Thursday, February 28, 2019

Heavy precipitation, warm temps in 2018 had negative effect on water quality

               The high rate of precipitation that Rhode Island experienced in 2018, along with the very warm temperatures, had a direct effect on water quality in local ponds, lakes, streams and bays in the state, according to monitoring results at more than 220 waters bodies.
                Much of that effect was negative, said Elizabeth Herron, who directs the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program. “The heavy rains caused an increase in run-off of bacteria into nearby receiving waters – mostly from animal waste, but possibly also from human sources like failing septic systems – and the warm temperatures meant that those bacteria lived longer than they otherwise might,” said Herron.
                “The warm water also led to an increase in harmful algal blooms,” she added. “When we have long hot, dry periods, the water heats up and gets still, allowing algae to get to the surface to get
A Watershed Watch volunteer
the sunlight and nutrients they need. We’re creating outstanding conditions for them.”
                Not every water body was negatively affected by the precipitation and temperature, however. Herron said that some sites had improved water quality because the heavy rains flushed contaminants out of the water.
                “It’s hard to generalize, because some sites do well in wet weather and others do well in dry weather,” Herron said. “That’s why we monitor. The state can only monitor so many places, and it may not be your favorite place or the place that’s going to respond different than most. Having volunteers monitor so many sites gives us a better idea of what’s going on.”
                For more than 30 years the Watershed Watch program has worked with local communities to track the many factors that affect water quality in local lakes, ponds, streams, and coastal waters and to determine their current conditions. Thanks to the program, much more is known today about how land use, seasonal weather patterns, climate change and other factors affect water bodies in good and bad ways.
                The program, one of the longest running citizen science projects in Rhode Island, is now seeking additional volunteers to conduct weekly or biweekly monitoring from May to October.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Most heavily trafficked turtle plays key role in Indonesia environment, economy

               The Southeast Asian box turtle is the most heavily trafficked turtle in the world – captured and sold to China for food and medicine and for the pet trade in the United States, Japan and Europe. But little was known about its ecology until a University of Rhode Island herpetologist spent six months studying the animal’s habits and habitat last year.
                Her findings suggest that the attractive turtle plays a vital ecological role in the region’s lowland swamp and savannah pool ecosystems by increasing the germination rate of tree seeds,
Southeast Asian box turtle (Nancy Karraker)
including trees that are important to the region’s lumber industry.
                “Trafficking in turtles is a major issue in Southeast Asia, and it’s important that we understand the key ecological roles that species like this box turtle play before it’s too late,” said  Nancy Karraker, URI associate professor of natural resources science. “As we learned through this study, protecting this one single element of biodiversity may be especially important.”
                The Southeast Asian box turtle is found throughout Southeast Asia, from eastern India to Indonesia and the Philippines. Karraker describes it as a shy, gentle turtle with a black shell, and black head “with yellow racing stripes down the side.”
                She and a colleague from Bogor Agricultural Institute in Java, Mirza Kusrini, along with students from URI and Bogor, conducted several studies of the turtle from January to May 2018 in Rawa Aopa Watomohai National Park in southeast Sulawesi and at nearby wetlands and aquaculture ponds outside the park. They captured 106 turtles inside the park but just 28 outside the park – and none at the aquaculture ponds.
                “The park seems to be doing a good job of protecting the turtles. The habitats are in relatively good shape, and it doesn’t appear that people are collecting turtles from within the park,” Karraker said. “But it does appear that people may be collecting and selling turtles from the wetlands outside the park.
                “Another concern is that the wet agriculture lands that were historically used in rice production still serve as habitat for turtles, but those are being converted to aquaculture ponds for
URI herpetologist Nancy Karraker (Jessica Atutubo)
growing fish, and we didn’t catch a single turtle in aquaculture habitat,” she added.
                Of particular interest was a study of the turtle’s diet and capacity for seed dispersal. After collecting and analyzing turtle feces, the researchers found that the turtle is omnivorous, eating a wide variety of food including crustaceans, fish, insects, snails and many kinds of plants and fruit. A telemetry study found that the turtles wandered widely across the landscape, so they likely dispersed seeds in their droppings far from where they were eaten.
                “The thing that most aids germination is getting a seed out from under its parent tree, out of the shadow and away from seed predators, and dropping it somewhere that it has a chance to germinate. And the turtles appear to be doing that,” Karraker said.
                She also suspected that the process of passing seeds through a turtle’s digestive system enhances the likelihood that the seed would later germinate, since the turtles don’t chew the seeds and their stomach acid may break down the seed’s hard outer coating. So she conducted a germination study and found that three of the six seed species tested had a 25 to 43 percent improvement in germination success if the seeds had first passed through a turtle.
                “Two of the trees that had improved germination rates are very important throughout Indonesia for lumber,” said Karraker. “They grow very large, are strong, and are highly valued for building houses and furniture. They’re also important to Indonesian people for their livelihood, and provide important habitat and fruit for other animals in the national park.”
                As a result of her findings, Karraker and her colleagues are making a case to the Indonesia government to formally recognize the Southeast Asian box turtle as a species of key conservation need.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

