase their risk of mortality.
            “There’s a sand lance culture at Stellwagen Bank,” said Wiley, referring to the 6- to 8-inch fish the whales eat. “The Stellwagen humpbacks don’t go to Jeffrey’s Ledge 40 miles away because that’s a herring area, and the Jeffrey’s Ledge humpbacks that eat herring don’t go to Stellwagen. They’ve developed these cultures that allow them to be very productive in this habitat, and they try to stay in this habitat.”
            Based on the video data collected in recent years, Wiley said the whales scrape their jaws along the seafloor to capture sand lance as the fish try to escape from their hiding places in the sediments. But he believes that the whales coordinate their behavior to improve their odds of catching a meal.
            When feeding at night or in deep water, where visibility is particularly poor, two or three whales dive to the seafloor together and orient themselves head to head.
            “You can see them almost touching each other, rostrum to rostrum, as they try to capture these fish,” Wiley said. “They do it as a group and push the fish toward each other as the fish rocket out of the bottom.”
            To further prove that this is a cooperative behavior, rather than a competitive one, he showed that the same whales almost always orient themselves in the same compass position relative to one another. Relative to a tagged whale, one untagged whale was positioned at the same angle in the feeding group 96 percent of the time, while a second untagged whale was consistently oriented at an angle between the first two 67 percent of the time.
            Wiley also collected data about the whales as they fed at the surface in a behavior called bubble-netting, when the whales blow bubbles to herd their prey together before capturing them. Again, the whales appear to coordinate their feeding by orienting themselves at similar angles and even opening and closing their mouths at the same time.
            “They orient themselves in a star formation and synchronize their engulfment, so it’s clearly a group feeding behavior and a cooperative behavior,” he said.
            In one version of the bubble-netting behavior, the whales also slap their tails at the surface in between blowing bubbles. Why they do so is a mystery.
            “They slap their tails over and over again, so it must have an adaptive value, but we really don’t know,” Wiley said. “People used to think it was to stun the fish, but we’ve never seen stunned fish. We think the percussion scares the fish and makes them aggregate into a tighter school, but we can’t really see what goes on in a bubble net because there’s so much happening at once.”
            How do these behaviors make the whales more vulnerable to becoming entangled in fishing gear or struck by ships?
            According to Wiley, bubble-netting is a feeding strategy used exclusively during daylight hours because that’s the only time when sand lance swim near the surface, and that’s when ship activity is highest. The whales feed on sand lance at the seafloor almost exclusively at night, when visibility is poorest, and they may not see the lobster traps and other fishing gear on or near the bottom. And because most fishing gear has ropes from the bottom to buoys at the surface, entanglement risk is high at whatever depth the whales are in.
            They’re vulnerable to vertical lines 100 percent of the time, Wiley said. They spend 50 percent of their time near the surface during the day when they could get struck by a boat. They spend 50 percent of their time feeding on the bottom at night where they’re vulnerable to fishing gear.
            “Humpback whale vulnerability comes from the fact that this is how they have to live. Their lives depend on being at that place in the water column,” he added. “The only way to reduce this risk is to reduce the amount of human activity that co-occurs or by reducing its penetration into the water column.”

This article first appeared on on Feb. 20, 2020.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Time to go owling

