Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Six reasons to love dragonflies

            When the joyful noise of spring subsides for the summer and most birds remain hidden to raise their broods, more and more wildlife enthusiasts are turning their attention to another of nature’s spectacular aerialists – dragonflies. Dressed in brilliant, iridescent colors and with names like ringed bog haunter, unicorn clubtail and sparkling jewelwing, dragonflies and their close relatives damselflies are easy to get hooked on once you start paying attention.
            Biologist Ginger Brown, Rhode Island’s leading dragonfly expert, who some call the dragon lady, says it’s the “combination of a strikingly handsome insect and their really dynamic behaviors that attract the general public to dragonflies. They’re the hawks of the insect world.”
            For those who aren’t yet convinced, here are six reasons why dragonflies are the most fascinating creatures in the insect world and deserving of your interest.

1. Their flight skills are unparalleled.
            Dragonflies can fly forward and backward and hover in place. They can stop on a dime, rapidly change directions, and fly upside down. The military has even studied their flight skills to improve the design of helicopters.  Those flight skills come in handy as they cruise around local ponds and swamps hunting for other flying insects that they capture and consume on the wing. They even catch and eat other dragonflies, though dragonflies are themselves eaten by birds, frogs and other animals.

2. They have an unusual life cycle.
            Most adult dragons and damsels only fly around for three or four weeks before dying. But before they do so, the females lay eggs in a pond or stream, and the larva that hatch from those eggs live in the water for nearly a year before climbing out of the water and transforming into the beautiful adult insect. “The adult form of a dragonfly is the shortest part of its life,” Brown said. “The whole mysterious larval stage is what most people aren’t aware of, and it takes place entirely under water.”

3. They’re ancient creatures.
            Dragonflies have been around virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years and were some of the first winged insects to evolve. They witnessed the evolution and extinction of the dinosaurs. Although the wingspan of most dragonflies today is between 2 and 5 inches, some of the earliest dragonfly species were about the size of crows.

4. There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies in the world.
Until recently, no one knew how many of those 5,000 species were found in Rhode Island. So Brown led a six-year census of dragonflies and damselflies in the state beginning in 1998. Her 55 volunteers visited every pond, stream and wetland in the region to collect and identify specimens, and they found 138 different species, including 22 that were not known to live in Rhode Island prior to the census. Burrillville (110) and South Kingstown (108) have the most species of any community in the state, while Newport (25) and Central Falls (26) have the fewest.

5. Their sturdy wings make them safe to handle.
            Dragonflying is becoming an increasingly popular hobby, in part because the challenge of catching them is so fun. Unlike butterflies, their wings are sturdy, making them easy to handle and release without harming them. The key to capturing dragonflies is to use a long-handled insect net and to swing quickly from behind and immediately twist the handle, ensuring that the captured insect cannot fly out of the net. Keeping your catch in the net is easier than getting it in there in the first place, though. Dragonflies have hundreds of eyes, so they can see you better than you can see them. And with their remarkable flight skills, you’re likely to swing and miss more often than you’ll want to admit.

6. Their typical behaviors make them easy to observe.
            Dragonflies often perch out in the open on exposed vegetation, making it easy to get good long looks at them. They are also very approachable, and they will often approach you as well, sometimes even landing on you for great photo opportunities. (Don’t worry about their reputation for sewing children’s lips together; that’s an old wives tale. Their mouth parts aren’t strong enough to break through human skin.) Best of all, when they’re feeding, they typically follow the same hunting route around and around a pond or up and down an open corridor. Once you identify their route, you can move in close, and they will fly right by you again and again.
            For Brown, the exciting part of dragonflying is that everything they do in their adult life happens while they’re flying. “You can see them hunting food, consuming food, pursuing a female, mating, laying eggs,” she said. “Almost their entire life cycle can be seen at your local pond. So just go to a pond on a nice summer day and you’ll see it all.”

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on June 22, 2016.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Help rediscover the 'lost ladybug'

