Monday, March 30, 2020

Conservationist inspires artists and scientists to work together

            She’s worked as a wildlife veterinarian, directed the National Zoo, testified before Congress, appeared in a 13-part television series, and led an effort to care for wild mountain gorillas in Africa. But Lucy Spelman isn’t satisfied that she has done enough to get people to care about protecting wildlife.
So the Barrington resident is encouraging artists and scientists to work together to inspire conservation action by founding the non-profit organization Creature Conserve. A part-time lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design and a full-time exotic animal veterinarian at Ocean State Veterinary Specialists, she is helping local and international artists
Lucy Spelman speaking at TEDx Providence
learn from scientists – at workshops and in the field – about the issues facing wildlife and what can be done to help.
“I was teaching my first course at RISD, called the biology of human/animal interactions, and at the end of one class I saw a student’s doodle about what I had just talked about, and realized that she had just distilled my entire lecture into a single image,” said Spelman, who also chairs the board of the Rhode Island Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. “She actively listened to what I was saying and picked up on the science that interested her and made it visual.”
That doodle convinced Spelman to change the final requirement of the course from a paper and a presentation to a paper and a work of art. Students choose an endangered species, study the relevant science, and learn about conservation options. After three years of collecting photos of these final art projects, she had several folders full of art that she wanted to share with the world.
“Then, in the course of preparing a TEDx talk in Providence, I realized that what I really wanted to do next was encourage more artists to get involved in conservation, to help them raise their science literacy, so their art would be more powerful, have more punch, and so it would help more people see that the solutions for endangered species exist, and that it is up to us to take responsibility for them and take action,” she said.
So Spelman started Creature Conserve to bring artists and scientists together to save species. Today, she links artists with scientists, hosts workshops at which scientists inform artists about wildlife issues, and raises funds to send artists on field trips with scientists to Africa and South America.
“I know that artists think very similarly to scientists,” she said. “We both ask why are we here, what’s happening, we make something – art or science – to interpret the situation, and we share it with our peers.
“The difference,” she added, “is that scientists communicate in a technical language and to a fairly narrow audience. Art is a universal language, and artists reach a much broader audience. I’m interested in connecting art and science so we share what is happening with animals and what we can do about it with everybody. And in this way, we’re trying to change the way we problem-solve around conservation.”
Spelman took a rapid, round-about route to reaching this point in her career. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Brown University and a veterinary degree at the
'Electrical Box Landscapes' by Sophy Tuttle
University of California at Davis. Along the way she studied animal pathology at the San Diego Zoo, cared for retired animals used in entertainment in Los Angeles, and learned about animals used in laboratory research at the now-closed New England Primate Center. By 1995, she was the youngest person to be a board-certified zoological medicine veterinarian and was hired as an associate veterinarian at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Five years later she was in charge of the whole zoo.
“Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my time at the National Zoo is that it is easier to feel immediately responsible for the creature in front of you than to an animal in the so-called wild that you may never see,” she said. “I also learned that nothing is truly wild. Humans have touched all parts of the Earth.”
After leaving the National Zoo, she found herself caring for wild mountain gorillas in the Congo, Uganda and Rwanda as the regional veterinary manager of the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project.
            “These are wild gorillas, not zoo gorillas, so we only intervened if there was a problem caused by humans,” Spelman said. “
It was a triage job. We checked on the gorillas daily. We also supported initiatives to help local farmers and human health clinics. Over the course of three years, we did 16 interventions to remove snares or treat them for respiratory illnesses while I was there, and we documented for the first time that human visitors to the gorillas can transmit viral diseases.”
 When her stint in Africa was over, she returned to Rhode Island to teach and, eventually, to launch Creature Conserve.
“The organization is all about planting seeds among artists and scientists,” she said. “I can’t tell you what animals to protect. You have to be informed, and if you’re not interested, you’re not going to act. The art is a way of engagement, and it’s more powerful than anything.”
This article first appeared on on March 29, 2020.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Our Roots are Showing

            An awakening of sorts is underway—at URI and across the globe. There’s growing recognition that the 20th century’s industrial approach to farming and food production is unhealthy for people, animals, soil, and the environment, and is environmentally and economically unsustainable. So what’s to be done? At URI, where agriculture is central to our history and mission as a land grant university, our faculty, students, and alumni are rediscovering our agricultural roots, taking a new, interdisciplinary approach to practical agriculture, and leading the way for a new generation of farmers and food producers.

