Monday, December 23, 2019

Aerial survey of marine monument finds rare species

            A team of scientists from New England Aquarium has been conducting periodic aerial surveys of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, located about 130 miles off Nantucket, and has documented an impressive list of marine mammals and fish that illustrates why conservation organizations have been advocating for its protection for many years.
            A late October survey, for instance, documented three species of rare beaked whales, three kinds of baleen whales, four species of dolphins, several ocean sunfish -- the largest bony fish in the world -- and two very unusual Chilean devil rays.
            “We’re out there documenting what’s out there to show that the area is important and
Chilean devil ray (NEAQ Ester Quintana)
should continue to be protected,” said Ester Quintana, the chief scientist of the aerial survey team. “Every survey is different, and you never know what you’re going to see, so it’s always exciting.”
            The beaked whales were particularly notable, since they are rare and difficult to observe. Beaked whales are deep diving species that can remain under water for more than an hour and only surface briefly to breathe.
            “If you’re not at the location where they come to the surface, then you’re not going to see them,” Quintana said. “There are probably more of them out there that we were just not seeing.”
            The survey team observed two Cuvier’s beaked whales, three Sowersby’s beaked whales and four True’s beaked whales, the latter of which had not previously been documented in the 4,900-square-mile monument during an aerial survey, though a ship-based group of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had seen several there last year.
            Also observed were large numbers of Risso’s dolphins, plus groups of bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, and striped dolphins, along with nine fin whales, two sperm whales and one humpback.
            “We didn’t see many individual whales, but that’s just the difference between an October survey and the surveys we’ve done in the summer,” said Quintana.
            Of special note were the two Chilean devil rays observed, the first time Quintana had ever seen the species.
            “Last year we saw a big manta ray, which was a surprising sighting because we were unaware that they could be sighted this far north,” she said. “So when we saw the Chilean devil ray at the site, it was another unexpected ray. They’re not that uncommon, but in the seven surveys we’ve conducted, it was the first we saw at the monument.”
            Chilean devil rays can swim about a mile deep, and since they do not have to come to the surface to breathe, it is unusual to see them.
            The survey team flies transect lines back and forth over the three underwater canyons in the monument – Oceanographer Canyon, Gilbert Canyon and Lydonia Canyon – with most of the wildlife observed at Gilbert and Lydonia canyons. As soon as they observe wildlife to document, they depart from their transect and circle the animal to identify and photograph it. The plane is equipped with a belly camera that takes photographs every five seconds during the survey in case the two observers miss anything.
Quintana said that the survey team was unable to survey the waters around the monument’s underwater mountains or seamounts, because those sites are farther away and their small plane cannot carry enough fuel to reach them.
The wide variety of marine life observed during the survey are attracted to the monument because of its diversity of habitats.
At a lecture last February describing the monument, Peter Auster, senior research scientist at Mystic Aquarium, said: “Those canyons and seamounts create varied ecotones in the deep ocean with wide depth ranges, a range of sediment types, steep gradients, complex topography, and currents that produce upwelling, which creates unique feeding opportunities for animals feeding in the water column.”
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument was designated by President Barack Obama in September 2016. It is the only marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean. Early in President Donald Trump’s administration, he threatened to revoke the site’s designation, despite uncertainties as to whether he could legally do so. Those threats triggered efforts by conservation groups to document the value of the site to wildlife.
The next aerial survey by the New England Aquarium team will take place as soon as the weather cooperates. Conditions must be calm to allow for a safe flight and smooth seas so viewing conditions are optimal for observing marine life.
“We’ve never done a survey in the winter because it’s hard to plan one because of the weather,” Quintana said. “No one has ever done a survey there in the winter, so we don’t know what to expect once we get there.”

This article first appeared on on December 23, 2019.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Arctic whale tusk wielded in terrorism fight

