All posts by Christopher Dunagan

More than one way to join the battle against European green crabs

I’ve received a good response regarding my blog post on Friday, “Green crabs entrenched at Dungeness Spit, but new issues are emerging,” which covered a variety of issues — from where the invasive crabs did NOT come from to new detection methods for invasive species.

I heard some legitimate questions about how to identify European green crabs and what to do if you find one. The main thing is to get a photograph and send it to the Washington Sea Grant Crab Team, which is leading the war on green crabs. I’m reminded that it is illegal to possess a green crab without a permit.

Here are some links from the Crab Team website that could be helpful:

I’m also pleased to see the announcement of a free online webinar on July 10 to help people identify European green crabs. The two-hour “First Detector Training Webinar” is co-sponsored by the Crab Team and Washington Invasive Species Council. Register ahead of time to get information about the event.

Nautilus submarine ‘can send your soul to the bottom’ — Bob Ballard

It is rather amazing to watch live video from a submarine creeping along along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast, and I wanted to remind everyone that this is something they can experience right now via the Nautilus Live webfeed. The live commentary from the operators can be amusing at times, but I didn’t want to wait until Monday to let you know what’s going on.

Exploration Vessel Nautilus, with its remotely operated submarines Hercules and Argus, has been exploring deep-sea vents off Oregon the past few days, marking the beginning of a six-month expedition along the West Coast and around Hawaii. The ROVs were launched Sunday as the weather allowed, and the mother ship is now moving up the coast. I’ve embedded the video on this page, but more information and alternate channels are provided on the Nautilus homepage. One can also send questions to the research team.

As I post this message at 11:30 a.m., Hercules is about two hours into today’s exploration and examining a bacterial mat on the bottom. If things ever seem to be going slow, one can always click back on the video to see what was happening up to four hours earlier.

As luck would have it, right before I posted this, the audio went out. At the top of the page, you’ll see this message from Marty Momsen, communications manager: “We have reached the ocean floor at S Coquille and are actively seeking bubble streams! (We are troubleshooting audio, so we recommend listening to your own background music in the meantime!)”

The current expedition, funded by the Ocean Exploration Trust and led by oceanographer Bob Ballard, will be the one of the longest seasons of exploration since the Nautilus began investigating the West Coast seafloor four years ago.

“With telepresence, you can send your soul to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with ROV Hercules, and then go home at the end of the day,” Ballard said in a press release. “Anyone with an Internet connection can explore right along with us by watching Nautilus Live.”

The search will include “deep-sea coral habitats in national marine sanctuaries, hydrothermal vents from an active submarine volcano, bubbling methane seeps, and ancient shorelines just offshore of some of North America’s largest cities,” according to the press release.

The scientific endeavor begins with an ongoing study of methane seeps along the Cascadia margin, where tectonic plates come together off the coast of Washington, Oregon and Northern California. During a mapping effort the past two years, more than 2,700 bubble streams were identified at 1,000 different locations, and this expedition will add new scientific information.

The research team will also try to locate and recover the fragments of a large meteorite that fell within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in March.

In British Columbia, the Nautilus will explore three offshore seamounts in partnership with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as the ship transits to Hawaii in August. The full schedule from June to November can be see on “The Expedition” page of the Nautilus website.

During the cruise, the Nautilus Facebook page tends to provide some details of interest to online observers, while the Nautilus Twitter feed offers frequent reports of what is taking place.

Amusing Monday: Ten new species, each with unique stories to tell

An international team of taxonomists has chosen the “Top 10 New Species of 2018” from among some 18,000 new species named last year.

They range from the large — a majestic tree that is critically endangered — to the small — a microscopic single-celled organism discovered in an aquarium with no obvious connection to any known species.

They include a fish that has survived in the deepest, darkest part of the Pacific Ocean — at record depth — with credit for its discovery going to a team of scientists led by a University of Washington researcher.

The list of new species also includes a rare great ape — an orangutan that has been identified as a separate species — as well as a prehistoric marsupial lion identified from fossils found in Australia.

The 11th annual list is compiled by the International Institute for Species Exploration at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York.

College President Quentin Wheeler, the founding director of the institute, said the annual list demonstrates the value of species exploration and diversity.

“I’m constantly amazed at how many new species show up and the range of things that are discovered,” he said in a news release.

“We name about 18,000 per year but we think at least 20,000 per year are going extinct,” Wheeler said. “So many of these species — if we don’t find them, name them and describe them now — will be lost forever.

“And yet they can teach us so much about the intricacies of ecosystems and the details of evolutionary history,” he added. “Each of them has found a way to survive against the odds of changing competition, climate and environmental conditions. So each can teach us something really worth knowing as we face an uncertain environmental future ourselves.”

Wheeler blames humans for the high rate of extinctions. “At this stage, it’s us,” he explained. “People are altering habitats and changing the climate. As inconvenient as it might be to adapt to climate change with our crops and relocate cities in the most extreme scenarios, what we can’t do is bring back species once they’re gone.”

The top-10 list is made public each year around May 23 to recognize the birthday of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy.

Swire’s Snailfish: Deepest fish in the sea

Pseudoliparis swirei

Its appearance reveals nothing about its character, but a fish that lives in the deepest, darkest part of the ocean must be doing right. The newly named Swire’s snailfish (Pseudoliparis swirei) is about 4 inches long with a translucent, tadpole-like body with no scales — and no other fish on Earth has been found in a deeper location.

