Thursday, September 17, 2020

Deadly rabbit disease threatens rare cottontail

        It hasn’t yet reached Rhode Island, but local scientists are on the lookout for a disease that rapidly kills wild and domestic rabbits before it wipes out the rarest rabbit in the Northeast, the New England cottontail.
        Rabbit hemorrhagic disease causes what Roger Williams Park Zoo veterinarian Kimberlee Wojick called “very sudden death” in rabbits by attacking internal tissues and causing acute bleeding. The animals seldom show symptoms of the virus and instead are simply found dead with blood coming from their noses.
        The disease can be traced to Europe and Asia, but outbreaks have been reported this year in nine states, resulting in the death of several species of wild cottontails, hares and jackrabbits, mostly in the Southwest.
        “We don’t know how it got to the U.S., but it’s having widespread effects on wildlife,” Wojick said. “The virus can survive for a long time in the environment outside of the rabbit — it’s shed through
New England cottontail (iStock)

their urine and blood, it’s in carcasses and can contaminate food sources — so even though an infected rabbit may have died and been removed from the land, the virus could still be there when a new rabbit moves through.”
        Both species of wild rabbit in Rhode Island, the eastern cottontail and New England cottontail, are highly susceptible to the disease.
        “The eastern cottontail population is large and thriving, so while they may take an overall hit, they won’t be decimated because their population is so high,” Wojick said. “What we are really worried about is the New England cottontail.”
        New England cottontails are the only rabbit native to New England, and they have declined precipitously in recent decades because of habitat loss and competition with eastern cottontails. Efforts are underway to breed the species in captivity at Roger Williams Park Zoo, maintain a breeding colony on Patience Island in Narragansett Bay, and release them into the wild at targeted locations throughout the region.
        “If the disease gets here fast and furious, we could lose the entire remaining New England cottontail population,” said Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at Roger Williams Park Zoo, who is responsible for the captive breeding effort. “It’s that contagious, that ruthless. We could stand to lose a few eastern cottontails, but we don’t have enough New Englands.”
        Conservationists in the region are making plans for how to respond if the disease approaches the area. Much of the planning involves the development of biosecurity protocols so the biologists working with New England cottontails don’t inadvertently move the disease around.
        “There’s a lot of on-the-ground conservation of the species going on, lots of field monitoring of existing populations, biologists trapping rabbits and collecting fecal samples,” Perrotti said. “We’re going to have to do things like disinfect the tires on our trucks, change our clothes, disinfect our traps and bags and anything that holds rabbits. Whenever moving from population to population, we have to be conscious of what we’re bringing and be diligent about proper disinfection methods.”
        The New England cottontail conservation team is in close contact with counterparts in California who are similarly trying to protect the endangered riparian brush rabbit.
        “They’re freaking out about the disease, and their first reaction was to contact us about how to hold a safe, captive population in a bio-secure location,” Perrotti said. “We’re also getting information from them about how they’re dealing with the disease, because that’s a state where it’s already reared its ugly head.”
        The potential saving grace is that a vaccine is available in Europe, though it’s not yet licensed for use in the United States. To get it, conservationists must apply through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), work through an import broker, and ensure it gets through U.S. Customs while remaining refrigerated. The USDA will not approve applications for the vaccine from states not already affected by the disease, however.
        “We need a positive case in the area before they’d even think about giving us the vaccine,” Perrotti said. “But in an area as small as Rhode Island, if we find a case it’s going to be too late.”
        Assuming the vaccine can be acquired, Perrotti and the cottontail conservation team are developing a plan for how best to administer it. Captive animals will likely be vaccinated first, followed by as many in the Patience Island breeding colony as can possibly be captured.
        “And then we’d opportunistically vaccinate any other rabbit we get our hands on,” he said. “Can we get them all? No. Can we target all populations? No. But we’d prioritize the vital populations that are especially important.”
        According to Wojick, the vaccine only provides immunity to the disease for about one year, and immunity is not transmitted to their offspring. But since the rabbits typically only live for one or two years, a one-year immunity may be sufficient.
        While the arrival of the disease in southern New England isn’t necessarily imminent, it could easily make the leap from the Southwest to Rhode Island by someone transporting an infected domestic rabbit to the area.
        “What we’re most afraid of is some dude that moves East with his domestic rabbits. If they’re infected and he puts them in a hutch outside, wild rabbits will be drawn to the smell of the hay and food and there will be an interaction,” Perrotti said. “That’s all it’s going to take.”
        He noted that Rhode Island doesn’t have large-scale breeding of domestic rabbits for game dinners or laboratory use, as some other states do. And domestic rabbit shows are also not big business in the state.
        “The pet industry is quite large, though, so the risk of getting the disease here is not low,” said Dylan Ferreira, a wildlife biologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). “That being said, COVID has canceled a lot of rabbit shows, and that has helped us mitigate the potential spread.”
        DEM has a fact sheet with detailed recommendations for rabbit breeders and wildlife rehabilitators on biosecurity practices to prevent the spread of the disease. Those who observe unusual rabbit mortalities or other suspicious cases should report them to Ferreira at 401-789-0281 or Scott Marshall, the state veterinarian, at 401-222-2781.

        This article first appeared on on September 16, 2020.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Scientists fight invasive beetle with beetle-killing wasp

        When the invasive emerald ash borer, a beetle native to the Far East, was found in Rhode Island in 2018, it was a sign that most of the state’s mature ash trees were likely to die soon. Now a team of entomologists from the University of Rhode Island is fighting the invader with a predatory wasp from its native land in hopes that the region’s next generation of ash trees will survive.
        Lisa Tewksbury, director of the URI Biocontrol Laboratory, and her students have been on the lookout for the emerald ash borer for more than a decade, soon after it was first discovered in the United States in Michigan. Now that they know it’s here, they are deploying three species of parasitic
Emerald ash borer (USDA)

wasp from Asia that lay their eggs in the beetle’s eggs or larvae. When the wasp eggs hatch, the wasp larvae consume the beetle eggs and larvae from the inside.
        “The beetle doesn’t have any natural enemies in the U.S., so we’re reuniting it with its natural enemies from back where it came from,” said Tewksbury. “We’re using one organism to control another.”
        The parasitic wasps have been extensively tested to ensure that they will only prey upon emerald ash borers. They are being raised at a federal laboratory in Michigan and shipped to Rhode Island as pupae that are about to become adult wasps inside blocks of ash wood, which the URI team delivers to areas where the beetle has previously been found. Once there, the wasps will emerge and lay eggs in beetle larvae the ash trees nearby.
        Tewksbury has a permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to release the wasps in targeted locations to attack the beetle.
        Ash trees make up just two percent of forests in Rhode Island, but they are found extensively in parks and along streets throughout the state.
        “The emerald ash borer isn’t a huge concern for our forests,” Tewksbury said. “But it will be a concern to people who have ash trees in their yards and on their streets. There are a lot of them in Newport and Providence.”
        Last year, Tewksbury released the three parasitic wasps in Hopkinton, near where the beetles were first discovered, and this year they are being released in five additional locations in Burrillville and Cumberland. The last round of releases for this year are taking place this month, and ongoing statewide surveillance for the beetle will indicate where additional wasp releases may take place next year.
        Next year will also be the beginning of an effort to determine if the wasps have become established and are doing their job. Tewksbury will peel back the bark of dead and dying ash trees to see if she can find evidence of dead beetle larvae.
        “We are resigned to that fact that we’re going to lose most of our larger ash trees, but by doing this biological control effort we’re hoping the wasps can protect the smaller trees so we’ll have some ash left in the future,” Tewksbury said.
        Targeted biocontrol efforts such as this are often the most cost-effective and least damaging way of fighting invasive insects. Tewksbury’s lab is involved in testing another predatory wasp for possible future deployment against what she expects will be the state’s next harmful pest, the spotted lanternfly, another tree-killing invasive species from Asia that is expected to arrive in Rhode Island in two or three years.