            In late October, a section of the University’s agronomy field is blooming with gorgeous purple saffron flowers. Although 90 percent of the global harvest of saffron—the world’s most expensive spice—comes from Iran, plant sciences professor Rebecca Brown has demonstrated that the Ocean State has the potential to claim a share of the market as demand grows in the United States.
            “It’s tolerant of arid conditions, which is why it’s mostly grown in the poor, dry soils of southeastern Iran,” she says. “But until now, no one had tried to grow it in southern NewEngland's moist, rich soils." 
            With the help of postdoctoral fellow Rahmatallah Gheshm, who grew the spice in Iran for 27 years, last year’s campus saffron yield per acre was about triple that of Iran’s.
            “It’s an attractive crop because you don’t need sophisticated farm equipment or technology to grow it,” she says. “It’s a lot less work to grow than vegetables, though it’s more
labor intensive to harvest, which is why saffron is so expensive. It also doesn’t have insect or disease problems here, and you don’t have to water it. All of that is attractive to farmers.”
            The saffron experiment is just one of URI’s many sustainable agriculture initiatives, which include numerous research projects, new faculty members, an academic major, and several campus measures designed to develop agricultural practices, products, and policies that reduce the environmental impact of food production while also considering economic sustainability and social justice for farming communities. The efforts attest to URI’s long history in agricultural research and education, and its commitment to leading a new generation of growers in an effort to create a sustainable system of food production.
            Plant Sciences and entomology assistant professor John Taylor is looking for ways to produce more food in smaller plots by using different nutrient inputs and tillage strategies and by cultivating several crops in the same space in a practice called polyculture.
“In polyculture, you’re growing multiple species together to get more production from a unit of area compared to growing those crops in monoculture,” he says. “It’s a way to maximize the use of space. In Chinese-origin household gardens, they sometimes double production because they have a vine crop growing vertically on a trellis with a leafy ground layer below. It helps the household be more food secure.”
He is also teaming with the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence to evaluate the use of urban-adapted high tunnel systems, temporary greenhouses that help to extend the growing season. By pairing raised beds in the tunnel with native flower beds that capture rain dripping off the tunnel, he is helping urban residents intensify production in small spaces.
            “If we’re going to meet the goal of producing 50 percent of the region’s food needs by 2060,” as proposed in a report prepared in 2014 by Food Solutions New England, “then a lot of our food is going to have to come from small scale production in urban backyards and vacant lots,” says Taylor, the first of several new professors hired as part of the sustainable agriculture program. He is finding that the yield from his... 

Read the rest of this story in the Spring 2020 University of Rhode Island Magazine.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Warm winter disrupts seasonal patterns

            It’s been another year of wacky winter weather, with more record-breaking warmth and a near-total absence of snow. It’s seeming more and more like this is the new normal. And unless you’re a skier, you probably don’t mind. But the warm weather is disrupting the natural seasonal patterns of local wildlife – what scientists call phenology – and it has the potential for significant impacts on their long-term survival.
Many people posted pictures of trees and shrubs budding and blooming in February, when temperatures hit 60 degrees several times. Early-blooming spring flowers like crocuses and tulips emerged from the soil even earlier than usual as well. These plants aren’t likely to suffer any ill effects from their early arrival, however. New England has always had enough variability in its winter weather that they have evolved to be able to handle wide swings in temperature.
That’s not to say that they won’t be affected, though. It takes energy for plants to grow and bloom, and if they start the process early and then have to shut down again when normal cold temperatures return, it’s energy they’ve wasted. They may not have enough energy left to try again at a more appropriate time. While that won’t affect the survival of the plants, it does mean they may lose an entire year of reproduction if they can’t bloom when the pollinators are active.
On the other hand, some pollinators – bees especially – have been observed out and about during our winter warm spells when there aren’t any flowers to pollinate or nectar to feed upon. For bumble bees, it’s the pregnant queens that emerge first, and if she uses up all her energy searching for food that isn’t yet available, she may die, and with her goes the hopes for her entire colony.
This mismatch in the timing of the emergence of plants and insects due to the changing climate is affecting bird migration as well. Many bird species time their migration to arrive in their breeding location right when an abundance of insects is emerging so the birds have plenty to eat and feed to their young. But when the insects emerge early, the peak of their abundance may be over by the time the birds arrive, leaving the birds with a challenging search for additional resources.
It’s less of a problem for short-distance migrants, however, than it is for those that travel long distances, like warblers and vireos that winter in the tropics. Birds that migrate from the southern United States may notice the signal of a warm winter and early spring and begin their migration early. But long-distance migrants from Central America and South America aren’t aware that the weather far to the north has been unusually warm, so they don’t know to fly north earlier than usual. Those birds are unlikely to arrive in time for the abundance of insect prey they need for reproduction.
The migration of amphibians is being affected as well, even though most travel only a few hundred yards from their wintering grounds to their breeding ponds. Wood frogs were observed in late February, long before they should be active, and while they can tolerate freezing and thawing cycles, what the short winter means for their life cycle is uncertain.
But just because we’ve had a wacky winter doesn’t mean we won’t have a more typical spring. If we have more seasonable temperatures in March and April, perhaps things will get back to normal for the local wildlife. But don’t count on it.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on March 28, 2020.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Wing Man

