Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Whales of the Deep

        The small boat maneuvered within yards of a rare True’s beaked whale in the waters near Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. The researchers held their breath as they tried to attach a digital tag to the animal’s back with a suction cup. Beaked whales seldom come to the surface for long, so the team’s window of opportunity was fleeting, and they had already made several attempts. If the whale dived again, they might not get another chance. Extending a long pole over the whale, they finally slapped the tag on the animal’s back, and the tag held tight. The team erupted in cheers — no one had ever successfully tagged a True’s beaked whale before.
        “We had all worked so hard to get to that moment, and it was a huge accomplishment,” said Danielle Cholewiak, a research ecologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and the leader of the summer 2018 expedition. “For the first time, we were going to have a little more insight into the deep, underwater behavior of this elusive species.”
        Beaked whales are among the most mysterious marine mammals in the world. Because they are rarely seen and disappear underwater for long stretches of time, little is known about their behavior and
True's beaked whale (New England Aquarium)
life cycle. What are they feeding on? Why do they seem to prefer deep canyons? Do they travel widely or remain in one area for most of the year? Where do they reproduce? What is their social structure? The marine national monument 130 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is one of the few known places that is home to several beaked whale species, and scientists conducting research there are hoping to answer some of these questions about the unfamiliar cetaceans.
        Beaked whales have a distinct snout like that of a dolphin, and males can be identified by two tusklike teeth. The whales range in size from about 15 to 40 feet long and can weigh more than 12 tons. More than 20 species traverse the world’s oceans, and they prefer deep, offshore waters — unlike most of the best-known whale species, which spend much of their lives on the continental shelf. Most beaked whales are also shy and difficult to approach. Many species look so similar that even scientists find it challenging to tell them apart, and a couple of species are known only from dead specimens that have washed ashore.
        “Often the best way to identify a dead one on the beach is to cut off the head, freeze it and send it to an expert to make the ID from the clean skull,” said Robert Kenney, a retired marine mammal researcher at the University of Rhode Island.
        Three species of beaked whales — True’s, Cuvier’s and Sowerby’s — have been observed in the Northeast Canyons monument, a 4,900-square-mile protected area established by President Barack Obama in 2016 for its diverse habitats and abundant marine life, which includes billfish, tuna, sharks and more than 50 species of corals. The only marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, it features four underwater mountains, or seamounts, and three 1-mile-deep canyons at the edge of the continental shelf. The topography facilitates upwelling, a process that brings nutrient-rich cold water to the surface and sustains numerous species, from cod to North Atlantic right whales.
        The monument is “one of the least human-impacted areas of the East Coast,” said marine ecologist Peter Auster from the Mystic Aquarium and University of Connecticut, who started studying the area in 1984.
        In 2020, President Donald Trump signed a proclamation that lifted restrictions on commercial fishing in the monument. NPCA has been advocating for the restoration of the monument’s protections, and the Biden administration is reviewing the legality of the proclamation.
        Since confirming in 2016 that True’s beaked whales visit the monument area, Cholewiak has spent two to four weeks each summer or fall studying the whales at sea. During every expedition, she and her colleagues scan the surface of the water with supersized binoculars mounted on the ship to locate whales up to 7 miles away. Because the animals remain submerged for extended periods, the researchers also use a variety of acoustic tools to detect them and learn about their underwater movement patterns. Cholewiak’s research vessel tows an array of up to eight hydrophones, and the team laid acoustic recorders on the seafloor, for instance, to listen for the unique echolocation sounds the beaked whales make as they forage for squid and other prey.
        “It’s above our hearing range, so we don’t actually hear it ourselves, but we watch for their signals to come in on a computer screen,” Cholewiak said.
        In addition to Cholewiak and her team, researchers from the New England Aquarium in Boston conduct several aerial surveys in the monument each year to count marine mammals and other wildlife visible at the surface. They fly six transects over the monument’s canyons in a twin-engine plane with two observers aboard, and when they spot marine mammals such as beaked whales, they depart from their route to get a closer look.
        “When we see some, we wonder how many we flew past that were down on a dive when we flew over,” said Orla O’Brien, assistant scientist at the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “They’re such a cryptic species that every sighting is important.”
        Based on five years of survey data, Cuvier’s and Sowerby’s beaked whales appear to be more common in the monument than True’s, though the aquarium team has observed all three species swimming in the canyon area in most years.
        Cholewiak’s research group, which is affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is slowly learning details of True’s beaked whales’ behavior. The team was the first to distinguish the echolocation sounds made by True’s (pictured below) from those of the closely related Gervais’ beaked whale, for example. And thanks to the data collected from the tagged whale, they finally have an idea of how long and how deep the whales can dive. The tag remained attached to the whale for 13 hours before falling off and floating to the surface. Once it was retrieved, it indicated that the whale had dived nine times to a depth of about 3,200 feet and that each dive lasted between 25 and 40 minutes.
        Data from just one whale isn’t enough to make generalizations about the species, however, so Cholewiak and her team are continuing their efforts to monitor beaked whales. The pandemic halted progress in 2020, but the researchers were planning to return to the monument this September. One of their longer-term goals is to tag both True’s and Cuvier’s beaked whales to track their movements and interactions to better understand how the two species may be sharing or partitioning their habitat.
        “I feel really excited and energized by this work,” she said. “We still have a lot to learn, but we’re definitely learning something new about beaked whales every time we get out there.”

        This article first appeared in the fall 2021 issue of National Parks magazine.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Tracking Brook Trout

