Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Helping hands

            Among the parents and children swarming Norman Bird Sanctuary one Saturday morning last month was a 10-year-old girl who claimed to have considerable skill using an insect net. She was right, and she happily put her skills to work in the name of science.
            She was one of 13 volunteers who joined sanctuary staff to identify and count butterflies, part of a nationwide effort to document changes in butterfly distribution and abundance and to monitor the affect of climate and habitat changes. It’s the second year the sanctuary participated in the event, and program organizer Mark Pagliarini called it a great success.
              “We hit habitats where we knew there would be butterfly diversity, and in an hour-and-a-half we counted 21 species,” he said, including monarchs, three species of swallowtails, and an uncommon juniper hairstreak, which Pagliarini called “a super super cool, metallic-looking emerald butterfly.”
              The data the group collected will be submitted to the North American Butterfly Association, which will combine it with the results of about 450 other counts from across the country for use in future research.
              The butterfly count is one of a growing number of citizen science projects sprouting up around the nation that are designed to engage the public in collecting data that can be used in scientific studies. It allows researchers to collect more data from a wider range of locations much more inexpensively than if they were to try to do it alone.
              If butterflies aren’t your thing, however, there are plenty of other citizen science projects to join. Some take place on certain dates for a set amount of time, while others can be conducted at your leisure whenever you happen to be out and about. And still other projects are computer-based, allowing you to participate without leaving home. The following is a sampling of projects, but many more can be found online.

Rhode Island Jellyfish Monitoring Program

Organizers: Brown University 

What they need: Reports of observations of any of the eight species of jellyfish that commonly occur in state waters.

How to help: Surfers, beachgoers, fishermen, boaters and others can download an app to their smartphone or tablet and report the species, location and estimated quantity of any jellyfish they see.

Why this research is important: The researchers are trying to document the year-round occurrences of jellyfish to better understand where each species is likely to be found – and where they aren’t. According to the project’s website, jellyfish are sentinels of ecological change in coastal waters, and changes in their abundance or distribution could be the result of over-fishing, warming waters, changes in water quality or other factors.

International Coastal Cleanup

Organizers: Save the Bay

What they need: Hundreds of volunteers on Sept. 17 to help pick up and record beach litter and marine debris.

How to help: Join teams of volunteers at one of 80 coastal locations around the state.

Why this research is important: Beach trash is unsightly and can be harmful to a wide variety of marine organisms. The tally of the quantity and variety of litter collected will be included in a global report by scientists at the Ocean Conservancy. The data will help identify the primary sources of litter, which will aid in focusing prevention efforts.

Nature’s Notebook

Organizers: National Phenology Network

What they need: Reports of the timing of flowers blooming, bird migration, insect emergence, and other seasonal natural history events.

How to help: Observe nature in your backyard or nearby each week, and record online what you see.

Why this research is important: The data will help scientists track the impact of weather and climate change on wildlife across the country. It will be used by researchers, land managers and policy makers to ensure the protection of natural resources.

More info:

Rhode Island Bird Atlas

Organizers: University of Rhode Island, R.I. Department of Environmental Management

What they need: Birdwatchers who can identify the birds that winter in Rhode Island and document breeding activities in spring and summer.

How to help: Sign up to identify birds in one of 165 ten-square-mile blocks in the state, then join others to scour your block for as many species as possible.

Why this research is important: Data from this five-year project will be compared with the results of a similar atlas in the 1980s to document changes in bird distribution and abundance.

More info:

Watershed Watch

Organizers: University of Rhode Island

What they need: Volunteers to make weekly visits from May to October to one of about 200 ponds, lakes, streams and bays to monitor water quality.

How to help: At a designated water body, test for water clarity, temperature, algae and dissolved oxygen every week, and collect water samples on several designated dates. Training provided.

Why this research is important: The program helps local communities identify the sources of pollution and the factors contributing to water degradation. Data is used by DEM and other agencies to identify the effect that weather and land use patterns have on water quality.

