Friday, May 22, 2020

R.I. must stop monitoring plants to death

            David Gregg worries that not enough is being done to protect rare plants in Rhode Island.
            “There are a lot of plant species that we’re monitoring out of existence,” said Gregg, the executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. “We check them every year, and there are often fewer of them each year. The best-case scenario is that they stay the same, but many populations are getting smaller and smaller.”
            He believes that conservationists must be bolder during the climate change crisis if native wild plants are going to survive in the coming decades. Rather than simply monitoring
Salt marsh pink (Hope Leeson)
the status of rare plants in Rhode Island, he is advocating for the use of more active strategies to boost plant populations.
            “There’s been a big debate among biologists about how active we should be in trying to save rare species,” Gregg said. “Are we going to end up gardening nature? Aren’t we bound to make faulty decisions? If we get involved in active management of rare species, aren’t we doomed to screw it up?”
            With little left to lose in some cases, he has chosen to partner with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Native Plant Trust (formerly the New England Wild Flower Society) on an effort to propagate select species of rare plants and transplant them into the wild to augment existing wild populations and establish new populations.
            The Rhode Island At-risk Plant Propagation Project is an outgrowth of the Rhody Native program, which was established a decade ago to help commercial plant growers propagate native plants for retail sale. At its peak, the program was growing 50 different species, but eventually just one species became dominant, a salt marsh grass used in marsh restoration projects.
            “Rhody Native became a commodity growing project, and that’s not our business,” Gregg said. “Our strength is in rare species – learning to propagate them and experimenting with them.”
            The Propagation Project began last year with the selection of four plants to propagate to test the concept -- salt marsh pink, wild indigo, wild lupine, and several varieties of native milkweed. The lupine and indigo were selected in part because they are the food plant for a rare butterfly, the frosted elfin. Just two populations of salt marsh pink are left in Rhode Island, and they are at risk from sea level rise.
            “Our populations of marsh pink have very few plants, and we’re worried about inbreeding,” Gregg said. “The idea is to take plants from a Connecticut restoration site, cross pollinate them with plants from Rhode Island to reduce inbreeding, and then return some to Connecticut and use the others to reinforce the Rhode Island populations.”
            The big challenge with this kind of project is learning how to propagate the plants in a greenhouse setting.
            “These aren’t domesticated plants we’re working with,” said Hope Leeson, a botanist for the Natural History Survey who led the Rhody Native program. “We have to imitate the environmental conditions the plants are adapted to – the temperature, humidity, soil, water and other factors.”
            Salt marsh pink is a particularly challenging example. It’s an annual species that produces a large quantity of seeds in a good year, but the seeds are extremely small – Leeson describes them as “dust-like” – and they don’t tolerate drying, so they cannot be stored over the winter.
            “We collected seeds in October and had to sow them immediately,” she said. “In the wild, they grow in a band of vegetation along the top of a salt marsh, where it’s a moist sandy soil mixed with peat. Periodically it floods as the tide comes in and then drains. I’ve got to come up with a soil mixture that’s like the natural conditions to make the plant happy.”
            Wild indigo, on the other hand, is very drought tolerant and doesn’t grow well in moist or humid conditions. Its seeds – like those of wild lupine – must be scarified before they will germinate.
            “A lot of species in the pea family have a hard seed coat that keeps them from taking in water until conditions are right for germinating,” Leeson explained. “In the wild, lupine grows in sandy, gravely soil, so the seeds are likely to get abraded by the sand over the winter, allowing it to take in water to trigger the process of coming out of dormancy.”
            To get lupine and indigo seeds to germinate, Leeson must first scratch them with sandpaper to simulate the natural scarification process.
            Leeson and volunteers from the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society are raising many of the target plants in greenhouses at the University of Rhode Island’s East Farm and at a private site in Portsmouth.
            Gregg said the project is being undertaken on a shoestring budget to demonstrate it’s potential. “We hope someone will realize that we have this unique capacity to do research propagation of rare plants, and maybe that will help us find some funders to support the project,” he said.