            The freezing temperatures in February make it difficult to force myself out the door after dark. And knowing that I’ll be standing around outside for extended periods while trying to stay completely silent doesn’t make it any easier. But hearing just one distant hoot warms my bones and makes the experience worthwhile.
            Mid-winter is the ideal time to search for owls in Rhode Island, even on years like this one when visiting snowy owls are absent. Great horned owls, the largest resident owl in the
Barred owl (M.E. Sanseverino)
area, are already sitting on eggs or caring for nestlings, so it’s my first target species whenever I go owling. Standing up to two feet tall and with a wingspan of more than four feet, their silhouette is easily identified on a moonlit night by the feather tufts on their head that give them their common name. But it’s their low booming voice that I seek.
            I drive along forested roads, occasionally stopping to listen for a few minutes, especially where forests abut farm fields. Unlike most of the region’s other owls, which feed primarily on mice and voles in the woods, great horned owls are large enough to target rabbits and squirrels, and the forest edge is a great place to watch and listen for them. Most of the time, I hear nothing but traffic noise, an occasional dog bark, and the blood pumping through my head as I strain to hear anything resembling an owl.
            And then I hear it. The unmistakable sound of an owl. One hoot is enough to call the night a success, but when a second owl responds with a series of hoots of its own, I know I’ve hit the jackpot.
            Sometimes, instead of a great horned owl I hear the who-cooks-for-you call of a barred owl, though they are much more active a little later in the season. And rarely – like maybe only a few times in my life – I’ve heard a tiny screech owl spontaneously burst forth with its high-pitched whinny. They’re just as common as the other two species and can be found in similar forested habitat, but they seem to have much less to say. At least when I’m paying attention.
            If standing around in the dark listening – usually in vain – for an owl isn’t your idea of a well-spent winter evening, and yet you’d still like to see or hear an owl in the wild, then there’s another strategy to try. Just before dusk, stand in the parking lot of Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge or Third Beach in Middletown or the Moonstone Beach Road side of Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown, and watch for short-eared owls hunting for prey over the adjacent marshlands.
The gold-and-brown streaked birds seldom vocalize, so going after dark won’t be productive. But they are regularly observed at dusk flying back and forth just above the vegetation and occasionally pouncing silently into the reeds to capture a meal. And their long wings and butterfly-like flight are so distinctive that even if you only see their silhouette, you’ll know it’s a short-eared.
A few other owl species can sometimes be detected around Rhode Island this time of year, like tiny saw-whet owls or long-eared owls – and barn owls on Block Island – but finding them is much more challenging. And the noises they make are very un-owl-like.
But if, like me, you want the most owl-like of owl encounters, all it takes is time spent listening in the forest after dark. And plenty of patience.

This story first appeared in The Independent on Feb. 16, 2020.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Drones an important tool in environmental research

            The rapid technological advances in drone technology, together with their affordability and ease of customization, has made them an increasingly important tool for scientists studying wildlife and the environment. Rhode Island researchers are taking advantage of them for such wide-ranging uses as monitoring algae blooms, assessing forest damage following storms, and creating high-resolution maps of the landscape.
            Paolo Stegagno, a new engineering professor at the University of Rhode Island, worries that some people may think that drones are the solution to every problem, and he is skeptical
URI engineer Paolo Stegagno and his drone (Nora Lewis)
that they will be effective at delivering packages or pizzas, as some companies claim.
            “But there are some tasks that drones are really useful for, tasks in which you have to reach someplace that has difficult terrain to go over or could be dangerous for people,” he said. “They can also collect a lot of data that is difficult to collect otherwise, like infrared imagery or thermal information from wildfires or from people in distress. If you select the right sensor for a specific task, you can get a better point of view of what’s going on.”
            Stegagno is working with scientists in three other states to collect data about how algae blooms develop in lakes in an effort to better predict when they might occur. That data will be shared with the Watershed Watch program, which tracks water quality in most of Rhode Island’s water bodies.
            “We don’t really have any real knowledge of what actually triggers the blooms, so we can’t predict them now,” he said. “We plan to put drones in the air and surface vehicles on the water to collect data using specific bands of light to determine the factors driving the blooms.”
            The project will begin this spring by monitoring algae blooms in Barber Pond and Yawgoo Pond in South Kingstown.
            Jason Parent, another new URI professor, is using drones to map forest characteristics like canopy density and tree mortality and to measure stem density and diameter.
            “These are characteristics of a forest that indicate forest health and tree risk to infrastructure, when they’re more vulnerable to failure during storms,” he said. “I’m using that data to help better manage the roadside forest, to reduce risk so we can invest resources in the most beneficial treatments.”
            The objective is to help utility companies and municipalities identify trees that are a threat to power lines and other infrastructure so they may be trimmed or removed before the trees fall. Parent is working with colleagues at the University of Connecticut and Connecticut utilities on a vegetation management program to manage the forest within 100 feet of the roadside by removing unhealthy trees. He hopes to initiate a similar project with National Grid in Rhode Island.
            “It’s an intense program, so it needs to be targeted where it can have the biggest impact, and drones help to identify priority areas,” he said. “Drones are limited by their battery power and other restrictions, so we use them to calibrate data collected by planes. The airborne data has lots of information, but it’s hard to interpret and you can’t get to the same level of detail as you can with drones. So we’re using drones to ground-truth the airborne data.”
            Parent is also beginning a project to use drones to map the inside of buildings to create indoor navigation systems for first responders.
            At the URI Environmental Data Center, which creates ecological maps of the entire state for a wide variety of environmental applications, drones are being used to create high-resolution imagery for use in classifying habitats and land cover.
            “We’re hoping drones will allow us to image over smaller areas and capture much more precise information at times of the year when we can call the shots and not have to wait for the state’s periodic overflights,” said Charles LaBash, director of the center, who notes that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation collects aerial photography of the state by conventional aircraft three times each year to support its stormwater management efforts and other projects. “If something is happening now, we can go up and mobilize relatively quickly. That’s the advantage of drones.”
            For instance, staff at the Environmental Data Center are using drones to monitor the progress of several efforts by the Coastal Resources Management Council, Save the Bay and others to raise the elevation of salt marshes that are threatened by rising sea levels and storm surge.
            “Drones give us a way to monitor the success of the vegetation that’s taking root out there,” LaBash said. “You can look at it with your eyes, but having that imagery gives you a consistent way to document the geospatial position and extent of revegetated areas.”
            When conditions are right, the center is also using drones to look into the water in the state’s coastal ponds to map the location of eelgrass beds. It also has used its drones to test equipment used by other researchers that detects migratory birds flying by the Block Island wind farm, among other projects.
            “There are many other possible uses of drones that we’re just beginning to think about,” said Stegagno, the URI engineering professor, “like monitoring wide areas for early detection of wildfires or for use in precision agriculture, where you collect data from crops to figure out whether your plants are in distress. All you have to do is customize them with the right sensors.”