When the news broke on Thanksgiving weekend that a terrorist wearing an explosives vest and stabbing people on the London Bridge was subdued by a Polish chef wielding a narwhal tusk, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it. And then I started getting social media alerts from friends drawing my attention to the story.
That’s because I’ve been enamored of narwhals since childhood, and because I wrote the first book for adult readers about narwhals a few years ago. Now, everyone I know who
Close up of two narwhal tusks (Todd McLeish)
sees something in the news about narwhals lets me know about it.
            The growing interest in narwhals – a 15-foot long Arctic whale with an 8-foot spiral tusk – is due in part to the many children’s books featuring the animal, as well as a brief appearance in the holiday movie Elf, and numerous other obscure cultural references. Almost every shop with animal-themed gifts seems to have something with a narwhal on it these days.
            I’m glad they do. Most people have never heard of the narwhal, and many of those that have heard of it think the animal is a mythological creature, probably because its twisted tusk looks like a unicorn horn. Since we know that unicorns aren’t real, many people assume narwhals aren’t either.
            But they are, and they’re amazing! Their tusk is their left tooth. They only have two teeth. In males, their left tooth emerges through their upper lip and grows straight forward from their face, while their right tooth remains impacted in their jaw and doesn’t grow at all. Neither tooth is useful for chewing.
            The first question I usually get about narwhals is about the purpose of the tusk. Why would an animal grow a tooth half the length of its body, especially one that is so heavy that it must be a challenge to swim with? Despite early speculation, it is not used as a tool for digging for food in the seafloor or as a weapon for defense or as a spear for procuring prey. Like the lion’s mane and the peacock’s tail, it is simply a male adornment used to attract a mate and maintain social order. And in this case, size matters.
            But that’s not all. Last year some biologists using a drone to observe narwhals noted that one used its tusk to slap and stun a fish before eating it. No one knows if that’s a common behavior, but at least one inventive narwhal is using its tusk in that way.
And a dentist in Connecticut believes the tusk is a sensory organ, based on his observation of thousands of tiny microtubules that go through the tooth, allowing air and water to mingle with the nerve endings that run down the center of the tusk. Most biologists dispute that speculation, since a sensory organ would likely be a trait shared with females, and females don’t have tusks. Nonetheless, the dentist is very convincing.
Narwhals have plenty of other amazing features, too, including a collapsible ribcage allowing them to dive more than a mile deep, echolocation abilities to find food in the darkness below the ice, and a thick layer of blubber so they can live year-round high above the Arctic Circle.
Although they are highly vulnerable to the rapid changes taking place in the Arctic due to the climate crisis, they are weathering the storm so far. And they can now proudly say that their tusk has proven useful in fighting terrorism. One time, anyway.   

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on December 21, 2019.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Raptors making a comeback in Rhode Island

Even before reaching the wide-open marsh that overlooks the Palmer River in Barrington, Charles Clarkson hears the high-pitched squeaky call of an adult bald eagle, a surprisingly weak sound for such a majestic bird. But when Clarkson emerges from the forest and glances around, he sees the bird disappear around a bend. His disappointment at missing out on a closeup look at the bird doesn’t last long though.
He knows the bird will be back soon to feed its lone chick, which he finds perched on the edge of a massive stick nest about three-quarters of the way up a large pine tree. The young bird, mostly brown but with a few scattered white feathers on its chest and wings, will not grow the iconic white head and tail of its parents for five years. But it still looks to be a powerful creature, nearly full-grown despite being just three months old and unable to fly.
            According to Clarkson, an ornithologist at the University of Rhode Island who is coordinating a five-year census of breeding birds in the state, the nest site is in an ideal location for the eagles. It provides the adult birds with a clear view of their feeding grounds in the river while also hiding the young birds from nest predators like great horned owls.
            Clarkson’s objective for the day is to document eagle nest locations, collect vegetation data to create habitat maps of the sites, and get a head count of nestlings. So he sets up a
Bald eagle (Peter Green)
spotting scope to get a clear look into the nest, takes pictures and makes notes about the habitat in the vicinity, and uses a GPS device to confirm the precise nest location. As he does so, he points out several osprey – fish-eating hawks that are seemingly abundant along Rhode Island’s coastline – soaring in the distance and landing on one of three visible nesting poles. Then the adult eagle swoops back into view, circles its nest briefly, and disappears again.
            “It seems to be put off by our presence,” Clarkson says to Catherine Boisseau, a member of the board of the Barrington Land Trust, which owns the property where the eagle nest is located. “It was bee-lining to the nest, but then saw us and veered off. My motto is the less impact we have the better, so we should head out.”
            Half an hour later, Clarkson pulls his Jeep onto the shoulder of a road in East Providence to collect similar data about an eagle nest in another pine tree, this one on a golf course. On first glance, the nest looks empty, and part of the branch that supports the nest appears to have recently broken off and lay at the base of the tree. It’s a worrisome sign, since eagle nests can be five or six feet across and weigh hundreds of pounds, and the young eaglet would not survive outside of its nest at such a young age. No adult eagles are in sight, but Clarkson walks down the road to view the nest from a different angle, where he can barely see that the young bird remains alert in the nest.
             Rhode Island was home to six pairs of nesting bald eagles in the spring and summer of 2019. Several others exhibited breeding behavior but are not known to have laid eggs, and dozens more spent at least part of the winter in the state. As many as 10 eagles have been observed together on the Seekonk River in Providence in winter, and additional birds can be found almost anywhere open water remains in January and February.
            The eagles, along with peregrine falcons and osprey, have made a dramatic comeback in the state after facing near extinction due to the effects of DDT, an insecticide used from the 1940s to the 1970s that caused the birds’ egg shells to become so thin that they broke when the birds tried to incubate them. It led to almost complete reproductive failure in much of the country for all three species.
            “DDT is an organochlorine, a type of chemical with a very high persistence in the environment,” explains Clarkson. “When it gets on insects and those insects are consumed by higher trophic levels – first fish and then eagles, for instance – it bioaccumulates and gets stored in their fatty tissues. It makes the mobilization of calcium difficult, which translated into a thinning egg shell that made it impossible for large-bodied birds to support their weight on their eggs. Multiple breeding seasons of nesting failure led to dramatic population declines.”
            The pesticide was banned in 1972, and after a long absence, the birds are back in Rhode Island and their populations are growing at a remarkable rate.
            Based on historic records maintained by Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, bald eagles were not known to nest in Rhode Island in the 1900s, even before the use of DDT, but they were regularly observed in winter until the late 1950s. The first record of an eagle nest in the state, on an island in the Scituate Reservoir, was in 2003.
            “Most likely what we’re seeing now is that the populations in states around us are growing at such a rate that immature birds are engaging in exploratory flights looking for new habitat and new territories,” says Clarkson. “They’re finding their way to Rhode Island and deeming it suitable for nesting.”
            The state’s first breeding eagles originated from nests in Massachusetts, where the breeding population had disappeared by 1905 due largely to... 