            From his earliest days exploring the natural world in his native Virginia, Charles Clarkson always gravitated toward birds. They were easy to see almost everywhere he went, and by high school he knew he wanted to dedicate his life to them.  
            Today, the 38-year-old Middletown resident leads a massive effort involving more than 200 volunteers to document every species of bird that breeds in every corner of the Ocean State. And several times each year, he leads birdwatching tours to Panama and other countries around the world.
            “When I see a bird, something emotional stirs inside of me,” he says. “Seeing birds in their natural habitats doing what they’ve done for millions of years seemed otherworldly.”
            A member of the board of the Aquidneck Land Trust and the Audubon Society of Rhode
Keel-billed Toucan (Charles Clarkson)
Island, Clarkson marvels at the remarkable adaptations of the creatures he calls little metabolic hotrods.
            “They operate at the maximum of their physiological capacity, they’re the epitome of movement and grace, and it just seems impossible to me that they are capable of surviving and thriving on every continent on the planet and in extremely hostile environments,” he says. “And yet they figured it out. If the going gets tough, birds get tougher.”
As a teen obsessed with birds, however, Clarkson felt a bit like an outsider.
            “Every Friday night I would pack my backpack and set out on the Appalachian Trail by myself, birding and camping,” he says. “But I never really got the feeling that I was missing out on anything. I look back at my time spent alone in the woods with a great deal of fondness.”
            His passion for birds even made him miss his graduate school commencement ceremony because he was leading a birdwatching excursion to Scotland and Iceland. But again, he claims not to feel as if he missed anything. “Viewing Atlantic puffin colonies definitely takes priority,” Clarkson says.
            Luckily, he has a supportive wife who sees the benefits of his ornithological activities. She even joins him occasionally and participates in pre- and post-trip gatherings with his birdwatching friends and clients.
            According to Clarkson, Newport County is an ideal place to look for birds at any time of the year. The region has an abundance of warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows and other songbirds that breed in the area, and is a significant spot for wintering waterfowl. He notes that Miantonomi Park is one of the best locations in the state to observe songbird migration in the spring, and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge is “unparalleled” for its abundance of ducks in the winter — as well as for the regular appearance of snowy, short-eared and barn owls.
            It’s not necessary to be a scientist to appreciate birds, so Clarkson encourages everyone to be attentive to the winged creatures around them.
            “They’re one of the most observable wildlife on Earth,” he says. “Watching birds lends itself well to everybody — to family groups, to children. It’s accessible to a large audience, and there’s not a lot of startup costs. Birding is a gateway drug to learning about the entire ecosystem. Birds are the harbingers of things to come.”
            Clarkson’s main activity for the last five years has been as leader of the Rhode Island Breeding Bird Atlas, which has documented the breeding status of more than 165 bird species in the state and the habitats each prefers.
            “Knowing this information gives us the tools for effective conservation,” he says. “It helps us figure out what we need to do to attract certain suites of species and to manage for overall biodiversity.”
            For those interested in learning about birds beyond the local area, Clarkson leads several tours each year to Panama and occasionally to Iceland, South Africa and other destinations through his company, Antbird Tours. Home to more than 1,000 species of birds, Panama’s location between North and South America means it sees huge numbers of migrating birds traveling back and forth each year, and it is one of the best places in the world to see migrating hawks. The resident species are spectacularly colorful, and include toucans, parrots, tanagers and dozens of kinds of hummingbirds.
            “All of this occurs in a country roughly the size of South Carolina,” Clarkson says. “It’s easily accessible, and I can cater a trip to whatever you want to see. In five days, you can get a good introduction to tropical birding. And it’s impossible to go there without returning with a good sense of how tropical ecosystems work and the role of birds.”
            Clarkson notes that it’s not necessary to be a birdwatcher to enjoy his Panama tours. In addition to birds, his clients also usually see several kinds of monkeys, sloths, anteaters and lots of beautiful butterflies, among a long list of other creatures.
            “It doesn’t matter what your interests are; I’m happy to take you there just to show you the magnificent biodiversity of the tropics,” he said. “When I take people to Panama and show them how a healthy rainforest operates, they become changed by the experience.”