More info:

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on August 16, 2016.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The dragonfly that wanders the globe

            It’s not often that a common dragonfly makes the international news, but the wandering glider did just that in March. The two-inch long insect generated the attention for its remarkable long distance flying abilities. According to research by a Rutgers University biologist and her student, wandering gliders frequently make transcontinental migrations. Hundreds of thousands of them have been seen crossing the Indian Ocean from Asia to Africa, for instance, and they have been observed on every continent except Antarctica, making them the most widespread dragonfly on Earth.
            In New England, wandering gliders are quite distinctive as one of the very few dragonflies that appear orange in color as they dart by at eye level.  That appearance is somewhat deceiving, though. In the hand, they usually appear more yellow than orange. But their large red eyes and orange stigma – a spot on the leading edge of the wings, near the wingtip – combine with their golden yellow bodies and an amber wash on their clear wings to make them look orange.
Wandering Glider by Greg Lasley
Females typically lay a clutch of 500 to 2,000 eggs in vernal pools and other temporary puddles by tapping their abdomen on the surface of the water. (Biologists say it’s not unusual for the insects to attempt to lay their eggs on the shiny hoods and roofs of vehicles that they mistake for puddles.) But they are most often seen from July through September cruising back and forth over meadows, power line corridors and other openings while hunting for insects, which they capture and consume on the wing. Large swarms of wandering gliders can sometimes be seen feeding together when food is abundant, though you can often get the best view of them when they perch vertically on vegetation, usually close to the ground.
It’s in the fall when they migrate south that their name is most apt, however. Unlike most dragonfly larvae, which overwinter in the pond or stream in which they hatch, wandering glider larvae develop in less than two months, allowing them to emerge from the water in late summer or early fall and transform into their adult stage. They then undertake the epic migration that can take them out over the ocean for days or weeks at a time, feeding as they go on aerial plankton. This feat means they surpass the monarch butterfly as the insect with the longest migration, putting them on par with many whales and birds.
Since wandering gliders – sometimes called globe skimmers – are too tiny for researchers to use GPS technology to track their movements, scientists analyzed the genes of specimens from far flung locations around the world to learn how widely they travel. This information served as a proxy for how often dragonflies from widespread locations mate with each other. They apparently do so quite regularly; so often, in fact, that their global gene pool is largely homogenous.
Lead researcher Jessica Ware told Newsweek that most species have a “neighborhood effect” in which individuals that breed in the same vicinity tend to be more closely related genetically than those living farther away. But that’s not true of the wandering glider. “Because the entire world is their neighborhood, any [wandering glider you see] is likely to be as closely related to one in Europe as it is to one in South America,” she said.
The insects are well adapted for their intercontinental travels. Their wings are long and broad and built for gliding – somewhat like albatrosses, which also soar across the oceans – and they are considered the highest flying dragonfly after having been recorded flying more than three miles above the surface of the Earth. This means they can take advantage of oceanic winds to carry them much of the way to their ultimate destination without having to flap continuously.
But it’s not an easy trip. Ware calls it “a kind of suicide mission,” since many die along the way. Those that make it, however, help to assure the survival of the species, since their long migrations are believed to be part of a strategy that provides that at least some will end up somewhere with available freshwater to breed in, regardless of the season.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Every day is turkey day in the Ocean State

            It’s looking like it’s going to be a banner year for wild turkeys in Rhode Island, and while some people aren’t thrilled by that prospect, I can’t help but smile about it.
I’ve been enjoying occasional visits to my backyard this summer by four hen turkeys and their 26 poults, which I’ve watched grow from fluffy, down-covered chicks into half-sized versions of their parents. They appear to strut their stuff proudly, take dust baths in my garden, and peck at whatever seeds the songbirds spill from my feeders. And while I have to be careful walking in the yard in bare feet, I’m not complaining.
            Wild turkey conservation is a tremendous success story in Rhode Island. They were hunted out of the Northeast by the late 1700s, and despite efforts to reintroduce them to Rhode Island in the 1950s, they remained mostly absent until the Department of Environmental Management undertook a determined effort to restore them. Twenty-nine birds captured in Vermont in 1980 were released in Exeter in 1980, and in the mid-1990s another 105 birds were released in West Greenwich, Burrillville, Scituate, Tiverton and Little Compton. Five years later, the state was home to about 6,000 turkeys in nearly every community.
            According to Brian Tefft, the DEM wildlife biologist who keeps track of turkeys in the state, their population has declined by almost half since their peak in 2001. The reasons are unclear.  The state has plenty of available habitat, but also plenty of places where turkeys are few and far between. That makes Tefft wonder whether there may be subtleties in their preferred habitat that are not being met here. 
            Food doesn’t appear to be a limiting factor in the growth of Rhode Island’s turkey population, though this year’s gypsy moth infestation may mean fewer acorns for turkeys to eat next year. And while natural predation is likely high, Tefft says that hunters take so few that their impact is “biologically insignificant.”
            The one factor that’s difficult to assess is weather, and that can have a major effect on the health of the hens and the durability of their chicks. A snowy and icy winter can make it difficult for adult turkeys to access food, which could leave them thin and unfit to reproduce.  And lots of rain in early summer could cause hypothermia in the chicks.
            That may be the reason why just 2 to 4 chicks survived per hen each year over the last decade or more, compared to 5 or 6 chicks during the peak years in the late 1990s. Last year was a banner year for chick survival, however, and Tefft said this year probably will be, too.
            He bases that assessment on his “brood index,” which he calculates at the end of August every year based on reports from the public about the ratio of chicks to hens observed each summer. He typically receives about 350 reports from throughout the state every year, though this year he has received more than 600, which in itself is a sign that turkey numbers are on the upswing.
            So if you see any hen turkeys followed by a trail of little ones before the end of the month, report them to Tefft via a form on the DEM website. And enjoy what Tefft calls an important part of Rhode Island’s natural and cultural heritage.