Large numbers of the new species were captured in baited traps in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific at depths between 22,000 and 26,000 feet (between 4 and 5 miles deep). One fish was recorded on camera at 27,000 feet, but without a specimen researchers could not be confirm it as the same species.

A scientific paper describing the fish was published in November in Zootaxa, and Michelle Ma of UW News reported on the discovery.

“This is the deepest fish that’s been collected from the ocean floor, and we’re very excited to have an official name,” lead author Mackenzie Gerringer, a postdoctoral researcher at UW’s Friday Harbor Laboratories, was quoted as saying. “They don’t look very robust or strong for living in such an extreme environment, but they are extremely successful.”

Mackenzie also spoke with Craig Welch of National Geographic, who said the pressures that the fish endure are equal to the weight of 1,600 elephants.

“There are real limitations to life in these trenches,” she said. “They have evolved adaptations to that pressure to keep their enzymes functioning and membranes moving.”

P. swirei belongs to the snailfish family, Liparidae. Among the family’s more than 400 named species are fish found at all depths, from intertidal pools to the deepest reaches. It is believed that about 27,000 feet is a physiological limit, meaning that no fish can live in water any deeper.

Other info:

Tapanuli Orangutan: Endangered great ape

Pongo tapanuliensis

Orangutan // Photo: Andrew Walmsley

Genomic evidence has revealed that a small, isolated population of Sumatran orangutans is so distinct from other orangutans in the region that they should be considered a separate species. With only about 800 known individuals remaining, Pongo tapanuliensis becomes the most endangered population of great apes in the world.

In 2001, the orangutans of Sumatra and Borneo, which had been considered one species, were recognized as two: Pongo abelii and Pongo pygmaeus. Before naming the new species, an international team of researchers examined the morphometric, behavioral, and genomic evidence of the various orangutan populations. Genomic evidence shows that the new species — isolated at the southern limit of the range occupied by Sumatran orangutans — diverged from other orangutans some 3.4 million years ago, whereas the northern Sumatra and Borneo species separated about 674,000 years ago.

The importance of this finding was quickly recognized, as the estimated 800 individuals live in fragmented habitat spread out over 250,000 acres in forested hillsides with elevations ranging from 1,000 to 4,000 feet.

Size of the new species is similar to other orangutans, with female heights under 4 feet and males under 5 feet. Researchers discuss the unique characteristics of the new species and how it was identified in “The Conversation.” Meanwhile, several conservation groups continue their efforts to save the last orangutans from extinction.

Orangutans are considered great apes — although eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely related to humans.

More photos

Atlantic forest tree

Dinizia jueirana-facao

Brazilian tree // Photo: Gwilym P. Lewis

More than 10 years ago, the biodiversity manager at a forest reserve in Brazil sent taxonomic researchers samples from a large tree that he believed was different from other trees in the region. After much work, the tree was revealed to be a new species of the genus Dinizia, which until last year had been represented by only one species, D. excels.

The new species, Dinizia jueirana-facao, grows up to 130 feet tall and rises majestically above the surrounding canopy of semi-deciduous, riparian trees in Atlantic Forest. The new species is smaller than its closest relative and has been found only in and near to the forest reserve, Reserva Natural Vale in northern Espirito Santo, Brazil. So far, only about 25 individual trees have been found, with about half in the protected area.

Like the large parent tree, its woody fruits are impressive, reaching about 18 inches long.

More than 2,000 species of vertebrate animals live in the Atlantic Forest, including almost 200 endemic species of birds. This forest is home to more than half of the threatened animal species in Brazil. The critical habitat has been severely reduced and fragmented, leaving perhaps 15 percent of what had once been a connected ecosystem of more than 330 million acres.

Read about the discovery and the scientific description of the new tree in Kew Bulletin via Springer.

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Protist: Aquarium to enigma

Ancoracysta twista

Protist // Photo: Denis V. Tiknonenkov

Discovered on brain coral in a tropical aquarium in San Diego, a single-celled protist has challenged scientists to determine its nearest relatives. It does not fit neatly within any known group of organisms, and nobody knows where it may have come from.

Early lineage has been linked to the domain Eukaryota, the highest taxonomic rank, and this new species features a rich mitochondrial genome. Eukaryotes are organisms with cells that have their genetic material bound within a nuclear membrane. Prokaryotes, found in the domains of bacteria and archaea, lack such an organized nucleus.

Eukaryotes include single-celled protists as well as a vast array multi-celled organisms, including animals, plants and fungi.

The new species, named Ancoracysta twista, is a predatory flagellate that uses its whip-like flagella to propel itself through the water. Its harpoon-like organelles, called ancoracysts, can immobilize other protists on which it feeds.

Researchers say the unusually large number of genes in its mitochondrial genome opens a window into the early evolution of eukaryotic organisms. A search for close relatives will be an ongoing challenge following the discovery of this new species at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

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Amphipod: Hunchback creature

Epimeria Quasimodo

Amphipod
Photo: Cédric d’Udekem d’Acoz, ©Royal Belgian Institute

An amphipod, about 2 inches long, has been named Epimeria Quasimodo, after Victor Hugo’s character, Quasimodo the hunchback. Featuring a somewhat humped back, the new species is among 26 new species of amphipods of the genus Epimeria that have been identified in the Southern Ocean.

