Tuesday, July 30, 2019

For this URI professor, it's all about shark conservation

               When the National Marine Fisheries Service began encouraging fishermen to target sharks as an “underutilized resource” in the 1980s, little was known about the animals’ biology and ecology. But when shark populations soon plummeted, it spawned an abundance of research and monitoring. And Brad Wetherbee, a graduate student in Florida at the time who now lives in Lincoln, R.I., was caught up in the middle of it all.
                “No one had talked about shark management or shark conservation until they realized that
Brad Wetherbee
sharks were being overfished and declining around the world,” said Wetherbee, a professor at the
University of Rhode Island who has studied sharks in Hawaii, the Caribbean and along the East Coast. “Their life history characteristics are such that they don’t sustain heavy harvest – they grow slowly, mature late, and don’t give birth to many young.”
                Since then, he has focused his research on what he calls “movement ecology” – the study of shark migration patterns as they apply to marine conservation. “In order to manage a population, you have to know where that population is,” he said. “And sometimes that raises the question about whose waters are they in and what country or state is responsible for managing them. It also demonstrates the interactions between sharks and a wide variety of fisheries.”
                Fishing is the biggest threat facing sharks, and the driving force for fishermen is the demand in China for shark fin soup, a delicacy that is responsible for the killing of as many as 70 million sharks each year.
                “Sharks are the top predators in their ecosystems, and the ecosystem changes dramatically when you remove top predators – the communities become more vulnerable to disturbance, pollution, invasive species and other factors,” he said.
                During the course of his research, Wetherbee – who has become the local media’s go-to expert for shark news – has tracked the movement patterns of hundreds of mako, tiger and oceanic whitetip sharks to learn their migratory routes and where they feed. His data was recently factored into a new study, published in the prestigious journal Nature, comparing the hotspots of global shark activity to the hotspots of global fishing activity.
                “The areas overlap quite a bit,” he said. “The areas the sharks concentrate their activity in are also the areas where the fishermen concentrate their activity, and the fishing is having a major effect on their populations. The mako shark is one species that’s especially in trouble due to fishing.”
                Wetherbee’s shark studies also led to the discovery of a new species of deep-sea shark, Laila’s lanternshark, which he named after his daughter.
                But the URI scientist is perhaps most proud of his role in getting young people interested in sharks and marine science. More than 150 URI undergraduate students have contributed to his research, and dozens of high school students have participated in his Summer Shark Camp. He wrapped up second camp two weeks ago with students from The Met School, Paul Cuffee High School, and Central High School in Providence, as well as from Central Falls High School.
                “Sharks generate a lot of attention,” he said. “They’re a way to get students interested in marine science, get them out on boats, get them fishing, and give them an experience they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

This article first appeared on the University of Rhode Island website on July 29, 2019.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Understanding beluga reproduction

            Justin Richard’s experience at Mystic Aquarium extends beyond his former career as a beluga whale trainer and his present role co-teaching the marine mammal seminar at the University of Rhode Island. He also conducts research on the aquarium’s belugas, and since 2013, more than 35 URI students have been part of his research team.
            While working as a trainer, he became interested in learning more about beluga reproductive physiology after training one of the whales that was involved in the first-ever artificial insemination of a beluga whale.
            “I realized that little was known about beluga reproduction, and there was a lot that trained animals could teach us about it,” he said. “There is a very clear connection between
Justin Richard collects a blow sample from a beluga at Mystic Aquarium.
understanding their reproduction and understanding their population dynamics in the wild. If we’re going to understand how populations grow, you have to understand their reproduction.”
            That led him to collaborate with Becky Sartini, associate professor of animal science and an expert in mammalian reproductive physiology.
            “Because we have access to belugas in the aquarium year-round and can train them to provide physiological samples, we can fill in the knowledge gaps that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do in the wild, because the animals breed in the late winter in the Arctic when they’re completely inaccessible,” he said.
            Richard has spent the last five years validating methods of measuring reproductive hormones. For instance, he figured out he could identify when female whales have ovulated and the status of their pregnancy from hormones in the mucus from their exhalation or blow, and he trained the whales to provide a sample on command. He has also validated the use of ultrasound to assess male reproductive physiology.
            Now he’s trying to link behavioral observations with these physiological measures so he can determine a whale’s reproductive status based entirely on the behaviors they exhibit.
            “They’re very showy animals, almost like birds, where the males perform a lot of display behaviors, which suggests that the females are choosy over who they mate with,” he said. “And that leads to many different management and conservation questions.”

