Friday, March 24, 2017

Seals the deal for marine biologist

Paul Webb grew up in Australia, earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Richmond, and studied elephant seals in graduate school in California before arriving in Rhode Island to take a teaching position at Roger Williams University in 1999. He had sought a job at a small college in the Northeast, and he said his current position appeared “tailor made for me.”
            He changed his research focus from elephant seals to harbor seals when he landed at Roger Williams, and he has provided his students with research opportunities studying the
Paul Webb photo by Sabrina Polin
animals ever since. He also served as chair of the university’s Department of Biology, Marine Biology and Environmental Science for 10 years.

Q: How did you get interested in studying seals?
A: I went to college thinking pre-med. My father was a surgeon, so I always thought I’d be a doctor. In college, my family took a vacation to Fiji, and when I went snorkeling in the reefs there, that did it – I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. In graduate school, I wanted to work with something big, so I applied to study sharks in Miami, sea turtles in North Carolina, and seals in Santa Cruz. I decided that Santa Cruz was the one. My advisor was a world expert on elephant seals, so I studied elephant seals.

Q: How do you describe your current research animal, the harbor seal?
A: They’re like a fat sea dog. They look like fat dogs in a lot of ways, and they show a lot of the same kind of social behavior.

Q: What’s the most interesting thing about harbor seals?
A: A lot of people look at seals and other marine mammals and think they’re cute and cuddly, but for me it’s the physiology that’s interesting – things like their diving ability, how they can hold their breath so long and go so deep on an empty lung. There’s an awful lot going on behind the scenes that most people don’t even know about.

Q: Seals haven’t always been common winter residents in Narragansett Bay, have they?
A: They were hunted for many years. There were bounties on them in the New England area for a long time, about $5 a pelt, because people thought they competed with the fisheries. But once they were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, their numbers really took off, and they expanded their range as the population got bigger. We’re seeing more and more in the bay, and now they’ve gone as far south as New Jersey. There’s even a small haul out colony in Virginia.

Q: What do they do here? Just hang out and eat?
A: For the most part, you’re right. They’re not breeding here. They breed in the spring in Maine and Canada. The ones down here are mostly just feeding, The thinking is that we may get a lot of the younger animals down here because there’s less competition for food.

Q: How many harbor seals do we have in the bay in winter?
A: Save the Bay organizes counts, and last year about 600 were counted. That only includes those visible, and there could be a lot more under water, so maybe around 1,000 would not be unreasonable. It has been growing, but it looks like we’re not likely to be getting a lot more as they expand their range further south. The last estimate for all of New England was about 75,000.

Q: Tell us about the research you’ve done on harbor seals?
A: They are notoriously difficult to work with because they don’t haul out on shore much. It’s logistically difficult to get your hands on one, so most of what I’ve been doing is behavioral studies and population counts. I’ve had students looking at vocal behavior and vigilance behavior – when you have a big group, do they spend more or less time looking around for predators? The bigger the group, theoretically, the less time each one has to spend paying attention.

Q: What did you learn about elephant seals in graduate school?
A: They’re amazing animals. We were studying diving behavior and foraging ecology. They’re capable of diving for two hours and going down over a mile deep. They’re incredibly deep divers and incredibly long divers, and based on what we know about their physiology, they shouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing.

Q: Everyone seems to love marine mammals. Why do you think that is?
A: People are fascinated by large animals, so they’ve got that going for them. In some cases, it’s the perceived intelligence the animals have – they have problem solving ability, they have complex communication, they’ve got individual-specific vocalizations in some cases or pod-specific dialects, a lot have very stable and complex social structures. There are a lot of parallels between humans and some of those species. But also it’s their freedom. Everyone says they’d love to be able to swim like a dolphin or hold their breath like a seal and stay under water for a long time. All those things that we see them doing that we’d like to do too is intriguing to us.

Q: Does this love for marine mammals translate into a lot of students studying marine biology at Roger Williams?
A: It’s one of our biggest majors. Marine mammals are what brings them in the door, but once they get here we hope they realize that there are so many other aspects to marine biology they can study. A lot of people come here thinking they want to be a dolphin trainer and three years later they’re presenting their research on the genetics of green algae or something. Part of our responsibility is to make sure our students see the wide range of possibilities and steer them to something that’s in their interest and a viable career option.