With incredible spines and vivid colors, the genus Epimeria includes both free-swimming predators and sessile filter feeders, and it has taken on an iconic status among biologists studying the creatures. The genus is abundant in the glacial waters circulating south of the Polar Front, and their crested adornments are reminiscent of mythological dragons, they say.

When a treatment of the genus was published in 2007, many researchers assumed that the species were rather completely known. But, by studying the morphology and DNA evidence, two Belgian investigators demonstrated just how little is known of these spectacular invertebrates.

See Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences

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Baffling Beetle: Camouflaged hitchhiker

Nymphister kronaueri

Hitchhiking beetle // Photo: ©C. von Beeren

A tiny beetle in Costa Rica, newly named Nymphister kronaueri, survives among ants by pretending to be a piece of the ant’s body.

At just 1.5 millimeters, the beetle goes for long travels with army ants, Eciton mexicanum, which never builds permanent nests but instead spends two or three weeks on the move as they capture prey, then lay up in one location for the next two or three weeks.

The hitchhiking beetle can move about and feed while the host colony is stationary, but it must be ready to catch a ride when the ants take off on their next trip.

The beetle’s body is the precise size, shape and color of the abdomen of a worker ant. The beetle uses its mouthparts to grab the skinny portion of the host abdomen and hang on, appearing as a second abdomen. In addition to their appearance, they use chemical signals and other adaptations to avoid becoming prey themselves, but exactly how they fool the ants remains a subject of investigation.

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Heterotrophic Flower: Magnificent moocher

Sciaphila sugimotoi

Symbiotic plant // Photo: Takaomi Sugimoto

Most plants are autotrophic, meaning they feed themselves by capturing solar energy through photosynthesis. A few, like the newly discovered S. sugimotoi, are heterotrophic, meaning they cannot produce their own food and must depend on other organisms.

This new species of plant is symbiotic with a fungus, which provides nutrition, and neither species is harmed during the process. It turns out that this new plant is part of a family, Triuridaceae, made up of individuals that all derive their nutrients from symbiotic fungi, thus they are called mycoheterotrophs.

The new plant, which features a beautiful flower, was discovered on Ishigaki Island in Japan, which has added to its acclaim, since most plants found in Japan have been well documented over a long period of time.

The delicate S. sugimotoi, which grows to just under 4 inches, appears during short flowering times in September and October, producing small blossoms. The species is considered critically endangered, as it has been identified in only two locations on the island where about 50 plants were found growing in an evergreen broadleaf forest. Like other fungal symbionts, the species depends on a stable ecosystem for survival.

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Volcanic Bacterium: Emergent with volcano

Thiolava veneris

Colonizing bacteria
Photo: Miquel Canals, U. of Barcelona, Spain

When the submarine volcano Tagoro erupted off the coast of El Hierro in the Canary Islands in 2011, it abruptly increased the water temperature, decreased the oxygen level and released massive quantities of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, wiping out much of the existing marine ecosystem.

Three years later, scientists found the first living colonizers in this newly deposited area, including a new species of proteobacteria that produces long, hairlike structures composed of bacterial cells within a sheath.

The bacteria formed a massive white mat extending nearly half an acre around the summit of the newly formed Tagoro volcanic cone at depths of about 430 feet. Scientists who studied the bacteria concluded that unique metabolic characteristics allow the bacteria grow under such stark conditions. Early colonies of this newly discovered bacteria could pave the way for successional development of plant and animal communities. The researchers dubbed the filamentous bacterial mat “Venus’ hair” and named the bacteria Thiolava veneris.

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Marsupial Lion: Ferocious fossil

Wakaleo schouteni

Marsupial lion // Illustration: Peter Schouten

About 25 million years ago, a marsupial lion, newly named Wakaleo schouteni, roamed Australia’s open forest habitat in northwestern Queensland.

Scientists from the University of New South Wales recovered fossils in the Riversleigh World Heritage Area in Queensland that came to be associated with a previously unknown marsupial lion.

Weighing about 50 pounds — more or less the size of a Siberian husky dog — this predator spent part of its time in trees. Its teeth suggest that it was not completely reliant on meat but was, rather, an omnivore.

Two species of marsupial lions may have been present during the later Oligocene epoch, which ended with the Miocene 23 million years ago. The other, Wakaleo pitikantensis, was slightly smaller and was identified from teeth and limb bones discovered near Lake Pitikanta in South Australia in 1961.

Evolution of the Australian creatures seemed to follow Cope’s rule — named after American paleontologist Edward Cope — that suggests an increasing body size over time, perhaps because of the ability to eat larger prey and go longer between meals as the climate grew drier and cooler and the plants underwent major changes.

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Cave Beetle: Changes in the dark

Xuedytes bellus

Cave beetle // Photo: Sunbin Huang and Mingyi Tian

A variety of beetles that become adapted to life in the permanent darkness of caves often resemble one another in a suite of characteristics: compact body; elongated, spider-like appendages; and loss of flight wings, eyes and pigmentation. A newly discovered species of beetle in China seems to have taken such changes to an extreme.

