Tag Archives: ecology

Rarity and Ocean Conservation: Endangered Sawfish, Final Listing on ESA

On 8th Grade “Career Day,” my classmates and I were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. I remember looking at a giant phonebook-sized directory of “careers” with code-keys for filling out a handout in class. I chose “marine biologist,” “oceanographer,” and asked my teacher, “where’s the code for “Ichthyologist?” Admittedly, I also wanted to write down on my sheet that I

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

Rachel Carson, marine biologist, author of The Edge of the Sea, Under the Sea Wind, and Silent Spring. Alfred Eisenstaedt photo, Time Life Picture

considered “mime” and “poet” to be future, possible careers, but only one of those was true. Poetry remains a constant passion for me, and so does ocean conservation. I grew up reading poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay and essays by Rachel Carson, including her book, A Sense of Wonder and later in high school, The Edge of the Sea, which remains one of my favorite books of all time. In 9th grade, I bought a text book on marine biology with babysitting money and studied it outside of school, over the summer, while I studied biology at Gould Academy. Years later, at College of the Atlantic (COA), I studied conservation biology, island ecology and environmental sciences as an undergraduate student. During a summer field course, my COA classmates and I explored over 30 Maine islands and visited Gran Manan, where we saw a 30-foot basking shark in the Bay of Fundy. Studying at COA, usually in a salt-sprayed hammock overlooking the ocean, definitely helped to shape my early passion for islands, oceans and wetlands into a career in conservation.

Sharks, rays and sawfish have always been fascinating to me. (Ocean conservation nerd alert: I even have a notepad from the American Elasmobranch Society on my desk.) I’ve spent some significant time on wetlands in my career, but I’ve also followed ocean conservation with great interest, never leaning too far away from my coastal roots. One area of ocean conservation that has kept my interest over the last two decades has been rare and endangered marine species, such as sawfish, which is the first sea fish to be listed on the U.S. Endangered Species list.  In recent years, there’s been some hope for sawfish populations in South Florida (see this video). Yet, rules published by the National Marine Fisheries Service listed five species of sawfish as endangered this past month in its final ruling.

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

Smalltooth sawfish. NOAA image

“The final rule contains the Service’s determination that the narrow sawfish (Anoxypristis cuspidate), dwarf sawfish (Pristis clavata), largetooth sawfish (collectively, Pristis pristis), green sawfish (Pristis zijsron) and the non-U.S. distinct population segment (DPS) of smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata) are endangered species under the ESA.” (Miller, December 2014)  (See info on the rule in the Federal Register here.)

What makes a thing like the sawfish rare?

Rarity is driven by scale—how many, how much, how big an area. Rarity means that something occurs infrequently, either in the form of endemism, being restricted to a certain place, or by the smallness of a population. In conservation biology the proportion or percentage of habitable sites or areas in which a particular species is present determines the rarity of a species.[1] In addition to the areas in which a particular species is present, the number of individuals found in that area also determines its rarity. There are different types of rarity which can be based on three factors: 1) geographical range – the species may occur in sufficient numbers but only live in a particular place, for example, an island; 2) the habitat specificity – if the species is a “specialist,” meaning it might be confined to a certain type of habitat, it could be found all over the world but only in that specific habitat, for example, tropical rainforests; 3) the population size – a small or declining population might cause rarity. [2] Generally a species can be locally very common but globally very uncommon, thereby making it rare and furthermore, valuable. A species can also be the opposite, globally common but spread out few and far between so that individuals have a hard time sustaining their populations through reproduction and dispersal.

But usually when a person thinks of rarity, they are probably thinking about a species that occurs in very low numbers and lives in only one place, as in many of the endemic creatures on the Galapagos Islands. It is this latter-most perception of rarity that plays a critical role in conservation work. People value rarity because it makes a living thing special—even if it had intrinsic value before it became rare, if it ever lived in greater numbers or more widespread populations.