Monday, September 14, 2020

New disease is killing beech trees

        A University of Rhode Island scientist said that a disease that can kill beech trees was discovered in southwest Rhode Island in June, and both American and European beech trees throughout the region are at risk.
        According to Heather Faubert, who coordinates the URI Plant Protection Clinic, beech leaf disease was first identified in Ohio in 2012, and it spread to Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut before arriving in Rhode Island. The disease damages a tree’s leaves, causing them to fall off. The energy
Beech tree leaves with beech leaf disease
required to regrow leaves stresses the trees, and if it happens several years in a row, the trees could die.
           “It’s really sad that it’s arrived here because beeches make such beautiful forest trees,” Faubert said. “Beech forests are stunning, their bark is gorgeous, and in fall their leaves turn a beautiful coppery color.”
        She said the disease is caused by a nematode, a microscopic worm that feeds inside the leaves.
        “It’s very easy to see if a tree is infected,” Faubert said. “If you hold a leaf up to the sun and you can see dark bands running parallel to the veins of the leaves, that’s the sign of an infected tree.”
        No treatment for the disease is available, as nematodes are difficult to control in the forest environment, but research is underway to identify treatments for individual landscape trees.
        “That’s the worst part; we don’t know what to do about it yet,” said Faubert, who observed diseased trees in an extensive area of beeches in Ashaway but did not find it in beech forests in Portsmouth or Middletown. “We also don’t know how it’s being transmitted from tree to tree, so if people walk around in the area of diseased trees, they should probably wash the bottom of their shoes before going into another forest.”
        She also advises that residents avoid digging up beech tree saplings from one forest and transplanting them elsewhere so as not to move potentially diseased trees to uninfected areas.
        Those who believe they have beech trees infected with beech leaf disease should take a photo and report it on the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s invasive species pest report form.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Identifying some wildlife is now a snap

        If you’re at all like me, whenever you see an animal or plant you’ve never seen before – be it a bug, bird, bat or begonia – you want to know what kind of living thing it is. You want to put a name to it. You want to know what to call it so you can tell your friends and family what you saw.
        That’s my immediate reaction every time, and it’s not unusual. Everybody does it, though not necessarily always with wildlife. For some people, they react the same way when seeing a car they’ve never seen. They need to know what make and model it is. While I can’t tell the difference between most cars these days, I’m always impressed by those who can distinguish them by tiny characteristics like taillights or bumpers.
        Where do you turn when you want to identify wildlife you’ve never seen before? Most of my friends turn to me. I get text messages and email messages almost daily from people who want me to help them identify something they got a brief glance at. If they send me a picture, I can usually help them. But often, the characteristics they claim to have seen don’t match up with anything that lives around here. Or they don’t notice the key distinguishing features of the specimen. With many species, you have to know what to look for to identify it correctly.
        But now that’s less of an issue, thanks to some extremely helpful free smartphone applications and websites that have turned identifying wildlife into a relatively simple experience. Most of the time.
        The Seek app is my favorite. Wave your phone over a plant or insect or turtle, for instance, and it quickly identifies it for you. That’s been a huge help whenever I see an interesting plant that I know I should know or a strange bug perched on my deck. It’s not so good for creatures that won’t sit still long enough for you to wave your phone in front of them, like birds and butterflies, or for animals you can’t get close to, like mammals. But for those that cooperate, it quickly solves the identification puzzle.
        When I wrote in July about identifying more than 250 species of wildlife in my backyard in 24 hours, it was mostly due to the Seek app that I was able to do so. I can confidently identify birds and mammals and amphibians, but insects and plants have always been a challenge for me, and close to 200 of the species I identified that day were plants and insects. It wouldn’t have been possible without Seek.
        For wildlife that you can photograph from a distance but can’t get close enough to use Seek, including birds, dragonflies, butterflies, bees and mammals, post your images to iNaturalist – either the website or app – and it will identify it for you. The Google photos app does something similar by comparing your photo to other online images (it will even identify cars).
        You can also get identification help for certain categories of wildlife at eBird, BugNET, eButterfly, Odonate Central (dragonflies) and similar online sources.
        Since I’ve started telling people about Seek and these other apps, I don’t get nearly as many texts and emails asking for my help identifying things as I used to. Now I seldom hear from anybody at all.
        As one so-called friend jokingly said, “Now that I’ve got Seek, what do I need you for?”

This article first appeared in the Independent on Sept. 3, 2020.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Dragonfly predation on eastern newts

Eastern newt (Elise Tillinghast)
        Common green darners are among the largest dragonflies in the Northeast, and they are voracious predators, capturing large flying insects – including other dragonflies – while in flight. During their long larval stage in freshwater ponds, they are equally predatory, feeding on aquatic insects, minnows, tadpoles, and even developing froglets.
        But whether they also feed on the larvae of eastern newts was unknown. Although newt larvae are similar in size to other green darner prey, newts also contain a neurotoxin that may make them unpalatable. So Brian Gall, a biology professor at Hanover College in Indiana, conducted a series of laboratory experiments to determine whether darner larvae will eat newt larvae and whether the newts employ any behavioral strategies to avoid being eaten.
         The palatability question is particularly complex, as it is unknown how much neurotoxin the newts contain in larval form. Adult newts have only low levels of the toxin, and Gall said they are known to deposit some of their toxin in their eggs, but is it enough to repel green darner larvae? Juvenile newts – called efts – contain high levels of the toxin, even though it is believed that they are unable to produce it themselves.
        In the first experiment, green darner larvae were provided newt larvae in all three developmental stages to determine which was preferred. “They ate them all,” Gall said. “Young ones were eaten, old ones were eaten, and metamorphs were eaten. That was a surprise.”
        Next he assessed the survival rate of newt larva when exposed to dragonfly larva in environmental chambers. In two experiments, the dragonfly larvae ate 19 of 20 newt larvae. Because newt larvae rely on their sense of smell to detect predators, Gall then placed newt larvae in water previously containing green darner larvae, and it became clear that the newts could smell the dragonflies. They immediately slowed down their movements.
        “Even though they don’t have enough toxin to protect themselves, the newt larvae have behavioral mechanisms to help keep them safe,” Gall explained. “When they smell a dragonfly, they reduce their activity and hide by sitting at the bottom of a pond until they don’t smell that dragonfly anymore.”
        Given how voraciously common green darner larvae prey on newt larvae in controlled experiments, one might think that the newts may struggle to survive in the wild. But Gall isn’t worried about them. “I’m sure the dragonflies are eating a lot of newt larvae, but every fall we find thousands of developing efts, so the dragonflies aren’t getting close to eating all of them. The newts have evolved mechanisms to survive.”
        Still, he’s curious how the relationship plays out in the wild. “Newts aren’t confined in a little dish with nothing to hide them,” he said. “I’d like to look at mortality rates in the field and understand how successful dragonfly larvae are in the wild when they have other things to eat. How likely are newt larvae to survive in those conditions?”