Q: What kind of hands-on opportunities are available to marine biology students?
A: There are a lot. Most faculty have students working in their labs on various projects. We’ve got field-based projects, like students looking at mercury contamination in fish and other species. We’ve got a lot of lab-based projects, too, like students studying marine viruses or algal diversity. It’s one of our strengths. Coming in as an undergraduate you can get involved in research with a faculty member right away.

Q: What are the career prospects for those studying marine biology?
A: So many people want to study whales, so it’s not an easy field to get paid in. But for other aspects of marine biology there are a lot of opportunities for jobs. A lot of students go to work for government agencies or to research foundations or labs or aquariums that do research. There are a lot of issues we still need to study. The impact of climate change is going to be big, ocean acidification is a huge issue that we’re just beginning to understand, pollutants and toxicology, issues related to vanishing species, fisheries issues. There’s plenty of science still to be done.

This article first appeared in the Newport Mercury on March 22, 2017.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Skunks on the prowl

            For reasons I prefer not to explain, I pay close attention to roadkill. I keep a mental tally of the species of animals I observe dead in the road during my daily travels, so I have a good sense for which animals are hit most often and when and where it tends to occur most.
            If this year is anything like the rest, the aromatic dead skunk I saw in the middle of the road the other day won’t be the last I see this month. While most of the more common road-killed animals like raccoons and squirrels turn up dead in the road at various times throughout the year, far more striped skunks – whose attractive black-and-white fur makes them
Striped skunk by Terry and Jo Johnston
unmistakable – are struck and killed by vehicles as the weather begins to warm in March than at any other time.
Like most animals, spring is the breeding season for the region’s only native skunk. While they live a mostly solitary life, striped skunks go looking for each other in March to breed, sometimes wandering great distances and often crossing roads with little on their mind but finding a mate. Since they are almost exclusively nocturnal – and most animals are struck by vehicles at night – they are an easy target. Young skunks are especially vulnerable as their hormones rage while seeking to breed for the first time.
Although they don’t hibernate, skunks in New England typically remain out of sight during the coldest months of the year. They may emerge for a few hours in the evening during unusually warm periods in winter, but they don’t usually wander much until they feel the urge to reproduce. And those first excursions of the season tend to be the most treacherous when they are faced with a road crossing.
            University of Rhode Island mammologist Tom Husband told me that one reason they are killed by vehicles so often in March is because of their brazen nature. They aren’t afraid of anything, especially when love is in the air. Because of their well-known reputation for spraying a noxious liquid from their anal scent glands when threatened, which can cause temporary blindness and significant irritation, most animals will avoid bothering skunks.
People shun them, too, and for the same reason. And why not? Wildlife artist Ernest Thompson Seton described the smell as a combination of essence of garlic, burning sulfur, perfume musk and sewer gas magnified a thousand times.
            Yet because striped skunks have little fear of predators, they apparently have little fear of almost anything that moves, including humans and their cars. In fact, the animals have a close relationship with people, whether we like it or not. They’re comfortable living around homes and businesses, often building underground dens beneath abandoned buildings, under residential porches and decks, and beneath woodpiles and stone walls. Unfortunately, while we are practically neighbors, few people appreciate the animals.
I like to wander my property at night, listening for owls and staring at the stars, and it’s not uncommon for a skunk to waddle past me during the breeding season as it digs in my lawn looking for grubs. One nearly even stepped on my foot and kept going as if I wasn’t there. I was the only one startled during that surprise encounter.
            In a similar way, when a car approaches a skunk, the animal brazenly stands its ground. Sadly, it’s a confrontation that the skunk seldom wins. 