This story is a sidebar to a feature story in the summer 2019 issue of University of Rhode Island Magazine.

Fins, flippers and finding a dream job

When Allie Seifter Bruscato was a child growing up in Brooklyn, she often visited the New York Aquarium, and she quickly decided that she wanted to pursue a career as a marine mammal trainer. It’s why she decided to study marine biology at the University of Rhode Island.
As a student at URI, she dived in Honduras with the Scuba Club and researched stingrays and endangered North Atlantic right whales. After graduation, she worked as a marine mammal observer on an icebreaker off the coast of Alaska, in small planes off the Georgia coast, and on a dredge off the New Jersey coast. Her desire to work with marine mammals never waned.
She eventually landed her dream job at Mystic Aquarium’s Arctic Coast and Pacific Northwest exhibit. She spends every day with beluga whales, harbor seals, Steller sea lions and northern fur seals. She couldn’t be happier.
“It’s so great to be here,” Bruscato said. “It takes a lot of hard work to get here, there’s a lot of
Allie Siefert Bruscato trains a beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium.
competition, and it definitely takes a lot of dedication to make sure everything runs smoothly for the animals. And a lot of teamwork. But I’ve been here for five years and hope to continue my career here.”
            Bruscato is one of many URI students, faculty, and alumni who have benefited from a unique partnership between URI and Mystic Aquarium. Some have enrolled in a URI class taught entirely at the aquarium, while others have conducted research there or served as interns in any one of a dozen different aquarium departments. A lucky few—today that number is eight—work as permanent employees who care for the animals, educate the public, and ensure that visitors have the best experience possible.
Five URI alumni serve as marine mammal trainers at Mystic: Bruscato, Jen Rock, Lindsey Nelson, Alycia Coulumbe, and Rachael DesFosses.
In most cases, the animals are not trained to perform or entertain guests. Instead, trainers help the animals learn how to work with staff and veterinarians who are responsible for monitoring their health. For example, Bruscato spent time this winter and spring helping a 19-year-old harbor seal learn how to.... 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

New study finds balloons deadliest plastic for seabirds

            When we release a helium-filled balloon, it is soon out of sight and out of mind. But a new study by researchers in Australia provides additional evidence that we should pay much more attention to our balloons because they can have devastating consequences to marine life.
A team of researchers from the University of Tasmania found that balloons are more deadly when ingested by seabirds than any other kind of plastic debris. An examination of 1,733 dead seabirds found that 32 percent had ingested plastic debris, and while soft plastics like balloons accounted for only 5 percent of the items ingested, they were responsible for 42 percent of the seabird deaths.
Fragments of balloons composed just 2 percent of all ingested plastic, yet the birds that
The 282 balloons Geoff Dennis collected on Little Compton beaches on May 28.
ingested balloon pieces were 32 times more likely to die than if the bird had ingested a hard plastic like a LEGO brick or lollipop stick.
The researchers said that balloons are especially lethal because they can be easily swallowed and squeeze into a bird’s stomach cavity.
“A hard piece of plastic has to be the absolute wrong shape and size to block a region in the birds’ gut, whereas soft rubber items can contort to get stuck,” said Lauren Roman, the leader author of the study, in an interview with an Australian news outlet.
Roman believes that seabirds are attracted to balloons at the surface because their fragments may resemble squid, which the birds commonly eat. Most of the birds she studied were shearwaters and petrels, some of which appear in the offshore waters of southern New England in summer.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Citing the potential harm to marine life, the town of New Shoreham banned the sale of balloons earlier this year. Many other communities around the country are also taking steps to reduce the release of balloons into the air due to their deadly impact on wildlife. Clemson University in Georgia ended its tradition of releasing 10,000 balloons before every home football game, for instance, and a campaign in Virginia aims to discourage the release of balloons during wedding celebrations. Even the Balloon Council, which represents the balloon industry, advocates for the responsible handling of balloons, including never releasing them into the air.
But the release of balloons is still a significant problem with far-reaching implications, according to local wildlife rehabilitators and birdwatchers.
Geoff Dennis, a bird photographer and resident of Little Compton, walks his dog on several local beaches every day and collects the trash he sees. One day in May he collected 282 balloons on the beaches he frequents, and many more were washing ashore as he arrived. Less than two weeks later, he collected another 99 at the same beaches. And at this year’s July 4th outdoor concert in Westerly, one birdwatcher in attendance counted 87 balloons released, most of which probably drifted over the ocean and landed in the water.
“I see them everywhere on the coast, and the beaches are especially bad,” said Jan St. Jean of Charlestown, an avid birder who spends much of her time year-round looking for birds along the coast. “I just think balloons are such a needless thing to purchase.”
And it’s not just the balloons themselves that are dangerous to birds and other wildlife. The strings attached to the balloons are a significant entanglement threat that have been responsible for many animal deaths.
Birdwatcher Becca Thornton of Carolina wrote on Facebook this month that she rescued a great blue heron that was entangled in balloon string last year. “It was completely wrapped around his legs and couldn’t move or open his legs at all,” she wrote. “If I didn't see him, jump in the water and cut the string, he wouldn't be back visiting me this year.”
Several other birders and wildlife rehabilitators also noted the related concern of birds becoming entangled in fishing line, which appears to be an ubiquitous problem along the Rhode Island coast as well.
A bill to ban the release of helium balloons in Rhode Island, sponsored by Rep. Susan Donovan, would impose a $500 fine on violators if enacted. The bill was held for further study by the House Judiciary Committee.
“The problem is that no one away from the coast sees the balloon problem, only the plastic bag problem,” said Dennis. “And we know where that bill ended up despite how obvious that problem is.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 23, 2019.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Why is there a woodpecker on my head?