These cave-dwelling beetles provide an example of convergent evolution, as unrelated species take on similar characteristics over evolutionary time as they become better adapted to extreme conditions. The new species of ground beetle, less than half an inch long, features a dramatic elongation of its head and prothorax — the body segment immediately behind the head to which the first pair of legs attach.

Xuedytes bellus was discovered in a cave in Du’an, Guangxi Province, China, known for its large number of caves that have become home to the world’s most diverse collection of cave-dwelling ground beetles found in the subfamily Trichinae, family Carabidae. To date, more than 130 species, representing nearly 50 genera, have been described from China.

See research article in ZooKeys

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Green crabs entrenched at Dungeness Spit, but new issues are emerging

Dungeness Spit on the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sequim remains a hot spot for the invasive European green crab, which first showed up in Puget Sound during the fall of 2016.

This small male crab is one of the European green crabs caught last year in traps at Dungeness Spit.
Photo: Allen Pleus

The green crab, one of the most dreaded invasive species in the world, brings with it the potential to destroy shellfish beds and disrupt key habitats essential to native species in Puget Sound.

Thankfully, except for the Dungeness Spit, new findings of green crabs have been almost zero since a massive volunteer trapping effort resumed in April throughout most of Puget Sound.

I do have some additional news about green crabs to share, so please read on for a discussion of these topics:

  • Green crabs on Dungeness Spit
  • New findings on Whidbey Island
  • Where the crabs are NOT coming from
  • New efforts with Canada
  • First scientific paper on the green crab program
  • New assessment tool on the horizon

Green crabs on Dungeness Spit

So far this year, 42 of the invasive crabs have been found on Dungeness Spit, compared to 96 for all of last year, according to Lorenz Sollman, deputy project leader for the Washington Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

European green crabs have been found on Graveyard Spit, the small spit that juts off the main Dungeness Spit.

So far, nobody knows if the first crabs to arrive on the spit are reproducing or if the young ones being found there are new arrivals. Crabs can travel great distances through the water in larval form before they settle down and take on the familiar appearance of a full-grown crab.

“We don’t have any reason to think that they are not reproducing (at Dungeness),” said Emily Grason, Crab Team coordinator for Washington Sea Grant. The Crab Team is a group of volunteers and experts who monitor 54 trapping sites in the region.

Just this morning, Crab Team members found a new green crab at Dungeness Landing County Park, west of the Dungeness River and just outside the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.

“We’ve had our eye on that site, since it’s so close to the Dungeness Spit and assumed it was only a matter of time before one showed up there,” Emilly wrote me in an email.

Meanwhile, in Makah Bay just outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the Pacific Ocean, nearly 400 crabs have been captured in an intensive trapping effort this year alone. The first crab was spotted in the bay last fall. Matthew Nash of the Olympic Peninsula News Group updated the situation this week — although it is Makah Bay, not Neah Bay. The latter, which is technically inside Puget Sound, has not been found to have any green crabs.

New findings on Whidbey Island

At the beginning of this month, one of the most intensive trapping programs yet in Puget Sound was conducted over three days at Lagoon Point on Whidbey Island, where two green crabs were caught on different days last year. Working in deep sticky mud, only one green crab was caught in the enclosed lagoon during the latest effort.

Crab Team leaders Sean McDonald, Kelly Martin and Emily Grason following their three-day trapping effort on Whidbey Island.

“While we might have been happier not to catch any green crab, we are certainly glad that we only found one,” wrote Kelly Martin for the Crab Team Blog. Kelly, the newest member of the Crab Team management group, goes on to talk about the trapping adventure — including her accidental sit-down in the mud.

In a previous blog post, Kelly, who is a graduate student at the University of Washington, introduced herself to readers and talked about her background.

Where the crabs are NOT coming from

It has been suspected that the European green crabs found at Dungeness Spit as well as those on San Juan Island and Padilla Bay may have originated from Sooke Inlet at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, where a large infestation of green crabs has become well established.

After all, Sooke Inlet is physically close to areas in Puget Sound where green crabs have been found, at least when compared to infested areas along the coast. Although a large channel separates the U.S. from Canada, that might not be much of an obstacle for crab larvae, which drift with the currents.

To the surprise of many, a research project involving crab DNA showed that the green crabs in Puget Sound were NOT closely related to those in Sooke. Instead, the crabs at Dungeness Spit came from coastal populations, according to genomics work by Carolyn Tepolt of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The Sooke population is considered genetically isolated and very different, probably because it started some time ago by a small number of crabs that did not mix with others.

Lagoon Point, Whidbey Island: Blue dots are minnow traps; orange dots are larger fukui traps; large orange circles are where two European green crabs were found last year; and the yellow circle is where the one crab was found this year. // Map: Crab Team

At the same time, studies of the tidal currents in the area showed that Sooke was no more likely to be a source of crab larvae than coastal areas. Crab larvae coming from Sooke are likely to be swept toward the ocean, whereas rare conditions called “reversals” can bring larvae from the Washington Coast along the southern shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, according to a study by Elizabeth Brasseale, a graduate student in oceanography at the University of Washington. See the Crab Blog from April 25.

New efforts with Canada

Knowing that Sooke is not the source of the green crabs in Puget Sound changes the dynamic with Canada.

“It was a relief to find out that crabs (from British Columbia) were not inundating our shores,” Emily Grason told me. “If that had been the case, the necessary management action would be to throw everything at Sooke Basin.”

