Tag Archives: wetland restoration

The Love Lives of Horseshoe Crabs, Not Cannibals

Amidst the studies on Hurricane Sandy’s impacts on coastal communities—which affected the lives of people, most notably—some recent studies have examined the impacts on the lives of a strange ancient creature: horseshoe crabs. Distant relatives of scorpions and spiders, horseshoe crabs are not true crabs, or crustaceans. They’ve been around for over 1 billion years and lived alongside dinosaurs. See “The Life and Times of the Earliest Horseshoe Crabs,” (Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum). Unlike a scorpion, crab or spider, horseshoe crabs don’t bite, sting or pinch. And unlike cannibalistic crustaceans, adult horseshoe crabs do not congregate (except to spawn seasonally), which is possibly a way to avoid large crabs attacking smaller horseshoe crabs—thus, avoiding cannibalistic behavior as a species. (Sekiguchi, Shuster, Jr., 1999) Their anatomy is interesting, as illustrated below.

Each spring, horseshoe crabs spawn along creek-mouth beaches and shoals. They like sandy beaches. Naturally, these coastal areas, rich in wetlands, peat bogs and saltwater marsh, were hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. What’s more, sea level rise has eroded certain coastal beaches where horseshoe crabs used to spawn, decreasing the habitat suitable for spawning. See Sea Level Rise and the Significance of Marginal Beaches for Horseshoe Crab Spawning (Botton and Loveland, 2011).

In the Delaware Bay, for example, the American Littoral Society, along with the Wetlands Institute, the New Jersey Department of Environment Protection and New Jersey Audubon, have assessed the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on horseshoe crab populations in the Bay. Watch this video of horseshoe crab spawning in Delaware. Read Hurricane Sandy Race To Restore Horseshoe Crab Spawning Grounds (March 2013). Videos depict horseshoe crabs spawning, swimming upside down and righting themselves.

In a joint report by the Wetlands Institute, NJ Audubon Society and NJ Division of Fish & Wildlife (“Damage from Superstorm Sandy to Horseshoe Crab Breeding and Shorebird Stopover Habitat on Delaware Bay,” December 2012), wetlands did well overall, despite some “wash over” during storm surges of Hurricane Sandy, according to Lenore Tedesco, Ph.D. Director of Research at the Wetlands Institute. Yet a major finding was a 70% decrease in suitable breeding habitat for horseshoe crabs. In addition, there was about the same amount of increase in unsuitable habitat for horseshoe crab spawning. Specifically, the scientists classified the types of habitat into five categories:

  1. Optimal: undisturbed sand beach;
  2. Suitable: sand beach with only small areas of peat and/or backed by development
  3. Less Suitable: exposed peat in lower/middle intertidal zone;
    sand present in upper intertidal;
  4. Avoided habitat:  exposed peat or active salt marsh fringing the shoreline;
    no sand present
  5. Disturbed due to beach fill, riprap or bulkheading.
    (Niles, Tedesco, Sellers, et. al. 2012)

In areas where the habitat is less suitable, with exposed peat, there is less sand for the horseshoe crabs to lay their eggs. The full report includes recommendations for habitat restoration. For more information about post-Sandy restoration recommendations, visit the Wetlands Institute’s website here.

Many years ago, I learned that horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) lay at the heart of some medical advances in immunology research. Apparently, horseshoe crab blood and immunology can serve scientists with a model to develop treatments for patients with HIV, AIDS or other immune deficiency disorders. Its “blue blood” contains Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, which allows medical researchers to detect bacterial toxins. In ecological projects, the spawning and genetic diversity of horseshoe crabs is the focus, or the relationship between horseshoe crabs and fisheries. For an overview of various research projects on horseshoe crabs happening in 18 states and two countries, see these project summaries. There’s some fascinating research underway.