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on March 18, 2017.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Deteriorating salt marshes contribute to concern for black duck populations

            Before dawn at a small salt marsh on Great Island in Narragansett, a short distance from where the Point Judith fishing fleet was preparing to depart for the day, Josh Beuth triggered a rocket-propelled net over a gathering of ducks. The 30-by-50-foot net ensnared nearly two dozen birds that had unwittingly been attracted to the area by a buffet of corn that Beuth had delivered to the site every day for about a week.
            As soon as the sound of the rocket blast subsided, a group of University of Rhode Island students and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management biologists emerged from their vehicles and leapt into action. With temperatures below 10 degrees, they carefully
Volunteers and biologists release banded ducks

Josh Beuth bands a female mallard.
removed each duck from the net, placed them in several large plastic crates, and prepared to place bands around the birds’ legs before releasing them again.
            “Black duck populations have been relatively steady in recent years, but they haven’t gone up when it would be expected they would go up, like when breeding and habitat conditions in eastern North America have been in good shape,” said Beuth, the DEM biologist responsible for monitoring waterfowl in the state. “We’ve had good water in the spring wetlands, so we would expect populations to go up, unless there’s something keeping them down.”
            To learn what factors may be negatively affecting the birds, Beuth and state and federal biologists from the Maine to North Carolina – as well as some in Canada – have been banding black ducks each year since 2009. The data they collect when some of the bands are returned after the hunting season is slowly revealing a complicated picture of the uncertain health of the formerly common bird.
            Between 1,500 and 5,000 black ducks winter in ponds, salt marshes and protected coves in Rhode Island each year, and a couple hundred linger in the state for the summer, though only a few are believed to breed here.
            “Our numbers fluctuate in winter based on ice conditions,” Beuth said. “The icier it is in the Northeast from November to February, the more black ducks we get. Inland birds push south to southern New England when ponds and streams freeze. They get pressured to the coast where the open water remains.”
            About four days each week, beginning after the hunting season ends and running through mid-March, Beuth and his team trap ducks for banding. They catch an average of about 300 black ducks each year and lots of mallards, which often rest and feed with the black ducks. At Great Island, however, every bird captured was a mallard.
            “Some days when we shoot the net, we get 20 birds and they’re all black ducks,” said Beuth. “But not today.”
            One thing he has learned so far from the banding study is that hunting does not appear to have a significant impact on the black duck population. “We’ve ruled out hunting as the factor that’s limiting the population,” he said. “In years when the harvest goes up, the population actually goes up a little. In years when the harvest is down, the population doesn’t necessarily jump up. It’s counterintuitive.”
            If hunting isn’t keeping the black duck population from increasing, then what is? No one knows just yet, but they’re getting closer to the answer.
            “After five years of the project, we found that the annual adult survival rate for females was 10 percent lower than for males,” Beuth said. “That would explain why we aren’t seeing them going on a steady upward trajectory.”
            But why female black ducks are dying at a higher rate than males – and when during the year it is happening – is still unknown.
            “We’re most likely losing the females during the nesting period,” he said. “But whether it’s due to predation or they’re too emaciated to survive, at this point we don’t know. We really need to figure out what’s driving it and can we do something about it.”
            Beuth suspects that climate change is going to make the situation even more precarious.
            “My gut feeling is that we’re not shooting too many black ducks presently, and the population is stable, so I’m not concerned about the current conditions,” he said. “However, I am concerned that black duck wintering habitat is going to change because of climate change and sea level rise. There has already been a deterioration of our salt marshes, which is our primary black duck habitat.”
            DEM, Save the Bay, The Nature Conservancy and other groups are already working to raise the level of local salt marshes to ensure that they do not become inundated as sea level rises, which would cause their value to wildlife to decrease. Most salt marshes in Rhode Island will be unable to migrate inland in coming decades because of human development that abuts the marsh, meaning that salt marsh acreage in the state is almost certain to decline in coming years.
            “Rhode Island’s biggest contribution to black ducks is wintering habitat,” said Beuth. “But in every aerial image of salt marshes I’ve looked at, there’s less marsh – it’s breaking off and deteriorating from wave action, it’s sinking in the middle from higher tides, it’s not draining, which ultimately kills the marsh. There is certainly cause for concern.”
            Despite the decline in salt marsh habitat and the uncertainty about what is causing higher mortality among female black ducks, the daily limit for hunters shooting black ducks in the Atlantic flyway will double to two birds per day next fall, the first change to the limit in several decades.
            “In the last 30 years, hunter numbers have dropped significantly, especially in the Northeast, so the harvest has gone down considerably,” explained Beuth. “And the populations aren’t responding to the harvest. Our updated models put the allowable harvest at a much higher rate. The new predicted harvest is still going to be considerably lower than what is needed to maintain the population.”
            When the state waterfowl biologists in the Atlantic coastal states initially saw the data justifying the change, Beuth said they “had a hard time wrapping our heads around it.”  But now he thinks it makes sense.
            “Despite all the challenges black ducks face, we’re going to a limit of two per day and we’ll see where that brings us,” he concluded. “At a minimum, we’ll assess the data after the hunting season and we’ll know immediately if it’s a mistake. But I don’t think it will be.”