        At Breakheart Brook in the Arcadia Management Area in Exeter, Ellie Madigan bushwhacks along the edge of the stream carrying a hand-held antenna and receiver to listen for an electronic beep that indicates a brook trout is nearby. During a half-mile of walking, she hears only the sounds of the gurgling brook, a few songbirds, and the buzzing of insects. So she heads in the opposite direction.
        Madigan, a University of Rhode Island student, is joined in the search by fellow student Mitchell Parizek and Corey Pelletier, a biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental
DEM biologist Corey Pelletier and URI students (M. Derr)
Management, who devised the research project to track the movement of the state’s only native trout species. After capturing 75 trout in May and implanting a tracking device in each of them, Pelletier, Madigan and Parizek are trying to relocate each of the fish every week throughout the summer to figure out where the fish go as water temperatures rise.
        “One of the things brook trout need for survival is cool water during the summer and high levels of dissolved oxygen,” said Pelletier. “That dictates the habitats they can spend time in and survive in. But often there are significant numbers of impoundments — dams dating to pre-industrial times that not only inhibit trout movement but also warm up the water.
        “One reason why we find brook trout in these small streams is because the streams are often fed by groundwater — whether through seeps in the woods or seeps that come through the streambed — and groundwater is cool and contains enough oxygen,” he added.
        Most of the state’s small number of brook trout are found in the Wood-Pawcatuck watershed in South County, so that’s where Pelletier and his team are spending most of their time.
        Brook trout are considered “a species of greatest conservation need” in Rhode Island. They typically grow no larger than 12 inches, and often only 6 to 8 inches, because their limited habitat in small streams keeps them from growing larger. The chief threats they face are changing environmental conditions – mostly warming waters and low dissolved oxygen – as well as pollutants due to run-off from nearby developments. Stocked trout are also a concern, since they are usually non-native species that are larger than brook trout and can outcompete the native species for food and habitat.
        That’s why the state will no longer be stocking trout in the Beaver River, and fishing there will be limited to catch-and-release only to create a stream specifically managed for wild brook trout. Last year the state also increased the minimum size of trout that can be harvested in Rhode Island waters to eight inches, which means that most brook trout will have to be released if caught.
        Charlestown resident Jim Turek supports these efforts to protect brook trout and their habitat. An enthusiastic trout fisherman who has little interest in catching stocked trout, he calls brook trout an iconic species for New England.
        “They’ve always been here, and they’ve sustained local communities for centuries as a source of food and enjoyment,” he said. “It’s a heritage fish that looks better and tastes better than trout grown on food pellets in a hatchery.”
        Turek is one of dozens of Rhode Island trout fishermen who are committed to protecting the species and who are strict about not revealing the location of their favorite trout streams.
        “We believe we should do all we can to save these fish,” he said. “Brook trout populations are so small that if we tell the public where to go fish for them, they’ll remove some of the bigger ones and we won’t have a sustainable population any more. We’re happy to just walk along a stream and see a beautiful fish and know they’re still there. We don’t even need to catch them.”
        Even among the fishermen there is disagreement, mostly about the most appropriate fishing method for catching brook trout. The fly fishermen say that using flies is less likely to cause injuries to the fish that could lead to their death, enabling the fish to be released unharmed. The bait fishermen disagree.
        Pelletier isn’t taking sides. He’s mostly interested in learning as much as he can about where the trout go in summer so those areas can be protected from development and fishing pressure and to figure out how to keep the water temperature in those locations from getting too high.
        “The optimal water temperature for brook trout is 12 to 18 degrees Celsius, because that’s when they exhibit their highest growth rate, but above 18 you get into stressful conditions for them,” Pelletier said. “Above 23 and they don’t exhibit positive growth, and above 25 is potentially lethal, but it depends on how long they’re exposed to those temperatures.”
        His tracking study ran into difficulties immediately after the tagged fish were released in May because a stretch of hot weather in early June forced the fish to move much farther than Pelletier expected.
        “Wherever they were in May is now too warm for them, so they’ve had to go somewhere else,” he said. “But it seems like when temperatures are suitable, they can remain in the same spot for weeks.”
        Back at Breakheart Brook, the research team found just two tagged brook trout by the end of a long day of tracking. But they weren’t discouraged. They had many more miles of shaded streams to search to find the heart of the brook trout’s summer range.
        “The information that comes out of this study will be very important for the future management of this species,” Pelletier said. “We’ll understand the areas necessary to support trout through the very stressful high-temperature periods. It’s going to give us insight into management actions we can take to further protect the species.”

        This article first appeared in the August 2021 issue of South County Life magazine.

Monday, August 16, 2021

Thanks to rain, it's been a mushroom summer

        The incredible volume of rain that was dumped on southern New England last month has made for an unusual summer.
        While the drought-stricken southwestern United States is no-doubt jealous of our abundant precipitation, I’m not so thrilled with it. All that rain has made my weedy lawn grow so fast that I can’t mow it fast enough. It has also accelerated roadway runoff into local water bodies, increasing levels of pollutants in ponds and streams and leading to more algae blooms than usual.
         On the other hand, the rain has made it a banner year for mushrooms. During a five-minute walk around my yard last month, I counted more than 90 mushrooms of 11 different species. While I admit that I don't know a great deal about mushrooms, I know enough not to pick and eat any of them, since
Chestnut bolete (Todd McLeish)
many can be deadly and most are notoriously difficult to identify. And yet they are intriguing for their beautiful colors and forms, and they are vitally important to the health of trees and forests.
        I just love how some mushrooms look like coral and others like mounds of jelly; some are round puffballs and others like tiny parasols; some look like giant pancakes while others remind me of tree rings. In my yard alone, I’ve seen them in red, purple, yellow, white, brown and orange. And some even have bioluminescent qualities. Shine a black light around your yard at night and some of your mushrooms will probably glow in the dark.
        Strangely enough, those biology lessons in high school that probably instructed you that every living thing is either a plant or animal were wrong. Mushrooms don’t fall into either category. They belong to their own kingdom because, among other reasons, they differ from plants and animals in the way that they obtain their nutrients. Unlike plants, which use photosynthesis, and animals, which consume their food internally, mushrooms grow into and around their food source and digest it externally.
        The mushroom we see at the surface is only a tiny part of the entire organism, however. Simply put, the mushroom is the reproductive part of a fungi, sort of like the fruit of a plant. Once the mushroom distributes its spores, it melts away, but the rest of the fungal organism lives on, often for many years.
        Here’s another high school biology lesson that wasn’t entirely accurate – trees in the forest don’t actually take up water and nutrients through their roots. The underground part of mushrooms is responsible for that job. Healthy forests are dependent on hundreds of thousands of miles of fungal threads called hyphae to gather water and nutrients and supply it to the tree’s roots. (Some scientists say that these hyphae make up 90 percent of the life living in our soils.) In return, the trees give the fungus sugars they produce in their leaves. Without this symbiotic relationship – called mycorrhizae – our forests would cease to exist as we know them.
        But that’s not all we get from mushrooms and fungi. They are an important source of pharmaceutical compounds, too, and they have the unique ability to penetrate hard wood and biodegrade it. Yeast fungi also play a key role in the production of bread and wine, which puts them high on my list of the world’s most important organisms.
        All this, and mushrooms taste good, too. I only wish we didn’t have to get flooded out of our homes to see so many of them.

        This article first appeared in the Independent on Aug. 14, 2021.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Soggy July was good and bad for wildlife, environment

        Rhode Island experienced the third-rainiest July on record, with most areas receiving more than twice the average monthly precipitation and some areas receiving much more, especially in the northwest corner of the state. Local scientists said all that rain likely had an impact on wildlife and the environment, in both positive and negative ways.
        In many neighborhoods, it was the mushrooms that were the most visible winners. Mushrooms of numerous species sprouted from lawns, gardens, forests, meadows and elsewhere in huge numbers. Abundant rainfall brings to life the underground portion of a fungi — called the mycelium — resulting in the production of mushrooms, according to Ryan Bouchard, founder of the Rhode Island-based Mushroom Hunting Foundation.
        “You end up with larger flushes of mushrooms, species not normally seen in such abundance, and
Jackson's slender amanita (Ryan Bouchard)