            One of most exciting aspects of watching wildlife is that you don’t have to be a biologist or full-time naturalist to make important discoveries about the natural world. It’s not unusual for recreational birdwatchers to find and identify rare or out-of-range species, for instance, and the same is true of those who enjoy wild plants, butterflies, marine life and all sorts of other creatures.  Often all it takes is to pay attention to the species that cross your path and to know enough to wonder aloud if something seems out of place. And sometimes it takes even less than that.
            Take the rediscovery of the lost ladybug, for instance.  That’s not really its name, and it’s not really lost, of course; it has simply disappeared from most of its range. The nine-spotted ladybug was once the most common ladybug found in the eastern United States. It was highly valued for its ability to suppress pest insects in agricultural fields. One of several dozen species of ladybug native to the region – all more appropriately called lady beetles – it’s the official state insect of New York. But over the last 30 or 40 years, it disappeared with hardly anyone noticing, as non-native ladybugs arrived and became dominant.  
Nine-spotted ladybug by Larry Jernigan
            Nine-spotted ladybugs look somewhat like most other common ladybugs – reddish-orange with black spots. But this one has exactly nine spots, four on each elytra (that’s the reddish part that covers its wings) and one spot in the middle that’s split by the two elytra.
            In 2004, researchers at Cornell University started the Lost Ladybug Project to encourage the general public to look for it. They asked people to take photographs of any ladybug they find and post them to a website for experts to identify. By 2014, citizen scientists had submitted 30,000 ladybug pictures but found very few of the nine-spotted variety, mostly in scattered locations in the West. Just one was found east of the Great Plains.
In June of that year, however, a volunteer participating in the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s annual biodiversity field day, BioBlitz, found a nine-spotted ladybug at Rocky Point in Warwick. It was the first record of the species in the state in at least 30 years, and no one knows exactly who found it – probably one of a group of kids using insect nets to capture whatever they could find. It took almost a year for all the insects collected that day to be identified. When the specimen was finally brought to the attention of the Cornell team, they rushed to the site to look for more but found none.
So David Gregg, director of the Natural History Survey, and the Cornell researchers hope you’ll join the hunt for the lost ladybug. June is the peak of ladybug season in Rhode Island, so if you see a ladybug that has even the slightest chance of being a nine-spotted ladybug, post a picture of it to the Lost Ladybug website. The site has tips for finding and photographing ladybugs, along with fact sheets so you can learn to identify the other ladybugs in the area.

The best chance of finding one is probably somewhere around Rocky Point, since that’s where the last local specimen was found. But the next one could turn up almost anywhere, including in your backyard. So be on the lookout.

This article was first published in The Independent on June 16, 2016.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Naturalists tally 1,066 species in 24-hours at Hopkinton preserve

More than 200 volunteer naturalists explored every corner of the Kenyon Crossroads Preserve in Hopkinton last weekend during the 17th annual BioBlitz, and in just 24 hours they tallied 1,066 species on the property – everything from birds and mammals to mushrooms, dragonflies and spiders. They even identified two viruses.

“To have gone over 1,000 species on a 100-acre parcel with no coastal or marine component is huge,” said David Gregg, executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, which organizes the event. “I’m pretty sure that’s the highest total of any BioBlitz site without a marine component.”

Among the species identified were 21 mammals, 79 birds, 12 fish, 12 amphibians, 8 reptiles, 432 plants, 70 lichens, 81 fungi, 30 dragonflies, 49 beetles, 21 butterflies and 117 moths. The most notable discoveries were a very rare species of honeysuckle and two presumably breeding northern parulas, a small songbird known to breed in only a few locations in the state.

The preserve is owned by the Hopkinton Land Trust, which hosted the volunteers, many of whom camped overnight at the site, including a group of middle school students from Central Falls and the Envirothon team from Coventry High School.

“We’ve owned the property for quite some time, but we finally got it looking the way we want it – with the parking lot and the trails in,” said Ed Wood, a member of the land trust who helped organize the event. “So now we’re trying to make it more well known. That’s one of the reasons we wanted BioBlitz here.”

Keith Bowman traveled from Swarthmore, Penn., to participate in the event and lead the team counting mosses and lichens.

“I don’t get to do this on a daily basis, so it’s a chance to interact with people who are interested in the same things I’m interested in, and a chance to share what I know with other people who want to learn about it,” said Bowman, who manages a tutoring office.

He said the 70 species he identified was a good total for a 24-hour event.

“Mosses take a lot of work to identify,” he said. “A lot of them have to be verified under a microscope. When I’m in the field, I’m looking for those with different color, texture, size and from different substrates and environments. The differences are very small scale differences, so when they’re under the microscope, I’m looking at cell size, shape, structures and veins.”

While most of the members of the BioBlitz dragonfly team wandered the preserve with insects nets attempting to capture dragonflies and damselflies, Kirsten Martin contributed to the team’s effort by using a microscope to identify dragonfly larvae scooped from the muck of a nearby pond.

“I’m addicted to Bioblitz,” said Martin, a professor at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford. “It’s a lot of fun. And I enjoy hanging out with like-minded people, especially since I’m one of the only environmental scientists at my university. So this is a chance for me to play. You get to start seeing the same people year after year, and I add some knowledge about conservation.”