New shark species named for researcher's daughter

                University of Rhode Island shark researcher Bradley Wetherbee is best known for his studies of mako sharks, the fastest swimming sharks in the world. But when it came to identifying and describing a new species of shark, the process was anything but fast.
                It took Wetherbee and his colleagues nearly 30 years to reveal that a group of lantern sharks inadvertently captured in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were a new species.
                Wetherbee named the shark Laila’s lantern shark (Etmopterus lailae) after his 17-year-old daughter, Laila Mostello-Wetherbee. They live in Lincoln.
                “It’s not uncommon for it to take many years for a new species to be recognized as new to science and then properly described and named,” said Wetherbee, a professor in the URI Department of Biological Sciences. “This one just took a little longer than usual.”
                Laila’s lantern shark grows up to three feet long, has a dark brown back with a black T-shaped flank marking, spines coming from its dorsal fin, and a longer snout than other lantern sharks.
Laila's lantern shark (Bradley Wetherbee)
Like most lantern sharks, they are bioluminescent. The new species is found in waters approximately 1,000 feet deep.
                Why it took Wetherbee so long to identify it as a new species is a long story.
                While studying deep-sea sharks as part of his doctoral research at the University of Hawaii in the early 1990s, he was offered two large boxes of frozen sharks – about 150 individuals – that had been captured in 1988 by scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The scientists were studying armorhead fish and were uninterested in the sharks.
                About a year later, Wetherbee examined the specimens and sorted them according to what species he believed they were – smooth lantern sharks and rough lantern sharks. Little was known about either species, so he planned to give the specimens to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu for inclusion in its natural history collection. But before he could do so, the freezer where they were being stored broke down while Wetherbee was away on a research cruise. One box of sharks was salvaged, including specimens that would later be named Laila’s lantern shark, but the rest had thawed so much that they had to be thrown out.  Just 15 survived intact.
                “I had gone through every individual in the boxes and measured many body parts so we had enough information to write a paper about their biology, because hardly anything was known about them,” explained Wetherbee. “But then I ran into someone that was working on the classification of lantern shark species in the genus Etmopterus. He wanted to look at the specimens before we wrote our paper, so we had the sharks shipped to his lab in California.”
                It took that man, David Ebert at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory, about five years, but he eventually examined the specimens in great detail and compared them with other species of
Bradley Wetherbee and Laila Mostello-Wetherbee
lantern shark and determined that Wetherbee’s sharks did not belong to any of the other already-described smooth nor rough lantern shark species but was a species new to science.
                “Since the sharks were essentially mine to begin with, Dave and the others involved agreed to let me name it after my daughter,” Wetherbee said.
                It then took several more years for them to write the definitive paper describing the new species, which was finally published in the journal Zootaxa in 2017.
                According to Wetherbee, the only specimens of the new species ever seen are those individuals he and his colleagues had studied.
                “It likely has a very small distribution only around the seamounts northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. That’s the nature of lantern sharks. There are different species in different areas, and they tend to be isolated,” he said. “If you went to that spot and fished for them, you’d probably catch them. But it’s so remote, there’s not much of a reason for anyone to go there.”
                Wetherbee’s daughter wasn’t especially impressed at first that her father named a shark after her, but she has grown to appreciate it.
                “At first it didn’t really register with me as anything special, but then when my friends Googled me and saw that I had this shark named after me, they thought it was cool,” said Mostello-Wetherbee, a senior at Lincoln High School. “Now I appreciate it a lot more, not because of my friends’ reaction, but because as I’ve gotten older, I understand it more and think it’s really neat.”
                The URI shark expert said that naming the shark after his daughter may have rekindled his interest in the animal nearly 30 years after he first laid eyes on it.
                “There are only 500 species of sharks and only a handful of people in the world have a shark named after them,” Wetherbee said. “Now that it’s called Laila’s lantern shark, it certainly gives me motivation to go back to Hawaii to study it.
                “People often ask me what my favorite shark is, and I used to say the tiger shark,” he concluded. “But now I say it’s Laila’s lantern shark.”