This article first appeared on on Feb. 13, 2020/

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Dead tree brings life to forest

            I knew it was going to happen one day soon.  I just never knew when.  And then finally, sometime during one of last year’s storms, my favorite tree – a massive dead oak in the swampy forested section of my property – went toppling to the ground.
            The tree must have been dead long before I came on the scene.  It was the largest tree on my lot, yet the loggers that came through about 35 years ago didn't want it.  Its enormous trunk was completely stripped of bark, and the last leaves to grow on it became compost decades ago. And yet it still played a significant role in the cycle of life in the forest.
            Woodpeckers visited the naked oak regularly in search of insects boring into its rotted
core.  Hawks occasionally perched on its limbs to scan the area for a meal.  And I sometimes found fur around the lower part of the trunk from where a deer had nuzzled against it, perhaps in an effort to relieve an irritating itch.
            Big dead trees are often cause for alarm among the human population, and many dying trees are quickly dispatched with a chain saw.  Sadly, that was one of the chief reasons for the decline of bluebirds, purple martins and other birds that nest in tree cavities but can’t drill their own holes as woodpeckers do.  Thankfully, we have replaced natural tree cavities with artificial ones – bird houses – so these and other birds can more easily flourish.
            But birds aren't the only creatures that love dead trees.
            The crumbled branches piled around the now-horizontal tree trunk provide protection and nesting sites for small mammals like chipmunks, squirrels, voles and mice.  The entangled branches also make for excellent elevated pathways for these tiny creatures, like a miniature version of a highway on-ramp.
            The increased population of small mammals in and around the fallen oak has attracted predators of a sort I seldom see. 
            I spotted my first least weasel emerging from a tiny crevice beneath the tree last spring.  These fierce relatives of mink are just six or seven inches long – half of it tail – and look cute and cuddly. But they attack and kill prey twice their size with a tremendous bite to the base of the skull.  Despite their ferocious nature, I was pleased that the dead tree had lured such an unusual creature to my yard.
            Foxes and coyotes have nosed around the site, too, now that it harbors so many potential prey species.  And on most spring and summer evenings I can usually hear the back-and-forth hooting of a pair of barred owls that I’m sure are attracted to the feast around the tree.
            Last fall I noticed a bit of moss growing on the fallen trunk, the first step in the long process of decay and decomposition.  But that won't be the end of the tree's contribution to the forest.  Eventually, the rotted wood will deposit its nutrients into the soil and the cycle of growth will begin again.  The nutrient-rich soil will contribute to healthy new vegetation, which in turn will feed other wildlife.  Perhaps a new oak tree will even grow up to take the place of the old one and oversee my back woods.
            For me, though, I'm happy to climb upon the trunk to survey the forest and think back on the many creatures nourished by that old tree over the last century.  I bet it was a satisfying life.  

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on January 25, 2020.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Mako shark populations to take half century to recover from overfishing