species seen in uncharacteristic size,” he said. “This wasn’t just an extra rainy July, though. It was a comeback from the prolonged terrible mushroom season of 2020 when we had a lack of rain throughout the year that left the mycelium mostly dormant and weakened.”
        The near-daily July rains provided what Bouchard called “a kick in the pants to the mycelia to get back into action.” He said it was an especially good month for Jackson’s slender amanita, a brightly colored edible mushroom that is usually hard to find but which was abundant in many places in July. Black trumpet mushrooms and chantarelles also had a major comeback following a year in which Bouchard saw only one.
        Other wildlife didn’t fare nearly as well as the mushrooms, however. Butterflies, moths and dragonflies were barely noticed in many areas for much of the month, though that doesn’t mean the insects were killed by the rain. Most were probably just in hiding. They are typically visible only during sunny days, and since July had few sunny days, most species did not make their presence known.
        Butterflies and moths in their caterpillar stages, though, may have succumbed due to the rain. Martin Wencek, a butterfly expert and a supervisor in the Freshwater Wetlands Division of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, said any insect that goes through a caterpillar stage faces high mortality during especially wet years.
        “The dampness can promote bacterial growth that does them in effectively,” he said.
        An isolated month of extreme rain isn’t likely to have a serious impact on dragonflies, said Virginia Brown, author of Dragonflies and Damselflies of Rhode Island. But if torrential rains result in dam breaches, it could affect dragonfly populations and their habitats.
        “The problem from an odonate [dragonfly and damselfly] perspective is that when a dam breaches, the water it holds back — usually in the form of a pond or reservoir — is released downstream and, poof, there goes the pond habitat and all the aquatic critters like eggs and larvae in the water,” Brown said. “The pond becomes a stream channel, and then the hydrology and vegetation change.”
        Brown believes several populations of rare damselflies disappeared from the Ocean State in just this way as a result of the floods of March 2010.
        On the other hand, she said, “all this rain will probably result in high mosquito populations, which will mean more food for odonates.”
        More mosquitoes means more food for insect-eating birds as well. But since the rains occurred during the peak of bird nesting season, it may have negatively affected the ability of some birds to fledge their young successfully. According to Steven Reinert, an ornithologist who monitors the nests of one of Rhode Island’s most-imperiled birds in a marsh on the Bristol/Warren line, when heavy rains coincide with extreme high tides in salt marshes in mid-summer, saltmarsh sparrow nests can become flooded.
        “Rains coinciding with flooding events not only raises the elevation of the floodwaters, but also keeps water levels at or near nest level for longer periods of time,” he said. “Thus, the extensive rain of July likely cost the lives of nestling saltmarsh sparrows at Jacob's Point, but the extent of damage is impossible to quantify.”
        The abundant precipitation provided a significant boost to lawns and wild plants, but many cultivated plants, especially vegetables, struggled to survive. Heather Faubert, who directs the Plant Protection Clinic at the University of Rhode Island, said the rains led to significant impacts on tomatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, squash and other varieties from foliar diseases. Many fruiting shrubs were affected by pest insects as well.
        “Spotted-wing drosophila [a nonnative fruit fly] love high humidity, so they are doing great infesting blueberries, blackberries and raspberries,” Faubert said.
        Water quality in area lakes, ponds and streams was likely affected by the abundant rainfall, too, but not always in the same way. Elizabeth Herron of the URI Watershed Watch program said some lakes and ponds receive contamination from stormwater runoff, while others that are already contaminated may be improved by having stormwater flush out the contaminated water.
        “Increased runoff does mean we are seeing higher levels of bacteria in many of our sites, even in rural areas, after rainfall events,” she said. “We are also seeing some increased staining in our lakes and ponds due to water being flushed out of wetlands. Tannic acids often color the water like tea or even coffee. The darker stained water reduces water clarity and may impact algal and plant growth. In some places that can be a good thing, in other places that reduces productivity, potentially limiting growth of fish, zooplankton and other critters.
        “In other words, it is all very complicated. But ultimately I would argue that having more water in July is preferable for water quality than drought.”

        This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on August 9, 2021.

Friday, July 23, 2021

North America's largest butterfly expands into Rhode Island

        The largest butterfly in North America has been expanding its range from the South and Midwest in the past 20 years and is now showing up in Rhode Island in increasing numbers. The giant swallowtail, which features wide, yellow stripes across its brown wings and a slow wingbeat, has made it as far north as northern Vermont, but it isn’t expected to go much further.
        “When it comes flying at you, you swear it’s a bat because it’s so big,” said Kent McFarland, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, who has studied the swallowtail’s range expansion. “It’s huge and unmistakable.”
        Until recently, the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes) was considered a “historic” species in Rhode Island, meaning it had been recorded in the state many years ago but is no longer found here. It
Giant Swallowtail (Stock)
was likely a resident species in the late 1800s through the 1920s, but then it disappeared, according to Harry Pavulaan, a butterfly expert in Virginia who lived in Rhode Island in the 1980s and has become the Ocean State’s unofficial recordkeeper of butterfly observations.
        He said one wayward giant swallowtail was reported from Charlestown in the 1960s, and a small colony was observed in the Arcadia Management Area in Exeter from 1983-85. Many have been observed throughout Rhode Island in the last four or five years, however, including in Tiverton, Little Compton, Bristol, Warwick, Westerly and South Kingstown.
        “They’ve been steadily moving eastward from the Midwest into New England over the last 10 years or so, and now we’re finding them in Rhode Island,” Pavulaan said. “They’re definitely breeding in Rhode Island, too.”
        Why the species is expanding its range is unknown. McFarland believes it has to do with the changing climate and the range of its host plant, a shrub called prickly ash. Prickly ash is one of the only plants that the butterfly’s caterpillars will eat, and the shrub is found in scattered pockets in much of the Northeast. As the climate has warmed and winters have become milder, the butterfly has moved north and east as far as they have been able to find prickly ash.
        “They’ve expanded wherever there’s a host plant, and they can expand north because of the warming climate,” McFarland said. “It’s all about winter climate change; they can withstand some pretty cold temperatures, but not super cold.”
        The species isn’t expected to continue its range expansion much further north, however, because prickly ash isn’t found north of New England.
        “They’re trying to keep going north, but it’s a dead end for them,” McFarland said. “They strike out for new territory and have shown up in the Canadian Maritimes and Quebec City, but they’ve outrun their host plant.
        “The caterpillars can feed on gas plant, too, and a lot of people are planting that in their gardens, so it might spread around a little bit more. Somehow they find it and lay their eggs on it. It’s a little like a bird feeder — we’ve made islands of refuge for them with gas plants.”
        McFarland and Pavulaan said one of the most interesting features of the giant swallowtail is that its caterpillars look like bird poop to camouflage themselves from predators.
        “They even have a greasy look to them like they’re wet, but they’re not,” McFarland said. “And if looking like bird poop doesn’t keep you away, if you touch them, they have these bright orange horns that come out of their head and give off a foul-smelling and foul-tasting chemical.”
        Pavulaan said they also have another notable feature to avoid predators.
        “I’ve never heard anyone else mention this, but they have this characteristic pose when they open their wings flat to sun themselves,” he said. “Imagine looking into the mouth of a serpent with teeth. The row of spots on the hind wing looks like a giant serpent’s mouth. I suspect that when predators like birds see that, they stay clear.”