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

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Bay warming causes seasonal shift in jellyfish-like creatures

        Nearly 50 years of weekly surveys in Narragansett Bay have revealed changes in the seasonal activities of ctenophores – small, non-stinging, jellyfish-like creatures – that have implications for the health of fish populations in the bay.
        Scientists at the University of Rhode Island and Rutgers University report in the Journal of Plankton Research this month that while numbers of the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi have not increased, as had been speculated, higher temperatures in the bay have led them to be more prevalent earlier in the spring and later in the fall than previously observed.
        And because they feed voraciously on copepods – zooplankton near the bottom of the food chain, upon which many young fish feed – they are likely limiting the amount of food available to larval fish
Ctenophore by Michael Salerno

. Ctenophores also eat fish eggs and some larval fish, which also could affect fish populations.
        Barbara Sullivan-Watts, emerita marine research scientist at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography and an adjunct professor of biology at Providence College, who manages the survey data, calls ctenophores “big bags of water that aren’t terribly nutritious, so very few predators will eat them.” Rather than using venom to capture prey, they use sticky cells like flypaper to subdue potential victims. They propel themselves by waving tiny comb-like cilia – hence their nickname, comb jellies – and they are bioluminescent, which makes them glow in warm temperatures.
        The animals have been collected from the same location in Narragansett Bay nearly every week since 1972 using a cone-shaped net that is pulled by hand from the bottom of the seafloor to the surface. The work was started by the late Ted Smayda, an international expert on plankton at the Graduate School of Oceanography, and continued by Sullivan-Watts. It is one of the longest-running quantitative plankton studies in coastal waters around the globe.
        Ctenophores do not feed or reproduce until water temperatures approach 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and their activity levels and reproduction rates increase as temperatures rise through mid-summer. In the first decades of the survey, that meant the peak of their reproduction – or what scientists call a bloom – was in July. But now, after years of increasing temperatures, their blooms occur many weeks earlier. In recent years, they have also had a second bloom in early fall.
        “They’re dormant and slow and lazy in winter, but once conditions get favorable and the ecosystem begins ramping up with phytoplankton blooms and copepods increasing, that’s when ctenophore abundance increases and they’re rapidly feeding. That’s when they start to reproduce,” said Emily Slesinger, a doctoral student at Rutgers who analyzed the data. She participated in the data collection in 2014 while, as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, spending the summer at URI.
        “In winter, they just hang around until they starve to death or disintegrate and disappear,” added Sullivan-Watts. “They stop reproducing in winter and spend that time in shallow embayments most years.”
        If ctenophores are active and reproducing for a longer period of time than they used to be, then why haven’t their numbers increased? The researchers aren’t certain.
        Sullivan-Watts said that it could be because of the 50 percent reduction in nutrients being discharged into the bay from wastewater treatment plants since 2005. That may have affected the abundance of phytoplankton, limiting food available to zooplankton like copepods, and ultimately decreasing the availability of food to ctenophores. The scientists have detected a slight decrease in the abundance of ctenophores in the bay in the last few years, which may be the result of this cascade of events.
        While that cascade has not yet been proven, what is known is that some species of copepods that used to be abundant in Narragansett Bay are now less common because so many are eaten by ctenophores.
        “It appeared that the copepods might suffer a permanent decline,” Sullivan-Watts said. “More data is needed to determine if the copepods are also changing their seasonality to escape predation by the ctenophores.”
        Yet despite the changes in the timing of ctenophore activity and their impact on copepods and fish, Sullivan-Watts said she isn’t sure there will be a long-term impact on the bay ecosystem.
        “It’s not a catastrophe; it’s just a change,” she said. “We don’t really know how this change perpetrates itself on other elements of the food web.”
        The introduction of the ctenophore to European waters has not been as benign, however. Beginning in the Baltic Sea in the 1980s and spreading elsewhere, they reproduced explosively and contributed to the collapse of fisheries throughout the region.
        To get a clearer picture of their impact in Narragansett Bay will require the continuation of the long-term data collection on which the new research is based.
        “Time-series studies like this are tremendously important to tracking our environment,” said Sullivan-Watts. “If you don’t have people continuously taking data the same way year after year, you don’t know what has changed.”

        This article first appeared on on Septemnber 8, 2020.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Researchers track groundwater discharges into salt ponds

        The movement of groundwater in aquifers deep beneath the surface often carries with it a variety of contaminants that can be traced to leaking septic systems, damaged underground infrastructure, excessive fertilizer use and other land uses. But where that groundwater and those contaminants end up is often unknown.
        Using a drone with an infrared thermal imaging camera, a team of University of Rhode Island researchers led by doctoral student Kyle Young has tracked some of it to the Ocean State’s coastal ponds.
        “We’re looking to quantify the amount of nutrients being brought into our estuaries and what’s happening to those nutrients,” said Young, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot and physics teacher at the
Coast Guard Academy on leave to earn his doctorate. “The key nutrient is nitrate. In small amounts, nitrate is a good thing, but in larger amounts it can be degrading to the ecosystem.”
        Young and his advisor, URI Associate Professor Soni Pradhanang, seek to quantify the discharge of groundwater into the salt ponds as part of an analysis of what they call a “water budget” or an accounting of all of the water that flows into and out of the area.
        “We know the amount of precipitation that comes down, we can quantify how much runoff goes into stream water, but one thing that’s not easy to directly quantify is groundwater flow,” said Pradhanang. “We don’t know how much water is going from the aquifers into other water bodies.”
        Since the temperature of groundwater is cooler than the salt ponds in late summer, a drone equipped with an infrared thermal imaging camera can detect a plume of cool water in the ponds that is likely a discharge of groundwater. And that’s exactly what Young and Pradhanang Lab graduate student Jeeban Panthi and undergraduate Janelle Kmetz have found at Green Hill and Ninigret ponds.
        They flew their $10,000 drone at 400 feet over miles of salt pond coastline and captured several infrared images showing significant cool zones suggesting that groundwater is entering the pond from the bottom. Because groundwater is freshwater and less dense than the saltwater in the ponds, it rises to the surface, delivering a clear signal to the infrared camera.
        “Just because we don’t see plumes in some areas doesn’t mean there isn’t groundwater discharge there, too,” noted Young. “There could be too small of a freshwater component for it to show up in the thermal signature, or it might not be cool enough compared to the surrounding water. But one thing we can say about the plumes we found is that they have ample freshwater, signifying waters that came from the terrestrial zone.”
        What that means for the health of the coastal ponds is uncertain. Discharges such as those the researchers found have likely been going on for many years, and groundwater doesn’t always contain contaminants. But identifying their locations may be useful in tracking the movement of terrestrial pollutants into the ponds in the future.
        The discovery also has implications in the context of climate change. According to Pradhanang, the groundwater affects the salinity and pH of the pond water, which is critical to many water activities like aquaculture, as well as to the plants and animals that live in the ponds.
        If storm surges happen more frequently, as is predicted with climate change, they might affect the amount of groundwater entering the water bodies, changing the environmental conditions and negatively affecting the wildlife that lives there. “It could have implications at an ecosystem level,” Pradhanang said.
        Now that the plume locations have been identified, Young is continuing his drone flights to see how the weather and tides affect the plumes.
        “Flying highly sensitive equipment on an aircraft is high stakes research,” he said. “Quantifying how the discharge changes over time is the next step. But so far it’s nice that we’ve been able to identify the sites of possible pollution contribution to the ponds.”
        Once Young returns to the Coast Guard Academy next year, Pradhanang hopes future students will take up the project to identify groundwater discharge locations and quantities into other salt ponds, coastal and freshwater bodies, Narragansett Bay, and elsewhere around the region.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Study finds Block Island salt pond an 'oasis' for fish