The Wetland Institute has a number of publications on its website related to horseshoe crab research and conservation. There’s also an “Adopt a Horseshoe Crab” program and horseshoe crab census data available from 1999-2009. In May, the Institute holds festival activities, including teaching tank/aquarium talks on saltmarsh ecology, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs. For more information about the Horseshoe Crab Festival in May,click here.

More videos:

See horseshoe crab counting (Washington Post video, June 2012)
NATURE program on horseshoe crabs (PBS, 2008)
Horseshoe crab documentary (Nick Baker, Science Channel)

For more on horseshoe crab biology and ecology, see this National Park Service webpage and materials developed by the Mid-Atlantic Sea Grant and NOAA joint programs on horseshoe crab research. Finally, check outhttp://horseshoecrab.org/ which houses an online warehouse of information on the biology, conservation and research of horseshoe crabs.


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 State of the Gulf Coast Wetlands—Two Years After the B.P. Oil Spill

Since the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010, dolphin strandings have occurred at an unprecedented high level—over 500 stranded dolphins—one indicator that there is still a major problem in the Gulf (NOAA). Another strong indicator is the accelerated rate of coastal wetland loss in the Gulf as direct result from the impacts of the spill. Prior to the 2010 spill, the state of Louisiana already faced significant coastal wetland loss—about the area equivalent to a football field’s worth of wetlands every hour. Over 1,000 miles of coastal wetlands were contaminated by the oil spill, and despite restoration efforts, the rate of coastal wetland loss is now made more complex by the spill and clean-up process. Efforts to clean up the oil in the marshes, in some areas, depending on the extent of the contamination, have caused further damage to the wetlands. (NWF) A recent report by the National Wildlife Federation, “A Degraded Gulf of Mexico: Wildlife and Wetlands—Two Years into the Gulf OilDisaster” assesses the impacts to sea turtles, dolphins, pelicans, other wildlife and coastal wetlands affected by the B.P. oil spill.

NOAA announced this month that eight Gulf coast restoration projects will begin this year with $60 million earmarked for the work to create marshes, improve coastal dune habitat, restore oyster beds and reefs, and other projects related to the boat industry.  The first phase of the projects will take place in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida. There is more information about these restoration projects atwww.gulfspillrestoration.noaa.gov and www.doi.gov/deepwaterhorizon

Specific project fact sheets on each restoration project involved in this first phase of the Gulf Coast Restoration, called “Early Restoration,” an effort to get the natural resources back to the state prior to the spill, are available on NOAA’s website.  To learn more about the Gulf Coast Early Restoration efforts underway, go to:http://www.gulfspill

As part of the response to the spill two years ago, a number of organizations and agencies have worked hard to address the critical needs of wildlife that depended on the coastal wetlands that were contaminated or destroyed by the spill. For example, a shorebird habitat enhancement project provided alternative habitat in Mississippi for waterfowl. A sea turtle project improved nesting and hatching on the Texas coast.

The Gulf coast’s diverse shoreline includes mangroves, cypress swamps, fresh and saltwater marshes and mudflats. What’s really at stake here? More than half of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states are located on the Gulf coast, which is also where the majority of coastal wetland loss has been occurring.  About 40% of these are in Louisiana. (NOAA) There is an important link between the healthy coastal marshes, their ecological role in serving as a nursery for invertebrates and small fish, and the larger fisheries and their health—which in turn, have a big impact on both the economy and well-being of people along the Gulf coast. In a healthy coastal marsh, the wetland soils and vegetation protect the land from storm surge, reduce flooding and improve water quality in the surrounding watershed. In a coastal marsh that has been contaminated by oil, the vegetation dies and the soil no longer has the ability to hold its position; it becomes more likely to erode during storms and even day-to-day tidal activity. Coastal wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate, becoming open ocean.