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish illustration by NOAA

Sawfish are a rare, unique—and critically endangered group of elasmobranches—sharks, skates and rays, that are most known for their toothed rostrum. Once common inhabitants of coastal, estuarine areas and rivers throughout the tropics, sawfish populations have been decimated by decades of fishing and survive—barely—in isolated habitats, according to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. Seven recognized species of sawfish, including the smalltooth sawfish (Pristis pectinata), are listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union. In addition to the extensive gillnetting and trawling, sawfish are threatened by habitat degradation from coastal development. Sawfish prefer mangroves and other estuarine wetlands. Currently the sawfish population is believed to be restricted to remote areas of southwest Florida, particularly in the Everglades and the Keys. Sawfish are primarily a freshwater-loving creature but they occasionally go out to sea. Lobbyists proposed to add sawfish to Appendix 1 of CITES in 1994 (as part of the first Shark Resolution) to stop the trade in saws but the proposal was defeated in 1997 because it could not demonstrate that stopping trade would provide the necessary protection in wild populations. [See Petition to List North American Populations of Sawfish, 1999, here.] Subsequent proposals in 2007 and 2013 were successful, according to Shark Advocates International. According to the Mote Marine Laboratory conservation biologists, “even if effective conservation plans can be implemented it will take sawfish populations decades, or possibly even centuries, to recover to post-decline levels.” This is the fundamental crux of rarity in conservation biology: even if we do perfect conservation work, once a species is rare and critically endangered, it can take much longer for a species to recover than the time it took to reach the brink of extinction.  In November 2014, all sawfish species were listed on Appendix I & II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS).

Sonja Fordham of Shark Advocates explains to me:  The listing of smalltooth sawfish is therefore the most relevant; it has resulted in critical habitat designation, a comprehensive recovery plan, cutting edge research, and encouraging signs of population stabilization and growth.

See this NOAA Fisheries video on smalltooth sawfish conservation.

Several different organizations, in addition to federal and state agencies, are working to protect and conserve sawfish habitat and the endangered species. Here are some links to a few of these organizations and their fact sheets on sawfish:

Save the Sawfish

Sawfish Conservation Society

Shark Advocates, Fact Sheet on Smalltooth Sawfish

Florida Museum of Natural History, Sawfish Conservation

Save our Seas, Conservation of Sawfish Project

Fact sheet for the 11th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP11) to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) on Sawfish (5 species)

IUCN Global Sawfish Conservation Strategy 

[1] Begon, Michael, John L. Harper, Colin Townsend. Ecology: Individuals, Populations, and Communities. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, London, et. al. 1990. Glossary pp. 859..

[2] Pullin, Andrew. Conservation Biology. Cambridge University Press, 2002. pp.199-201.

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Dating Season for Toads

I am glad I don’t suffer bufonophobia, a fear of toads, because a gang of American toads (Bufo americanus) live under my deck. They come out at night and sit, fat as golfballs, one of them the size of a baseball, in the moonlight. Their posturing reminds me of the T-birds and the Pink Ladies in “Grease” at the drive-in.

Careful not to step on them when I stand in the yard, I let my dog enjoy a few minutes of midnight sounds, smells and shadows, with caution. The toads barely budge if she sniffs their bumpy bodies. She doesn’t like toads, luckily. I’m nervous about taking a step, worried I might squish one, anticipating the inevitable movement—but a toad’s test of wills (or staying power) beats mine every time.

Some toads, including the American toad, have paratoid glands that can secrete a white poison to would-be predators (if bitten or handled, for instance). The poison is toxic inside a mouth—or if after a human handles a toad, touches the eye or mouth.  It can cause nausea, inflamed mouth or throat, irregular heart beat and in very severe cases—death. They can be a danger to pets for this reason. When you think about it, batrachophobes, who fear any reptiles or amphibians, have probably had an incident that caused a symptom, or knew of someone who did. I never believed one could get “warts” from a toad, but perhaps this myth originated from the handling of toads causing undesirable symptoms. National Geographic busted that myth for kids, here.