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Concerns grow in Northeast over amphibian diseases

            As frogs and salamanders emerge from winter hibernation and migrate to their breeding ponds, herpetologists throughout the region are paying close attention to the growing number of amphibian diseases threatening frogs and salamanders in the Northeast.
            The most worrisome is an infectious fungal disease called chytridomycosis, or chytrid, which has caused major die-offs of frog populations in the tropics and elsewhere and is blamed for numerous frog extinctions in Latin America.
According to University of Rhode Island herpetologist Nancy Karraker, chytrid grows on the skin of frogs, and when it is found on their drink patch – a site on their belly where they
Bull frog (Todd McLeish)
absorb water into their bodies – the fungus makes it impossible for the frogs to regulate how much water they absorb, causing them to become desiccated and die.
            “Chytrid has been found in multiple species of frogs in the Northeast, but we haven’t seen massive die-offs here,” said Karraker, URI associate professor of natural resources science, who has studied frogs around the world. “But that doesn’t mean that die-offs haven’t occurred, just that they haven’t been at the scale we’ve seen in South America. So we can’t say it’s not a problem here, and it certainly could become a serious problem.”
            Some scientists believe that the disease originated in African clawed frogs, which were shipped around the world for use in human pregnancy tests from the 1940s to the 1960s. Many of the frogs escaped from captivity and could easily have spread the disease to native frogs in many places. Other scientists think the fungus was ubiquitous around the globe and that, initially, the only frogs that died were those with compromised immune systems.
            “I don’t know where the greatest weight of support is for those ideas today,” Karraker said. “But maybe our frogs aren’t as susceptible because they’re not facing the kinds of stressors that may have impacted frogs in other places. Or it could be something to do with their natural history. We just don’t know, and that’s partly why I’m worried.”
            In 2010, Antioch University New England graduate student Mandy Gaudreau, working in collaboration with Lou Perrotti, conservation director at Roger Williams Park Zoo, swabbed 47 frogs and toads at 11 sites in Rhode Island and detected chytrid in 21 percent of her samples.
            “What struck me about her results is that most of the ponds where she found chytrid were manmade ponds – farm ponds, retention ponds,” Perrotti said. “Why was it in those and not in the natural wetlands?”
            He also wonders whether climate has an effect.
            “Frogs in Panama got wiped out. Costa Rica got wiped out. It seems like it’s worst at that certain temperature range,” he said. “Maybe our winters knock it back and keep it from becoming prevalent. Tropical frogs don’t have the seasonality that we have here.”
            Yet chytrid isn’t the only disease threatening amphibians and reptiles in the area.
Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, is particularly concerned about ranavirus, an infectious disease that has caused die-offs of reptiles, amphibians and fish in 20 states, including box turtles in the Northeast. In frogs and toads, it especially affects the tadpole stage, causing skin hemorrhages, erratic swimming, buoyancy problems, and the inability to right themselves in the water.
“We know it’s here, it’s in our environment, but if and when it becomes active is hard to predict,” he said.
Buchanan is also tracking a fungal disease in snakes, a herpes virus in turtles, and chytrid in salamanders.
“Salamander chytrid has had devastating effects on salamanders in Europe over the last 5 to 10 years, and it’s considered an eventuality that it will be brought into the U.S. one way or another and run through our salamanders,” he said. “The eastern U.S. is a global hotspot of salamander diversity, and a lot of research is going on now to determine how virulent it is, are particular species susceptible, and what are their natural defenses.”
“What’s notable for us,” added Karraker, “is that it’s usually really hard to change the rules for importing animals for the pet trade, but in 2016, legislation was passed that prevented the import of 201 species of salamanders to prevent the introduction of the disease into the U.S. That’s a landmark bit of legislation to protect our native species.”
Buchanan said that it is up to biologists and others working in area wetlands to follow strict protocols to prevent the spread of the diseases, like regularly disinfecting their boots, equipment and tools as they move from site to site around the region.
“We have to be vigilant about potentially transferring diseases from one wetland to another,” he said. “Because we move from one wetland to the next throughout the day and throughout the season, there’s real potential that we could move it around with us, and we often go to the most important sites and monitor the most sensitive species.
“It’s something we take really seriously,” Buchanan added. “We know how quickly things can change here, we know disease pandemics can happen quickly, move around quickly, and cause devastating impacts on populations. And if it doesn’t wipe them out completely, it can take decades for them to recover.”

This article first appeared on on March 14, 2020