        This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 22, 2021.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Tracking indoor creatures turns up more than you'd guess

        Last year at this time, I wrote about participating in the Backyard BioBlitz, an event aimed at identifying every species of living thing in your own yard to document its biodiversity. I was thrilled to record nearly 250 species of life in my yard, mostly plants and insects. I even documented a rare orchid hidden among the wetland shrubs in the corner of my property.
        But it got me thinking about what I may have missed by only looking for wildlife outside my house. What might I find inside? Surely there would be a few indoor creatures in the nooks and crannies of my house, like spiders in the basement, moths in the birdseed, and maybe even a beetle or two. I know I have mice in the woodpile in the garage.
        Then I picked up a book that changed my view of this exercise entirely. "Never Home Alone" by Rob Dunn highlights the research conducted to discover the number of creatures that live inside a typical home. And the results were pretty creepy.
        The author, a scientist at North Carolina State University, says he has documented more than 200,000 different species living in homes, mostly in North America. About three quarters of those are bacteria found in dust, water, food and elsewhere. Most of the rest are fungi, with insects, plants and other stuff making up the remainder.
        “The species in our homes are a measure of our lives,” he wrote. “The early cave paintings of our ancestors documented the species they watched, stalked and feared. The dust on our walls, in turn, documents the species with which we wake up each day.”
        Ick.
        So I wandered around my house to see what I could find. There were definitely cobwebs in the corners of many of my rooms – an indication of my poor housekeeping and also a confirmation that there are plenty of spiders of some sort in the house. That doesn’t bother me, since I know that most spiders feed on other pest insects, so keeping a few spiders around the house is actually beneficial. In fact, Dunn found that those who are the best housekeepers probably have more pest insects in their house than those who aren’t, since it’s easy to find and eradicate spiders and much harder to find and eradicate all the pests that spiders eat.
        When I checked my windowsills and light fixtures, I discovered the remnants of other bugs that called my house their home – flies, daddy longlegs, midges and lots more that I couldn’t identify. The North Carolina researcher said that every house he sampled, including his own, had at least 100 species of spiders, flies, ants, beetles and other bugs living inside. Most go entirely unnoticed.
        The surprising truth about the abundance of life living in our homes is that most of it is good for us. Biodiversity, whether in the rainforests or the African plains or inside Rhode Island homes, is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Scientists say it builds up our resistance to allergens and strengthens our immune system. The thousands of species that live in the average home are working together to keep bad things at bay and good things in manageable numbers.
        So don’t worry too much about disinfecting your home to eradicate all non-human life. You’ll never succeed. And nor should you want to. The more diversity in your home the better. Up to a point.

        This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on July 19, 2021.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Cultured quahog pearls the next big thing?

        Brendan Breen dug hundreds of thousands of quahogs as a part-time commercial fisherman during high school while growing up in Duxbury, Massachusetts, hoping to eventually find a pearl inside one of them. He never did, but the desire never left him, even though he knew it was unlikely. Fewer than one quahog in a million contains a naturally formed pearl, and only a small fraction of them are of gem quality.
        As a student at the University of Rhode Island, Breen learned how pearls can be cultured in oysters and other mollusks, and it made him want to try to culture pearls in quahogs, a feat never before accomplished. He successfully cultured the world’s first quahog pearl in 2016, and patented that
Brendan Breen (photo by Ayla Fox)

method of inducing quahogs to make pearls. “When I saw those first pearls, I was elated,” says Breen. “No one had ever done something like this before, and it was such a mystery. But it was also so exciting. I had to learn from methods around the world, and create a unique pearl culturing method that worked for the quahog.”
        After graduation, he legally formed his business, Mercenaria Pearl, a company named for the Latin name for quahog. Breen is now pursuing growing cultured quahog pearls on a larger scale and is hopeful for future results. Because of their unique arrangement of calcite and aragonite crystals, he says they refract the light differently from conventional pearls, resulting in a porcelain-like finish in a variety of shades ranging from white to deep purple.
        While anticipating his first crop, Breen sought out the owners of wild quahog pearls around the country and bought every one he could. In August of 2020, he made wild (not cultured) quahog pearls from his collection available to the public, and launched a line of fine quahog shell jewelry. He is now the owner of the world’s largest collection of quahog pearls, which he sells to private clients, jewelry designers, collectors of exotic gemstones and anyone else who desires a close connection to Rhode Island’s state shellfish from locals to collectors all over the world. Four wild pearls recently sold at auction for more than $32,000.
        “They come in so many different shades, shapes and sizes,” he says. “It’s fun to work with clients to find the pearl that speaks to them most.”
        Breen has also worked with local quahoggers and jewelry designers to create wampum jewelry made from the polished inside of quahog shells in various shades and patterns of purple and white. His pearls and jewelry can be purchased from his website or at the shop, Style Newport, in Newport. mercenariapearl.com.

        This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Rare wildflower finds unlikely home

        The rarest wildflower in all of New England, sandplain gerardia, is found in just a handful of places in the world, including in a historic cemetery in Richmond. How it got there and why it has survived when it disappeared almost everywhere else is anyone’s guess – though there are plenty of theories. But biologists throughout the region are working to ensure that it can continue to thrive in the Ocean State.
        The small, pink-flowering plant, a member of the pea family and found exclusively in southern New England and Long Island, is easy to overlook. “It’s such a tiny plant that if you’re not looking for it, you’d have to trip and fall on your face to see it,” said Scott Ruhren, senior conservation director for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “It barely pokes its head above the grass.”
        Like the Rhode Island population of the plant, most of the sites where sandplain gerardia naturally occurs are historic cemeteries, which causes many people to wonder why it only seems to thrive in this
Sandplain Gerardia (Renay McLeish)