Toads are nocturnal. During the day the amphibians hide under the deck. I’ve wondered what they do all day—eat insects, sleep, burrow underground, intimidate baby garter snakes? The child in me imagines Toad and Frog riding around in their small motorcar. The ecologist in me wants to set up candid cameras under the deck and film the toads’ daytime activities.  This is their breeding time (March-July), when they emerge from their burrows to eat at night and mate. It is more likely that the underside of my short deck is dull by day and hoppin’ at night. Along patches of my seep, nicknamed “Fern Gully,” I’ve observed toadlets, baby toads, crawling along the muddy wooded floor. They are small, about an inch long in body, not counting legs. What’s amazing to me is that toad eggs can hatch in a matter of days (3-13 days) and the toadlets grow to adulthood in about a month. In Pennsylvania, there is an organization looking for volunteers to help with a program called “Toad Detour,” that seeks to help toadlets cross roads and get to safe habitats. Their website has some great photos and a recording of toad sounds. More about their work with toads is posted on the Philly Herping Blog.

My poem, “Romancing the Toad,” was published in a summer issue of the international literary magazine, Off the Coast. 

The American toad’s large range extends as south as Georgia, as west as Wisconsin and as north as Canada. There are other toads of concern throughout the U.S. For example, the endangered Arroyo toad in California depends on adiminishing wetland habitat. The Sheepscot Wellspring Land Alliance for Spring Amphibians kicked off its programs in Maine earlier in May, teaching people about the 9 species of frogs and toads in the state.

In other blogs, spadefoot toads have received some attention lately. Volunteers in different areas gather to help toads and frogs cross busy roads during their breeding season. A headstart program in Massachusetts visited the Cape Cod National Seashore this month to learn about vernal pools and amphibian habitat, includingspadefoot toads. According to Mass Audubon, the spadefoot is neither true toad or frog—it’s a primitive amphibian. A segment of a Hands-On Wetland Creation Workshop for Professionals, led in part by Tom Biebighauser, with the U.S. Forest Service, addressed the topic of spadefoots at the Long Pasture Sanctuary on Cape Cod. ASWM’s Executive Director, Jeanne Christie, attended.

The Gastropods That Restore Us

“Sometimes these animals are crushed seemingly to pieces,
and, to all appearance, utterly destroyed; yet still they set themselves
to work, and, in a few days, mend all their numerous breaches…
to the re-establishment of the ruined habitation.”
-Oliver Goldsmith, 1774

As a little girl, I loved picking up periwinkles and humming to persuade them out of their shell. Even after a painful incident with a blue mussel that heldfast to my toe in the Sheepscot River, I have always held a fond regard for mollusks. But slugs? Not so much. Gardeners might feel some frustration during the wet part of early summer when the slugs invade. My mother puts sharp sea shells in the soil because the slugs don’t like to crawl over them. Gastropods—slugs, snails and whelks—are particularly sensitive to their environment. Just as gardeners will insist that not all soil is the same, so will snails help wetland managers to monitor the success of wetland restoration sites. The slow-moving creatures are the time-keepers and monitors. They keep us in the know. They have the power to restore wetlands. They restore us.

I just finished reading Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s natural history/ memoir The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010), which moved me to tears of joy. In the vein of Annie Dillard and Terry Tempest Williams’ nature-inspired narrative, Bailey’s voice is both clear and magical.

While she is bedridden with a strange illness at the age of 34, a friend brings in a pot of violets to put on her bedside table along with a snail from the woods. Bailey admits she “couldn’t imagine what kind of life a snail might lead,” but grows more and more fascinated with its nocturnal trips up and down the pot of violets, where it nibbles tiny holes in her letters and makes a meal of a wilted violet petal. Bailey’s bedroom window looks onto a saltmarsh and she longs to walk in the woods with her dog but her illness has trapped her into an uncomfortable stillness. When a friend freshens up the soil in the pot of violets, Bailey observes that the snail is unhappy about this—until the garden-enriched soil is replaced with humus from the Maine woods where the snail had lived.