This article first appeared on on May 21, 2020.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Justifying wildlife protections with slug slime

            Since much of what I write – especially my books – is focused on endangered species, I often get asked why we should bother protecting rare species, especially those that are less-than-charismatic, like snakes, mice or Rhode Island’s state insect, the American burying beetle.
            I try to explain their contribution to maintaining the health of their ecosystem or their role in the food web, and sometimes I offer a philosophical note that they have just as much right to be here as we do.
            But more often than not, the questioners aren’t satisfied with those answers. What they really want to know is what value these rare animals have to people and why should we spend money protecting them if they don’t provide a return on our investment. It’s a difficult question when focusing on specific creatures, like burying beetles, for which there isn’t an obvious answer.
            If we were talking about whales or ducks or fish, for instance, I could point to the
Slug slime (Nigel Cattlin)
economic contribution of the whale watching industry or their value to recreational hunting or fishing. But it’s hard to pinpoint a precise economic value for most species. We don’t know what they may contribute to human society, if anything.
I argue that animals don’t exist to serve us – with the possible exception of our pets – and so their existence shouldn’t have to be justified based on what they offer us. Unfortunately, that too is an unsatisfying answer for many people.
            So then I offer another angle.
            Most of the active ingredients in pharmaceutical drugs originated in plants and animals. The Pacific yew tree provided the original molecules for Taxol, a life-saving cancer drug.  The diabetes drug Exendin is derived from the saliva of a lizard called a gila monster. There are hundreds of other examples, most of which come from animals or plants that few people cared much about until their health properties were discovered. The University of Rhode Island has an entire team of researchers studying molecules in marine algae that could be turned into medicines.
            If we only cared about what wild animals and plants can do for people, it might have been difficult to justify the existence of many of the species that eventually provided the key molecules in our medications. The thing is, we don’t know what species could provide the cure for diseases we don’t know exist yet, so it’s probably a good idea to save as many species as we can, just in case.
            One reason I bring this up now is because there may be a plant or animal out there somewhere that could help us cure or treat COVID19 – if we can find it and if we haven’t already driven it to extinction.
            I also bring this up now because I just learned that a professor at my alma mater, Ithaca College, helped to discover a unique new medical adhesive derived from the sticky secretions from a slug. This slug slime apparently shows promise as a replacement for medical stitches because it maintains its sticky properties even when blood makes the area slick. The professor told Smithsonian Magazine that the slug goo “literally oozes off the back of the slug and sets in seconds into a really tough, elastic gel.” 
            While that slug adhesive isn’t going to cure cancer – as far as we know – it might become a new product that solves any number of problems in the human world. And maybe that just might be enough to justify keeping that slug around a while longer.

This article first appeared in The Independent on May 14, 2020.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Rhode Islanders need not worry about murder hornets

               News of the arrival in North America of a non-native insect with the terrifying colloquial name of murder hornet has alarmed residents around the country. But a University of Rhode Island entomologist said there is little reason for Rhode Islanders to worry about them.
                Two murder hornets – which are more appropriately called Asian giant hornets – were discovered in Washington State in December shortly after a nest was discovered in nearby British Columbia. Native to Japan, where they are responsible for about 50 human deaths per year, the 2-inch insects with orange heads and black eyes are best known for their foraging behavior of ripping the heads off honeybees and feeding the rest of the bees’ bodies to their young.
                “Their reputation as murder hornets comes from the fact that they can kill a lot of honeybees in a very short period of time,” said URI entomologist Lisa Tewksbury. “The major
Asian giant hornet (iStock)
concern about their arrival in North America is for the damage they could cause to commercial honeybees used for pollinating agricultural fields. They are capable of quickly destroying beehives.”
                Tewksbury said the hornet’s sting isn’t any more toxic than that of the bees and hornets commonly found around New England, but because of their large size, murder hornets can deliver a larger dose of toxin with each sting. They are a danger to humans only when stung multiple times.
                “But they’re not known to aggressively attack humans,” she said. “It only happens occasionally and randomly.”
                Rhode Island is home to two hornets similar in size to the murder hornet – the cicada killer hornet, which dig their nests in sandy or light soil in areas like athletic fields and playgrounds, and the European hornet, a non-native species that has become naturalized in New England after its arrival here in the 1800s. Like the murder hornet, they are among the largest wasp-like insects in the world.
                Tewksbury said that it is extremely unlikely that the Asian giant hornets in the Pacific Northwest are in Rhode Island or likely will be soon. The concern is that no one knows how the hornets made it to Washington.
                “We don’t know the pathway it took to get to Washington, and since we don’t know, it’s difficult to know how to prevent further introductions into North America,” said Tewksbury.
                Although she said that Rhode Islanders need not be concerned about murder hornets, she advises residents to keep their eyes out for any unusual insect they’ve never seen before, since non-native insects do occasionally arrive in the region.
                “Take a picture of it and report it to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s invasive species sighting form,” Tewksbury said. “It could be something that we don’t know is here, and reporting it is the only way anyone would know.”