particular environment. Some scientists have suggested that it’s because the plant grows best in sandy, poor quality soil, and many historic cemeteries have sandy soils because the soil conditions weren’t conducive for growing crops by early colonizers. Others think it has to do with the relationship between the rare plant and the other plants that happen to grow in historic cemeteries, like little blue stem grasses. Sandplain gerardia is a hemi-parasite, which means its roots latch onto the roots of these adjacent plants to acquire additional nutrients.
        But Ruhren thinks the success of sandplain gerardia in historic cemeteries has more to do with lawn mowing. He said that historic cemeteries tend to be neglected more than big cemeteries that are often intensively mowed. The less intense mowing regime may benefit the plant by stimulating it early in the season when mowing typically occurs more frequently and allowing it to grow and bloom later in the summer without mowing,
        That’s why the Richmond cemetery site is mowed just once in the fall and spring and then roped off so the 200 square-foot area where the plants grow isn’t mowed during the summer months. Charles Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has done the roping and mowing the past two years, and he said he counted just 15 plants in the entire population last year. While plant numbers fluctuate widely from year to year, most years the site hosts fewer than 100 sandplain gerardia plants.
        “Mowing also helps disperse its seeds,” said Ruhren. “It’s an annual, so what happens this year influences next year’s success. By mowing, you help to spread the seeds. For a rare plant, it can take some mowing abuse, but it’s also wimpy when it comes to competitors. If shrubs and vines move in, that will be the end of the species.”
        With that worry in mind – and due to the precarious nature of the Richmond cemetery population – retired DEM biologist Chris Raithel worked with partner organizations to cultivate additional sites elsewhere just in case the cemetery plants don’t survive. Using seeds collected from the local plants as well as those stored in a seed bank maintained by the Native Plant Trust in Massachusetts, new populations of sandplain gerardia were established at Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge, the Audubon Society’s Eppley Wildlife Refuge, and at a site maintained by the Richmond Conservation Commission. (Exact locations are a close-kept secret to avoid disturbance by plant collectors and vandals.)
        The Audubon site, established in 2003, has flourished and now fluctuates between hundreds and thousands of plants each year. The Conservation Commission site was planted in 2013 and last year had nearly 200 plants, according to Commission chairman Jim Turek.
        “We selected a grassland habitat where broom grass is the dominant species and is needed by sandplain gerardia to proliferate,” said Turek. “The Commission maintains the site by mowing the circular area each fall and removing excess thatch. And the project has worked well.”
        The Trustom Pond site thrived and sprouted more than 1,000 plants shortly after being planted in 2011, but it soon declined to fewer than 20 and none have been observed since 2018.
        The plants may face a new issue in the coming years. Recent research by biologists with the federal government, which has listed sandplain gerardia as an endangered species since 1988, has concluded that the species may not be a full species after all. It may, in fact, be a subspecies of ten-lobed foxglove, a similar-looking plant that ranges from Massachusetts to Alabama and is not on the federal endangered species list. A new assessment of the two species is underway to determine if, when combined as one species, it deserves federal protection. That assessment is due to be completed next year.
        Depending on how the assessment turns out, local agencies may not devote as much effort to monitoring and managing the area’s rarest wild plant, though all those involved hope it will continue to thrive and even expand its range and number in the area.
        “It’s historically been found along roadsides, so there may be more out there somewhere,” said Ruhren. “It’s inconspicuous, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns up someplace that the conservation community didn’t know about, somewhere that has been overlooked.”
        Maybe even in another of Rhode Island’s 2,800 historic cemeteries.

        This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of South County Life magazine.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Rhode Island state coral poised to show way forward in era of climate change

        When both chambers of the General Assembly passed bills June 8 declaring the northern star coral as the state’s official coral, it made Rhode Island the first state to designate a state coral. And while the Ocean State is not known for its corals, advocates say that’s one reason they pushed for the moniker.
        “People are often surprised to hear that there’s a coral that lives off the coast of Rhode Island,” said Koty Sharp, associate professor of biology at Roger Williams University, who proposed the idea
Northern Star Coral (Alicia Schickle)
for a state coral. “It’s part of our coastal ecosystem, and it’s a very charismatic organism. Under a microscope, people are always impressed with how beautiful it is.
        “If we can show this to more people, especially schoolchildren, we can engage them with their local ecosystem and educate them about what’s out there. The more we do that, the more we can expect the next generation to act for conservation and keep our environment as a top priority.”
        Choosing which coral to designate wasn’t difficult. Northern star coral (Astrangia poculata) is the only hard coral found in New England waters. Unlike the large, familiar corals that grow in warm-water regions like Florida and the Caribbean, this brown or white coral can fit in the palm of one’s hand and is often mistaken for an anemone, with a fleshy stalk and long tentacles.
        “It’s very different from its tropical cousins in many ways,” Sharp said. “That’s what makes it so special. It’s different. It’s much hardier, so it can withstand extremely cold winters and very hot summers.”
        The most significant difference, she said, is northern star coral doesn’t rely on a symbiotic relationship with algae, which tropical corals use to make sugars to survive. Rhode Island’s coral doesn’t require that partnership to eat. Instead, it uses its tentacles to capture food in the seawater.
        Northern star coral is typically found in water 5-30 feet deep, though it has been documented more than 90 feet deep. Its range extends from Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts to the Gulf of Mexico, but it’s also found throughout the Caribbean and off the coast of South America and West Africa.
        “It’s fairly abundant here in Rhode Island, much easier to find here in the shallows of our coastline than in Florida,” Sharp said. “We think that’s because this organism evolved to thrive in habitats that have large seasonal fluctuations — cold winters and hot summers. The tropics don’t experience those kinds of variations in temperatures. Tropical corals aren’t very resilient to those kind of changes.”
        According to Sharp, the northern star coral was first described in the late 1700s from specimens collected off Newport. A retired oceanography professor at the University of Rhode Island, Michael Pilson, laid the foundation for detailed studies of the species in the 1970s and ’80s, and Sharp has been studying its ecology and physiology for the past 10 years.
        Because of the coral’s hardiness in varying temperatures, Sharp calls the northern star coral a model organism for understanding corals and what can be done to help them survive in the face of the climate crisis. She is especially interested in the microbes that live on the surface of the coral and play a role in its ability to respond to and recover from a changing climate.
        “We’re studying that to learn more about Astrangia in the Rhode Island ecosystem, but also using it to extend into the microbiology of tropical corals,” Sharp said. “One thing that has become very clear in the past several years is that the microbes that live on the surface of tropical corals are extremely important for their responses to environmental disturbance. It’s their first line of defense against microbial pathogens, infections and disease. Just like what we know about the human gut, the microbiome structure is critically important for regulating the health of the host animal.”
        Sharp’s research has expanded in recent years as more and more scientists have become interested in studying the northern star coral. What started as a group of 15 researchers has grown to more than 120 who meet each year at Roger Williams University. It was at one of those meetings, when the scientists discussed how to elevate the public’s awareness of the northern star coral, that the idea of a state coral was first discussed.
        The legislation (H5415, S0067) designating Rhode Island’s state coral was sponsored by two Portsmouth lawmakers, Rep. Terri Cortvriend and Sen. James Seveney, who introduced it to call attention to Sharp’s research at Roger Williams University.
        “Species like the northern star coral can be a bellwether that shows us where we are headed if we continue to abuse and pollute the earth. We should pay attention to it,” Cortvriend said. “While the bill is somewhat lighthearted and fun, what I really hope is that it starts more conversations about why we cannot wait to address our climate-change crisis. These tiny polyps have a lot to tell us about what we’re doing to our planet, and designating them our state coral can amplify that message.”
        The legislation has already energized Sharp and her fellow coral researchers. “Our research community is completely buoyed by this,” she said.
        Now that the state coral designation is official, Sharp looks forward to using it as a platform for a number of projects, including a K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum focused on climate literacy.
        “Astrangia is a great emblem for the state of Rhode Island because it’s small like Rhode Island, it’s hardy like Rhode Islanders, and it’s positioned to provide insight to solve global problems,” Sharp said.