One would think that cleaning up the oil during the response to the disaster would have solved the problem of contaminated marshes. But it doesn’t work that way. The vulnerable wetlands were threatened by the clean-up response methods intended to save them. The tools used to prevent oil from contaminating shorelands, including booms, got stuck in the wetlands.  Other techniques used to remove the oil disturbed and killed vegetation and other living things. Oily mats smothered mudflats and sand removal disturbed the beach habitat. These unintended impacts have been monitored and a number of contaminated marsh studies will help the response teams to evaluate these impacts and clean-up methods. For more information, see this Status Update: Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NOAA, April 2012).

Related blogs:

Gulf Restoration Network (includes photo slide show): Bird’s Eye View: An Earth Day Reflection In Photos Of The Last 2 Years Of The BP Drilling Disaster

Huffington Post blogs and videos of Gulf Oil Spill

Response & Restoration (NOAA) blog

8 Gulf coast restoration projects announced

Environmental Defense Fund blog: ASFPM Agrees: Some Gulf oil spill fines should go to Gulf restoration (Feb. 2012)

For background information on the impact of the oil spill on wetlands and related media over the past two years, visit ASWM’s Gulf Oil Spill Impact on Wetlands page I put together.

When Wetlands Call for the Firefighters

I was in the Wetlands this morning, just exploring
around, and on my way back I saw this strange sight.
Everything was on fire.
-Halidorn, World of Warcraft game forum

The popular multi-player video game, World of Warcraft, which I’ve never played, makes regular appearances on my Googlesearches for wetlands because it has a zone called “The Wetlands.” I came across the above quote about wetlands on fire and it reminded me of a past Compleat Wetlanderpost on the role of fire in wetlands http://aswm.org/wordpress/wetlands-and-fire/. As a follow-up to that post, here are some additional areas of research—of particular interest are three ways that prescribed burns are used to manage wetlands: water quality, restoration and mitigation.

The Joseph Jones Ecological Research Center in Georgia published a journal article on “Effects of Prescribed Fire on Wetland Water Quality,” based on data that the research team, including Dr. Stephen Golladay, collected 2000-2001. This is now posted on the ASWM webpage for wetlands and water quality here: http://aswm.org/wetland-programs/water-quality-standards-for-wetlands/1276-prescribed-fires-impact-on-water-quality-of-depressional-wetlands-in-southwestern-georgia Prescribed fire as a tool for wetlands restoration has been used throughout the nationhttp://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/58825/1/2.4.Robertson.pdf and is documented in the 1988 FWS biological report, on file at the USGS North American Prairie Wildlife Research Center http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/firewild/.

There are three general types of prescribed burns in wetlands: 1) surface/cover burns are cool fires used to remove organic material; 2) root burns, hotter fires that are used to control certain species; and 3) peat burns—used to create open water areas. The Phoenix Fire Department worked with wetland managers in Arizona on research related to prescribed burns in wetlands in 2004:http://phoenix.gov/TRESRIOS/research.htmlFor other examples of prescribed burns in wetland management areas, see photos from the Leopold Wetland Management District http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmidwest/sets/72157626293502556/ and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge:http://www.fws.gov/lacreek/fire.htm

More recently prescribed burns have been applied as part of wetland mitigation, such as the burn held this past April at the new airport site in Florida: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xi5cmg_wetlands-mitigation-prescribed-burn-at-the-new-airport-site_news and this fire managed on a wetland mitigation site in Arkansas back in March 2011: http://www.fayettevilleflyer.com/2011/03/17/prescribed-burn-on-broyles-avenue/ These prescribed burns on wetlands require a collaborative team usually involving a wildland fire division (whether state or federal), state wetland managers and wetland consultants, such as the Kevin L. Erwin Consulting Ecologist firm (KLECE) in Florida, which was involved with the Little Pine Island Mitigation Bank project in March 2011 http://environment.com/index.php/tag/prescribed-burning/ .