Monday, May 11, 2020

Plight of pollinators isn't limited to honeybee collapse

            Most of the numerous news reports about the decline of bees and other pollinators focus on only one side of the story – the drop in honey bee numbers due to colony collapse disorder and its impact on food crops. Yet as important as that issue is to human food security, it only impacts one pollinator species, the European honey bee, a non-native species that is managed by commercial beekeepers.
            The decline of native pollinators, of which there are thousands of species in North America that affect thousands of additional species of plants and animals, is largely ignored. Robert Gegear is trying to change that.
The assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth has launched a citizen science program called the Beecology Project to learn more about the ecology of native
Rusty-patched bumblebee (USFWS)
pollinators, starting with bumblebees, to better understand why some species are doing so poorly while others remain common.
            “The survival of native pollinators has a positive cascading effect on so many other species, both the wild plants they pollinate and the other wildlife using those plants for food, shelter and nest sites,” he said. “Collectively, those relationships are increasing ecosystem health. But as we start to remove pollinators, we start to affect all these other species.
            “Certain pollinators are heading toward extinction,” he added, “but an equal or greater number have not been affected and are increasing. In ecology, it’s about diversity – not how many individuals you see but how many species you see, since each species has a connection with a flowering plant that has a connection to other species.”
            For example, Gegear notes that Bombus impatiens, the common eastern bumblebee, is abundant and expanding and easy to attract to flower gardens, but many other bumblebee species that used to be common are declining rapidly. Why that is happening is unknown.
            “It could be that whatever we’re doing to the environment to drive declines in many species of bumblebees is having a direct positive impact on Bombus impatiens,” he said. “We use a lot of non-native plants in our gardens, and Bombus impatiens loves non-native plants, but other bumblebees don’t like non-natives. That’s one possibility. Or impatiens could be more flexible in its use of nest site habitat. We may be removing habitat that supports species that are less flexible in their nesting requirements. We have evidence for both explanations.”
            Among the species that were formerly common in southern New England and are now quite rare are Bombus terricola (the yellow-banded bumblebee), Bombus fervidus (the yellow bumblebee), Bombus vagans (the half-black bumblebee), and Bombus affinis (the rusty patched bumblebee). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently added Bombus affinis to the Endangered Species List.
            The populations of some of these rare species declined especially fast. When Gegear was conducting his doctoral research in the late 1990s, Bombus affinis was so abundant that he considered it a pest. Five years later, however, and he could not find it for miles around his research sites.
            “The problem is that we don’t know enough about the natural history of most of these species,” he said. “We know virtually nothing about their nesting preferences, about their overwintering preferences, their floral preferences. They have those preferences for a reason, but if you look at plant lists for bumblebees, everything is equal for all species, and that’s not the case.”
            Since little is known about which flowers the rare species prefer, many of the growing number of pollinator gardens being installed around the region aren’t benefitting the species most in need. Instead, they’re just helping the species that are already common.
            “People want to help, and they have good intentions, but the science isn’t there to tell them what they should be planting,” Gegear said. “I’m trying to fill in those gaps and change the focus of pollinator research by taking more of an ecological approach.”
            To do so, he needs large amounts of data. To collect that data, he has turned to the general public. He teamed with computer scientists at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to develop a web-based app to enable anyone to take photos and videos of bumblebees they see, identify them to species, identify the flowers they are visiting, and submit to Gegear’s database.
            Based on the data he has already received, new populations of the rare bumblebee species have been found that will enable him to establish new research sites to learn more about those species. Many participants in the program are even planting gardens with the flowers those rare species prefer to boost those bumblebee populations.
            It’s not just bumblebee preferences that are little known. The same is true of the floral preferences of other pollinators. So Gegear plans to expand his app to include observations of butterflies and other types of bees as well. Eventually he hopes to expand it further so it can be used to conserve pollinators across the country.
            “I put a plant on my property last year that we learned one species prefers, and as soon as it came into bloom, the threatened species came in,” he said. “So this approach really does work.”
            Gegear is seeking to recruit more Beecology volunteers from Rhode Island and throughout the region. For more information, visit
            “And if you don’t want to use the app, just take a 10-second video of any bumblebee you see and send it to me,” he said. “That’s just as good.”