        This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 1, 2021.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Thank God it's Friday; Land Trust Council director retires

        When the state of Rhode Island threatened to build a new State Police barracks in the 8,300-acre Big River Management Area in Kent County in 2004, the newly established Rhode Island Land Trust Council and its first executive director, Rupert Friday, took the lead in fighting the development proposal.
        It was a six-month battle to convince then-Gov. Donald Carcieri and other power brokers that this was what one state representative called “the wrong project in the wrong place.” The success of the opposition effort led to the strengthening of other weakly protected conservation lands.
        “It was Rupert’s fine touch, his soft, humbled approach and confidence that made all the difference in this work,” said Paul Roselli, president of the Burrillville Land Trust who was also president of the
Rupert Friday

Land Trust Council at the time. “Rupert was our eyes and ears to all that was going on in Rhode Island regarding the environment, open space and protection of our natural world. He is the same to this day.”
        But he won’t be for much longer. Friday will retire from his leadership role with the Land Trust Council early next month, after nearly two decades of building coalitions to protect open space in Rhode Island and serving as a mentor to the state’s 45 land trusts. He will be succeeded as executive director by Kate Sayles, the agriculture and forestry program manager for the Northern Rhode Island Conservation District.
        “I’ve been doing this work for a lot of years, and it seemed like it was time,” said Friday, 65, who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in Narragansett. “I want to spend time doing things that I enjoy doing, though I have no specific plans. I’ll probably spend more time helping land trusts with their trails.”
        Friday started his career as an environmental educator and park naturalist in western Pennsylvania, before getting involved in the “smart growth” movement and finding his way to Rhode Island to work on transportation issues for the Foundation for Newport.
        When the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy and land trust leaders around the state agreed an organization was needed to support local land trusts, the Land Trust Council was established and Friday was hired as its director.
        “At that time, nearly all land trusts were entirely volunteer, so there was a need for a coalition for networking and capacity building to help land trusts be more effective,” Friday said.
        He spent the next 17 years setting up workshops for land trust leaders about conservation strategies and organizational development, monitoring legislation and policy that impacted conservation lands and networking with the land trust community so the various independent groups could get to know each other.
        Meg Kerr, the senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, has worked closely with Friday since before the Land Trust Council was formed. They even joined forces to create and manage the annual Rhode Island Land and Water Summit.
        “Rupert’s broad knowledge of land use, land conservation and nonprofit management was an enormous asset to Rhode Island,” she said. “As director of the Land Trust Council, he helped draft and lobbied for passage of bills that strengthened the state’s local land conservation movement. He established and grew the council to support grassroots land conservation in the state, creating an organization that will thrive into the future.”
        Kerr pointed to Friday’s work with the administrators of the ExploreRI website as another highlight in his career. He was able to add all of the trails on land trust properties to the website’s listing of walking and paddling routes, gaining visibility for the state’s land trusts and opening the eyes of hikers to additional trails to explore.
        Friday was also a leader in building support for numerous open space bonds and other green bond initiatives, which were vital to providing funding to help Rhode Island land trusts buy additional properties. And he played a key role in the passage of legislation to protect conservation land held by nonprofit organizations from claims for adverse possession or squatter’s rights, which had been a troublesome issue for some land trusts.
        “That was a huge accomplishment and a big protection for conservation organizations big and small,” said Scott Comings, associate state director of The Nature Conservancy. “But the one thing about Rupert that helped him be effective in this work is that he’s really hopeful and can see the real positive side of things. That’s something I feel like he brought to every challenge, that despite the difficulties, there’s an opportunity, too.”
        Friday is spending his last weeks before retirement organizing the annual Land Trust Days, a two-month summer celebration of open space designed to encourage Rhode Islanders to visit land trust properties around the state. He is also promoting Rhode Island Walks, a resource for Rhode Island’s health-care providers to make it easier to encourage their patients to spend time outdoors in nature and take walks as part of their health care.
        “People see protected lands as vacant land that something should be done with, so increasing awareness that these vacant lands are important to our communities is one issue I worked to address,” Friday said. “And helping land trusts develop trails so community residents can enjoy these places that are protected.”
        Despite the long days and challenging issues he has confronted, Friday can’t help but reflect on all the people who have played a positive role in his career.
        “The best part of this job is getting out and working with the volunteers leading the land trusts around the state,” he said. “They’re great folks who are passionate about protecting special places in their communities. And when I get to go out there with them, seeing those places is really cool.”

        This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on June 26, 2021.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Turtle Women of Barrington

        As soon as the sun comes up, rare tutrtles begin to arrive at a sandy bluff overlooking Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington. Two emerge simultaneously from the forest edge and wander around looking for the perfect nesting site. Three more appear in an adjacent field and quickly begin digging five-inch-deep holes in which to deposit their eggs.
           The diminutive turtles, called diamondback terrapins, kick sand over themselves to camouflage their appearance, then dig a flask-shaped nest with their hind feet. When the hole is the right size, each turtle lays about fifteen eggs, covers them with sand and departs. The whole process takes about twenty minutes.
        Hidden nearby in a small grove of trees they call the office, a team of volunteers and biologists — nearly all of them women — watch until the turtles are finished laying and begin to return to the marsh below. But before the terrapins can escape, the volunteers collect each one for processing, which
Diamondback terrapin (Todd McLeish)

involves measuring their shell, marking them so they can be recognized later and, in some cases, tagging them for future research. The turtles are then released to return to the cove. Each nest site is also flagged and covered with an exclosure, a wire basket-like device to keep predators from accessing the eggs. One of the terrapins collected on this June day was first identified in 1990, the first year of this monitoring effort, making her more than thirty years old.
        Overseeing this complex project is Kathryn Beauchamp, seventy-three, a retired nurse who spent most of her life caring for children in the intensive care units of hospitals in Providence, Boston and a half-dozen other cities around the country. With a few kind words, she instructs new volunteers about the procedures, encourages visiting students to participate, educates unwitting walkers who traipse through the site oblivious to the terrapins, and answers questions with a pleasant smile. When a terrapin is brought to the office, she demonstrates proper turtle-handling technique and walks newcomers through the processing steps so they can learn to do it themselves. Despite directing the operation with military precision, her tone is always welcoming. No one is ever left out.
        “My friends jokingly say that I transferred my love of taking care of children to taking care of turtles,” says Beauchamp. “I’ve always been very interested in nature, birds and gardening, and this seemed to fit right in. Once you get involved, it’s so heartwarming to see everyone working together to protect this turtle.”
        Beauchamp started volunteering on the terrapin project in the spring of 2017, just a few months after her retirement, and within two years she was transitioning into a leadership role.
        “It’s all about maintaining this species in Hundred Acre Cove,” she says. “With climate change, we’re watching the cove change. The islands of the marsh are slowly breaking apart and shrinking with the higher and higher tides, and the turtles need that marsh.”
        Named for the diamond pattern on their shell, diamondback terrapins were discovered nesting at Hundred Acre Cove in the 1980s after not...