            An essay in this month’s newsletter of the Rhode Island Saltwater Angler’s Association claims that populations of shortfin mako sharks – a popular sportfish and a tasty offering on local menus – are “in crisis,” with fewer and smaller mako sharks being caught compared to 25 years ago. Written by Long Island attorney Charles Witek, a recreational fisherman who identifies himself as a consultant on fisheries management issues, the essay also criticizes the measures adopted to reduce shark mortality and the long timeline for rebuilding the population.
            “Even if such reductions could be achieved, it will take about 50 years to return the shortfin mako stock to something resembling a healthy level of abundance,” Witek wrote. “Which, in turn, means that I and probably most of the people reading this article, will never see a healthy mako population in our lifetimes.”
            Although shark biologists in southern New England disagree that makos are in crisis,
Short-fin mako shark (Stock)
those surveyed agree that the species is being overfished and that, even if targeted fishing for the species around the world was eliminated entirely, it would likely take at least several decades for the species to recover to healthy levels.
            “In the world of fish, mako sharks are like a Lamborghini or a Corvette or a Ferrari,” said Greg Skomal, a shark researcher and senior scientist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “It’s a high-performance fish from a physiological point of view. Its body is built for speed, it’s really well adapted to its environment, and it’s a very efficient predator.
            “Those same attributes make it fun to catch for recreational fishermen because they leap out of the water and they’re strong fighters,” he added.
            Last year, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, the agency that manages mako sharks in the North Atlantic, concluded that the sharks are being overfished – too many are being killed by commercial and recreational fishermen to sustain the population. The commission recommended two management strategies designed to rebuild the population: Commercial long-line fisheries, few of which target mako sharks, should release any mako that is still alive; and the minimum size limit of sharks captured by recreational fishermen should be increased to 83 inches, which is about the size when they become sexually mature.
            “That translates into fewer dead mako sharks, higher survivorship, and rebuilding of the population,” said Brad Wetherbee, a University of Rhode Island professor who studies mako sharks. “But they realized that it could take until 2070 for mako sharks to rebuild and reach sustainable levels. It’s a slow process.”
It’s a slow process because mako sharks grow slowly, they take a long time to become sexually mature, and they give birth to relatively few young.
            According to Skomal, the United States accounts for only about 10 percent of the landings of mako sharks in the North Atlantic. Most are caught as bycatch by commercial longline fishermen targeting tuna and swordfish. Spain and Portugal have large longline fleets that target mako sharks in the mid-Atlantic, and many other nations primarily catch them as bycatch.
            “We’re small players in the mako market,” he said. “The argument I hear from recreational and commercial fishermen in the U.S. is that we’ve already done a lot for the conservation of makos, and other countries need to step up. But the conservation community says, no, everyone has to pull their weight, which means the U.S. has to reduce its landings further. Some conservation groups are calling for a complete moratorium on mako fishing.”
            That’s not likely to happen, since more than 50 nations fish for mako sharks. And even if targeted fishing for the species is eliminated, mako sharks are still going to be killed unintentionally.
            “If the Portuguese landline fleet targeted only blue sharks, they’re still going to keep catching makos and bring them in if they’re dead,” he said. “There is never hypothetically zero mortality, unless you pull the fleets off the water and reduce fishing effort, and that’s not going to happen. There will always be bycatch mortality, release mortality and illegal mortality.”
            So how did the mako shark population get in such a dire situation in the first place? Skomal said it started with poor historical recordkeeping about shark landings from shark fishing nations, including the United States.
            “We can’t identify a problem if we don’t have good data on which to build a good assessment,” he said. “In the case of sharks, most historical data sets don’t differentiate by species, so it’s difficult to look at historic trends. We also don’t have good reporting from all nations, which means we end up with flawed data. If big fishing nations don’t fully report, then you don’t fully account for all of the mortality.
            “Now that we finally have good data, we suddenly see that we’ve been hitting this species too hard,” Skomal said.
            Wetherbee has been tracking the movements of mako sharks since 2004, and more than 25 percent of the sharks he has affixed with satellite transmitters have been caught and killed by commercial or recreational fishermen. His data, which showed that the mortality rate of mako sharks is more than 10 times higher than the rate previously estimated, contributed to the assessment that the sharks are being overfished.
            “They grow over 10 feet long and over 1,000 pounds, but people hardly ever see makos that big now because there aren’t that many big ones out there anymore,” he said.
            After more than 15 years of studying mako shark movement and migration patterns, their habitat use, fishing mortality and other topics, Wetherbee is pleased that his data is being used to inform policymaking. But he’s not sure the recent policy recommendations go far enough.
            “I have a more radical opinion than most people,” he said. “I don’t think they should catch and kill them at all. But most people aren’t going to subscribe to that. If they were being fished sustainably, I’d say go ahead and catch and eat them.
            “We’ll see if the actions they’ve taken to rebuild the stocks are going to be effective,” Wetherbee added. “It’s a step in the right direction. They could have done more, but they didn’t.”

This article first appeared on on January 26, 2020.