This article first appeared on on May 11, 2020.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Climate change increases risk of fisheries conflict

               A team of fisheries scientists and marine policy experts, led by a University of Rhode Island researcher, examined how climate change is affecting the ocean environment and found that the changing conditions will likely result in increased fisheries-related conflicts and create new challenges in the management of global fisheries.
                The team’s research was published last month in the journal Marine Policy.
                Elizabeth Mendenhall, URI assistant professor of marine affairs, said that ocean warming, acidification and sea level rise that are a direct result of climate change are causing populations of fish to shift, making fish increasingly scarce, shifting the boundaries of where nations can legally 
fish, and increasing the intensity of fishing pressure around the world. The result will be growing
conflicts between individual fishermen, fishing communities, fishing nations and fishery managers.
                “These conflicts exist at multiple scales,” said Mendenhall, who is writing a book about geopolitics and ocean governance. “Some of it is one boat versus another, sometimes it’s one country versus another, and it can get very complicated. It isn’t just about overfishing any more. There are other drivers and other dynamics involved.”
                As warming temperatures shift fish populations to different areas, for instance, the bulk of those stocks may cross the borders of a nations’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone, making it illegal for those who have fished those stocks for many years to pursue them any longer.
                “We’re seeing examples of fishermen crossing borders more often now because the stocks they feel they have a right to have shifted across the border,” Mendenhall said.
                Among the more challenging questions that climate change is raising for fishing nations is what happens when sea level rise submerges an island. Does that change the nation’s maritime boundaries?
                “It’s an ongoing debate about whether you keep your maritime claim even though you have no land base to manage it from,” said Mendenhall. “Or does your claim go away? There are a lot of nations that fish over long distances that are ready to exploit those areas if national boundaries no longer exist.”
                The tiny Japanese atoll of Okinotorishima is one such case. Located in the southernmost archipelago of Japan, its submergence is raising questions about whether Taiwan and China may legally fish in the area claimed by Japan.
                “I argue that as sea level rises, Japan’s argument gets weaker,” said Mendenhall, noting that the countries have not challenged the boundaries based on the island’s submergence yet. “The rules on where you can make your maritime claim are based on where the land is.
“The same problem applies to coastlines,” she added. “Low-lying countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam could lose a lot of maritime territory as sea level rises. The outer edge of their claim could move closer to their coastline.”
                The research team makes a series of recommendations based on its findings designed to improve global fishery management. They recommend greater multilateral fishery monitoring, similar to what is in place off East Africa to combat piracy, which can help deter or catch illegal fishers, thereby reducing the chance that individual fishing boats will take matters into their own hands.
                “We also suggest that marine protected areas be used, but it’s critical that the area protected is one where habitats are still thriving despite climate change,” Mendenhall said. “There is concern, however, that when you protect one area, it may displace the fishers to somewhere else and make the problem worse elsewhere. We need to think about the dynamics that protected areas may cause and account for that in the site selection process.”
                Finally, the researchers recommend strengthening the global fisheries management regime by taking into account climate change and the new sources of fishery conflict. The management boundaries of many fish stocks were drawn decades ago, and some parts of the open ocean are not managed at all because no productive fish stocks were there many years ago, yet there may be fish stocks there in the future. Most importantly, they suggest that the regional fishery management organizations work together to develop coordinated governance systems to better manage fisheries as environmental conditions change and greater conflicts arise.
“These changes to how [regional fishery management organizations] manage fisheries, and how they coordinate and cooperate with one another, can make high seas fisheries management more resilient to shifts in stocks and users, and changes in relative
abundance,” the researchers conclude.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Rhode Island's first lizard species discovered