Monday, February 18, 2019

Trail cam provides unexpected wildlife insights

            Few of us probably spend as much time as we would like enjoying the outdoors. We just have too many other responsibilities – work, chores, meal prep, family time – to make extra time for relaxing and observing the natural world around us.
I likely spend more time than most staring out the back window at the trees and lawn and bird feeders – more time than I care to admit – and still I wish I could do it more. Because for every minute I’m not watching, there is probably an animal doing something interesting that I’m missing.
That’s why I was especially excited to receive a motion-activated trail camera for Christmas a couple years ago. It allows me to document the comings and goings of wildlife when I’m not paying attention to those activities myself. And the images the camera provides are insightful.
            For instance, deer are much more abundant in my area than I ever imagined. I typically see a deer or two wandering the woods and fields along my road about every other month, and
yet my camera detects deer strolling through the forest behind my house almost daily. And it’s not always the same animal, either. I’ve had pictures of six-point bucks, speckled fawns, groups of three and four antlerless deer, and one unique individual with a distinctive mark on its rump.
            The photos aren’t exactly magazine quality images, however. More often than not they just show a deer’s backside as it walks away from the camera, or a close-up of an ear or nose as the animal investigates the camera. Once, though, it captured a late-night shot of a deer on its hind legs, apparently trying to nibble on some leaves over its head.
            The camera often captures images of other forest dwellers as well. Fishers are apparently regular visitors to my yard, as are coyotes, raccoons and red and gray foxes. I almost never see those animals except as images on the trail cam.  
Most often, the pictures show one of these creatures dashing across the path where I’ve set up the camera, but sometimes they’re doing something more interesting. They occasionally seem to pause and stare right into the camera, as if they’re posing. Or they’re sitting down and scratching an itch or chewing on a morsel they’ve just discovered.
The most fun images are those that I can’t quite figure out at first glance. They test my identification skills when all that’s visible is a distant furry blob or a tail just disappearing from view.
Fast moving animals are especially challenging, because they often just look like a digital blur. Is that night-time image – showing a long streak that appears to be well-above ground level – an owl or a flying squirrel? Or maybe it’s just a falling branch. Is that hazy long-tailed thing a fox or coyote? I enjoy sharing those images with friends on Facebook to help ID the animals.
And then there are the pictures that seem to show nothing at all. Maybe the movement of a leaf or branch triggered the camera. Or maybe some creature is there after all but it’s too well camouflaged for me to see it.
As fun as it is to watch backyard wildlife remotely via a trail cam, the best picture it captured was of an abominable snowman. At least that’s what I call the winter shot of my wife strolling through the woods trying to avoid the camera.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on February 16, 2019.