Continue reading the rest of this article in the December 2019 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

New book examines amphibian conservation in Rhode Island

            A new book about the 18 species of amphibians that live in Rhode Island is shedding light on the conservation needs of frogs, toads and salamanders in the region. Proceeds from the book will help to fund local protection efforts on their behalf.
            Chris Raithel, a retired endangered species biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, has had a lifelong interest in amphibians, but it wasn’t until he had been monitoring the animals for several years that he came up with the idea for the book, Amphibians of Rhode Island.
            “A lot of the species were very poorly documented, like four-toed salamanders, and
nobody had seen them for a long time,” he said. “So when I started looking for them and started to
Bullfrog (Todd McLeish)
accumulate a bunch of survey information, one thing led to another and I ended up writing a manuscript.”
            Raithel, who retired in 2018 and received the Rhode Island Distinguished Naturalist Award from the Rhode Island Natural History Survey last spring, describes his 316-page book as a conservation guide. It includes detailed accounts of each species, sections about the threats they face and their need for conservation, and numerous photos and graphics.
            “Most important is that I put all that information into a conservation context – here’s what we have, where they are, what’s happening to them, and what can be done about it,” he said.
            Although some parts may be somewhat technical, he said the book is “very user-friendly and readable. School kids can pick it up and be jazzed by the photos, it could be used as a college coursebook, and there’s plenty of parts that apply to a wide readership.”
            Many amphibian species in Rhode Island are facing serious threats to their populations, and he highlights these conservation challenges in the book.
            “It’s the same old thing for a lot of wildlife – habitat loss and fragmentation,” he said. “Some amphibians migrate long distances, they’re vulnerable at many life history stages, there are issues of hydrology and habitat alteration and road mortality, then throw on disease and a couple of other things. They can’t fly away from this stuff, they don’t disperse well, and there’s a whole gamut of things that influences them.
            “The bottom line is that when they get a lot of habitat fragmentation, their habitat patches get smaller, and many of them don’t persist in small areas like that,” he added. “Some species are really tolerant of habitat fragmentation; I’m not worried about bullfrogs because they’ll live in cities. But those that need large areas and have to move around between different sites, those are the ones with conservation concerns.”
            While most people interested in wildlife are probably familiar with the region’s most common species, like bullfrogs, green frogs, American toads and red-backed salamanders, the book also features the more obscure species that are seldom seen in the Ocean State.
            Spring salamanders, for instance. According to Raithel, spring salamanders are extremely rare and very difficult to observe. They were discovered in the state only about 30 years ago and are now known from only a handful of sites in northwestern Rhode Island.
            “It had been speculated that they were here, but nobody had seen one until another biologist found one,” Raithel said. “They’re permanently aquatic, and in some cases they live down under the substrate in the groundwater. We caught one of them deep in a well.”
            His favorite of the obscure amphibian species in the state is the eastern spadefoot toad, which hadn’t been reported in Rhode Island for about 40 years until Raithel started searching for them.
            “I knew they had to be out there, and eventually I found them in a few places, and then I branched out and found them in Connecticut where they had never been known to occur. Now they’re a conservation issue, as they should be,” he said. “They’re fun to look for because it’s like storm chasing; you have to go out in thunderstorms to find them.”
            Raithel is now working on a similar book focusing on the 20 species of reptiles in the state, which he expects to be completed in a couple years.
            Funding for Amphibians of Rhode Island was provided by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through the State Wildlife Grants Program. It can be purchased by sending a check for $20 to the DEM Great Swamp Field Headquarters, 277 Great Neck Road, West Kingston, R.I. 02892. It can also be purchased in person at the same location, or at the DEM Division of Boating and Licensing, 235 Promenade Street, Providence.