        While the coastal ponds in Rhode Island’s Washington County – Winnipaug, Quonochontaug, Ninigret, Green Hill and others – have received a great deal of research and conservation attention through the years, their cousin on Block Island, Great Salt Pond, has only recently begun to be studied and monitored. Early results of a monthly fish survey suggest it’s a unique and important ecosystem deserving of restoration and additional protection.
        The 800-acre water body was a freshwater pond as late as the mid-1800s that would occasionally breach during storms, according to Scott Comings, associate director of the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy. A channel opening to Block Island Sound was dug by hand in the 1870s, and it has been a tidal salt pond ever since.
        “It’s very clear that the Great Salt Pond is one of the jewels of Block Island,” Comings said. “It’s about as pristine a coastal pond as you can find in Rhode Island. We’ve done a lot of land acquisition

Seine netting fish on Block Island (Nature Conservancy)
around it, but about six years ago we became engaged in the marine environment throughout Rhode Island, and we decided to figure out what we could do to get an idea of what’s happening on the pond and gather a long-term data set to inform future decisions.”
        The Conservancy started with a fish survey, following the same protocols that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has followed at the state’s coastal salt ponds for decades. Once each month from May through October, Nature Conservancy scientists deploy a 130-foot seine net at eight sites around the pond. They count and identify every species of fish they capture and then release them back into the water.
        The quantity and diversity of fish they capture is impressive. Nearly 120,000 fish of 78 different species were tallied during the first six years of the survey, and the research team often catches thousands of fish each time they pull in the net. Most are common baitfish like silversides, mummichogs and killifish, but they also catch good numbers of species of commercial and recreational importance, like winter flounder, tautog, black sea bass, scup and squid.
       “It’s a highly productive site that serves as a nursery for a lot of fish species,” said Dee Verbeyst, the Conservancy’s Great Salt Pond scientist who coordinates the surveys and other monitoring efforts in the pond. “The pond is a refuge for resident and migratory species, and for an increasing number of tropical species as well. Compared to the coastal ponds, the Great Salt Pond is smaller in size but our fish numbers and diversity are similar.”
        The number of tropical species that find their way to the pond is especially impressive. They include butterflyfish, mojarra, longhorn cowfish, lizardfish, chain pipefish, seahorses, and even blue-spotted cornetfish, a pencil-thin reef-dwelling species native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans that has only recently spread into the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
        “My first summer doing the survey in 2015 we caught something that we couldn’t identify at first,” said Verbeyst. “I had done a semester of fisheries research in the Turks and Caicos, where bonefishing is popular, so as I looked at this torpedo-shaped fish I thought it might be a bonefish. We sent them to some researchers at the University of South Florida, who confirmed that’s what they were and said it was the farthest north that juvenile bonefish had ever been documented.”
        The fish survey of Great Salt Pond, along with water quality monitoring, bay scallop surveys, salt marsh monitoring and other studies, are providing a picture of a healthy ecosystem that is facing increasing demands from human users.
        “It’s an oasis in the middle of the ocean and a really important offshore refuge for juvenile fish,” Comings said. “For the amount of use it gets, it’s in good shape, though we definitely want to focus on getting it in better shape.”
        He said that the pond was healthier in the 1980s, before climate change began impacting the area and before the effects of development and boating were as noticeable.
        “Block Island is often an afterthought when it comes to resource management in the state, but this fish survey is one of those things we can work together on to base some conservation work on in the future,” said Comings, noting that The Nature Conservancy plans to continue the survey for at least 20 years to identify trends in fish diversity and abundance.
        “We’ve been very good at conservation of the watershed around the pond,” he added. “Working in the pond itself is much more dynamic and there’s a lot more to it. We need to be careful about the next steps we take, but I’d like to see us move into some sort of restoration or conservation action, to take some of the data we’re collecting and use it to improve the pond and its natural resources.”
        This article first appeared on on August 27, 2020.

Monday, August 24, 2020

She can't wait to get back to guiding birders around world

        On a boat trip looking for seabirds off southern New Zealand, Gina Nichol kept a close eye on the boat’s captain as the seas got rough and the weather deteriorated. She was leading a tour of nature lovers from around the world, and she knew from experience that if the captain looked confident, her clients would feel safe, regardless of the conditions.
        “At one point the captain threw out some chum to attract the birds, and it was clear he was totally comfortable with the situation,” said Nichol, the founder of Sunrising Birding, a wildlife tour company
Gina Nichol with albatrosses in New Zealand.
in Cos Cob. “And then we got drenched by an unexpected rogue wave.”
        It’s one of hundreds of adventures the native of northwest Connecticut has had in her 15 years helping travelers see some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife.
        “Despite the drenching, it was still an exciting adventure getting up close and personal with albatrosses and seeing them in their space,” she said. “That’s what I love most.”
        Seeing rare wildlife – especially birds – has been Nichols’ life work since she started her tour company in 2005. She has led trips to dozens of countries and seen thousands of species of birds in that time. This year alone, she scouted sites in Belize for a future tour and led trips to Japan, Costa Rica and Texas before the pandemic struck and canceled several months of tours. She still hopes to make it to Brazil and Greece in the fall and to Chile and Jamaica before the end of the year.
        “We go all over the world, and we listen to our clients and try to go to the places they’re interested in going,” she said. “Their bucket lists are often places like New Zealand, Japan, Finland and Borneo.”
        Nichol followed in her father’s footsteps by taking an early interest in nature. She studied environmental education at Cornell University, then worked several wildlife-related jobs before becoming program director for the Greenwich Audubon Center. It was then that she led her first nature tours, first to the Pacific Northwest and then to Greenland, Iceland and Baja California.
        “By that time, I was hooked on wildlife travel,” she said. During 12 years as a science teacher at Greenwich Academy, she began organizing small nature tours for friends and eventually started Sunrise Birding. “It started with a core group of Connecticut birders who followed me around the world, and it expanded from there. Now I’ve got clients in Norway, Canada, Spain, England, all over.”
        Her clients are a mix of serious birders looking for particular target species and those with a general interest in wildlife and a love of adventurous travel. She employs six other leaders with expertise leading birding tours to various parts of the world – plus her husband, appropriately named Steve Bird – and she hires local guides in every country they visit to support local conservation.
        “We don’t have the knowledge of someone who goes out into the field in those countries every day,” Nichol said. “We’re really good at learning the birds, finding them, pointing them out, and backing up our local guides.”
        While she claims it’s difficult to identify a favorite birdwatching destination, Nichol said she especially loves visiting Brazil’s Pantanal region, the world’s largest tropical wetland where she can reliably find hyacinth macaws – the largest parrot in the world – along with jaguars, giant otters, anteaters and hundreds of species of birds during a 10-day trip.
        “It’s like you’re on a South American safari,” she said. “And I love our tour of the Greek island of Lesvos for spring migration. It’s my second home.”
        It’s even more difficult for her to select her favorite bird. Hummingbirds are high on the list, she said, “but I really love owls. They’re so interesting and mysterious and unique. It’s hard to pick just one species, though, because all birds are quite fascinating. Whatever I’m looking at now is my favorite.”
        When she’s not leading a tour, Nichol is birding around Connecticut every day near her Branford home. She especially likes Hammonasset Beach State Park for shorebirds, saltmarsh birds and owls, or Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth for forest birds. And this spring – the first time in a decade she was home for the whole month of April – she made daily visits to Lake Saltonstall to observe a growing family of great horned owls.
        As she tries to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the founding of Sunrise Birding during a time when the travel industry has been shut down due to the pandemic, Nichol is looking ahead to offering new tours to Bolivia, Mongolia and Morocco next year while also hosting birding workshops and giving bird-related lectures around southern New England.
        “I really like sharing the experience of seeing something unique or seeing a spectacle, like when we saw 150 sea eagles on the ice in Japan,” Nichol said. “I like watching people enjoy the spectacle and get in touch with their inner child, their inner curiosity, and their love of nature.”