In addition, several other prescribed burns occurred in wetlands this spring: Chequamegon-Nicolet National Foresthttp://ashlandcurrent.com/article/11/05/25/more-prescribed-burns-chequamegon-forest North Carolina (to encourage longleaf pine)http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20110610/ARTICLES/110619991/-1/news05?Title=Work-at-Orton-will-encourage-longleaf-pine-growth and Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge (to control phragmites)http://www.thenewsherald.com/articles/2011/05/26/news/doc4ddeb12fd71a

From the wildland firefighter’s perspective, fire management guidelines described by the U.S. Forest Service include proper care and use of equipment in order to protect wetlands and water quality. The guidelines include considerations such as avoiding damage to the hydrology during planned burn operations (prescribed burns) and a recommendation to use natural fuel breaks, such as streams, as opposed to artificial fuel breaks like fire retardant. These guidelines also ensure the benefits of fire—when managed properly—to wetland ecosystems. http://nrs.fs.fed.us/fmg/nfmg/docs/mn/FireMgmt.pdf

Additionally, a recent study published in the Journal of the Ecological Society of America discusses the National Fire Plan and management techniques for forest restoration in the west.

http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/090199 Also in the current issue of Ecological Applications is an article of interest: “Variability of tundra fire regimes in Arctic Alaska: millennial-scale patterns and ecological implications” http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/11-0387.1

Restoring Part of the Salt Lake Ecosystem & Exploring the Legacy Nature Preserve in Utah

Last week I attended River Rally at Snowbird, Utah, near Salt Lake City. A group of us rode in a shuttle van down into the valley to explore the 2, 225-acre Legacy Nature Preserve, which is normally off-limits to the public. The Legacy Highway was a controversial project. In order to mitigate for the wetland loss, the Utah DOT worked with the SWCA Environmental Consultants to create the Legacy Nature Preserve. The mission of the nature preserve is “to provide in perpetuity quality wildlife habitats for mitigating impacts to wetlands and wildlife associated with the Legacy Parkway.” The preserve is located within the Great Salt Lake ecosystem.

Our group—full of avid birders—arrived at the parking lot for the preserve’s observation deck, where everyone shed layers. It was 95° and sunny, a forty-degree difference from the Wasatch Mountains National Forest, where River Rally attendees stayed at the Snowbird Ski Resort. I was the only one dressed appropriately for the climate—a tee shirt and cropped pants. Everyone else had worn winter clothes and full rain gear. Just the day before, there had been torrential downpours on the preserve and the day after our field trip, it snowed—a major blizzard—for three days. We got lucky.

We saw 60 species of birds in three hours, wandering over the nature preserve with our guide, Eric McCulley, an environmental consultant and manager for the site. A big part of Eric’s job is managing the water in the various types of wetlands within the preserve, including playas, creeks and ponds. For a link to the Legacy Nature Preserve’s Water Management Plan, go to:  http://www.udot.utah.gov/main/uconowner.gf?n=1927752816403691464 He’s also in charge of monitoring the birds, water quality and vegetation restoration work. The local duck groups monitor the duck populations and assist with managing the duck habitat. Through binoculars and digital cameras, our group spied snowy egrets, Great blue herons, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, meadowlarks, several hawks, two eagles sitting on their nest, white-faced ibis, several types of swallows and sparrows, a robin, blue-winged teal, Canada goose, marsh wrens, black-neck stilt, Wilson’s Phalarope, shrike, terns and gulls. An American avocet displayed his wings for us to capture him on film.

As part of the vegetation management plan, goats graze strategically on parts of the preserve. We also noticed evidence and scat from other wildlife—deer, foxes, vole holes, etc.  I cautiously asked our guide, “It’s too cold for snakes in Utah, right?” Eric replied, “No, there are snakes but you won’t see any.” Guess who accidentally stepped beside a rattlesnake on the trail shortly after this exchange? You guessed right. Yours truly. I am the reluctant Snake Whisperer.  For more information on the Legacy Nature Preserve, visit: http://www.udot.utah.gov/main/f?p=100:pg:0::::V,T:,2084