Saturday, November 30, 2019

Brown herbarium documents what grows in Rhode Island

            The herbarium at Brown University has been a repository of plant specimens from throughout southern New England and around the world since it was established 150 years ago.  It maintains what herbarium director Rebecca Kartzinel calls “the physical record of a species in a particular place” – pressed leaves, flowers, stems and sometimes roots with detailed notes about where and when it was collected.
            Among the 100,000 specimens stored in folders in climate-controlled and insect-proof cabinets are samples from the early explorations of the American West, as well as from Cuba, New Zealand, New Guinea and elsewhere.
But the overwhelming majority of the 14,000 plant specimens from Rhode Island were
Herbarium Director Rebecca Kartzinel (Todd McLeish)
collected more than 100 years ago. And a great deal of the Rhode Island landscape has changed since then, due largely to the climate crisis, invasive species and habitat destruction. So Kartzinel is leading an effort to collect specimens of every plant now found in Rhode Island.
“We have a good representation of plants from 1870s Rhode Island, and we want to have a good representation of Rhode Island’s flora now,” said Kartzinel, a research professor in the Brown Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who took over the directorship of the herbarium last May. “That means we have to collect everything that grows in Rhode Island.
“Knowing what’s here now is important because things are rapidly changing,” she added. “The data could be used to compare with historic records or for producing more accurate range maps or for analyzing what factors are impacting the changes, and much more.”
The project was launched four years ago by the previous herbarium director, Tim Whitfield, who focused his own specimen collecting efforts in the Cumberland area. Botanist Beth Dickson, who worked in Alberta, Canada, for 24 years before retiring to Rhode Island, is spending much of her free time collecting specimens in South Kingstown and Charlestown.
“To actually collect every species, if it’s even possible, will probably take many years, since many plants are best found only in certain seasons and specific habitats,” said Dickson, who uses Google Earth imagery to identify various habitats to visit. “Having a good specimen gives adequate material to do comparison studies of anatomy, morphology and biochemistry that may be useful in the future.”
When in the field, Dickson carries a trowel, clippers, notebook and a field press and makes note of the habitat and the other species growing near the collected specimen. Once she returns home, she uses a dissecting microscope to identify each specimen before pressing it and letting it dry for a week or more.
While Dickson is focused on collecting the area’s most common plants, amateur botanist Doug McGrady searches statewide for rare plants to contribute to the herbarium collection. And Kartzinel is taking a systematic approach to overseeing the project by seeking out habitats and species that are underrepresented in the collection, and by identifying species from the historic records that haven’t been found recently and trying to track them down on the landscape.
Historically, herbarium specimens were mostly used in the describing and naming of species. Scientists seeking to determine whether a new species had been discovered would use herbarium specimens for comparison purposes.
While specimens are still studied in this way, most recent uses of the collection have involved DNA studies.
“That means our collecting must be done with DNA sequencing in mind,” said Kartzinel. “We often collect additional material so we don’t destroy the specimen. And we dry them with minimal heat so we don’t destroy the DNA.”
In addition, the entire collection is in the process of being digitized so scientists can conduct their studies without needing the actual specimen in hand. Anyone can view the digitized collection online. Tours of the herbarium for garden clubs and other interested groups are also offered by appointment.
Some samples are even loaned for use in exhibits. The Providence Athenaeum has included several specimens from the Brown herbarium in its Walt Whitman exhibit, which runs until January 5.
“These specimens aren’t just useful within the scientific community,” Kartzinel said. “From a museum perspective, it’s important to recognize that you never know what is going to be useful in the future. So it’s our job to keep that documentation. If we stop collecting, then that’s the end of our record. It’s the continual temporal record that’s important.”

This article first appeared on on November 30, 2019.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Beavers continue their comeback in Rhode Island