        This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine.

Sustainable accessories from cork trees

        For those whose only image of cork is in a wine bottle, Helena Silva has news for you. The Seekonk resident is designing and manufacturing handbags, jewelry, umbrellas, wallets and other products sustainably harvested from cork oak trees in Portugal, the world’s largest cork producer. Sales of accessories from her company, Bent and Bree, have taken off since she launched in 2016, and now she is adding products for men – and considering opening retail shops in Florida and Newport.
        Silva was working in the fashion industry when she went shopping for a diaper bag after giving
birth to her second child. She was bothered that she could only find bags made of plastic, leather or other materials that didn’t fit with her desire for a vegan, non-toxic, sustainable product. So she designed her own bag made from cork, which Silva says is not only sustainable but also recyclable, durable, light-weight, washable and resilient. That bag remains Bent and Bree’s most popular item.
        “That first bag was designed for a specific need,” says Silva, who spent part of her childhood in Portugal. “Since then I’ve been looking at trends, doing focus groups, and asking people what they need in a bag. I’ve improved the functionality of handbags because I know the sizes people are looking for, the pockets they need, and the special purposes they’re used for.”
        Collaborating with designers in Portugal and several Portuguese cork factories requires that Silva travel there several times each year to oversee production and make sure the quality is up to her standards. “Our success comes mostly from our return customers; word of mouth about our products is excellent,” she says. “People see us at retail shows, flower shows, wine shows, and they keep coming back wanting more.”

        This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Digging for Rhody gold

        Just as the sun peeks above the East Bay, Jody King completes his 500-foot commute to work, from his home in the Oakland Beach section of Warwick to his 25-foot boat docked at the marina at the end of his street. As soon as he starts the engine, he takes off across the water. Today his destination is a few hundred yards off Barrington Beach, where he will spend four hours digging for quahogs.
        It’s a job King stumbled into in his 30s, and it’s a job he lives for. A year-round commercial shellfisherman for 25 years, he repeatedly claims he wishes there were eight days in each week so he had another day to go quahogging.
        Drifting in 15 feet of water, King assembles his gear – two telescopic poles called stales clamped together with a handle at one end and a bullrake at the other. The rake, a square steel basket nearly two
Photo by Julia Hopkins
feet wide with pointed tines that dig into the sediment, is manipulated with a series of tugs on the handle as he walks backward across his boat.
        “They call this bullraking for a reason,” King says. “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. I’m 59 and in as good a shape as I was when I was 25. I’m strong like an ox. Just don’t ask me to run more than 100 yards.”
        Soon after he slides the rake into the water, he knows it’s not going to be a lucrative day. King aims to harvest 600 clams each day in the winter – 1,000 in the summer, when the quahogs aren’t as deep in the sediment – but to do so requires a little wind to ensure that the boat drifts just enough to keep his rake moving across the bottom. He figured out that the optimal winds will push his boat at .35 to .39 miles per hour. But on this day, there is no wind whatsoever.
        “The quahogs aren’t in one spot, so in order to catch them you have to drift through miles of bottom,” says King, who teaches a class for the general public called Come Clam with Me. “Sometimes it’s the wind that pushes me, sometimes it’s the tide, and sometimes I have to push the boat myself. Today is one of those days.”
        Despite the lack of wind, King seems to dance with his bullrake, creating a distinct rhythm with each tug on the handle as he does a two-step across the deck. “The sound is mesmerizing,” he says. “Every time the rake shakes, I hear a quahog go in.”
        King is one of about 500 licensed commercial quahoggers in Rhode Island, though only about 100 of them work full-time and year-round. It’s an iconic industry in the state, but it’s one that is facing considerable challenges as its workforce ages, profits are inconsistent, and demand for quahogs ebbs.
        And yet those like King who have made quahogging their lifestyle can’t imagine doing anything else. “Every day is a great day because I get to do something I love,” King says. “The only time I don’t love my job is when it doesn’t give back to me, when I don’t make enough money. But overall, it’s given back to me 100-fold.”
        After 20 minutes of tugging and dancing, he’s ready to haul in his catch. So he takes a rope tied to his rake and wraps it around an electric hauler. When he turns on the machine, it retrieves the rake from the bottom. King then shakes out the mud and the clams too small to keep, and he dumps the rest in a sorter. As he sorts and counts the quahogs by size – from smallest to largest they’re called littlenecks, topnecks and hogs – he calculates how much money he made. Not much.
        But he’s not discouraged. Holding up a littleneck, he says, “I paid for my house with these little guys, and multiple trucks and multiple motors on my boat. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have clams to dig.” Quahogs have been harvested from Narragansett Bay for millennia. Archaeological sites at Point Judith Pond and Pottowamut documented large piles of empty quahog shells at Native American camp sites that date back hundreds...
Read the rest of this article in the August 2020 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Wildlife immune to itch from poison ivy