Bailey writes that they were “both living in altered environments not of our choosing.” After a few months of co-habitation with the snail, a friend brings a glass terrarium and fills it with many types of moss, lichen-covered birch, rotten sticks, a mussel shell filled with water and ferns. The snail investigates her new forested ecosystem and dines on mushrooms. I was struck by Bailey’s breathtaking observations, at once emotional and ecological, the way she confused time: the ticking of the clock and the “unfurling of a fern frond” in the small slow world of the wild snail. She writes, “the snail kept my spirit from evaporating,” as she watched it drink from the mussel shell. The book is rich in wetland description and the science of gastropods. http://www.amazon.com/Sound-Wild-Snail-Eating/dp/1565126068/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1309460437&sr=1-1

Bailey’s wild snail went onto lay eggs inside the terrarium once surrounded by the right vegetation and fueled by bits of mushroom, its favorite meal. In the wild, certain species of snails may be used as indicators of success in wetland restoration sites. If the native snails reestablish communities, it is one sign of success, however, sometimes invasive snails migrate into a restored wetland, which is a different story. For example, nonnative gastropods may pose a threat to endangered lichen as explored in a recent issue ofCanadian Field Naturalist in a study by Robert Cameron:http://www.canadianfieldnaturalist.ca/index.php/cfn/article/viewFile/697/697

While much of coastal wetland restoration falls back on the “field of dreams” assumption: built it and they will come, the richness and diversity of species that return naturally to a restored wetland are not always as wetland managers had hoped. In some cases, wetland managers will try reintroducing certain species to reestablish a community, for example, gastropods in a restored marsh in coastal California. A 2004 EPA study evaluated the restoration of benthic invertebrate communities, specifically the California horn snail, in a marsh.http://water.epa.gov/lawsregs/guidance/wetlands/upload/2004_8_18_wetlands_
MitigationActionPlan_performance_ArmitageandFong2004.pdf

Whereas in a 2009 study of invasive apple snails, the gastropods are observed to feed on both native and invasive aquatic plants at the Great Lakes Center (Buffalo State College in New York). One of the findings was that apple snails should not be considered a bio-control in wetland restoration sites. While they ate the invasive aquatic plants, such asEichhomia crassipes, the snails also ate the native vegetation, e.g.  Ruppia maritima, at an even faster rate.  http://www.buffalostate.edu/greatlakescenter/documents/
burlakova_et_al_2009.pdf
 Ironically, the same apple snail—native to the Florida Everglades, is the sole preferred food source for the endangered Everglades snail kite. This means that apple snails are critical to the successful restoration of Everglades habitat for the bird. http://fl.biology.usgs.gov/sofla/apple_snail.pdf (See Strange Wetlands: http://aswm.org/wordpress/strange-wetlands-endangered-species-day-the-first-list/)

As part of a large 2004 wetland restoration project in the Klamath Basin in Oregon, over a dozen species of endemic snails were identified as at-risk invertebrates and priority species http://www.oregon.gov/OWEB/GRANTS/docs/acquisition/Acq
Priorities_Klamath.pdf?ga=t
 For more information on the Klamath Basin Restoration work in Oregon, visit: http://www.oregonwild.org/waters/klamath/a-vision-for-the-klamath-basin/the-klamath-basin-restoration-agreement

Wetland scientists look to even smaller organisms, trematode parasites, which occur in gastropods, as indicator species for biodiversity in managed wetlands. Some studies have shown that the richness in diversity among trematodes increases after coastal wetland restoration. For a brochure published by the Pacific Estuarine Ecosystem Indicator Research Consortium, go to: http://www-bml.ucdavis.edu/peeir/
brochures/Parasites.pdf

For further reading and enjoyment, here are some interesting recent wetland blog posts on gastropods in wetlands with some great images, too:

Gaunt and Glimmering Remains of Gastropods
http://www.evilmadscientist.com/article.php/wetlandsnails

Some gastropod humor at Southern Fried Science blog
http://www.southernfriedscience.com/

Ballona Wetlands Restoration Project’s Photos
http://www.flickr.com/photos/ballonarestoration/5716284945/in/photostream

Poem: Persuading Periwinkles
http://aswm.org/wordpress/53-2/110-2/persuading-periwinkles/

Just Eat It. Edible Wetlands…

Just eat it. Can’t beat it. An “edible wetland” helps teach kids about wetland ecology. Growing up on the coast of Maine, I nibbled saltgrass as a child and learned which seaweeds were edible. My parents taught me which plants were safe to eat in the woods and saltmarsh, and which plants to admire but not pick. But there are lots of ways to teach kids about wetlands…