        Read the rest of the story in the June 2021 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Fatherhood on display in animal kingdom

        When talking about wildlife conservation, biologists often emphasize the importance of protecting a healthy number of females in a given population, largely because they’re the ones that produce the next generation. Males are sometimes seen as superfluous, since their contribution to the species is often limited to a brief mating ritual, with no role whatsoever in domestic activities like caring for their offspring.
        While that is yet another reason to occasionally feel ashamed to be male, that’s not the entire story. So as we celebrate Father’s Day, it’s time to give credit to a few of the best fathers in the animal kingdom.
        Like giant water bugs. I saw one last month when I hung a sheet in my yard and shined a black light on it to attract night-flying moths. One of the first creatures to arrive was this frighteningly-large
Giant water bug (Renay McLeish)
aquatic bug with the reputation for occasionally biting the toes of people wading in local ponds. As I studied up on them, I learned that some members of their family are considered devoted fathers.
        The female giant water bug glues about 150 eggs to the male’s back, and he guards them from predators and other potential hazards until they hatch. To protect the eggs from becoming moldy, he occasionally climbs out of the water to air dry his charges. He even does something akin to pushups at the surface of the water – with the eggs still on his back – to ensure that the eggs are properly oxygenated. That’s the kind of guy any female water bug would be proud to call her mate.
        Atlantic wolffish fathers are equally devoted to their offspring. These eel-like fish that live in the nooks and crannies of boulder piles about 200 feet deep in New England waters are even scarier looking than giant water bugs, with gnarly teeth and a mean grin. But when a female lays her eggs – as many as 10,000 in large piles hidden in the crevices of the boulders – her mate stands guard to protect those eggs for up to nine months, seldom eating or moving. During that time, all of those gnarly teeth fall out and new equally-gnarly ones grow in.
        Red fox dads play a similarly important but very different fatherly role in supporting their offspring. They’re in charge of teaching the little ones how to be foxes by showing them how to hide and how to capture food. Sometimes the dads even set up foraging tests for their youngsters. He also brings food to his mate when she’s nursing her pups. All of this is readily visible in some suburban neighborhoods where fox skills are being taught in area backyards.
        Perhaps the best-known animal fathers are seahorses, including the lined seahorses found around eelgrass beds in Narragansett Bay. Pairs of seahorses undertake a lengthy and complex courtship ritual, after which the mother deposits her eggs in the father’s pouch. He then broods the developing young for two or three weeks before releasing the hatchlings into the water. And then he does it again with the same monogamous mate. That’s fatherhood at its best.
        While these examples are enlightening and worth highlighting as we celebrate our own fathers, they aren’t typical. More often than not, males in the animal kingdom may look good – like the brightly-colored male birds – but they aren’t necessarily good for much more than a romp in the hay. Happy Father’s Day anyway.

        This article first appeared in The Independent on June 17, 2021.

Monday, June 14, 2021

New survey method proves Rhode Island’s rarest frog may not be so rare after all

        The rarest frog in Rhode Island may not be as rare as scientists once thought after a study by University of Rhode Island researchers using a seldom-used methodology turned up many more of the endangered animals than they expected.
        Eastern spadefoots – often called spadefoot toads, though they are actually frogs – have long been considered highly secretive and difficult to find outside of their one- or two-day annual breeding periods on rainy nights. In some years, they don’t breed at all. But after scientists reported just 50 sightings of the frogs over the previous 70 years, the Rhode Island researchers observed 42 spadefoots in 10 nights of searching last summer using the new methodology.
        “We collected all the myths and misconceptions about spadefoots that have been published or told to us by herpetologists, and we decided to conduct surveys to show that the frogs aren’t secretive, that
Eastern spadefoot (Anne Devan-Song)

they don’t only come out when weather is suitable, and they can be detected easily using a noninvasive censusing method,” said Anne Devan-Song, a former URI graduate student who is now a doctoral student at Oregon State University.
        While working as a URI research associate in collaboration with Associate Professor Nancy Karraker, Devan-Song led a team that conducted amphibian surveys in Colonial National Historical Park in Virginia from 2015 to 2017 by using a spotlight at night to detect the animals’ eyeshine in forests. A previous researcher conducted amphibian surveys at the park 15 years ago and only detected two Eastern spadefoots, but Devan-Song and her team found up to hundreds of them, even on dry nights, and a total of more than 3,000 individuals.
        “It completely contradicted everything we’d read about them in the scientific literature, with the exception of recent studies in Massachusetts and Connecticut,” said Devan-Song, whose research was published this month in the Journal of Herpetology. “The perception is that they’re difficult to detect in large numbers outside of rainy weather conditions, but I was stumbling all over them everywhere I went at this particular site, even in drought years when I was nowhere near a known breeding pond.”
        To be sure that she could distinguish between the eyeshine of spadefoots and the eyeshine of other creatures active at night – a concern expressed by previous scientists who rejected the spotlighting method – Devan-Song confirmed her ability to accurately identify spadefoot eyeshine by capturing every frog whose eyeshine she detected.
        Since the Virginia site may have been home to an uncharacteristically high number of the frogs, Devan-Song collaborated with Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management herpetologist Scott Buchanan to use her spotlighting technique at scattered sites around Rhode Island, where the frogs were believed to be located at only one site and were seldom seen there.
        “Spadefoots are at the northern end of their range in Rhode Island and are incredibly rare there,” Devan-Song said. “You can’t just drive around at night and hear them, and there’s little chance of finding them by chance. And yet with just a little bit of spotlighting effort, you can find them.”
        For sites that were occupied, the frogs were detected on nine out of ten survey nights in Rhode Island, the same rate as they were found in Virginia, and a new breeding population was discovered at a site in Westerly. In both states, the majority of spadefoots observed were sub-adults, an age class seldom detected using traditional survey methods.
        “The lack of appropriate methods has hindered the study of this species, which is considered endangered in many states, including Rhode Island,” said Devan-Song. “Without appropriate field methods, you can’t gather information about certain demographic classes and you can’t make accurate population assessments.
        “By looking for them only on rainy nights or only near ponds, it has hindered the study of this species for decades,” she added. “There is a huge amount of information that can be collected, especially on these overlooked demographic categories.”
        The research team has at least two additional scientific papers in the works that will shed more light on the life history of Eastern spadefoots, both based on the data collected from Rhode Island and Virginia. One describes the social structure of the species, which had been unknown outside the breeding season.
        “The general idea had been that these frogs are solitary and don’t interact much except when they go to their ponds to breed,” she said. “But the reality is that they’re doing lots of interesting things in the uplands. Their social structure is much more complex than we imagined.”