        As I watched a white-tailed deer with budding antlers feeding on the leaves of shrubs and plants at the edge of my yard last month, I realized that for many long moments its face was right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy. It may have even eaten some.
        And a week before, while horseback riding along a road in Middletown, the horse reached down to nibble on some roadside vegetation and dragged its muzzle through a mass of the same shiny, three-leaved, rash-producing vine.
        Just thinking of it made me shiver, since I was terribly allergic to the nasty plant when I was a kid.
I even went through a series of 10 weekly injections when I was about 12 to reduce my susceptibility. It seemed to work, as I’ve contracted poison ivy very seldom since then. But it hasn’t stopped me from being hyper-aware of it everywhere I go.
        Observing that deer and horse, however, got me wondering why they weren’t concerned about the poison ivy. Wouldn’t they get the same nasty rash as I do whenever I come near it?
        Apparently not, as I soon learned. It turns out that only primates get an itchy rash from poison ivy, and not even every primate species does so. Some aren’t bothered by it at all. Reptiles, amphibians, insects and other mammals can’t get it either. Nor can birds, many of which eat the berries the plant produces each fall.
        And don’t worry about your dog or cat. Their coat protects their skin from the active ingredient in poison ivy – urushiol – though they can transmit that oily compound to you if they get it on their fur and then you pet them. So if you know they’ve been in a patch of poison ivy, give them a bath.
        According to the Smithsonian, poison ivy is in the same family as mangoes, cashews and pistachios, strangely enough, all of which produce urushiol. Beware: If you chew on mango skin, you could get a blister rash on your lips. While you can safely eat mango flesh without any negative effects, every part of the poison ivy plant – the leaves, stems and roots – are poisonous. And if you burn it and accidentally inhale the smoke, it could have serious repercussions on your lungs and even lead to death.
        But only if you’re a primate. The rest of the world’s species – except guinea pigs, for some reason – can just treat it like any other harmless plant.
        Why that’s the case has only recently been discovered. In humans, urushiol causes what scientists call a cell-mediated immune response, which essentially means that it tricks your immune system into thinking that your skin cells are foreign objects that must be eradicated. The rash isn’t caused by the poison ivy but by your immune system attacking your own skin cells.
        Most non-primates don’t produce the skin protein called CD1a that triggers the allergic reaction when it comes into contact with poison ivy. That’s also why scientists have had such a hard time studying many skin disorders – they try to conduct experimental tests on animals, and animals don’t respond because they don’t produce CD1a.
        Some scientists think that urushiol evolved as an antimicrobial defense agent to protect the poison ivy plant against infection. It’s not a defense against people. Nonetheless, I still take it personally whenever poison ivy raises an itchy rash. I’m certain that it’s out to get me.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on August 10, 2020.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Help spot deer to determine Rhode Island's herd size

          The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management is trying to get a better idea of the size of the state’s white-tailed deer herd, and it is asking Rhode Islanders for help in doing so. Throughout the months of August and September, anyone who observes deer in the state is encouraged to report how many bucks, does and fawns they see via an online form.
          The Ocean State is “not hurting for deer,” said Dylan Ferreira, the state wildlife biologist responsible for monitoring the deer herd. But to get an accurate idea of the population size, he is planning to create a computer model, and one set of data that is crucial to the model is what biologists

call “recruitment” or the number of newborns that make it to reproductive age.
          “While recruitment won’t give us population numbers, it will give us a fawn-to-doe ratio and tell us how successful our does are at reproducing,” Ferreira explained. “Then we can plug that into the model as another piece of evidence for our population tally.” He suspects that the ratio will be between 1 and 1.5 fawns per doe, on average.
          This information will be added to data about how many deer are killed by hunters and vehicles each year, the number of hunting licenses sold and an index of what Ferreira calls hunter effort, among other data.
          “If hunters harvest 1,000 deer one year and 2,000 the next, it could be because the population has changed or because hunters have put in more effort to hunt them,” he said. “We’ve got a new online licensing system in place to better monitor hunter numbers and effort, as well as a hunter effort survey.”
          About 2,200 deer were killed by hunters during the 2019-2020 hunting season, an increase from the nearly 2,100 harvested the previous year. Ferreira said the deer harvest has been rather stable since about 2013.
          “We have plenty of deer in the state, so for most hunters, if they put a little time in, they’ll get one,” he said, noting that deer can become a nuisance in urban and suburban areas where hunting is not allowed. An overabundance of the animals can also have a negative impact on plants and tree seedlings in the forest understory if deer numbers are not kept in check.
          Hunting is the only method the state employs to manage the deer herd in Rhode Island, and hunter numbers have been on the decline in recent years.
          “If you ask the hunters, they’ll say we’ve got too many hunters, but if you ask a forester, they’ll say we don’t have enough,” Ferreira said. “It’s a delicate balance. I think we’re losing hunters too fast, so we’re looking for more ways to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters. Having enough hunters to manage the deer is important.”
          Although this is the first year DEM is seeking public reports about deer observations, the project is similar to the annual effort to collect information from the public about the number of turkeys and turkey poults observed each summer.
          To participate in the deer observation survey, follow this link to report any deer observed. A fact sheet linked from the survey will help observers distinguish between bucks, does and fawns. By late August, most fawns will no longer have spots, so Ferreira suggests identifying them by their smaller size and shorter nose. Bucks should be easy to identify as all should have antlers by now.
          Ferreira requests that only deer observed during daylight hours be reported, and deer captured on trail cameras should be excluded. If the same individual deer are seen repeatedly in the same general area, only report them once.
          “You can attach a photo to your observation as well,” Ferreira said. “That’s a good way for me to do quality control, though I’m confident most people know what’s what. I just like seeing pictures of deer.”

This article first appeared on on August 10, 2020.

Monday, August 10, 2020

URI scientist bets sea urchins will be next big seafood trend

          In a laboratory lined with dozens of 20-gallon fish tanks at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus, eco-physiologist Coleen Suckling is raising Atlantic purple sea urchins to determine whether the Ocean State might benefit from establishing hatcheries or aquaculture facilities for growing the spiny marine creatures.
        Sea urchins are a popular delicacy in Japan and at sushi restaurants around the world, with an annual economic value of about $175 million. Most of those sales come from red urchins and purple urchins harvested in California, Alaska and British Columbia and green urchins from Maine and the
Coleen Suckling poses with purple sea urchins (Todd McLeish)

Canadian Maritimes. But little is known about Atlantic purple urchins, which are a common sight in Rhode Island waters, and whether they could capture a portion of the urchin market.
        That’s where Suckling comes in. An assistant professor of sustainable aquaculture, she is conducting studies to determine whether local urchins could be profitably raised and sold. “Some urchin species might not be very tasty, or maybe they don’t grow fast enough to make it profitable,” she said. “There are still lots of questions we need to answer about the Atlantic purple sea urchin. The key thing is, can we make them marketable.”
        Sea urchins crawl around on the seafloor down to about 500 feet, where they consume algae and other tiny marine organisms. Suckling calls them “underwater gardeners” for their ability to shape the habitat in which they live. Their voracious appetite enables them to keep algae from growing out of control, but if the urchins are too successful, they could remove so much algae that other algae-eating creatures won’t have enough to eat.
        Based on her studies so far, Suckling knows that sea urchins are resilient to the changing climate. She said they have a remarkable ability to adjust their physiology to rapidly acclimate to changing temperature, salinity and acidity conditions. “They’re generally good at coping with climate change,” she said. “That means they have good potential for commercial harvest.” In a separate study, she also found that urchins are able to cope with microplastics in the marine environment by using tiny appendages that look like microscopic jaws to pick off particles of plastic from their bodies.
        Are the edible parts of Atlantic purple sea urchins appealing enough to compete with established urchin species? That’s the big question Suckling is tackling next.
        The edible part of the sea urchin is its gonad tissue – which chefs refer to as roe or uni and Suckling describes as tasting “like what you imagine a clean ocean smells like.” This tissue must be large, firm, and a bright pumpkin or lemon color to fetch the highest prices.
        Most wild urchins have unimpressive gonads, however, so commercial harvesters collect wild-caught urchins and feed them what Suckling calls “a finishing diet” in cages in the open water for a few months until their gonads grow larger and develop a bright coloration. So Suckling has partnered with Urchinomics, a company that is pioneering urchin ranching around the world. She is testing the company’s sea urchin feed to see if Rhode Island urchins will eat it and, as a result, become commercially appealing.
        “If they become marketable, then it opens up a whole interesting range of potential options,” she said. “Under future climate conditions, there may be a need to diversity what we produce in the seafood sector. And since urchins are good at coping with acidification, this could be a good opportunity here in Rhode Island to exploit sea urchins.”
        During the first round of testing last winter, Suckling’s students fed the urchins a variety of commercially-available feeds, including the product made by Urchinomics. And while the results appeared promising – at least in producing larger, firmer tissue – the pandemic delayed the final analysis. Additional tests will be conducted later in the year, and Suckling will share her results with the company to assess the marketability of local urchins.
        Assuming the results are positive, how would a local sea urchin industry look? Suckling said it’s still too early to tell. Much would depend on the willingness of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council to support such an endeavor and whether local aquaculturists would be interested in raising urchins. Suckling has already received inquiries from local oyster farmers, so the second question may already be answered.
        Based on how urchin farming works elsewhere, though, hatcheries may be established on land to breed urchins so wild urchins are not depleted from the ocean. And adult urchins may be fed their finishing diet in cages in coastal waters, similar to some existing shellfish aquaculture operations, or in land-based tanks.
        “There are still too many questions to answer before we can get anything started,” said Suckling. “How and where do we get seed [larval urchins], how easy are they to rear, is it cost effective to do it, and most importantly, how long does it take to grow them to market size. If it takes too long, it may not be worth it.
        “For now, though, we’re just taking the first steps to see if it’s worth the effort to answer the rest of these questions,” she added.