            Rhode Island’s herpetological community is bursting with excitement at the discovery of the first confirmed lizard sighting in the state. A five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) of uncertain origin was found in South County on April 22.
            Emilie Holland, an environmental scientist with the Federal Highway Administration and the president of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, made the discovery and immediately contacted other Survey board members with expertise in identifying lizards.
            “I was just poking around when I saw the little guy,” she said. “I thought it was a salamander at first, and I grabbed it really fast. When I opened my hand, I thought it was going
Five-lined skink (Emilie Holland)
to be a mole salamander, but it didn’t move as fast as a mole salamander normally would.”
            When University of Rhode Island herpetologist Nancy Karraker received a text and photo of the lizard from Holland, she was in the middle of a virtual meeting.
            “My initial reaction was, how quickly can I get out of this meeting and go find Emily to see it,” Karraker said.
            The five-lined skink is typically found throughout the Southeast and Midwest, where it is quite common. Small numbers are also found in the Hudson Valley of New York and into western Connecticut and western Massachusetts. But with the exception of a very few unconfirmed observations, they have never been recorded in Rhode Island.
            Growing about 6 inches long with distinct brown and cream-colored stripes, the skinks have blue tails as juveniles, and adult males have a reddish throat. The one Holland found was a juvenile.
            “The blue tail is a defense mechanism,” said herpetologist Lou Perrotti, director of conservation at Roger Williams Park Zoo. “A predator is going to attack the brightest piece of the animal, and the lizard can drop its tail to get away. It gives them a protection advantage.”
            The big question is how it arrived in Rhode Island – did it arrive naturally on its own, or was it brought to the area by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally. Since it was found near railroad tracks and a lumberyard, many possibilities are being considered.
            “Skinks love rocky woodlands where there’s lots of fallen timber,” Perrotti said. “And they love railroad corridors because they’re typically lined with rocks that are great for thermoregulation. Lizards love to climb out on the rocks.
            “Was it a stowaway on a train? Was it transported up here in lumber or mulch?” he asked. “We don’t know. We need to find more specimens. Is it possible there’s a population here? Absolutely. But unless you really look for them, they’re really hard to find.”
            Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has contacted a colleague who studies Italian wall lizards that have dispersed up the Northeast rail corridor, but no skinks are known to have been found along the tracks.
            Holland hopes it arrived in the state on its own.
            “The child side of my brain says ‘how cool would that be,’” she said. “But when I stop to think about it, the likelihood is that it somehow got imported here.”
            Karraker agrees.
            “It’s not a range extension in the sense that it marched its way east to Rhode Island,” she said. “My immediate thought is that it came in somebody’s mulch – or some eggs did – or in a load of wood. There are enough people like me and Lou and Scott and all my students who are constantly running around Rhode Island looking for stuff, rolling over logs. If they were broadly distributed in Rhode Island, we’d know about it.”
            Another possibility is that the skink was released by someone who kept it as a pet.
            “Pretty much every animal is in the pet trade, but I’ve spent time perusing Craig’s List and I had my students investigating pet shops this semester, and I don’t think this species turned up in anyone’s records,” Karraker said. “They’re not something that tames easily, they’re very sensitive to people being around, and they hide, so they don’t make a good pet.”
            Because the skink probably survived the winter in Rhode Island, it raises additional speculation. David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey, wonders whether the changing climate may have played a role in its survival in the state.
            “If further research shows this is a breeding population and not just a lone escapee, then however this particular population of skinks got to Rhode Island, they never could have survived here before but now they can,” he said.
            But Karraker notes that some native populations of the skink in New York are nearly as far north as the Adirondack Mountains, where it’s often colder than Rhode Island, so she isn’t convinced climate change has played a role.
            “I don’t think it has anything to do with climate,” she said. “Something got moved and the skink was in it, and Rhode Island isn’t a bad place to be. The skink detected that there weren’t any other lizards here to compete with, and it survived.”
            The next step for the group of herpetologists is to search the area for additional specimens to determine how large the local population may be. Buchanan will be screening the first specimen for diseases and conducting a genetic analysis to determine from where it originated.
            But for now, the skink lives in an aquarium at Karraker’s house, where she is feeding it termites.
            “I didn’t want to release it,” she said. “That’s a decision for DEM to make, not me. So I’m just waiting to make the handoff to DEM to take charge and figure out what to do with it.” 

This article first appeared on on May 1, 2020.