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Local monitors help to save piping plover

        On a cold morning in late April, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Maureen Durkin watches as a team of four co-workers test their skills at rapidly building a wire mesh “exclosure” on Moonstone Beach in South Kingstown. The six-foot, circular structure is designed to be put around a piping plover nest to allow the sand-colored birds access to their eggs while keeping predators away.
        Speed is key in building the exclosure, since the biologists don’t want to keep the birds away from their nest too long. The first eggs were expected to be laid within days, so the team was practicing so they would be ready.
        “Plovers like to nest on the dune edge, high enough above the high-tide line so the nest doesn’t
Piping plover (Mike Derr)
wash out and with a clear sight line to watch for predators,” said Durkin. “Moonstone is the stronghold for the population in South County, with 15 pairs nesting on site, but there are 11 or 12 other beaches where they nest as well.”
        South County has a conservation success story to tell about piping plovers. The small shorebirds nest on beaches from the Canadian Maritimes to North Carolina, but they have been considered endangered since 1986, when just 10 pairs nested in Rhode Island ­— spread out at Moonstone, Ninigret and Little Compton’s Goosewing Beach. The protection afforded the birds by the federal government allowed them to rebound to 85 pairs in the state in 2020. And when combined with the birds breeding on Massachusetts beaches, the southern New England population is far and away the most successful population in its entire range.
        “Eighty-five pairs still isn’t a lot, but it’s way better than 10,” Durkin said. “We’ve helped them return to areas that they nested in historically, and they’re on their way to recovery. Small populations are always susceptible to something happening, but they’re definitely in a better place here than they were.”
        During the breeding season from late April through August, Fish and Wildlife Service plover monitors visit the nesting beaches every day to check on the birds, install exclosures, keep track of when eggs are laid and chicks hatch, and talk to visitors to ensure they and their dogs don’t disturb the birds.
        According to Durkin, the threats the birds face are almost entirely due to humans.
        “Because the birds use these popular beach habitats where people like to recreate, disturbance is a big problem,” she said. “Off-leash dogs disrupt them off their nest, people disturb the birds, and predators are a big threat. Even the predator community the plovers face is influenced by humans – they’re human-subsidized predators like crows, coyotes and raccoons whose numbers are artificially inflated in beach areas because of humans. It’s something the birds have to deal with.”
        The birds are also vulnerable to being flooded by extremely high tides and storm surges.
        About 20 percent of the plovers on Rhode Island beaches have colorful bands or flags around their legs as part of research programs throughout their range, much of it conducted by University of Rhode Island ornithologist Peter Paton, whose wife Suzanne, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, started the state’s plover monitoring program.
        Peter Paton calls piping plovers “cute little shorebirds that blend into the background. They want to be as cryptic as possible to live on sandy beaches.”
        His most recent studies have examined the birds’ migratory habits to learn whether the plovers will be at risk from the offshore wind farms planned for much of the East Coast. For the last five years, he has captured the birds on their breeding grounds and placed miniature transmitters on their backs that fall off after four or five months. The transmitters send signals to a network of antennas up and down the coast that track the bird’s movements during migration.
        “Prior to our study, we knew that the birds migrated to the Carolinas, Florida and the Caribbean, but how they got there was uncertain,” he said. “We always see them on the beach, so we assumed they hugged the coastline from here to Long Island and New Jersey and down the coast to the Carolinas.”
        That assumption turned out to be wrong. Rather than following the coastline, the birds fly straight southwest from Rhode Island toward New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic States. Some even fly over the water all the way to North Carolina. As a result, most of the birds breeding in southern New England probably fly over several of the areas where wind farms are expected to be constructed in the coming years. Luckily, however, the birds typically fly considerably higher than the turbine zone, so they are unlikely to be affected.
        To remove the plovers from the Endangered Species List will require that the population grow to at least 2,000 pairs spread throughout their range, a level that must be sustained over five years. The population must also produce an average of 1.5 chicks per pair during that time.
        “We’ve made great strides, and they’re on their way to recovery,” Durkin said. “But they’re not going to be a species we can walk away from after it comes off the list. They will always need some level of protection, because if we suddenly pulled all the protective roping from the beaches, people would be using every square inch of those beaches.
        “It’s a balancing act that will require some active management,” she added. “But the future for the piping plover is very hopeful.”

        This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of South County Life magazine.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Meet the zoo chef

        Much like human children, the bears and monkeys at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport are finicky eaters.
        “Primates are famous for that,” says Don Goff, the zoo’s deputy director responsible for animal care and nutrition. “They’re big on fruits that are sweet when what they really need to eat are their vegetables,” he says. “Bears will also devour the fruit but turn their nose up at vegetables. We do what we can to get them to eat what’s good for them.”
        Providing a balanced diet for the zoo’s 300 animals requires the full attention of the facility’s zookeepers, who gather in the animal commissary every day to chop fruit and vegetables for the parrots and turtles, thaw dead mice for the owls, and gather crickets for the reptiles. The commissary, which
Zoo chef Don Goff (Jack Bradley)
opened in 2017, resembles a restaurant kitchen, with refrigerators and freezers lining a wall, shiny stainless steel tables and sinks for food prep, bins filled with dry foods, and recipes for each animal’s diet written on a whiteboard on the wall.
        As the chef overseeing what amounts to a gourmet restaurant, Goff tries to mimic the diets that the zoo’s animals would consume in the wild.
        “When we first started in business, we didn’t have a lot of nutrition information for exotic animals, so we extrapolated from what we knew of horse or cattle diets,” he says. “But over time we developed diets that are specific to each animal.”
        Goff spends about $150,000 each year on food for his charges. The grocery bill for just one tiger can top more than $3,000 annually. He works with numerous vendors around the country, including several Connecticut produce vendors, to acquire the highest quality food possible. Deliveries arrive several times each week to ensure freshness.
        “We try to vary their diets because their diets vary in the wild,” Goff says. “Small primates might get sweet potatoes twice a week and apples once a week. We vary the protein source for the carnivores. When animals are young, if you feed them the same thing all the time, you encounter resistance if you need to switch their diet for health reasons.”
        A varied diet can also have an effect on an animal’s reproduction. In the wild, maned wolves typically eat more protein just before the breeding season, so when Goff followed suit with the zoo’s wolves, it helped to promote breeding and the survivability of their pups.
        For some animals, portion control can be a problem, so foods are weighed and measured carefully to ensure that the animals don’t become overweight.
        “We have a numerical scale to score their body size so we know if an animal needs more or less food,” Goff says. “We also look at the time of year. If they’re heavier going into the winter, that’s usually fine, but come summertime we may not need to feed them as much.”
        Goff brings a lifetime of experience to his job as the zoo chef. He began his career as a zookeeper for the elephants and rhinos at Kings Dominion Park in Virginia, eventually rising to oversee the entire collection of animals, including 30 lions and nine tigers. He then became the curator of mammals at the Jacksonville Zoo in Florida before moving to Connecticut.
        “It’s an adventure every day,” he says. “It’s a job where you don’t hate to get up in the morning to go to work. I’ve done some really neat things, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to contribute to the greater good of these animals.”

Sidebar: What's in the fridge?

A snapshot of the inventory in the Beardsley Zoo animal commissary:

1,500 frozen mice and rats
1,200 crickets
200 pounds of fish
500 pounds of beef bones
50 pounds of fresh fruit
28 pounds of lettuce and kale
15 colonies of fruit flies
10 pounds of earthworms
1 ton of carnivore diet
1 ton of feline diet
250 pounds of herbivore pellets
250 pounds of primate biscuits

        This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of Connecticut magazine.