The cost of eradicating green crabs from Sooke would be enormous and probably would not help the situation in the U.S. On the other hand, the Canadians may learn some things from the extensive trapping program taking place in Puget Sound, which seems to be keeping the crab population in check. Sooke may be somewhat of a lost cause, but there could be hope for other B.C. inlets at risk of being invaded.

A cross-boundary task force has been discussing the green crab problem on both sides of the border. Meanwhile, an expert panel at April’s Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference discussed the pros and cons of international cooperation as well as political realities of dealing with the problem. Kelly Martin summarized that session for the Crab Blog on April 27.

First scientific paper on the green crab effort

The first publication addressing Puget Sound’s European green crab invasion documents the early stages of a horrific invasive species while celebrating the collaborations of hundreds of people making detection and control possible, according to Emily. Allen Pleus, coordinator of Washington’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program.

“If you are familiar with Crab Team, you might wonder why this scientific paper, which only covers the findings through the end of 2016, is important,” Emily Allen wrote in the Crab Team Blog. “We have certainly been sharing news about findings through our blog, the media and other outlets.

“So, what does this publication add?” she asked. “This paper will help scientists track how European green crab has spread across the globe. Because of the rigorous review conducted on the paper by multiple experts – and believe me, it was rigorous – the information can be used to inform policy and management of this species, both here, and in other locations.”

As with most scientific papers, the information shared with the world lags behind current events, yet it reaches a depth of information that will be most helpful for those working with European green crabs, invasive species and related subjects.

Here’s the paper: “Citizen science program detects range expansion of the globallyinvasive European green crab in Washington State (USA)” (PDF 1.4 mb) in the publication “Management of Biological Invasions”

New assessment tool on the horizon

Although trapping European green crabs has been effective at locating the early stages of an invasion in Puget Sound, imagine instead taking a water sample and sending it to a lab. After a short wait, a technician using DNA techniques would tell you the likelihood of finding crabs in that location.

This is the ultimate test that I’m imagining as a new effort gets underway to identify invasive species by looking for DNA floating in the water. The technique is known as environmental DNA testing, or simply eDNA, and it is increasingly being used in freshwater to look for the presence of species of interest.

Developing a technique for saltwater adds the complexity of tides and currents moving DNA around, chemical breakdown of DNA, and determining if the DNA signal is coming from the larval form of a species or reproductive adults.

Alison Watts, an environmental engineer at the University of New Hampshire, has received a two-year, $500,000 grant to study eDNA in marine estuaries. She is collaborating with researchers at sample sites in Oregon, Maine and New Hampshire. The idea is to use eDNA techniques alongside traditional methods of biological sampling, such as seining, trapping and electrofishing.

The eDNA samples undergo both “meta-barcoding,” which can identify DNA from multiple species in a single sample, and single-species PCR amplification, which is designed to test for the presence or absence of a target species, Alison told me.

The eDNA techniques might provide an early warning of green crabs — say in South Puget Sound, where they have not been found before — but it would not provide information about the number of crabs or their physical conditions.

“We are developing and testing the methods this summer, then will validate and develop guidance materials next summer,” she said in an email. “Once the initial methods are developed, it is our hope that they will be useful for a range of applications, including early detection of green crabs or identifying their range within a system.”

For information about the grant, check out:

Hood Canal changes color again, thanks to plankton bloom

Hood Canal has changed colors again, shifting to shades of bimini green, as it did in 2016, when satellite photos showed the canal standing out starkly among all other waters in the Northwest.

Hood Canal has changed colors as a result of a plankton bloom, as shown in this aerial photo taken in Northern Hood Canal.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Washington Ecology

The color change is caused by a bloom of a specific type of plankton called a coccolithophore, which shows up in nutrient-poor waters. The single-celled organism produces shells made of calcite, which reflect light to produce the unusual color.

Observers are now waiting for the clouds to depart, so we can get new satellite images of the green waters.

The plankton bloom started June 1 in Quilcene and Dabob bays, according to Teri King of Washington Sea Grant. It came about a week earlier than last year and has since spread through Hood Canal. Observers in the Seabeck area reported seeing the bloom the past few days. The bimini green color, which gets its name from an island in the Bahamas, is especially noticeable when the sun comes out.

Coccolithophores are known for dominating other phytoplankton when there is a shortage of nutrients, such as nitrogen, in the water. We usually get an influx of nutrients when it rains, so I’m not sure how long the bloom may last. I’m told, however, that the white calcite shells, called coccoliths, can stick around after the organism has died, although they eventually sink to the bottom.

Electron microscope image of plankton Emiliania huxleyi

The species of coccolithophore in Hood Canal is believed to be Emiliania huxleyi, shown in the microscopic photo on this page. They don’t produce any known toxins harmful to people or marine life, experts say, and they can be eaten by small fish and larger zooplankton.

For additional information, click to the following:

Amusing Monday: Duck paintings help support wetland conservation

Artists possess the creative power to portray a simple bird — say a male mallard duck — in a multitude of ways, something I never really appreciated until I reviewed hundreds of duck portraits in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest.

The acrylic painting of mallard ducks by Bob Hautman of Delano, Minn., took first place in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. // Photo: USFWS

Judges in the annual contest seem to prefer a super-realistic style. Each year, the winning entry is used to create a federal duck stamp, which are the stamps that waterfowl hunters must carry while hunting. They are also purchased by many people who care about conservation.