This story first appeared in on Dec. 12, 2019.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Researchers study corals in hopes of saving them

               University of Rhode Island coral biologist Hollie Putnam is teaming with experts in computer science, nanotoxicology, structural engineering and systems biology to study the intricacies of how corals grow and function in an effort to find new ways to help coral reef systems survive the damage being caused to them by the changing climate and other environmental stressors.
                The research team has been awarded a two-year $1.7 million grant by the National Science Foundation to decipher the reasons why certain environmental conditions damage corals and to find ways to repair them.
                “The complexity of corals makes conserving and restoring reefs very challenging,” said
Putnam, URI assistant professor of biological sciences, who studies coral symbiosis and physiology.
Hollie Putnam
“Corals are made up of many different organisms, including the animal host and the algae, bacteria, viruses and fungi that co-exist with it. They’re more like cities than individual animals, as they provide factories, housing, restaurants, nurseries and more for an entire ecosystem. Everything found on a reef is there because corals build the reef structure.”
                The project will focus on three key coral capabilities: they create calcium carbonate skeletons that provide three-dimensional structures in which diverse sea life can live; they can heal damage and regenerate their tissues; and they live in symbiosis with other organisms. The ultimate aim of the study is to understand these processes well enough to control them in the lab.
                “We’re digging into these three areas to understand coral biology better and looking at all the data to see who the key players are,” Putnam said. “And we’ll be building a model system of coral – a synthetic coral – to test and understand how corals work.”
                According to Putnam, a massive amount of data is now available about corals, fisheries, oceanography, climate, coral bleaching, molecular biology and genomics that will be synthesized by the researchers in new ways to address the challenges facing corals.
                “We’re at a tipping point,” she said. “We have data that will lead us to a better understanding of the coral ecosystem, but we need to harness these data in a different way. And we’re at a time of urgency because of the state that our corals are in.”
                The scientists will analyze the available data to identify the critical molecules involved in building reef structures, wound healing and symbiosis, and they will test their interactions in natural and 3D-printed models of synthetic corals. Then they will disrupt the model system and examine the resulting interactions to better understand the relationships at a molecular and organism level.
                “Our goal after two years is to have a better resource platform for all the data – from oceanographic to cellular. We’ll have cell cultures and coral polyps, biological models and protocols and other tools for future studies. And we’ll understand what it is about the coral symbiosis that facilitates these symbiotic relationships,” said Putnam.
                Ultimately, the researchers will end up with the data that will help natural resource managers and conservationists protect coral reefs from a variety of harmful human impacts.
                “We could end up with conservation or restoration recommendations for how corals are grown or the properties they need to settle new coral recruits on,” Putnam added. “Primarily, though, we’ll end up with an improved data aggregation platform and a greatly improved understanding of coral biology and the tools we need to understand the system and apply science-based solutions.”
                Included in the grant funding will be resources to hire graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, who will rotate among the labs at each participating institution. The research team will also provide educational outreach to the public at aquariums, schools and other venues.