This article first appeared in The Independent on August 18, 2016.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

More tropical fish arriving in Narragansett Bay earlier in season

            When a tropical fish called a crevalle jack turned up this summer in the Narragansett Bay trawl survey that the University of Rhode Island conducts every week, it was the first time the species was detected in the more than 50 years that the survey has taken place. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s seine survey of fish in Rhode Island waters also captured a crevalle jack this year for the first time.
            While it’s unusual that both organizations would capture a fish they had never recorded in the Bay before, it’s not unusual that fish from the Tropics are finding their way to Narragansett Bay. In fact, fish from Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean have been known to turn up in local waters in late summer every year for decades. But lately they’ve been showing up earlier in the season and in larger numbers, which is raising questions among those who pay attention to such things.
Crevalle jack captured in Florida (Photo by Clare Sunquist)
            “There’s been a lot of speculation about how they get here,” said Jeremy Collie, the URI oceanography professor who manages the weekly trawl survey. “Most of them aren’t particularly good swimmers, so they probably didn’t swim here. They don’t say ‘It’s August, so let’s go on vacation to New England.’ They’re not capable of long migrations.”
            Instead, fish eggs and larvae and occasionally adult fish are believed to arrive in late summer on eddies of warm water that break from the Gulf Stream. Collie said they “probably hitch a ride” on sargassum weed or other bits of seaweed that the currents carry toward Narragansett Bay.
            Most of these tropical species, including spotfin butterflyfish, damselfish, short bigeye, burrfish and several varieties of grouper, don’t survive long in the region. When the water begins to get cold in November, almost all perish.
            “There’s no transport system to carry them back south, which is the reason they can’t get back where they came from,” Collie said.
            While climate change and the warming of the oceans has been responsible for many unusual marine observations in recent years, that does not appear to be the case with the annual arrival of tropical fish in local waters.
            “Warming doesn’t really have an effect on it,” said Mark Hall, the owner of Biomes Marine Biology Center in North Kingstown, which has been exhibiting locally-caught tropical fish since it opened in 1989.  “It’s just the way the Gulf Stream meanders and carries these fish our way.”
            Ocean warming does appear to be affecting the timing of the arrival of the fish, however.
            “Twenty years ago I wouldn’t bother trying to find tropicals until mid-August, but now we’re seeing them in July,” Hall said.
            The good news is that none of these tropical species appear to be harming or out-competing the native marine life in Narragansett Bay.
            “They arrive in July or August and are dead by November, so they’re just not here long enough to have an impact,” said Hall. “I can’t think of a single animal that’s having a negative effect.”
            Collie agrees. “These strays are small and appear here in small numbers,” he said. “The threat would come from wholesale movements of new species that can stay here for long periods. Tropicals aren’t a threat.”
            For those interested in seeing some of the tropical species that are making their way to Rhode Island, visit Biomes in North Kingstown or Save the Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium at Easton’s Beach in Newport. Save the Bay just opened a new exhibit this month featuring tropical fish species collected locally by its staff, volunteers and partner organizations, including Norman Bird Sanctuary and DEM. The exhibit, called The Bay of the Future, features a wide variety of what manager Adam Kovarsky calls Gulf Stream orphans.
            “We want to spark people’s thought processes about the things that can happen from climate change,” Kovarsky said. “While tropical strays have been showing up here forever and ever, there’s evidence that now they’re showing up in larger numbers and arriving earlier and surviving later. It’s not a problem now, but eventually they may stay year round, and that could stress our local species.”
            The Save the Bay exhibit, the largest display of warm-water species it has ever featured, includes striped burrfish, pinfish, short bigeyes, scamp groupers, spotfin butterflyfish and many others in a tank 12 feet long and 7 feet high. 