Details in the duck portraits are important, but it is also interesting to observe the landscapes that the artists place in the backgrounds and foregrounds of their pictures. Take a look at the Flickr page where 215 entries are shown in the latest contest sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eligible species for this year’s contest were the mallard, gadwall, cinnamon teal, blue-winged teal and harlequin duck.

The acrylic painting of a cinnamon teal by Greg Alexander of Ashland, Wis., took second place in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. // Photo: USFWS

The winning entry for this year’s duck stamp was submitted by Bob Hautman of Delano, Minn., whose acrylic painting shows a pair of mallards in flight. This is Bob’s third winning entry, after two previous paintings were turned into stamps in 1997 and 2001.

Hautman comes from an artist family. His brothers, Jim and Joe, have each won the same contest five times.

“Congratulations to Bob Hautman on his win today,” said Greg Sheehan, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service when the winners were announced last fall. “He is part of a collection of talented wildlife artists whose work has helped conserve habitat not just for waterfowl, but for a vast diversity of wildlife.”

The oil painting of a blue-winged teal by Christine Clayton of Sidney, Ohio, took third place in the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. // Photo: USFWS

The Federal Duck Stamp, which will go on sale later this month, sells for $25. Proceeds, which total about $40 million a year, go for protecting wetland habitats in national wildlife refuges across the country.

Second place was an acrylic painting of a cinnamon teal by Greg Alexander of Ashland, Wis., and third place was an oil painting of a blue-winged teal by Christine Clayton of Sidney, Ohio.

By the way, Christine was the third-place winner of the National Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest in 2000, when at age 17 she entered a painting of a northern pintail.

The acrylic painting of an emperor goose by Rayen Kang of Johns Creek, Ga., took first place in the Junior Duck Stamp Art Contest. // Photo: USFWS

The winner of this year’s junior contest is Rayen Kang of Johns Creek, Ga., who submitted an acrylic painting of an emperor goose. Second place went to Daniel Billings, 17, of Gallatin, Mo., who painted a redhead in oil. Third place went to Larissa Weber, 17, of Anderson, Ind., who painted trumpeter swans in acrylic.

The Federal Junior Duck Stamp Conservation and Design Program encourages students from kindergarten through high school to explore their natural world, learning about biology and wildlife management. A $5 Junior Duck Stamp is purchased by collectors, with revenue going to support environmental education.

Orange plankton bloom is not a good sign for ecological health

If you notice an orange tint to the waters of Central Puget Sound, it’s not your imagination. It is a dense plankton bloom dominated by the dinoflagellate Noctiluca scintillans.

Noctiluca scintillans bloom comes ashore at Saltwater State Park in Des Moines on Monday of this week.
Video: Washington Department of Ecology

Noctiluca is often seen in some numbers at this time of year, but it may be a bit more intense this time around, according to Christopher Krembs, an oceanographer with the Washington Department of Ecology. Christopher tells me that the orange color may stick around awhile.

The orange-colored species does not produce any toxins found to be harmful to humans, but it is not exactly a friendly organism either. It often shows up in marine waters that are out of balance with nutrients or impaired in some other way. It can gobble up other plankton that feed tiny fish and other creatures, but it does not seem to provide a food supply that interests very many species — probably because of its ammonia content. Consequently, Noctiluca is often referred to as a “dead end” in the food web.

A plankton bloom at the north end of Vashon Island gets a distinct edge from the tidal currents flowing through Colvos Passage.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Ecology

I had a lot of discussions with Christopher and other plankton biologists earlier this year while writing a series of articles about the importance of plankton to the entire Puget Sound food web — right up to orcas. A primary point to the series was to describe how excessive nitrogen from human sources may be upsetting the balance in Puget Sound.

For a deeper dive into plankton, please take a look at this package of stories in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound titled “Nutrient Pollution,” with a special focus on plankton in the second story in this list:

Christopher Krembs manages a program that assesses water conditions throughout Puget Sound, including aerial views of the surface waters, where he often observes different types of plankton, as well as jellyfish and other creatures that provide clues to water quality. See the webpage Eyes Over Puget Sound, where he expects to post his latest report next week.

The waters in Budd Inlet turned green from a plankton bloom near Olympia.
Photo: Eyes Over Puget Sound, Ecology

His flight on Monday revealed intense blooms of Noctiluca throughout Central Puget Sound, including the waters near Vashon Island.

“What is striking is the very high phytoplankton biomass in Central Sound and not so much in South Sound and other places from the air,” Christopher said in an email. “The jury is still out when the monitoring data come in.”

He’s not sure why the Noctiluca bloom is occurring right now. May was a record-dry month, he noted, and rain-fed rivers are running low. On the other hand, snow-fed rivers are running fairly high, while the mighty Fraser River in British Columbia has dropped down from its previous levels.

Rivers can bring nitrogen down from the uplands to feed the phytoplankton, which capture the energy of the sun to grow and multiply rapidly.

As Christopher points out, we need more studies focused on the base of the food web, which supports our salmon populations and ultimately thousands of species in and around Puget Sound. Clues that could help us understand how to recover Puget Sound are likely to be hidden in the water, where basic biological responses result from water chemistry and circulation patterns throughout Puget Sound.