The thud I heard while sitting at my computer was unmistakable. A bird had just flown into my picture window, and my heart sank. Despite employing numerous strategies to reduce such collisions, birds still occasionally see the reflection of the forest in my windows and think they can fly through.
            Usually they recognize their mistake at the last moment and only lightly bump the window before they fly off in a more appropriate direction. Rarely, they fly with such force that
The author and the woodpecker. (Renay McLeish)
they break their necks and die a quick death. The most heartbreaking incidents are in between these two outcomes, when a bird becomes stunned and unable to move, and they lie on the ground still alive for some time, unable to seek shelter or escape predators.
            That’s why, whenever I hear that awful thud, I rush outside to see if the bird survived. That time it did.
            The bird was a male red-bellied woodpecker, and he lay spread-eagle on the ground beneath the window, his black-and-white striped wings outstretched and his bright red head turned to the side. I feared he was dead, until I noticed his eye blink. So, as I’ve done dozens of times before, I gently picked up the bird and held it in my hands to protect him and keep him calm.
            After about 20 minutes, he slowly regained his senses and began to recover from his injuries. So I placed him on a tree branch and left him to carry on.
            That’s when it got weird. An hour later, that same bird was clinging to my window frame and pecking the window – seemingly to get my attention. So I went outside expecting that he would fly away as soon as I approached. But he didn’t. He allowed me to pick him up once again, so I placed him on my platform feeder and gave him a piece of suet.
            But the bird refused to stay on the feeder. Instead he jumped onto my arm, crept up to my shoulder, and fluttered up onto my head. For the next seven minutes, that woodpecker repeatedly climbed up and down my body, clambered onto my head several more times – scratching my forehead with his claws each time – and even pecked my head and probed inside my ear with his beak.
            What a bizarre and wonderful experience! I’ve tried to get birds to eat sunflower seeds from my hands before – and I even succeeded once or twice – but never would I have imagined that a woodpecker would crawl all over me like he enjoyed my company. I just stood there letting him do whatever he wanted, occasionally contorting my body so he wouldn’t fall off.
            Eventually, with the bird on top of my head once again, I leaned my head against a hanging feeder onto which he climbed. And then I left.
            Luckily, my wife Renay watched the entire escapade, shooting pictures and a lengthy video. Had she not documented it, I’m sure no one would believe my tale. The video quickly garnered attention on social media and beyond.
            My fame was short lived, however, and so was the bird. I found him dead the next morning just a few feet from where I left him, apparently unable to recover from the concussion he endured from striking my window. But the story of my head-scratching encounter with a red-bellied woodpecker will likely never be forgotten – or repeated.