This article first appeared on on August 17, 2016.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Warming oceans could mean boom in southern New England jellyfish populations

            When Jen Scranton went swimming in a protected cove at Fort Wetherill in Jamestown last month, she felt like she was swimming “in a giant wet ball pit.” She said she was surrounded by thousands of jelly bean-sized jellyfish. And although she didn’t get stung, she did feel a bit disconcerted by the experience.
            She’s not the only one. Many people throughout Rhode Island and beyond have reported unusually large numbers of jellyfish in recent years. And while this year is not turning out to be a big year for jellyfish in Narragansett Bay, some scientists claim that the warming of the oceans may be creating conditions that benefit jellyfish.
            Jack Costello, a biology professorat Providence College who studies jellyfish, said that there is considerable debate among scientists about whether there are substantial changes in jellyfish populations worldwide.
            “The popular story is that we’re changing the oceans, getting rid of the fish and causing jellyfish to multiply,” he said. “There may be some truth to that. But there is also clear evidence that some species of jellyfish aren’t doing well,” especially those that spend part of their life cycle on the seafloor.
            The only thing scientists seem to agree on is that there is great variability in jellyfish abundance from year to year that cannot be explained. Last year jellyfish numbers boomed in Narragansett Bay. Like algae blooms, some jellyfish species explode in abundance in regular cycles, while others occasionally get blown into the Bay by changing currents.
            “Most of the jellies that people know about are the high profile species, the large ones we can see easily,” said Costello. These include the common moon jelly often seen at beaches in the summer and the lion’s mane jelly, a large cold-water species most often seen locally in April and May. The Portuguese Man ‘o War, a southern species familiar to many people, is perhaps the most dangerous variety, but it very seldom shows up in Rhode Island waters.
            According to Costello, one of the major periods of jellyfish activity in Narragansett Bay is in late winter and early spring, when several tiny species are most active. But few people notice them. That’s when several species of ctenophores are increasingly abundant.
            Ctenophores are gelatinous predators on zooplankton and larval fish, and one species found in Narragansett Bay is clearly benefitting from global warming.
            “They overwinter in shallow inshore waters, which warm up before the central bay,” explained Costello. “And when we have a really warm early spring, they produce higher populations, which affect the population of zooplankton and affect the life cycle of other species in the bay.”
            Chris Deacutis said that sea nettles, a small bell-shaped jellyfish with foot-long tentacles, may also be increasing in numbers in Rhode Island due to warming waters. The supervising environmental scientist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management said that sea nettles are becoming increasingly common in the salt ponds in South County, where they are often difficult to see but produce a painful sting that “feels like someone rubbed a match across your face.”
            Deacutis agrees with Costello, though, that there is little scientific evidence that links temperatures and jellyfish numbers. But, he said, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. He said that no one is measuring jellyfish densities regularly, and that would be the only way to determine if changes are really taking place.
            “The bay varies significantly depending on the weather from season to season,” he said. “Heavy rains in summer cause hypoxia very quickly, and that would probably drive more gelatinous species. Jellyfish seem to do OK even in low oxygen conditions and can find enough food in those conditions to survive and reproduce pretty well.”
            Deacutis said that in a low oxygen environment, the food web becomes “short circuited. The sensitive species like fish swim away or die, while those like jellyfish that can survive on bacteria and small zooplankton do well.”
            But even if jellyfish populations really are growing due to the warming climate, he doesn’t believe it is a signal of doom.
            “If sea nettles started exploding in the salt ponds, that would be a bad thing for people,” he said. “But would it harm the ecosystem? There’s no evidence of that. Climate change is causing complex reactions to ecosystems like Narragansett Bay. Things are changing. It’s not necessarily true that things are getting worse as much as they are simply changing.” 

This article first appeared on on August 10, 2016.