This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of South County Life magazine.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Boy finds record-breaking quahog

            An 11-year-old boy from Wakefield clamming with his grandfather discovered what may be the largest clam ever harvested from Rhode Island waters on July 27 and donated it to the University of Rhode Island’s Marine Science Research Facility at the Narragansett Bay Campus.
            The quahog – measuring 5.75 inches across and weighing 2 pounds 7.75 ounces – is one of the largest specimens on record, though the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management does not keep quahog records. A typical quahog grows to about 4 inches across.
            Cooper Monaco found the quahog in Weekapaug. He doesn’t want to say exactly where in case there are more to discover.
            “I was down on my hands and knees in the water looking for clams, and I touched this huge rock thing,” he said. “I always pull out rocks and throw them to the side and look under them. And then
Cooper Monaco and his giant quahog (Todd McLeish)
I felt the edge of it and I thought, ‘holy moly, this is a clam.’ So I pulled it out. It was amazing.”
            According to Cooper’s mother, Sherrie Monaco, the family goes clamming almost every week during the summer as an outing with Cooper’s grandfather. Cooper found the family’s first two quahogs of the day before discovering the giant one. The family harvested 106 clams in total that day.
            “I’ve never seen a clam even half that size before,” Cooper said. “I’ve pulled out big rocks that size before, but it’s really unusual to find a clam this big. It was my lucky day.”
            After searching online for records of the largest quahog, the Monaco’s learned that the oldest ocean quahog, nicknamed Ming, was dredged from the waters off Iceland in 2006, and scientists calculated that it was 507 years old. The quahog found by Cooper is comparable in size to Ming, though its age has not yet been determined.
            “I’ve been reading the Guinness Book of World Records, so I told my mom not to cook it just in case it’s a record breaker,” said Cooper, who earned his black belt in karate on the same day he found the giant quahog.
            Ed Baker, the manager of the URI Marine Science Research Facility, plans to display the quahog at the facility, along with blue lobsters and numerous other sea creatures from Narragansett Bay.
            “We try to inspire young kids to get interested in marine science by showcasing some of the marine life found in the bay,” he said. “We also highlight some of the interesting research conducted here and explain why it’s important.”
            The facility hosts a diverse array of marine research and features dozens of tanks of all sizes holding a wide variety of marine life, most of which is used for research purposes to better understand the changing marine environment. This year’s studies include research on the effect of warming water on the development of juvenile lobsters, how microplastics affect oysters, disease resistance in local oysters, and an effort to understand coral biology to improve its survival around the world. 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Backyard biodiversity greater than imagined

            Often when people talk about biodiversity and the impressive variety and abundance of species in particular places, they think mostly about tropical rainforests in South America or Southeast Asia or the masses of large mammals in Africa. Seldom do we consider that our own backyards could be hotspots of biodiversity.
            But without question, they are. And the Rhode Island Natural History Survey set out to prove it during the last weekend of June in an event they dubbed Backyard BioBlitz.
Due to the pandemic, the organization could not hold its usual bioblitz, an annual event in which hundreds of biologists, naturalists and other volunteers come together at one site – usually a large conservation area – to identify and count the species found. They typically tally more than 1,000 species on a property of about 500 acres.
Because of social distancing requirements this year, the Natural History Survey instead
A jewel-tailed slug moth clinging to my house during Backyard BioBlitz
encouraged participants to identify as many species as possible in 24 hours on the plot of land where they live. Nearly 300 people took up the challenge, including me, at 125 different sites around Rhode Island. And in backyards of every variety – from urban to rural, coastal to inland, forested to mowed – they tallied a remarkable total of more than 2,400 species.
At my yard, a five-acre parcel of mostly forest and wetland with a few small perennial gardens and hardly a lawn to speak of, I thought I knew most of what was there. I’ve been identifying the birds in my yard for 30 years and have seen more than 130 different species at one time or another. My backyard trail camera gives me an idea of the variety of mammals that stroll through, and I was pretty confident that I knew about the amphibians in the wetlands as well.
I was wrong. I totally underestimated what was living on my property. And I’m so glad that I spent those 24 hours documenting the biodiversity that I live with every day.
It rained for the first 7 hours of the count, so my wife and I – and her two cousins – mostly focused on identifying the plants and trees immediately around the house and taking pictures of whatever bugs we could find for identification inside when the rain got heavier. By the time the rain stopped, it was getting dark, so we hung an old bedsheet from a volleyball net and pointed a black light at it to attract moths. By 3 a.m., we had counted 42 moth species, plus a dozen more beetles and flies.
After less than an hour of sleep, it was time for the dawn chorus of birds, plus more plant ID. We then sifted through leaf litter and rolled over stones and rotting logs in search of worms, millipedes, crickets, slugs and whatever else we could find. And in our only few hours of sunlight, we visited every blooming flower to look for bees and other pollinators.
When our time was up, we had tallied 252 species in my yard, many more than I expected. The most notable specimen was a single blooming stem of a rare flower called greater purple fringed orchid, which was growing in a far corner of the property that is always so wet and thick with brush that I’m sure I’ve never visited before.
All of which proves that despite the many legitimate threats to biodiversity around the globe, our own backyards can still provide us with plenty of surprises. All you have to do is look for them.
This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on July 20, 2020.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Fewer animals killed on roadways because of lockdown