Friday, February 15, 2019

He caught the natural history bug

            The artifacts scattered around David Gregg’s office provide a good idea of what he does for a living. Among the items are a crayfish preserved in a jar of alcohol, two coyote skulls, numerous large dead moths awaiting identification in a plastic container, framed invasive insects, a deer head hanging on a wall, illustrations of butterflies, and a foot-long, eight-inch diameter tree stump he quizzes visitors to identify. (Spoiler alert: The stump is bittersweet, an invasive vine that apparently grows much larger than most people think it does.)
            Gregg is the executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and what he calls his “cabinet of curiosities” represents many of the issues, programs and challenges he
David Gregg starting the annual BioBlitz (EcoRI News)
regularly addresses as one of the Ocean State’s leading voices for the study and conservation of Rhode Island’s wildlife and other natural resources.
He describes the Survey as somewhat of a social organization where “people who have been bitten by the bug of natural history” can connect with like-minded individuals.
“There are many ways to discover things about the world around you, but for people who are oriented toward identifying animals and plants and learning about them, the Survey is an excuse to get together,” he said. “And that makes it valuable, because otherwise we would never get together and talk about what we know.”
The group was founded following a 1994 ecological research conference at the University of Rhode Island, when many of those in attendance recognized how productive a gathering it had been and wanted to keep the exchange of information going. Based at URI’s East Farm, the Survey is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a fall conference on “Climate Change and Rhode Island’s Natural History Future” and a monthly citizen science event. This month’s event is a bird census on Feb. 15 as part of the world-wide Great Backyard Bird Count.
Gregg caught the natural history bug – literally – as a young teen in Falmouth, Mass., when he tried to capture a butterfly that had landed on his shoe. He had already been somewhat interested in nature, but that moment led him to start a butterfly collection using a net he made out of cheesecloth.
After collecting as many butterfly species as he could find around town, he switched to moths. “I got all the colorful moths in my collection, and all the rest were brown and I couldn’t make heads or tails of them,” he recalled. “So then I switched to beetles, then to grasshoppers.”
The lure of insects was their endless variety and interesting physiological adaptations, Gregg said.
But he also had a curiosity about archaeology, and when he was considering a career, archaeology eventually won out. He said archaeology “is about discovering a mystery and finding out what it means. I also liked the outdoorsness of it, the expedition aspect, the cadre of people thrown together in remote locations and having to stay focused on what they do. It’s the same thing in natural history.”
 Gregg ended up earning graduate degrees in archaeology at Oxford University and Brown University, then worked at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology before becoming director of the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History.
By then he had rekindled his interest in entomology and joined the board of the Natural History Survey. He accepted the leadership post at the Survey in 2004.
He describes the job is a balancing act between gathering information about rare and invasive species to support conservationists’ need for scientific information – a mission “that doesn’t pay very well,” he noted – and administering complex ecological monitoring projects involving multiple partners and numerous funding agencies.
“The state can build a highway or an airport, but it can’t do a project with six funders and lots of partners,” Gregg said. “We can do that.”
For instance, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management used federal funds to hire the Natural History Survey to implement a project to assess the health of salt marshes and freshwater wetlands around the state. The Survey is also leading a coyote ecology research project with numerous partners and funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“These are the kind of projects that wouldn’t get done unless we did them,” said Gregg. “These are the projects that are every other organization’s fourth priority.”
Along the way, Gregg still finds time for insects. He has shifted his attention in the last two years to ants as a leader of a statewide effort to document all of the species of ants found in Rhode Island.
“I’ve been working on moths since I was 14, and I think I have a better understanding of ants after two years than I do of moths after 40,” he said.
In the coming year or two, Gregg’s focus at the Natural History Survey will be on the establishment of a new database of everything known about the biodiversity of Rhode Island, preparing an updated publication of the state’s vascular plants, and ensuring the group’s finances are stable.
But his favorite activity is the Survey’s annual Bioblitz, which brings together as many as 200 biologists, naturalists and volunteers for a 24-hour period to document every living organism at a particular property. This year’s event is a return to Roger Williams Park, where the first Bioblitz was held 20 years ago.
“Bioblitz is an expedition to discover things in a particular place, and you bring together people with all of the different skills and talents you need to look at all of the different aspects,” he explained. “But they’re not just random people. They’re really nice people having a great time because this is what they love. Bioblitz is social – it’s not just science – and that’s the key. You get to meet people that can show you the cool things you don’t notice the rest of the year.”

