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 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.”
        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.

        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 on July 1, 2021.