            At the Cumberland Land Trust’s nature preserve on Nate Whipple Highway, beavers created numerous dams on East Sneech Brook in the years after their arrival in 2014, flooding the property and forcing the organization to detour its hiking trail and build a boardwalk over the wettest areas. Worse, the flooding killed many trees in the Atlantic white cedar swamp, a very rare habitat found at just a few sites in Rhode Island.
            It’s a sign that beavers are continuing their comeback in Rhode Island after being extirpated from the region about 300 years ago.
            “There’s a historic culvert on the property, and we noticed it was being plugged up with
Beaver lodge and drain pipe at land trust property (Todd McLeish)
sticks, but we didn’t know how,” said Randy Tuomisto, president of the land trust. “So we removed the debris, but it subsequently got filled in again. That’s when we noticed small twigs were being cut, telltale signs of a beaver.”
            When the white cedar trees began to die, the land trust took action to address the situation. They hired a Massachusetts beaver control expert to advise them on how to install a series of water flow devices – a combination of wire fencing and plastic pipes going through the beaver dam that tricks beavers into thinking their dam is still working but which allows the water to flow down the stream unhindered. While Tuomisto said he believes there are six or eight beavers on the property, along with a six-foot tall beaver lodge, flooding has been reduced considerably.
            “Now they’ve moved down Sneech Brook to other areas in town, to Diamond Hill Reservoir and Abbot Run Valley Stream. And they’re aggressively on the Blackstone River,” he said. “If you take a trip on the Blackstone bike path from Manville to Valley Falls, you’ll see the destruction of all the trees that they felled.”
            According to Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, beavers were probably the first animal to disappear from the New England landscape after the arrival of European settlers. Their fur was in great demand by Native Americans and the new arrivals, and many beaver pelts were shipped to Europe as well. Brown speculates that the animals were extirpated from the area by the end of the 1600s.
            It took until 1976 for the first ones to return. That’s when a beaver lodge was discovered on the brook that leads into Carbuncle Pond in Coventry.
            “They’ve been expanding ever since,” said Brown. “By 1982, my predecessor Charlie Allen did a float trip around Coventry and Foster and found several colonies within that watershed.”
            Communities in western Rhode Island have been dealing with the inevitable flooding that beavers create for more than 30 years, but Brown said the animals have only recently arrived in the area of the lower Blackstone, Pawtuxet and Moshassuck rivers, where municipal public works officials are now being called on to address flooding issues.
            “Beavers have been entrenched in Burrillvillle and other parts of western Rhode Island for some time, and the towns there know how to deal with them. But they’re still finding new habitat and expanding elsewhere in the state,” Brown said. “It takes them a while to move around and get established in new areas. They were pioneering into the Cumberland and Lincoln area about 10 years ago, and now they’ve become a regular part of the landscape there.”
            Brown had meetings with Cumberland officials to discuss how to address the flooding caused by beavers at the Monastery and Diamond Hill State Park, and he often has similar meetings with officials in other communities. He offers counsel about beaver behavior and life cycle and offers advice on how to reduce the flooding using water control structures and how to protect notable trees with perimeter fencing.
            Sometimes he advises officials to consider hiring a trapper to capture the beavers during trapping season, which runs from Nov. 1 through mid-March. Rhode Island fur trappers typically harvest about 100 beavers each year, many of which are captured due to nuisance situations.
            Despite their reputation for damming streams and flooding roadways, beavers play an important role in the environment by creating habitat upon which many other species depend, from river otters, mink and muskrats to ducks, dragonflies and amphibians.
            “Great blue herons gravitate toward newly flooded areas with dead standing trees,” said Brown. “But beaver ponds aren’t perpetual. They come and they go. Beavers create a dynamic state of change that can benefit a lot of things.”
            According to Ben Goldfarb, author of the award-winning 2018 book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Lives of Beavers and Why They Matter, beaver ponds also help to recharge aquifers, dissipate floods, filter pollutants and ease the impact of wildfires. A 2011 report he highlighted estimated that restoring beavers to one river basin in Utah would provide annual benefits valued at tens of millions of dollars.
            “Even acknowledging that beavers store water and sustain other creatures is insufficient,” Goldfarb wrote. “Because the truth is that beavers are nothing less than continental-scale forces of nature, in large part responsible for sculpting the land upon which we Americans built our towns and raised our food. Beavers shaped North America’s ecosystems, its human history, its geology. They whittled our world, and they could again – if, that is, we treat them as allies instead of adversaries.”
            Randy Tuomisto of the Cumberland Land Trust has a similar perspective.
            “We want to keep the water level high enough so the lodge can sustain the beavers through the winter. We would rather live with beavers because they provide an ecological benefit in creating wetlands and wildlife habitat,” he said. “We understand the destruction they cause to neighbors and roadways, and we could have trapped them out. But we’re willing to take the bad with the good.”

This article first appeared on on November 29, 2019.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Birds and windows a deadly combination

            A horrific NASCAR crash made the news for a few days last month, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with car racing. Instead, the crash happened at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in North Carolina, and those involved were all birds.
About 300 chimney swifts – birds often described as looking like cigars with wings – struck the building’s large windows during their evening migration, and more than a third of them were killed instantly. Another third were critically injured with broken wings and legs and had to be treated by wildlife rehabilitators. The rest were stunned but recovered without treatment.
The sad event illustrated an ongoing problem that I’ve been struggling with at my
house for many years. Window collisions cause vast numbers of bird deaths each year around the globe. By some estimates it is the second leading human cause of bird mortality after domestic cat predation. And it’s mostly preventable.
A study in 2014 found that a whopping 600 million birds in the United States die each year in collisions with windows. Other experts suggest the true number is closer to a billion bird deaths. And that doesn’t account for the birds killed flying into communications towers and power lines, which may kill another 200 million birds.
Unlike the NASCAR situation, most birds strike windows during the daytime when they perceive images of trees and sky reflected in the windows as real, and they figure they can fly right through. If they aren’t flying too fast or they realize their mistake in time, they may just bump into the window and continue on their way. At my house, that seems to be the most typical case, since I always jump up to investigate any thump on the window, and I seldom find an injured bird.
But occasionally a bird may be stunned by the collision, making it vulnerable to predation or weakened enough that bad weather or other factors do them in. The worst case is those birds that break their neck and die instantly.
Those of us with bird feeders that attract an unnatural abundance of birds are probably increasing the odds that birds will strike our windows, so we should take steps to reduce collisions as best as we can. I’ve tried several popular ideas through the years, but few of them work well and most disrupt our view out the window too much.
Decals of hawks, for instance, placed on the exterior of the window aren’t particularly effective, but strips of tape placed a few inches apart to break up the reflection will usually do the trick. I’ve even used soap to draw closely-spaced lines on the outside of the window, and it worked well in a pinch when a large flock of birds spent a few days eating berries in my front crabapple tree and were colliding with the glass. The soap washed away in the next rainstorm. Window screens are perhaps the best idea, since birds that still try to fly through will bounce off.
This year I’m trying a new product from a company called Feather Friendly Technologies – easily applied opaque dots spaced two inches apart that are hardly noticeable when I look out the window but that have seemingly ended my bird/window collision problem. I’m planning to give the product as Christmas gifts this year to my bird-loving friends. It’s the least we can do for the backyard birds that provide us with so much entertainment and enjoyment.

This article first appeared in the Independent on November 17, 2019