Friday, January 24, 2020

The fight to ban plastic bags, straws, balloon releases

            The issue of plastics polluting the environment and harming wildlife can seem so overwhelming that it may, at first, appear that there is little that can be done about it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Audubon is working with numerous partners to reduce the use of plastics, starting with efforts to ban single-use plastic bags and straws and banning the intentional release of balloons. These are important first steps to illustrate how the use of plastics can be reduced and are key to educating the public about the impacts of plastics pollution.
            “The volume of plastic bags, straws and balloons on our beaches and in our trash is not insignificant,” said Meg Kerr, Audubon’s senior director of policy, who is leading the
organization’s efforts to pass effective legislation to reduce the use of plastics. “Plastic bags, especially, are everywhere – blown into trees, caught up in underbrush, blown off the landfill. One reason to focus on them is that there is national momentum on reducing their use. Other states are also dealing with the issue.”
            In Rhode Island, more than half of the population lives in communities where ordinances banning single-use plastic bags have been enacted in recent years, including Providence, Cranston, East Providence and Newport. Each ordinance contains key language requiring that bags must have “stitched handles” to be classified as reusable. That language was inserted in the state’s first municipal ordinance in Barrington after retailers attempted to get around the ban by using thick plastic bags and calling them reusable.
            Barrington is continuing to lead the way in this effort. It passed a related ordinance this year that bans even more plastic items, including cups, utensils, straws and polystyrene.
            But legislation at the state level has run into roadblocks.
            In 2018, Governor Gina Raimondo established a task force to reduce reliance on single-use plastics that often end up in the state’s waters and shorelines. Its members included representatives of the business community, environmentalists, municipalities and others, including Kerr.
One result of the task force was a bill introduced into the General Assembly to ban single-use plastic bags statewide. The business representatives on the task force were especially keen to pass a bill that enabled them to address the plastic bag issue consistently in every community rather than with different ordinances in each municipality. However, the bill used a broad definition of reusable bags, which would have allowed thick plastic bags to replace thin bags, exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. Worse, the bill would have pre-empted all of the municipal ordinances that had addressed the issue more effectively. The bill did not pass.
            “It’s always a good idea to bring a wide range of interests to the table and have conversations, so the task force was a good thing, and I commend the governor for doing it,” said Kerr. “But it was done so quickly and with such a short time frame that some of the important details got missed. If the task force had a little more time to be thoughtful, I think the conversation around the definition of reusable bags would have happened.”        Another bill to ban single-use plastic bags, which included a ban on disposable polystyrene food containers, was introduced in the 2019 legislative session, but it was held for further study, as was a separate bill banning polystyrene food containers.
            In addition, Representative Susan Donovan of Bristol submitted a bill that would have prohibited the intentional release of helium-filled balloons, a bill she described as both an anti-litter bill and “a hazardous waste issue for birds and other wildlife.”
            Balloons are especially dangerous in the marine environment because they are often mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles, seabirds and other creatures that feed on jellyfish. And the strings attached to balloons are a dangerous entanglement threat.
Citing the potential harm to marine life, the town of New Shoreham banned the sale of balloons earlier this year, and many other communities around the country are taking steps to reduce the release of balloons into the air due to their deadly impact on wildlife. Clemson University in Georgia, for instance, ended its tradition of releasing 10,000 balloons before every home football game. And even the Balloon Council, which represents the balloon industry, recommends that balloons should never be released into the air.
            Although Donovan received negative attention when her balloon bill was first submitted, she is confident it will pass in the next legislative session as people learn more about the issue.
            “I’m not trying to take balloons away from children,” she said. “I just want them disposed of properly. The release of large numbers of balloons for celebrations like weddings and memorials is needless litter that harms the environment. When local fishermen heard about the bill, I got pictures and messages from fishermen up and down the East Coast who pick up balloons a hundred miles out to sea. It’s an entanglement threat to their equipment.”
            In response to claims that Rhode Island already has anti-littering laws in place, Donovan said that having a targeted balloon law on the books would acknowledge the seriousness of the issue and help to publicize it.
            “People don’t necessarily realize that what goes up comes down,” she said. “You wouldn’t approve of releasing thousands of pieces of trash and expect someone to clean it up for you. All those balloons end up in the water and on our beaches.”
            “It’s a good bill, and we supported it,” said Audubon’s Kerr. “And we’ll support it again if it’s introduced next year.”
            Although none of these plastics-related bills were enacted this year, Kerr is optimistic that plastics reduction will be on the legislative docket again next year.
            “We will support a stronger plastic bag bill that defines reusable bags consistent with local ordinances, and we would support a broader bill that included other plastic items like straws, too,” she said. “That makes sense and would be good public policy.”

This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of Audubon Report.