This article first appeared in The Independent on July 13, 2019.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Improved outlook for New England's most endangered seabird

The North American population of an endangered seabird, most of which nest on a few small islands in Buzzards Bay, is higher than at any time since 1987, providing scientists with a feeling of optimism following a period of decline in the 2000s that had them worried about the birds’ future.
Yet the roseate tern – a gull-like bird with a black cap, pointed wings and a sharp beak – still faces threats from predators and climate change that require constant vigilance so the recent gains are not lost.
Ninety percent of the population nests on three islands – Bird Island and Ram Island in Buzzards Bay, each of which are home to about 1,100 nesting pairs, and Great Gull Island off the eastern end of Long Island, where 1,800 pairs nest. The remaining 400 pairs nest on a dozen islands scattered from Nova Scotia to New York.
“We don’t know what caused the decline, just as we don’t know what’s causing the  
increase,” said Carolyn Mostello, a coastal waterbird biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who has monitored the terns in Buzzards Bay for more than 20 years. “That makes it really hard to have confidence that the gains are going to be permanent. It doesn’t allow us to relax anything we’re doing.”
Mostello and a team of eight biologists and students are spending almost every day of
Roseate tern (Todd McLeish)
the breeding season – May through mid-July – monitoring the roseate terns on Bird and Ram Island, as well as on Penikese Island, another island in Buzzards Bay that has a small nesting population. They count and monitor every nest, assess the growth rate of every chick, band as many of the birds as possible, and conduct a variety of research studies. This year they are evaluating whether the banding process affects the health and breeding success of the birds.
            Gulls, which eat the eggs and chicks, are the primary predators on the terns, so the research team does its best to keep gulls from nesting on the islands and discourage them from getting close to the tern nests. Peregrine falcons are also an occasional concern, since they will
Roseate tern colony on Bird Island, Mass. (Todd McLeish)
eat the adult birds, as are any mammals like mink, raccoons or rats that somehow find their way to the breeding islands.
            Climate change is a growing worry as well, according to Mostello. Because the islands are very low-lying – Bird Island’s maximum elevation is just 10 feet – erosion and sea level rise could reduce nesting habitat, and major storms could flood active nests.
            Offshore wind turbines are also an increasing threat, especially with hundreds of turbines proposed by Bay State Wind and Vineyard Wind for the waters just south of the breeding islands.
            “Those are areas that the roseates fly through, so we’re really concerned about those projects,” Mostello said. “Even if each turbine doesn’t kill a lot of birds per year, they’ll be
Roseate tern egg (Todd McLeish)
operational for a lot of years, and when you have a rare species that’s long-lived and produces few young per year, it starts to knock down the survival rate and could have an impact on the population. Hundreds of turbines could be a big risk to the terns.”
            In an effort to boost the birds’ population, Mass Wildlife teamed with the Army Corps of Engineers and a number of other partners to restore habitat at Bird Island. By filling in some low-lying areas, planting native vegetation and increasing the height of the sea wall, the project has doubled the amount of potential nesting habitat on the two-acre island.
            “Before the restoration, the birds were very crowded, and that resulted in a lot of agonistic interactions,” said Mostello. “Their territories were small, so neighboring adults were attacking other adults and chicks, resulting in lower productivity. Now they can spread out a bit, they’re less aggressive towards each other, and the substrate is better for them. We have more habitat and it’s better habitat.”
            A similar habitat restoration project is in the planning stages for Ram Island.
            Despite the improved habitat and recent population increase, however, Mostello isn’t ready to claim victory for the birds.
            “If you have a population that fluctuates a lot – we went from 2,900 pairs to 4,400 pairs in six years – you would want to wait a while to make sure the population was actually stable before you considered them recovered,” she said. “They could be headed for a downturn. The rate of increase has slowed. It could be that we’re headed for a leveling off and a decline. Only time will tell.”
            So she will continue to spend almost every day of the breeding season keeping an eye on the roseate terns in Buzzards Bay, knowing that their progress could easily be reversed without a regular human presence.
            “If we didn’t show up, we might get away with it for a year, but by the second year you’d have predators that knew they could feed uninhibited on the terns, you’d see declines in productivity, and partial or full abandonment of the colony,” she said. “Having a human presence is non-negotiable.
             “While we need to continue to shepherd them through the world, we’ll do it with the hope that someday they’ll be self-sufficient and won’t need this level of effort,” Mostello concluded. “We’ve been committed to this species for a long time – we have a huge responsibility here in Massachusetts with 50 percent of the continental population here – so we’re not about to slack off and lose the gains that we’ve made.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 8, 2019.