This article first appeared on on March 15, 2017.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Seal stranding season in full swing

            The Seal Rescue Clinic at Mystic Aquarium is a modest outdoor fenced area where seals, sea turtles and other marine mammals rescued from nearby beaches are cared for until they are ready to be released back into the wild. And in mid-winter, it’s a busy place.
            Last week, swimming in a 12-foot diameter tank containing 3,200 gallons of water, was a young harbor seal found malnourished on a Long Island beach in December. A few steps away in one of five 700-gallon intensive care tanks was a newly arrived gray seal pup recovered from a beach in Maine, and another gray seal pup – this one stranded on Fisher’s Island, N.Y. – rested in a smaller tank before being transported to the ICU tanks. Inside an adjacent tent, food and
Janelle Schuh watches over a rehabilitating harbor seal.
medications were being prepared by staff and interns to ensure that the animals recover as quickly as possible.
            “January to April is our busy season for responding to live animals,” said Janelle Schuh, who directs the clinic and the aquarium’s Animal Rescue Program. “That’s when we see gray seals pupping off our shoreline and when harp seals and hooded seals are migrating into our area.”
            Aquarium staff and about 250 trained volunteers respond to approximately 150 reports of sick, stranded and dead marine mammals in southern New England and Fisher’s Island, N.Y., each year – about 70 percent of which come from Rhode Island. When it is deemed necessary to rescue an animal, it is herded into a mobile kennel and delivered to the Seal Rescue Clinic for sometimes round-the-clock care. When necessary, veterinarians may conduct surgeries and other procedures in the aquarium’s new veterinary hospital, which opened in December.
            The clinic also rehabilitates animals recovered by organizations elsewhere in the Northeast that don’t have their own clinics, including a manatee found on Cape Cod last fall that was eventually flown to Florida by the U.S. Coast Guard.
            Last year was the aquarium’s busiest year for rehabilitating seals. About 30 animals were rescued and brought to Mystic – half of them harbor seal pups recovered in the summer in Maine – and 25 of them were nursed back to health and released at Blue Shutters Beach in Charlestown. Most were young seals struggling with malnourishment, dehydration and traumatic wounds like shark bites, as well as occasional animals suffering from human interactions like fishing gear entanglements or boat propeller wounds.
            How long the animals remain at the aquarium depends on their age and the severity of their malady.
            “This time of year, we often turn around a dehydrated harp seal in a month, gray seal pups in two or three months, and days-old harbor seal pups are usually here four or five months,” Schuh said. “They’re sometimes here for over a year if they have bad injuries.”
            She said that the number of stranded animals isn’t increasing, but it is unlikely that it will decrease enough to put her out of a job.
            “There’s always going to be a need,” she said. “Marine mammal populations are increasing significantly, especially seal populations, and there will always be human interactions as the number of animals increases.”
            While few seals have been rescued due to disease in recent years, an outbreak of the avian flu virus in harbor seals in 2011 resulted in ongoing research projects that require aquarium staff to collect biological samples from every animal that comes into the clinic.
            According to Schuh, one of the benefits of the Seal Rescue Program is the public education that results from the rescue, rehabilitation and release of the animals. The public learns first-hand how their actions, like the irresponsible disposal of plastics, can affect marine creatures.
            Those who observe a seal or other marine mammal or sea turtle on a beach are encouraged to report it to the Mystic Aquarium Seal Rescue Program at 1-800-572-5955, extension 107.  The aquarium advises the public to give the animal plenty of space, do not touch it, keep pets away, and be observant for obvious signs of injury, general body condition, and any identification tags.
            “It’s human nature to do what we can to help an animal in need,” Schuh said. “That’s the philosophy we take here. If we see an animal in need, we’re going to help it and take care of it regardless of what’s happening to the population in the wild. In some cases, they’re too far gone to help, but we can still ease their suffering. It’s the least we can do.”

This article first appeared on on March 2, 2017.