As a result of the current Noctiluca bloom, the Department of Ecology has posted a discussion as part of its “Puget Sound Nutrient Watch” series on the blog ECOconnect. Efforts to reduce nutrient loading in Puget Sound are being discussed in a workgroup called the Puget Sound Nutrient Forum, which anyone can follow online or in person.

World ocean researcher traces his interests back to Puget Sound

Marine geologist Peter Harris, a 1976 graduate of North Kitsap High School, has been awarded the prestigious Francis P. Shepard Medal for Sustained Excellence in Marine Geology.

Peter Harris

The annual award, from the Society for Sedimentary Geology, recognizes Peter’s 30 years of research accomplishments — “from the polar to the tropical,” as the judges described it — including his discovery of new coral reefs off Australia.

Also noteworthy is his work documenting the margins of the Antarctic continent; describing the prehistoric formation of the Fly River Delta in Papua New Guinea; and explaining changes in the “Antarctic bottom water,” a dense water mass surrounding Antarctica. Peter has published more than 100 research papers in scientific journals.

After an awards ceremony in Salt Lake City, Utah, Peter returned last week to Kitsap County, where he spoke to me about his current efforts on upcoming state-of-the-environment report for the United Nations. He is working on an oceans chapter for the “Sixth Global Environmental Outlook,” known as GEO-6, which will be used to advance environmental policies around the world.

“There are so many environmental issues in the ocean,” he told me, “but we were asked to identify three things that are the most urgent.”

The last time I spoke to Peter was in 2004 (Kitsap Sun, Jan 31,2004) when he was working for Geoscience Australia and presented his latest findings on coral reefs to audiences in Kingston and Poulsbo. His dad, Alfred Harris, still lives in Poulsbo, while his mom, Sydney Cotton, lives in Silverdale.

For the past four years, Peter has been working in Norway as managing director at GRID-Arendal, a nonprofit foundation that gathers and synthesizes scientific information to help decision-makers. He heads a staff of about 30 people, including experts from various countries.

By the way, GRID stands for Global Resource Information Database, and Arendal is a community about the size of Bremerton, where Peter has purchased a home and agreed to stay on with GRID another four years.

I asked him what his team concluded about the three biggest problems facing the world’s oceans. He said the group, after much consideration, decided that what rose to the top —above ocean acidification, chemical contamination, noise pollution and others — were coral reefs, plastics and overfishing.

“The world is past the tipping point for coral reefs,” he said. “We are past the point where the corals are under stress. They will keep dying off.”

Peter Harris at sea in 2011

Warm water causes the coral colonies to reject their symbiotic algae, leaving them white in a process called coral “bleaching.” They can recover if cooler water returns and there is enough time between bleaching events, he said. But it takes about 10 years for corals to recover, and the Great Barrier Reef has undergone bleaching for three years in a row. Vast areas may never recover.

Coral reefs provide habitats for huge numbers of marine species, and their loss will be an environmental catastrophe brought about by climate change. Even if humans eventually reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the ecological diversity may be lost in many areas.

“The only solution is to try to preserve coral reefs in locations where they are less susceptible,” Peter said.

The second ocean problem Peter mentioned was plastic pollution.

“More and more people are using more and more plastic,” he said, and some of it eventually reaches the ocean. It can come from stormwater, litter, fishing activities, garbage picked up by the wind and outright dumping. Much of it comes from developing countries with inadequate waste-treatment systems.

“It seems like many people and countries see this as a problem that can be addressed, like the ozone problem,” he said. “It all comes down to how you deal with plastic in your own life.”

The third problem he mentioned was overfishing, which has the potential to drive some populations to the brink of extinction.

While some countries, such as the U.S. and Canada, are doing much better in managing their fisheries, many developing countries are stuck in a cycle of needing more fish to feed a hungry population while generating revenue from fisheries, he said. Taking more and more fish from the ocean will lead to population collapse.

Some of the greatest concerns are on the high seas, where there is little control over what anyone does, he said. Some fishermen are targeting seamounts, where large numbers of various fish species congregate.

“When fishermen find a good spot out in the ocean it is usually a spawning aggregation,” he said, adding that removing those fish can affect growth of entire populations.

“One solution is to put a moratorium on high seas fishing altogether,” he said, adding that it would take a major international effort, but people should recognize that the high seas is the least productive part of the ocean.

GEO-6, the U.N. report on the world environment, is scheduled for publication before the end of the year.

Through GRID-Arendal, Peter keeps in touch with many environmental issues, which can be reviewed on the foundation’s “Activities” page as well as its “Publications” and “Graphics” pages.

Peter’s world travels are as interesting as his research. After graduating from North Kitsap High School in 1976, he went on to receive an oceanography degree from the University of Washington in 1981.

“I think I have always had an interest in the ocean,” he said, noting that his father built sailboats as a hobby and raced them on Puget Sound.

At the age of 12, he took a course at the Poulsbo Marine Science Center (now SEA Discovery Center). After that, he took advantage of every opportunity to visit the marine animals in tanks at the center and to go out on tide-pool walks on Puget Sound.

“I was really captured by the image of how this place was formed,” he said. “I came to understand that there is a reason for everything you see. Puget Sound was once under an ice sheet. The gravel is glacial till. Suddenly it all starts to make sense.”