This article first appeared on on February 15, 2019.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Hawks increasingly feed on birds at backyard feeders

            For at least two decades, many people who provide seed to feed the songbirds in their backyard have provided anecdotal evidence of an increase in the number of bird-eating hawks that visit their feeders. Now, an analysis of 21 years of data collected by Cornell University has confirmed those observations by noting that Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks – which prey primarily on songbirds – have been colonizing urban and suburban areas during winter due to the availability of prey at bird feeders.
            According to Jennifer McCabe, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, whose study focused on birds in the Chicago area, many hawk species had declined
Cooper's Hawk (stock)
significantly by the middle of the 20th century because of hunting and pesticide use. Populations of most hawks, including the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, have rebounded since then – largely due to legal protections and the banning of particularly harmful pesticides – enabling the birds to colonize areas that they had previously ignored.
            In a research paper published in November in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, McCabe found that the two hawk species, which look similar and are collectively called Accipiters for their genus name, occupied about 26 percent of the area in and around Chicago in the 1990s. Two decades later they were found in nearly 67 percent of the area.
            Birders in Rhode Island have also reported anecdotal evidence of an increase in Accipiter numbers in recent decades, especially Cooper’s hawks. Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, has noted several Cooper’s hawks nesting in Providence in recent years, and she calls their presence at feeders in winter “commonplace, unremarkable, and therefore not generally reported [any more] from suburban areas.”
            “In the beginning years of our study, sites were occupied around the fringe of the city, and through time they moved into the inner city,” said McCabe of her study site in Chicago. “The main driver for this colonization is prey abundance. They seem to be cuing in on feeders that have a lot of birds. That’s the driver that keeps the hawks there – prey abundance at feeders.”
            Her findings were initially counterintuitive, because Accipiters nest in forested habitats. Their narrow wings and long tail enable them to maneuver quickly through densely forested landscapes and chase down small birds, a behavior the larger soaring hawks like the common red-tailed hawk cannot do. The soaring hawks typically feed on slower-moving rodents.
            “We did our study in winter, so the birds weren’t concerned about finding the perfect tree for nesting,” McCabe said. “They were more concerned about survival.”
            The relative absence of tree cover in urban areas and the abundance of pavement and other impervious surfaces did not seem to discourage the hawks from colonizing cities, she said. In fact, the more tree cover a site had, the less likely it was to attract Accipiters in winter. The key factor was prey availability. As long as there were bird feeders attracting an abundance of small songbirds to the area, the hawks moved in.
            The data for the study comes from Project Feederwatch, a citizen science project in which participants periodically count the birds and bird species at their feeders. Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the program began in 1987 and now includes more than 20,000 volunteers from across North America.
            Since bird feeding is among the most popular pastimes in the United States, with some surveys finding that more than 40 percent of households participate, it is likely that the Accipiters that have colonized urban and suburban areas will not go hungry.
The effect the hawks are having on the population of common feeder birds like sparrows, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches has not been measured, but it is unlikely they will be impacted in the long term. They may even receive a boost, since other studies have found that urban Accipiters primarily target invasive city birds like pigeons, starlings and house sparrows, potentially easing competitive pressures on native species.
A study of the recolonization of Britain by sparrowhawks, which also feed on birds, provides additional insights. When sparrowhawks were extirpated from Britain, it became less necessary for their primary prey – house sparrows – to be vigilant for the predators.
“Over 30 years, they lost this anti-predator behavior,” McCabe said, “and when the hawks came back, they ended up decimating the house sparrow population.”
Whether North American feeder birds’ vigilance for predators declined following the eradication of hawk populations half a century ago is uncertain. But even if they did, it’s not likely to last long.
“If the birds lost their anti-predator behavior, they’ll regain it pretty quickly now that the hawks are back,” McCabe said. “People’s backyards won’t be picked clean by hawks.”

This article first appeared on on February 2, 2019.