Her unique expertise added 11 species to the dragonfly list that would not otherwise have been included. “And they all came from just one scoop,” she said proudly.

Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, led the reptile and amphibian team, which spent most of its time looking for snakes by walking the edges of fields, turning over rocks and logs, and investigating stone walls and brush piles.

“We got the likely suspects, but I would have expected more snakes here, given the remoteness of the area and the fact that we’re within range of a lot of species that only occur in a limited area,” he said. “Box turtle and black rat snake should have been here, but we didn’t find them.”

Perrotti said the zoo sponsors BioBlitz almost every year as part of its mission of conservation and education.

“BioBlitz is a great way to inspire the next generation, to bring folks with expertise together to pass information along, and to collect a snapshot of data about the biodiversity of the state. That’s what we’re all about.”

Last year’s BioBlitz was held at the Dundery Brook and Goosewing Beach Preserves in Little Compton, where 1,204 species were identified.

This article first appeared in on June 15, 2016.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Road mortality an increasing problem for local turtles

            It’s turtle nesting season in southern New England, which unfortunately means that many female turtles are likely to get crushed on roadways in the next few weeks as they trek to their preferred nesting location. It’s an issue that Lou Perrotti, director of conservation programs at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said is a growing problem caused primarily by increased development and habitat loss, which forces turtles to cross streets to reach their nesting habitat.
            “This is one of the major threats that face turtles and tortoise populations every year,” said Perrotti, who has seen dead turtles of several species on Rhode Island roads in the last two weeks. “A population can only take a hit of so many adult females before you lose the entire next generation.”
            Rhode Island is home to seven species of native turtles (excluding sea turtles) – painted, spotted, snapping, musk, wood, box and diamondback terrapin – and most of them lay their eggs in late May and early June.  Painted and snapping turtles are the state’s most common species, and they generally only travel about 100 yards to their nest sites. But that 100 yards can be perilous because of the road crossings it often requires.  Perrotti said the turtles typically seek out the same egg laying location each year – usually a site with well-drained soil on a southern exposure that’s close to their pond – so those that cross roads to get there must do so year after year.
            Unlike the movement of frogs and salamanders to their breeding ponds in March and early April, which occurs almost exclusively on rainy evenings, turtle migration to their nesting grounds can happen any time and in any weather, though Perrotti said that you’re likely to see more turtles during wet weather when wet soils make it easier for them to dig their nests in. So drivers should keep an eye out for turtles every time they climb into their vehicles in the coming weeks, especially when driving near wetlands.
            In 2015, University of Rhode Island student Elizabeth Shadle conducted a study of turtle mortality on roadways in Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia, where many of Rhode Island’s turtle species are also found. She discovered, rather unsurprisingly, that most turtles were killed on roads that were adjacent to wetlands compared to roads near upland habitat.
              "It may sound obvious, but it's important to collect the data," Shadle said. "It means that proximity to wetlands is an important predictor of roadkill mortality for aquatic turtle species. and it has implications for species-specific wildlife management."
But just because most roadkilled turtles are struck on roads through wetlands doesn’t mean drivers shouldn’t also be on the lookout for turtles when driving through upland areas this season. One of the region’s rarest turtle species, the box turtle, prefers woodlands, pastures and thickets over wetlands and is often killed by vehicles.
“Box turtles get whacked way more often than I would have thought,” Perrotti said. “They look like a big rock in the road, so you’d think drivers would swerve around them. How do you run over a box turtle unless you’re just not paying attention?”
            So what should you do if you encounter a turtle attempting to cross the road? Usually, Perrotti said, the best thing to do is to leave it alone. Picking it up and returning it to a nearby pond won’t solve the problem if the animal has yet to lay her eggs. She’ll just turn around and head back across the road.
            If a turtle is at risk of being struck by a vehicle, Perrotti suggests moving it to the side of the road in the direction it was heading. Just be extremely careful if the species involved is a snapping turtle, since they have powerful jaws and can inflict serious harm.
            And according to a fact sheet from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, it is never advisable to remove a turtle from the road (or anywhere else) and take it to a completely new location, since individual turtles have a very specific home range that they occupy their entire lives.
“You may think you are bringing the turtle to paradise when you take it to your favorite brook or pond, but in reality you could be giving it a death sentence,” reads the fact sheet. “Not only is it possible that the turtle may not find suitable food and habitat in the new home, but many turtles will try to get back to the area they were moved from. In such instances, they may travel until they are exhausted or exposed to numerous additional threats, or they may cross several roads and get crushed anyway.”
 This article first appeared in on June 2, 2016.