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency developed a kit for teachers working with kids in grades 3-6 learning about wetlands. The kit includes a “mouth-watering” recipe for an edible wetland. Here’s the idea: Students discuss the word “wetlands” and life that depends on them. Students think of different life forms that exist around wetlands. After identifying the life forms, students may build their own “wetland” out of edible materials. Here’s the list of ingredients:

Materials for Edible Wetland

The amounts listed below will vary dependent upon the number of students involved. You will need a half a sheet of brownies or chocolate cookie bars, and one green and one blue fruit roll-up per group of 4 to 5 students. Other ingredients can be used for several groups.

• 9″x13″pan of brownies or chocolate cookie bars prepared ahead of time – soil base of wetland
• Graham cracker crumbs – sand
• Instant chocolate pudding or pudding cups – mud
• Blue fruit roll-up – body of water
• Green fruit roll-up – aquatic plants
• Fish shaped crackers – fish
• Green lollypops – trees and shrubs
• Green chewy fruit candy to anchor the lollypops
• Gumdrops – shrubs
• Gummy bears -animals
• Animal crackers – animals
• Coconut dyed with green food coloring – grass
• Milk for pudding preparation (if not using pudding cups)
• Large mixing bowl (if not using pudding cups)
• A cookie sheet on which to create a wetland

For full instructions on how to create an edible wetland as a teaching tool for kids, go to:http://www.epa.state.il.us/kids/teachers/activities/wetland.html

For an award-winning video, “Wetlands and Wonder: Reconnecting Children with Nearby Nature” as developed by EPA Region 8, visit:http://epa.gov/wetlands/education/wetlandsvideo/

What is a Fairy House?

A fairy house, or gnome home, is a small structure built in the woods, usually found at the base of a tree, or in lower branches, alongside a mossy tree stump, or driftwood on a beach. Building materials include natural and found things from the woods, but sometimes people add common household items, such as a button, a bottle cork, a piece of string. It is a 100+ year tradition in Maine, especially along the coast and on the islands. But fairy houses can be found throughout the country, and in other countries. In Maine the tradition dates back to the early 1900s, when many island communities had working farms. Traveling schoolteachers from Massachusetts brought folk tales involving fairies that inspired islanders—children and adults alike—to build gnome homes to attract fairies in order to watch over the livestock and children during Maine winters. A fairy house traditionally included a tiny altar with a small offering, such as a coin, to pay the fairies to help the farmers; if there was a particularly harsh winter, and children or livestock died, the more superstitious islanders blamed the fairies.

Over the decades, fairy houses—whether to allow them, for instance, has been a controversy on some Maine islands, including Monhegan. (Wall Street Journal covered this story in 1999, along with several Maine newspapers). I have found fairy houses on over 60 of Maine’s islands, and have built them over the years in many “secret” locations throughout Maine. Every mother I met on the islands I visited believed that her children originated the fairy house idea but this is actually a centuries old tradition in some parts of the world. I have also witnessed as competitive parents stabilized their kids’ gnome homes with hot glue guns, duct tape and staples. In this case, the structure was really built in a workshop at home, then transplanted to the base of a tree. Generally, fairy houses are not permanent structures; they last until the end of summer or fall, then disintegrate during a typical rainstorm. In places where there are anti-fairy house forces, such as groups of people called, “Stompers,” sometimes the gnome home lasts only until it is discovered, which is why it is important to build anonymously, minimally and somewhere hidden. In other communities, fairy houses are enjoyed and even maintained by people—or gnomes—who can say for sure—and can last decades.

This week I helped teach local fourth-graders how to build “eco-friendly” fairy houses in Black Brook Preserve here in Windham, Maine. I’ve developed worksheets and taught elementary school kids how to think about fairy houses, or gnome homes, in an eco-friendly way. In fact, I became a sort of expert in the topic after completing a year-long project at College of the Atlantic. I visited over 25 Maine islands and researched the fairy house tradition on the Maine coast, and then wrote my college senior thesis on the ecological, political and historical aspects of the long-held tradition.