            As automobile travel declined following stay-at-home orders during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, so too did the vehicle-related mortality of the nation’s wildlife. Millions more animals than usual survived their often-treacherous attempts to cross roadways to reach breeding grounds and foraging habitat or to escape predators.
            That is the conclusion of a study by scientists at the Road Ecology Center at the University of California, Davis. They found that 45 percent fewer wild animals were killed by vehicles in Maine compared to the previous month, and roadkill declined by 38 percent in Idaho and 21 percent in California during the same period.
            The study noted that about 1 million wild creatures typically die on U.S. roads every day, so it’s likely that tens of millions escaped a crushing death. Most were probably small animals like frogs, snakes and salamanders for which road mortality is a leading cause of death, according to Fraser Shilling, the director of the Road Ecology Center.
But many large animals were spared as well. In California, for instance, the study found that 58 percent fewer mountain lions were killed by vehicles over a 10-week period beginning with the state’s stay-at-home order compared with the previous 10 weeks.
“This is the biggest conservation action that we’ve taken, possibly ever, certainly since the national parks were formed,” Shilling told The Atlantic. “There’s not a single other action
Fewer deer probably died on Rhode Island roads during lockdown (iStock)
that has saved that many animals.”
In Rhode Island, there is little data available to assess the impact of the pandemic on the road mortality of wildlife. But anecdotal evidence suggests that local animals have benefitted.
Dylan Ferreira, a senior wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management who monitors the state’s deer herd, believes there was a decrease in the number of deer struck by vehicles during the peak months when most Rhode Islanders were staying home. “However, the majority of our road kills occur during the fall during the breeding season when deer are most active,” he said.
Scott Goodwin, the animal control officer in North Smithfield who disposes of an abundance of road-killed animals every year, observed far fewer dead animals on northern Rhode Island roads this spring. “But it’s starting to pick up again now,” he said, noting that spring is usually a busy time for dead raccoons, skunks and opossums because that’s when young ones are becoming active.
The only scientific effort underway in the Ocean State to assess the impact of reduced traffic on wildlife mortality is by a University of Rhode Island graduate student.  Noah Hallisey has been studying road-killed reptiles and amphibians since last year. He said that during a normal year, road mortality is a serious problem for animals in the state.
“We have a lot of wildlife in Rhode Island and high road density and high traffic volume, so it’s probably a major contributor to population declines for certain species,” he said. “Amphibians and reptiles are especially susceptible because of their life history. They partake in mass migrations seasonally to breed and forage, and they often have to cross roads to do it.
“They’re also ectotherms, so they use roadways to bask and warm up,” he added. “They’re also small and hard for drivers to see. And some drivers intentionally target them, especially snakes.”
Hallisey had been using a computer model to predict where and when large roadkill events may occur, based on environmental conditions – most amphibians migrate at night when it rains – and the location of roads near wetlands. He then visited those areas at the appropriate times to see how many survived the crossing and how many were killed.
The pandemic forced him to reduce his research effort, but it also raised new questions about whether the stay-at-home orders would have an effect on the mortality of reptiles and amphibians. So he revisited some of the sites he documented last year as having high mortality, visited new sites this year, and plans to survey all the sites again next year to compare the ratio of live animals to dead ones.
“We were out one night at the end of April when more than half of the animals we found were alive, which is unusual,” he said. “I was amazed how quiet the roads were compared to what you would normally see.”
Although he has not yet completed his study, Hallisey believes there was a noticeable decrease in the number of amphibians killed by vehicles during the early days of the pandemic, but he did not observe a similar decrease in reptile mortality.
“Given how many get killed, even a slight reduction in traffic can be a good thing for wildlife,” he said. “Even one less car on the road could save an animal.”
From the perspective of wildlife and road mortality, the timing of the pandemic could not have been better. The large majority of reptile and amphibian movement occurs from March through June, the peak months of the pandemic lockdown. Many mammals and other animals are also especially active at that time as well.
“For those species that are breeding and moving around during those months, they definitely benefited from having fewer vehicles on the road,” Hallisey said.
If Americans could keep their vehicle usage to pandemic levels year-round, imagine how many animal lives would be saved.

This article first appeared on on July 21, 2020.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Sound on the Rebound

             On Whitford Brook in Old Mystic, Jon Vander Werff wades in the chilly water to his waist to check a fish trap he designed to capture every alewife, blueback herring and American shad that swims upstream to spawn. The trap, made of PVC pipe and polyethylene mesh, spans the entire 30-foot expanse of the river and funnels fish into a containment area from which they can be counted and released each day.
            Using a long-handled net, he scoops out a shimmering silvery alewife about 10-inches long that struggles to escape back into the fast-moving water to join its compatriots in a short distance upriver.
            “Just one out of 80,000 alewives makes it to adulthood to spawn, so this is one of the lucky ones,” said Vander Werff, a fisheries biologist with Save the Sound. “The odds are stacked against them, because their role in the ecosystem is to act as food for big gamefish in Long Island Sound. By getting eaten, they’re doing their job.”
            For a couple centuries, the odds were also stacked against them because of the numerous dams that had been constructed on most of the rivers stretching inland from the
Jon Vander Werff at Whitford Brook (Brian Pounds)
Connecticut coast, preventing the fish from reaching their spawning grounds in fresh water. Many of those dams are now being removed or having modern fish ladders installed to allow the fish to return. The Hyde Pond Dam on Whitford Brook was constructed around 1800. It was removed in 2016.
            Daily during spawning season – late March until mid-June – Vander Werff and a team of volunteers count and release any fish captured in traps on six rivers and streams along the coast, monitor water temperature and flow levels at each site, and clear debris from the mesh. At Whitford Brook, they counted 1,287 alewives swimming upstream in 2018, but just 42 last year, when strong currents from heavy rains caused the trap to repeatedly collapse, allowing most fish to pass uncounted. This year, the trap caught about 30 fish per day through mid-April. At Bride Brook in East Lyme, more than 200,000 alewives now swim through a culvert each year after Save the Sound led an effort to restore the culvert in 2009, three times as many as made it upstream before the restoration.
            These projects to provide safe passage for anadromous fish – those that spawn in freshwater rivers but spend the rest of their lives at sea – are not just about helping those individual species. They’re about rebuilding the food web of Long Island Sound, supporting numerous saltwater fish species of commercial and recreational importance, and restoring the Sound to health.
            “Removing dams and building fish passageways is all about making more forage fish,” explained Peter Auster, emeritus professor of fisheries at the University of Connecticut and senior research scientist at Mystic Aquarium. “By making fish passageways inland, you’re letting a species that lives in Long Island Sound reproduce and their young migrate back downstream and into the ocean. All those tiny fish, which can produce extreme abundances and very high densities as they come out of their spawning rivers, create feeding opportunities for a wide range of other species – striped bass, bluefish, sculpin, seals, and lots of other marine wildlife.”
            These dam removal and fish passageway projects are the latest strategy being employed in the decades-long process of revitalizing the Sound and addressing emerging threats to the creatures that live there.
            Before the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, much of Long Island Sound was a toxic soup of pollutants. Millions of gallons of untreated sewage and industrial chemicals were discharged there daily. It has taken billions of dollars of investment to upgrade wastewater treatment plants and limit industrial discharge, and yet there is still much to do as climate change and other new threats force federal, state and local regulators and environmental managers to shift strategies to keep ahead of the problems.
            “The Sound is in reasonably good shape right now,” said Tracy Brown, director of Save the Sound. “We’ve seen recovery from some of our bigger threats, like excessive nitrogen [from wastewater discharges] depleting oxygen in the water, but there is definitely more work to be done. In addition to continuing to fight our old foes, there are new stressors to deal with.
            “The primary stressor, though, is the huge mass of humanity that lives in its watershed,” she added, noting that the watershed extends all the way up the Connecticut River to Canada. “The health of the Sound is a mirror of how we’re living on land. We’re getting better with our behaviors and land management and stewardship, but we have a long way to go.”
            Much of the progress made to date can be attributed to a partnership of federal and state agencies, municipalities, scientists, non-profit groups and others working together as part of the Long Island Sound Study, led by...

Read the rest of the story in the August 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine.