Thursday, July 2, 2020

Super-rare bird discovered in Westerly

            The mile-long pilgrimage out to the tip of Napatree Point in Westerly, the southwestern-most point in the Ocean State, is a common hike for birdwatchers in spring and late summer, as it’s one of the best locations to find migrating shorebirds. But during the last few days of June, hundreds more birders than usual made the trek after an extremely rare bird – a mega-rarity in birdwatching lingo – was discovered there.
            A Terek sandpiper, distinctive for its long, upturned beak and yellow-orange legs, was observed on Sunday morning, June 28, by Jan St. Jean, a Charlestown resident and avid birder.
Terek sandpiper at Napatree Point. (Carlos Pedro)
It was the first time the species had been seen in Rhode Island and is considered by some to be the rarest bird to show up in the Ocean State in decades.
            “I first saw it behind a mound of seaweed, and it bobbed up and down like a spotted sandpiper,” she said, referring to a commonly-seen species at Napatree. “But then I saw that bill and thought, ‘Oh my god, this is something really good.’ But I didn’t have my scope to get a better look.”
            She texted several birding friends, one of whom – Carlos Pedro – was birding in nearby Charlestown and happened to have a field guide to European birds with him.
            “I described it to him, and right away he said ‘Terek,’” St. Jean said. “Everything added up that that’s what it was.”
            Terek sandpipers breed in Finland and across much of northern Russia and winter on the coast of East Africa, Australia and South Asia. It is named for the Terek River, which flows into the Caspian Sea, where it was first observed.
            According to Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, the Terek sandpiper has been reported on the East Coast just three other times, including a
A crowd of birders gathers to see the Terek sandpiper (Carlos Pedro)
Massachusetts appearance in 1990. It is a rare but regular visitor to the western Aleutian Islands of Alaska and has been observed on coastal California several times.
            “I would think this is the rarest bird seen here in at least 20 years,” said Farrell, “and maybe since a spotted redshank was reported in the 1940s or 50s. A wood sandpiper seen in Jamestown [in 2012] is probably a close second.”
            How the bird got here is anyone’s guess.
            “No one will ever know,” Farrell said. “It could have flown straight across the Atlantic. That’s probably the most likely scenario. I can’t see it coming from the Pacific and flying across the country. Maybe it came from its breeding grounds over to Greenland and then to the Canadian Maritimes and down to here.”
            St. Jean said that when she finally realized how rare the bird was in North America, she started shaking.
“My first concern was that I wanted someone else to see it,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the only one to see it and then have it fly away and not have any documentation.”
            By Sunday afternoon, the Rhode Island birding community had been alerted to the bird and dozens of people converged on Napatree Point. Many missed seeing it when the bird flew off in the direction of Sandy Point Island, a 35-acre island in Little Narragansett Bay that was formerly part of Napatree Point.
            The bird was relocated early Monday morning, much to the delight of Rhode Island birders, and by Tuesday morning, more than 100 birders from as far away as New Jersey and Ohio were making the long walk out to Napatree Point to see it. At times, the bird wasn’t particularly cooperative, flying to Sandy Point again or remaining hidden in the abundant mounds of seaweed on the western edge of Napatree.
            The discovery of the Terek sandpiper was the third time St. Jean had found a bird never before recorded in Rhode Island. She located the state’s first white-faced ibis, a common bird on the Gulf Coast of Texas and elsewhere in the West, at Marsh Meadows in Jamestown in 1998. She also discovered the state’s first record of a Ross’s goose in 2001 at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown.
            “I’m out there looking for birds every day, if I can,” she said. “I know what to look for and when, and I enjoy it, so why not. It’s fun.”
            The only downside to her discovery of the Terek sandpiper? After waiting to point out the bird to Pedro and other arriving birders, St. Jean was issued a $75 parking ticket for overstaying her welcome.

This article first appeared on on July 1, 2020.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Popular pet turtles outcompete native species when released

            They’re the most popular pet turtle in the United States and available at pet shops around the world, but because red-eared sliders live for about 30 years, they are often released where they don’t belong after pet owners tire of them. As a result, they are considered one of the world’s 100 most invasive species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
            And southern New England isn’t immune to the problems they cause.
            “I hear the same story again and again,” said herpetologist Scott Buchanan, a wildlife
Red-eared slider (left) and smaller native painted turtles (Todd McLeish)
biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “’We bought this turtle for a few dollars when Johnny was 8, he had it for 10 years and now he’s going to college, so we put it in a local pond.’ That’s been the story for hundreds and thousands of kids in recent decades.”
            Red-eared sliders are native to the southeast and south-central United States and northern Mexico, where they are commonly found in a variety of ponds and wetlands. Buchanan said they are tolerant of human disturbance and tolerant of pollution, and they are dietary generalists, so they can live almost anywhere. And they do.
            They breed throughout much of Australia as a result of pets being released, and in Southeast Asia they are raised as an agricultural crop and have displaced numerous native species. In the Northeast, they live in the same habitat as eastern painted turtles, one of the area’s most common species, but they grow about 50 percent larger. Numerous studies suggest that sliders outcompete native turtles for food, nesting and basking sites.
            Despite concerns about their effect on native turtle populations, red-eared sliders are still legal to purchase in Rhode Island and most of the United States, though Buchanan said that in the Ocean State they may only be sold by a licensed pet dealer and cannot be transported across state lines. Those that purchase a slider must keep it indoors and must never release it into the wild, including into a private pond.
            “But people often aren’t aware of the regulations, or they don’t bother to look at them, or they just don’t follow them,” Buchanan said. “We see lots of evidence of sliders, especially in parts of the state where there are lots of people. The abundance of red-eared sliders in Rhode Island is tied to human population density, which means mostly Providence and the surrounding communities. But I’ve also found them in Newport and Narragansett and elsewhere.”
            Sliders are especially common in the ponds at Roger Williams Park in Providence and in the Blackstone River Canal
            While conducting research for his doctorate at the University of Rhode Island from 2013 to 2016, Buchanan surveyed ponds throughout the state looking for spotted turtles, a species of conservation concern in the region. During his research, he also documented other turtle species, including many red-eared sliders.
            “The good news was that while spotted turtles can occupy the same habitat as red-eared sliders, I found a greater probability of occupancy by spotted turtles at the opposite end of the human density spectrum as I found sliders,” he said. “Spotted turtles tend to occur where human population density is low, so at least at this moment in time, we would not expect red-eared sliders to be directly competing with populations of spotted turtles.”
            Nonetheless, Buchanan advocates what he calls a “containment policy” to keep the sliders from expanding their range in the state.
            “It’s mostly about public education,” he said. “We want to make sure people know not to release them in their local wetlands. If we found sliders in an important conservation area – Arcadia, for example – we might consider removing them, though we’re not doing that now.
            “They’re well-established in Rhode Island now,” he added, “so the thought of eradicating them does not seem like a feasible management solution. We just have to live with them, but we also have to try to minimize their spread and colonization of new wetlands.”
            No other non-native turtle from the pet trade besides the red-eared slider has been found to be a common sight in the wild in Rhode Island, though Buchanan said he recently had a report of a Russian tortoise – another popular pet – that was discovered wandering around Coventry.
            For those who want to get rid of a pet red-eared slider, Buchanan doesn’t offer any easy alternatives.
            “You’ve got to be committed to housing that turtle for 30 or 40 years until it dies,” he said. “That’s why this is such a problematic issue. It’s easy to buy a teeny turtle for ten bucks and think it’s no big deal, but that animal is going to live for a long time. When you purchase it, you have to be responsible for it for the rest of the turtle’s life.”

This article first appeared on on June 24, 2020.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

On the prowl

            When University of Rhode Island research scientist Amy Mayer captured a bobcat in Charlestown in 2016, she had no idea where it would lead her or what she would learn from it. But after checking its health, taking a blood sample and placing a radio-tracking collar around its neck, she released the animal as part of a five-year study – the first of its kind in Rhode Island – to learn where the wild cats are found in the state and what habitat they prefer.
            It didn’t stay in Charlestown long.
            “It ended up spending most of its time in Saunderstown near Casey Farm,” said Mayer, whose research is conducted in collaboration with the Rhode Island Department of
Environmental Management. “The interesting thing is that it was always hanging around neighborhoods. I spent a lot of time driving around Plum Beach and other nice neighborhoods keeping track of it.”
            And then it disappeared. She couldn’t relocate it for days and days. Using a telemetry antenna dialed into the collar’s radio frequency, she had to be within a third of a mile of the animal to detect its location. So she kept driving farther and farther afield until she heard the distinct beeping noise that indicated she had found it. In Snug Harbor, where it spent the next several months.
            “We think it moved because of some sort of resource availability,” Mayer speculated. “The habitat in the two areas isn’t all that different, so maybe it couldn’t find enough food and just decided to move. Or maybe it was competition from another bobcat that made it shift locations.”
            Whatever the reason, it helped Mayer gain a better understanding of the ecology of Rhode Island’s only wild feline.
Bobcats are the most widely distributed native cat in North America, living in deserts, mountains, prairies and coastal regions. Weighing up to 35 pounds, they eat a wide variety of small mammals and other prey. In Rhode Island they are believed to consume mostly rabbits,
squirrels and rodents. The animals have been sighted in nearly every community in mainland Rhode Island, but their hotspots are in South County – mostly South Kingstown, Charlestown and Westerly.
And their numbers are increasing.
“It’s really hard to get a good population estimate, since to do that you have to be able to do a trap-and-recapture study, and we’ve learned that they’re very difficult to trap,” Mayer said. “Or you have to be able to identify individuals from photos, which is also difficult because their spot patterns aren’t very clear. But I’d estimate the population to be somewhere between 50 and 100, probably closer to 50.”
To learn more about them, Mayer set up 100 trail cameras around the state – including 40 in South County – to detect where they are found. Bobcats were photographed at 20 of the South County sites and at a total of 40 statewide, but in most cases the animals were only photographed once or twice at each site.
“They move around a lot and don’t park in any one area for long,” she said. “They travel pretty widely, especially the young ones that don’t have an established territory yet. We trapped one young bobcat near URI, and then it spent time in Saunderstown before going all the way to Stonington, Connecticut, and back.”
Loss of habitat is typically the greatest threat to large animals, but bobcat numbers in Rhode Island have increased over the last 80 years at a time when residential development in the region has been quite high.
“It’s a weird conundrum that habitat is shrinking, but for whatever reason, they’re able to survive and they’re doing well,” Mayer said. “In the 1950s they were classified as rare, but not anymore.”
The biggest threat facing the animals now is road mortality. As many as 10 bobcats are reportedly struck and killed by vehicles around the state each year. Others probably go unreported. Route 1 through South County is an especially dangerous place to be a bobcat.
“Of the animals we tracked, they didn’t necessarily avoid areas of high road density. Maybe that’s because roads have the shrubby edge habitats along them that bobcats prefer,” said Mayer.
Trapping of bobcats for their fur is prohibited in Rhode Island, and there is no evidence to suggest that they are poached on a large scale, though Mayer said that a bobcat is occasionally mistaken for a deer and shot during hunting season.
Rhode Islanders who are alarmed at the growing number of bobcats in the region have little to worry about, according to Mayer. "They tend to be secretive, so most people don't even notice when they are in the neighborhood," she said. "People should use the same precuations they do with any wild animal - don't leave pets out unattended, especially in the evening, and keep sources of food secured indoors."
While the objective of Mayer’s camera trap study was to learn about bobcats in the state, the cameras also captured more than 200,000 images of other animals, including deer, raccoons, opossums, turkeys and more.
“We got photos of fishers at 95 out of the 100 sites,” she noted. “We’ll be able to use all of that data for studies of the distribution of other animals in the state as well.”
Most importantly, however, biologists now know a great deal more about Rhode Island’s elusive bobcat.
“We started off with zero information about bobcats in the state, and now we have a huge database of information about them to work from,” concluded Mayer. “It will be super useful for DEM to keep track of their distribution, and we can combine our data with other studies taking place in other states in the area. It has definitely been a successful project.”

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

Monday, June 22, 2020

Antioxidant-rich diet reduces stress response during bird migration

                A research team led by a University of Rhode Island ornithologist had birds fly in a wind tunnel to simulate migration and found that birds that consume dietary antioxidants before and during fall migration can reduce the endocrine stress response triggered by long-duration flights.
                The results, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, emphasize the importance of protecting habitat with an abundance of available berries containing antioxidants at migratory stopover sites.
                “This reduction in the endocrine stress response may be a major benefit birds gain in fall by eating fruits at stopover sites during migration,” said Scott McWilliams, URI professor of natural resources science, noting that many species of birds select berries containing anthocyanins, a type of dietary antioxidant present in purple-colored berries. “We know birds prefer certain berries that have lots of antioxidants.”
                During long-distance flights that push birds to their physiological limits, levels of metabolic hormones called glucocorticoids become elevated to provide ready-to-use fuel to satisfy high energy
demands, according to McWilliams. But prolonged exposure to glucocorticoids is detrimental and can lead to chronic stress response. The research concluded that the consumption of anthocyanin-rich food attenuates the potential stress triggered by the secretion of high levels of glucocorticoids.
                “We always thought that glucocorticoids were important for birds preparing for migration, and antioxidants were there to mop up the free radicals associated with high metabolism during migration,” said McWilliams. “We tested the hypothesis that antioxidants and glucocorticoids were metabolically complimentary, that is if the birds ate anthocyanins before flying then the increase in glucocorticoids to support metabolism would be reduced.”
                The study was conducted at a wind tunnel at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewisen, Germany. Scientists from URI, the Institute, Jagellonian University in Poland and Sacred Heart University in Connecticut collaborated on the project. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation and European grants.
                The researchers chose as their study subjects European starlings, a common species in Germany that migrates to southern Italy. The test subjects were collected from nest boxes, hand-raised adjacent to the wind tunnel, and put through endurance training for two weeks prior to the experiment. Physiological measurements were then taken before and after the birds’ long-duration flights, some of which lasted up to six hours.
                “The birds that ate anthocyanins prior to flying increased the level of glucocorticoids in their circulation by only about half as much as those that did not eat dietary antioxidants,” said McWilliams.
                Equally important, he said, is that the birds that ate the anthocyanins “showed no other effects on their flight performance. The birds could fly for just as long, they used just as much fat, and everything else was similar. Their performance was the same, but they accomplished that performance while reducing their glucocorticoid response. The antioxidants attenuated the negative effects of the glucocorticoids.”
                McWilliams believes that many species of birds benefit from feeding on berries high in antioxidants during fall migration.
                “We know that lots of other species of birds switch to feeding on fruits in fall and show the same kind of preferences for certain fruits high in antioxidants,” he said. For this reason, land management and conservation efforts for migratory songbirds, especially in the eastern U.S., focuses on providing habitat with an abundance of fruiting shrubs.
                While many varieties of anthocyanin-containing berries are available to birds during the fall migration season, few are available during spring migration, and little is known about how the birds cope with the high levels of glucocorticoids during their northbound flights.
                “We don’t know where they get those antioxidants in spring, or if they do,” McWilliams said. “All animals have an endogenous antioxidant system, so perhaps when dietary antioxidants are less available, they rely more on this internal endogenous system.”

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Time to honor the teacher bird

            As spring migration winds to a close and the breeding birds focus their attention on bringing another generation into the world, we often focus our attention on the birds that are raising their chicks in nests close to our homes. We celebrate our daily observations of cardinals and robins and finches, for instance, and we note their progress from nest building to egg laying to hatching to the fledging of their chicks.
Or we pay attention to the big, showy species that we can’t miss at our favorite nature preserve, like ospreys or herons or swans. We feel a personal sense of satisfaction when we see them deliver another stick to reinforce their nest or when we see a tiny face peeking out.
But a great many bird species are unintentionally ignored, perhaps because they’re difficult to observe or are uncommon in our neighborhood or because we don’t even know they exist. Yet they deserve a little respect, too.
So, as the school year comes to a close – and what a challenging year it was – it seems
Ovenbird by Don Blecha/MacAuley Library
appropriate to honor the ovenbird, the mascot of teachers everywhere because it sings a raucous song of TEA-cher, TEA-cher, TEACH!
The ovenbird is among the loudest of the spring songsters – and no, I’m not going to equate that trait with any teachers I know – so they are easy to hear in almost any forest in the area. But they are extremely difficult to see. With a tan back and wings, a streaked breast, and a dull orange stripe through their crown, they blend in well with the forest floor, where they spend most of their lives hunting for insects among the leaf litter.
By now, most ovenbirds are sitting on their eggs in one of North America’s strangest nests. Unlike the typical cup-like nest built by most birds, ovenbirds build oven-like nests – domed structures made of dead leaves and grasses and lined with animal hair – that the birds enter from the side like an old-fashioned oven. Hence their name.
Every year around the first week of May, ovenbirds arrive from their wintering grounds in the Caribbean and Central America and burst forth with their breeding call to announce that they are back and ready to raise a family. And every year when I hear them, I do my best to see one and fail. It can be incredibly frustrating. An ovenbird will be singing loudly seemingly an arm’s-length away and I can’t find it. So I walk a little further and I’ll hear another one close by, and I can’t find that one either.
If I wait long enough, eventually the bird will take a short flight and I might get a glimpse of it, but seldom does it sit still in an easily observed location for long. I guess in that way they may be like a few teachers I know, who prefer to remain hidden from their students after the school year ends.
It’s not until they’re finished breeding later in the summer that I tend to see ovenbirds in more open areas, including in my garden looking for an easy meal. But by then they’ve stopped singing and they’re gearing up for another trip south for the winter.
And that’s not at all like our teachers. While the teacher bird relaxes in the tropics for the winter, its namesake humans are teaching another class full of students. And, when necessary, occasionally bursting forth with a raucous call of their own.

This article first appeared in the Independent on June 14, 2020.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Volunteers document demise of doomed sparrow

            At the 36-acre salt marsh at Jacob’s Point in Warren, Dierdre Robinson wanders among three mist nets she sets up at dawn every morning from late-May through mid-August in an effort to capture the rare saltmarsh sparrows that nest there. The birds are predicted to go extinct in the next 15 to 20 years as rising sea levels flood marshes throughout their range on the East Coast. So Robinson and a team of other volunteers are attempting to document the fate of every nest built and every egg laid.
            “I’m drawn to the exceptions to the rules, and this bird is the exception,” said Robinson, a retired physical therapy professor at the University of Rhode Island who has been interested
Deirdre Robinson holds a saltmarsh sparrow (Todd McLeish)
in saltmarsh sparrows since the 1990s. “They’re non-territorial, they prefer to run than fly, their breeding system is based on promiscuity, the female does all the nest building and feeding, and they don’t really even have a song, just a rudimentary whisper.”
            At one net, she disentangles a female bird to read the numbered band on its leg to trace its breeding history at the site. Checking a log book, she notes that the bird was first banded at Jacob’s Point in 2018 and has now nested there at least three years in a row.
            In the first week of June, the high tides were the highest of the month, and most of the nests were expected to become flooded. If the eggs hadn’t hatched by then, they would probably float away on the tide; if they had, the chicks would likely drown.
            “She’ll probably lose her nest tonight, and then she’ll likely try again next week,” Robinson said of the bird in her hand. “If she nests in a slightly higher location, she might succeed next time, but not if she nests back in the flood zone again.”
            When Robinson photographed a banded saltmarsh sparrow in 2016 at Jacob’s Point – a property owned and managed by the Warren Land Conservation Trust – she was inspired to investigate where it came from. She eventually tracked it to a bird bander in Pinellas County,
Saltmarsh sparrow nest at Jacob's Point (Todd McLeish)
Florida, which gave the bird the distinction of having migrated the longest distance of any saltmarsh sparrow ever recorded.
            The discovery inspired Robinson to contact amateur ornithologist and master bird bander Steve Reinert and launch a research project.
            “We figured that if we found a bird banded in Florida, why couldn’t they find one of ours,” said Reinert, who retired from Lifespan in March and leads bird-banding programs for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “Our goal is to find every nest and get bands on every female at every nest and band every male we can, and then determine the elevation and vegetation composition of every nest.
            “If I were more optimistic, I’d say the excitement of the study is contributing to identifying optimal nesting habitat for saltmarsh sparrows, doing it by finding lots of nests and knowing what happens at every nest, and documenting the characteristics of those nests,” he added.
            But it’s difficult to be optimistic for the future of this species.
            “The birds aren’t aware of the tides,” Reinert said. “They just come in, mate, build their nests, and lay their eggs. By experience or selection or whatever, they cluster their nests in a higher part of the marsh. But we had one bird that put her nest in the lower part of the marsh, and her nest got flooded last night.”
            The year’s first nesting attempt by each female saltmarsh sparrow typically fails when the nest is flooded by the highest tide of the month. But that allows the birds to synchronize their next nesting effort with the tides.
            It takes 28 days – the same number of days between high tides – for the birds to build a
Jim O'Neil and Steve Reinert look for sparrow nests (Todd McLeish)
nest, lay their eggs, incubate them, and raise their chicks until they are mature enough to escape the rising tides.
            “If all goes well, their young will be strong enough to climb out of the nest into the high vegetation to avoid being drowned,” Reinert said. “It’s so closely timed that some of the clutch might climb up and survive and others won’t.”
            But as the tides rise higher and higher due to the climate crisis – some predictions suggest it will rise two more feet by 2050 and seven feet by 2100 – the marshes will become completely flooded and the birds will disappear forever.
            Nonetheless, the research team is revealing some unexpected findings about the saltmarsh sparrows at Jacob’s Point. Among the most notable is that the marsh is home to many more sparrows than anyone would have guessed. Last year they documented 84 saltmarsh sparrows at the site – 53 males and 31 females.
“This is a really healthy marsh with a lot of birds nesting here, so we hope that makes it a high priority for possible intervention or restoration,” Robinson said.
            By recording the location of more than 100 nests in the last three years – many found by seventeen-year-old Joel Eckerson, another member of the project team – the researchers have also noted that the birds cluster their nests where the marsh elevation is highest. It’s a strategy to avoid flooding that succeeded prior to this era of rising seas, but not anymore.
            “It’s depressing,” admitted Reinert. “But I guess I do this work out of curiosity. I find us in a unique position to document this species through its period of extinction.”
            Robinson gets depressed when she thinks about the future of the saltmarsh sparrow, too, but she tries to put a good spin on it.
            “Extinction is a natural process, though this extinction won’t be natural – it’s completely anthropogenic,” she said. “But we bring a lot of young people to see the project, and they get excited by it. So I try to channel it into something positive, like preparing these young people to study other species.”
            The fourth member of the research team, Jim O’Neil, is more hopeful.
            “I think this is a way we can figure out how to save this species,” he said. “I’m hoping the birds will make it. Maybe what we learn can help save the species.”
            It’s a sentiment many bird lovers feel. But by all accounts, it’s not realistic. 

This article first appeared on on June 10, 2020. 

Friday, May 22, 2020

R.I. must stop monitoring plants to death

            David Gregg worries that not enough is being done to protect rare plants in Rhode Island.
            “There are a lot of plant species that we’re monitoring out of existence,” said Gregg, the executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. “We check them every year, and there are often fewer of them each year. The best-case scenario is that they stay the same, but many populations are getting smaller and smaller.”
            He believes that conservationists must be bolder during the climate change crisis if native wild plants are going to survive in the coming decades. Rather than simply monitoring
Salt marsh pink (Hope Leeson)
the status of rare plants in Rhode Island, he is advocating for the use of more active strategies to boost plant populations.
            “There’s been a big debate among biologists about how active we should be in trying to save rare species,” Gregg said. “Are we going to end up gardening nature? Aren’t we bound to make faulty decisions? If we get involved in active management of rare species, aren’t we doomed to screw it up?”
            With little left to lose in some cases, he has chosen to partner with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Native Plant Trust (formerly the New England Wild Flower Society) on an effort to propagate select species of rare plants and transplant them into the wild to augment existing wild populations and establish new populations.
            The Rhode Island At-risk Plant Propagation Project is an outgrowth of the Rhody Native program, which was established a decade ago to help commercial plant growers propagate native plants for retail sale. At its peak, the program was growing 50 different species, but eventually just one species became dominant, a salt marsh grass used in marsh restoration projects.
            “Rhody Native became a commodity growing project, and that’s not our business,” Gregg said. “Our strength is in rare species – learning to propagate them and experimenting with them.”
            The Propagation Project began last year with the selection of four plants to propagate to test the concept -- salt marsh pink, wild indigo, wild lupine, and several varieties of native milkweed. The lupine and indigo were selected in part because they are the food plant for a rare butterfly, the frosted elfin. Just two populations of salt marsh pink are left in Rhode Island, and they are at risk from sea level rise.
            “Our populations of marsh pink have very few plants, and we’re worried about inbreeding,” Gregg said. “The idea is to take plants from a Connecticut restoration site, cross pollinate them with plants from Rhode Island to reduce inbreeding, and then return some to Connecticut and use the others to reinforce the Rhode Island populations.”
            The big challenge with this kind of project is learning how to propagate the plants in a greenhouse setting.
            “These aren’t domesticated plants we’re working with,” said Hope Leeson, a botanist for the Natural History Survey who led the Rhody Native program. “We have to imitate the environmental conditions the plants are adapted to – the temperature, humidity, soil, water and other factors.”
            Salt marsh pink is a particularly challenging example. It’s an annual species that produces a large quantity of seeds in a good year, but the seeds are extremely small – Leeson describes them as “dust-like” – and they don’t tolerate drying, so they cannot be stored over the winter.
            “We collected seeds in October and had to sow them immediately,” she said. “In the wild, they grow in a band of vegetation along the top of a salt marsh, where it’s a moist sandy soil mixed with peat. Periodically it floods as the tide comes in and then drains. I’ve got to come up with a soil mixture that’s like the natural conditions to make the plant happy.”
            Wild indigo, on the other hand, is very drought tolerant and doesn’t grow well in moist or humid conditions. Its seeds – like those of wild lupine – must be scarified before they will germinate.
            “A lot of species in the pea family have a hard seed coat that keeps them from taking in water until conditions are right for germinating,” Leeson explained. “In the wild, lupine grows in sandy, gravely soil, so the seeds are likely to get abraded by the sand over the winter, allowing it to take in water to trigger the process of coming out of dormancy.”
            To get lupine and indigo seeds to germinate, Leeson must first scratch them with sandpaper to simulate the natural scarification process.
            Leeson and volunteers from the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society are raising many of the target plants in greenhouses at the University of Rhode Island’s East Farm and at a private site in Portsmouth.
            Gregg said the project is being undertaken on a shoestring budget to demonstrate it’s potential. “We hope someone will realize that we have this unique capacity to do research propagation of rare plants, and maybe that will help us find some funders to support the project,” he said.

This article first appeared on on May 21, 2020.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Justifying wildlife protections with slug slime

            Since much of what I write – especially my books – is focused on endangered species, I often get asked why we should bother protecting rare species, especially those that are less-than-charismatic, like snakes, mice or Rhode Island’s state insect, the American burying beetle.
            I try to explain their contribution to maintaining the health of their ecosystem or their role in the food web, and sometimes I offer a philosophical note that they have just as much right to be here as we do.
            But more often than not, the questioners aren’t satisfied with those answers. What they really want to know is what value these rare animals have to people and why should we spend money protecting them if they don’t provide a return on our investment. It’s a difficult question when focusing on specific creatures, like burying beetles, for which there isn’t an obvious answer.
            If we were talking about whales or ducks or fish, for instance, I could point to the
Slug slime (Nigel Cattlin)
economic contribution of the whale watching industry or their value to recreational hunting or fishing. But it’s hard to pinpoint a precise economic value for most species. We don’t know what they may contribute to human society, if anything.
I argue that animals don’t exist to serve us – with the possible exception of our pets – and so their existence shouldn’t have to be justified based on what they offer us. Unfortunately, that too is an unsatisfying answer for many people.
            So then I offer another angle.
            Most of the active ingredients in pharmaceutical drugs originated in plants and animals. The Pacific yew tree provided the original molecules for Taxol, a life-saving cancer drug.  The diabetes drug Exendin is derived from the saliva of a lizard called a gila monster. There are hundreds of other examples, most of which come from animals or plants that few people cared much about until their health properties were discovered. The University of Rhode Island has an entire team of researchers studying molecules in marine algae that could be turned into medicines.
            If we only cared about what wild animals and plants can do for people, it might have been difficult to justify the existence of many of the species that eventually provided the key molecules in our medications. The thing is, we don’t know what species could provide the cure for diseases we don’t know exist yet, so it’s probably a good idea to save as many species as we can, just in case.
            One reason I bring this up now is because there may be a plant or animal out there somewhere that could help us cure or treat COVID19 – if we can find it and if we haven’t already driven it to extinction.
            I also bring this up now because I just learned that a professor at my alma mater, Ithaca College, helped to discover a unique new medical adhesive derived from the sticky secretions from a slug. This slug slime apparently shows promise as a replacement for medical stitches because it maintains its sticky properties even when blood makes the area slick. The professor told Smithsonian Magazine that the slug goo “literally oozes off the back of the slug and sets in seconds into a really tough, elastic gel.” 
            While that slug adhesive isn’t going to cure cancer – as far as we know – it might become a new product that solves any number of problems in the human world. And maybe that just might be enough to justify keeping that slug around a while longer.

This article first appeared in The Independent on May 14, 2020.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Rhode Islanders need not worry about murder hornets

               News of the arrival in North America of a non-native insect with the terrifying colloquial name of murder hornet has alarmed residents around the country. But a University of Rhode Island entomologist said there is little reason for Rhode Islanders to worry about them.
                Two murder hornets – which are more appropriately called Asian giant hornets – were discovered in Washington State in December shortly after a nest was discovered in nearby British Columbia. Native to Japan, where they are responsible for about 50 human deaths per year, the 2-inch insects with orange heads and black eyes are best known for their foraging behavior of ripping the heads off honeybees and feeding the rest of the bees’ bodies to their young.
                “Their reputation as murder hornets comes from the fact that they can kill a lot of honeybees in a very short period of time,” said URI entomologist Lisa Tewksbury. “The major
Asian giant hornet (iStock)
concern about their arrival in North America is for the damage they could cause to commercial honeybees used for pollinating agricultural fields. They are capable of quickly destroying beehives.”
                Tewksbury said the hornet’s sting isn’t any more toxic than that of the bees and hornets commonly found around New England, but because of their large size, murder hornets can deliver a larger dose of toxin with each sting. They are a danger to humans only when stung multiple times.
                “But they’re not known to aggressively attack humans,” she said. “It only happens occasionally and randomly.”
                Rhode Island is home to two hornets similar in size to the murder hornet – the cicada killer hornet, which dig their nests in sandy or light soil in areas like athletic fields and playgrounds, and the European hornet, a non-native species that has become naturalized in New England after its arrival here in the 1800s. Like the murder hornet, they are among the largest wasp-like insects in the world.
                Tewksbury said that it is extremely unlikely that the Asian giant hornets in the Pacific Northwest are in Rhode Island or likely will be soon. The concern is that no one knows how the hornets made it to Washington.
                “We don’t know the pathway it took to get to Washington, and since we don’t know, it’s difficult to know how to prevent further introductions into North America,” said Tewksbury.
                Although she said that Rhode Islanders need not be concerned about murder hornets, she advises residents to keep their eyes out for any unusual insect they’ve never seen before, since non-native insects do occasionally arrive in the region.
                “Take a picture of it and report it to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s invasive species sighting form,” Tewksbury said. “It could be something that we don’t know is here, and reporting it is the only way anyone would know.”

Monday, May 11, 2020

Plight of pollinators isn't limited to honeybee collapse

            Most of the numerous news reports about the decline of bees and other pollinators focus on only one side of the story – the drop in honey bee numbers due to colony collapse disorder and its impact on food crops. Yet as important as that issue is to human food security, it only impacts one pollinator species, the European honey bee, a non-native species that is managed by commercial beekeepers.
            The decline of native pollinators, of which there are thousands of species in North America that affect thousands of additional species of plants and animals, is largely ignored. Robert Gegear is trying to change that.
The assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth has launched a citizen science program called the Beecology Project to learn more about the ecology of native
Rusty-patched bumblebee (USFWS)
pollinators, starting with bumblebees, to better understand why some species are doing so poorly while others remain common.
            “The survival of native pollinators has a positive cascading effect on so many other species, both the wild plants they pollinate and the other wildlife using those plants for food, shelter and nest sites,” he said. “Collectively, those relationships are increasing ecosystem health. But as we start to remove pollinators, we start to affect all these other species.
            “Certain pollinators are heading toward extinction,” he added, “but an equal or greater number have not been affected and are increasing. In ecology, it’s about diversity – not how many individuals you see but how many species you see, since each species has a connection with a flowering plant that has a connection to other species.”
            For example, Gegear notes that Bombus impatiens, the common eastern bumblebee, is abundant and expanding and easy to attract to flower gardens, but many other bumblebee species that used to be common are declining rapidly. Why that is happening is unknown.
            “It could be that whatever we’re doing to the environment to drive declines in many species of bumblebees is having a direct positive impact on Bombus impatiens,” he said. “We use a lot of non-native plants in our gardens, and Bombus impatiens loves non-native plants, but other bumblebees don’t like non-natives. That’s one possibility. Or impatiens could be more flexible in its use of nest site habitat. We may be removing habitat that supports species that are less flexible in their nesting requirements. We have evidence for both explanations.”
            Among the species that were formerly common in southern New England and are now quite rare are Bombus terricola (the yellow-banded bumblebee), Bombus fervidus (the yellow bumblebee), Bombus vagans (the half-black bumblebee), and Bombus affinis (the rusty patched bumblebee). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently added Bombus affinis to the Endangered Species List.
            The populations of some of these rare species declined especially fast. When Gegear was conducting his doctoral research in the late 1990s, Bombus affinis was so abundant that he considered it a pest. Five years later, however, and he could not find it for miles around his research sites.
            “The problem is that we don’t know enough about the natural history of most of these species,” he said. “We know virtually nothing about their nesting preferences, about their overwintering preferences, their floral preferences. They have those preferences for a reason, but if you look at plant lists for bumblebees, everything is equal for all species, and that’s not the case.”
            Since little is known about which flowers the rare species prefer, many of the growing number of pollinator gardens being installed around the region aren’t benefitting the species most in need. Instead, they’re just helping the species that are already common.
            “People want to help, and they have good intentions, but the science isn’t there to tell them what they should be planting,” Gegear said. “I’m trying to fill in those gaps and change the focus of pollinator research by taking more of an ecological approach.”
            To do so, he needs large amounts of data. To collect that data, he has turned to the general public. He teamed with computer scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to develop a web-based app to enable anyone to take photos and videos of bumblebees they see, identify them to species, identify the flowers they are visiting, and submit to Gegear’s database.
            Based on the data he has already received, new populations of the rare bumblebee species have been found that will enable him to establish new research sites to learn more about those species. Many participants in the program are even planting gardens with the flowers those rare species prefer to boost those bumblebee populations.
            It’s not just bumblebee preferences that are little known. The same is true of the floral preferences of other pollinators. So Gegear plans to expand his app to include observations of butterflies and other types of bees as well. Eventually he hopes to expand it further so it can be used to conserve pollinators across the country.
            “I put a plant on my property last year that we learned one species prefers, and as soon as it came into bloom, the threatened species came in,” he said. “So this approach really does work.”
            Gegear is seeking to recruit more Beecology volunteers from Rhode Island and throughout the region. For more information, visit
            “And if you don’t want to use the app, just take a 10-second video of any bumblebee you see and send it to me,” he said. “That’s just as good.”

This article first appeared on on May 11, 2020.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Climate change increases risk of fisheries conflict

               A team of fisheries scientists and marine policy experts, led by a University of Rhode Island researcher, examined how climate change is affecting the ocean environment and found that the changing conditions will likely result in increased fisheries-related conflicts and create new challenges in the management of global fisheries.
                The team’s research was published last month in the journal Marine Policy.
                Elizabeth Mendenhall, URI assistant professor of marine affairs, said that ocean warming, acidification and sea level rise that are a direct result of climate change are causing populations of fish to shift, making fish increasingly scarce, shifting the boundaries of where nations can legally 
fish, and increasing the intensity of fishing pressure around the world. The result will be growing
conflicts between individual fishermen, fishing communities, fishing nations and fishery managers.
                “These conflicts exist at multiple scales,” said Mendenhall, who is writing a book about geopolitics and ocean governance. “Some of it is one boat versus another, sometimes it’s one country versus another, and it can get very complicated. It isn’t just about overfishing any more. There are other drivers and other dynamics involved.”
                As warming temperatures shift fish populations to different areas, for instance, the bulk of those stocks may cross the borders of a nations’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, making it illegal for those who have fished those stocks for many years to pursue them any longer.
                “We’re seeing examples of fishermen crossing borders more often now because the stocks they feel they have a right to have shifted across the border,” Mendenhall said.
                Among the more challenging questions that climate change is raising for fishing nations is what happens when sea level rise submerges an island. Does that change the nation’s maritime boundaries?
                “It’s an ongoing debate about whether you keep your maritime claim even though you have no land base to manage it from,” said Mendenhall. “Or does your claim go away? There are a lot of nations that fish over long distances that are ready to exploit those areas if national boundaries no longer exist.”
                The tiny Japanese atoll of Okinotorishima is one such case. Located in the southernmost archipelago of Japan, its submergence is raising questions about whether Taiwan and China may legally fish in the area claimed by Japan.
                “I argue that as sea level rises, Japan’s argument gets weaker,” said Mendenhall, noting that the countries have not challenged the boundaries based on the island’s submergence yet. “The rules on where you can make your maritime claim are based on where the land is.
“The same problem applies to coastlines,” she added. “Low-lying countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam could lose a lot of maritime territory as sea level rises. The outer edge of their claim could move closer to their coastline.”
                The research team makes a series of recommendations based on its findings designed to improve global fishery management. They recommend greater multilateral fishery monitoring, similar to what is in place off East Africa to combat piracy, which can help deter or catch illegal fishers, thereby reducing the chance that individual fishing boats will take matters into their own hands.
                “We also suggest that marine protected areas be used, but it’s critical that the area protected is one where habitats are still thriving despite climate change,” Mendenhall said. “There is concern, however, that when you protect one area, it may displace the fishers to somewhere else and make the problem worse elsewhere. We need to think about the dynamics that protected areas may cause and account for that in the site selection process.”
                Finally, the researchers recommend strengthening the global fisheries management regime by taking into account climate change and the new sources of fishery conflict. The management boundaries of many fish stocks were drawn decades ago, and some parts of the open ocean are not managed at all because no productive fish stocks were there many years ago, yet there may be fish stocks there in the future. Most importantly, they suggest that the regional fishery management organizations work together to develop coordinated governance systems to better manage fisheries as environmental conditions change and greater conflicts arise.
“These changes to how [regional fishery management organizations] manage fisheries, and how they coordinate and cooperate with one another, can make high seas fisheries management more resilient to shifts in stocks and users, and changes in relative
abundance,” the researchers conclude.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Rhode Island's first lizard species discovered

            Rhode Island’s herpetological community is bursting with excitement at the discovery of the first confirmed lizard sighting in the state. A five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) of uncertain origin was found in South County on April 22.
            Emilie Holland, an environmental scientist with the Federal Highway Administration and the president of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, made the discovery and immediately contacted other Survey board members with expertise in identifying lizards.
            “I was just poking around when I saw the little guy,” she said. “I thought it was a salamander at first, and I grabbed it really fast. When I opened my hand, I thought it was going
Five-lined skink (Emilie Holland)
to be a mole salamander, but it didn’t move as fast as a mole salamander normally would.”
            When University of Rhode Island herpetologist Nancy Karraker received a text and photo of the lizard from Holland, she was in the middle of a virtual meeting.
            “My initial reaction was, how quickly can I get out of this meeting and go find Emily to see it,” Karraker said.
            The five-lined skink is typically found throughout the Southeast and Midwest, where it is quite common. Small numbers are also found in the Hudson Valley of New York and into western Connecticut and western Massachusetts. But with the exception of a very few unconfirmed observations, they have never been recorded in Rhode Island.
            Growing about 6 inches long with distinct brown and cream-colored stripes, the skinks have blue tails as juveniles, and adult males have a reddish throat. The one Holland found was a juvenile.
            “The blue tail is a defense mechanism,” said herpetologist Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at Roger Williams Park Zoo. “A predator is going to attack the brightest piece of the animal, and the lizard can drop its tail to get away. It gives them a protection advantage.”
            The big question is how it arrived in Rhode Island – did it arrive naturally on its own, or was it brought to the area by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally. Since it was found near railroad tracks and a lumberyard, many possibilities are being considered.
            “Skinks love rocky woodlands where there’s lots of fallen timber,” Perrotti said. “And they love railroad corridors because they’re typically lined with rocks that are great for thermoregulation. Lizards love to climb out on the rocks.
            “Was it a stowaway on a train? Was it transported up here in lumber or mulch?” he asked. “We don’t know. We need to find more specimens. Is it possible there’s a population here? Absolutely. But unless you really look for them, they’re really hard to find.”
            Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has contacted a colleague who studies Italian wall lizards that have dispersed up the Northeast rail corridor, but no skinks are known to have been found along the tracks.
            Holland hopes it arrived in the state on its own.
            “The child side of my brain says ‘how cool would that be,’” she said. “But when I stop to think about it, the likelihood is that it somehow got imported here.”
            Karraker agrees.
            “It’s not a range extension in the sense that it marched its way east to Rhode Island,” she said. “My immediate thought is that it came in somebody’s mulch – or some eggs did – or in a load of wood. There are enough people like me and Lou and Scott and all my students who are constantly running around Rhode Island looking for stuff, rolling over logs. If they were broadly distributed in Rhode Island, we’d know about it.”
            Another possibility is that the skink was released by someone who kept it as a pet.
            “Pretty much every animal is in the pet trade, but I’ve spent time perusing Craig’s List and I had my students investigating pet shops this semester, and I don’t think this species turned up in anyone’s records,” Karraker said. “They’re not something that tames easily, they’re very sensitive to people being around, and they hide, so they don’t make a good pet.”
            Because the skink probably survived the winter in Rhode Island, it raises additional speculation. David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey, wonders whether the changing climate may have played a role in its survival in the state.
            “If further research shows this is a breeding population and not just a lone escapee, then however this particular population of skinks got to Rhode Island, they never could have survived here before but now they can,” he said.
            But Karraker notes that some native populations of the skink in New York are nearly as far north as the Adirondack Mountains, where it’s often colder than Rhode Island, so she isn’t convinced climate change has played a role.
            “I don’t think it has anything to do with climate,” she said. “Something got moved and the skink was in it, and Rhode Island isn’t a bad place to be. The skink detected that there weren’t any other lizards here to compete with, and it survived.”
            The next step for the group of herpetologists is to search the area for additional specimens to determine how large the local population may be. Buchanan will be screening the first specimen for diseases and conducting a genetic analysis to determine from where it originated.
            But for now, the skink lives in an aquarium at Karraker’s house, where she is feeding it termites.
            “I didn’t want to release it,” she said. “That’s a decision for DEM to make, not me. So I’m just waiting to make the handoff to DEM to take charge and figure out what to do with it.” 

This article first appeared on on May 1, 2020.