While other places, such as Chile and Norway, have waterways that look similar to Puget Sound, they often lie over rocky outcroppings rather than gravelly substrate. Puget Sound is truly unique, he added.

“When you travel the world, you realize how rare and precious it is,” he said. “There are no other places like it.”

At the UW, one of Peter’s professors, Dick Sternberg, convinced him to do his graduate work at the University of Wales in Great Britain, where he could work under the late Michael Collins, co-editor with Sternberg of the journal “Continental Shelf Research.”

While there, Peter met his future wife Ellen, an Australian native, and he decided to take a job at the University of Sydney, where he taught oceanography and conducted research on the Great Barrier Reef. When he joined the Australian government, he was required to become an Australian citizen, though he maintained his American citizenship. He worked for Geoscience Australia for 20 years, becoming head of the Antarctic marine and coastal programs, before moving to Norway in 2014.

He and his wife have three grown children, two still living in Australia. Eleri, the oldest, recently took a job with the online political cartoon magazine “The Nib” in Portland, Ore. With a grandchild now on the way, Peter says he has even more reasons to return to the Northwest.

Amusing Monday: Wildlife cameras keep advancing in technology

There’s nothing like spending some relaxing time in a natural environment. It does a body good — mentally and physically — to go into new or familiar surroundings while basking in the full-bodied sights and sounds of a forest, a stream or a marine shoreline.

We are fortunate in the Puget Sound region to have easy and free (or low-cost) access to all sorts of natural places. If we are lucky, we may catch a glimpse of wildlife and incorporate the sighting into our memory of that place.

What we don’t normally see, however, are the natural behaviors of wildlife away from people, because the presence of humans often changes what they are doing — nor would we want to impose on their lives any more than we already do.

The best nature photographers learn how to stay out of the way, often spending hours, days or weeks waiting quietly to capture an amazing image of an animal or group of animals worthy of sharing with the rest of us.

I’m taking a long-winded approach to make a point about live wildlife videos, brought to a wide Internet audience by placing cameras in strategic locations — often before the animals arrive. All sorts of creatures are left to do their own things as the cameras spy on their activities. While you might not experience the smell of a great blue heron nest by sitting in front of your computer, it is great to know that you can watch all day long without disturbing the animals.

I sometimes wonder what the animals would do if they knew they were being watched. Would they put on a show, mug for the camera or just go and hide somewhere else? For the sake of the viewer and the wildlife, it is better for us to stay out of sight.

The technology for live video cameras has gotten better and better. The images sent over the Internet are generally crisper than ever before, and many places use microphones to pick up the sounds. Meanwhile, the number of live feeds has expanded to more places all over the world, not just in zoos and aquariums. A few cameras have been shut down for lack of money to maintain them.

Explore.org, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, has become the go-to website for connecting people with animals via live webcams. As I write this, the number of live video feeds listed on the website totals 161, although the number changes frequently as a result of shifts in animal activity as well as technical issues. Scroll down below the video player for text messaging related to each camera as well as notes from video operators and online observers. Those who maintain and sponsor the specific camera networks are recognized.

The Explore.org website has a fairly consistent format from one camera to the next. Functions allow viewers to take and save snapshots of an interesting scene. Instructions on that feature and many other features are provided in a 30-page “Website Handbook” (PDF 7.2 mb).

The first video on this page shows a bald eagle nest near a trout hatchery in Decorah, Iowa. The young eagles are now nine weeks old and have grown to the size of their mother, who is often gone from the nest, but she brings back plenty of food, according to observers.

The second video is mounted in an ideal location to watch marine mammals in Blackney Pass in British Columbia. The site is the headquarters of OrcaLab, managed by Paul Spong and Helena Symonds on Hanson Island. This is one of the primary travel routes for Northern Resident killer whales as they make their way through Johnstone Strait. When night approaches, this location provides a view of some spectacular sunsets.

Chesapeake Conservancy operates several wildlife cameras, including the Osprey Cam featured in the third video. Observers have been following the activities of the nesting pair, Tom and Audrey, who have been at the site on Maryland’s eastern shore since 2009. Audrey laid three eggs this year. One was not viable, but the other two chicks hatched about a week apart in late May.

For a bird of a different character, check out the Puffin Cam at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Maine, shown in the fourth video within a burrow. Audubon’s Project Puffin operates a field station on the island where the puffins on the island were wiped out by hunting in 1887. The birds were reintroduced by bringing puffins from Newfoundland and now more than 50 pairs nest on the island. Four live videos are set up to show the puffins.

Always great to watch are the brown bears at Brooks Falls in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, shown in the last video on this page. The bears come down to the falls to catch salmon trying to make their way upstream. The bears’ fishing activity reaches its peak in July or August. Observers say they occasionally catch sight of a wolf or a moose.

Other great wildlife cams:

Europe may soon launch wide-ranging solutions to plastic pollution

Taking on the enormous problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, the European Union is on track to ban single-use items made of plastic, while communities in Washington state slowly adopt bans on plastic bags.

Straws are listed as a problem plastic.
Photo: Horia Varlan, Wikimedia Commons

The European Commission is targeting specific plastic products that constitute 70 percent of the items found among marine debris lost in the sea and along the shoreline. Cotton swabs, plastic cutlery, plates, drinking cups and straws are among the items that would be banned outright, because non-plastic alternatives are available.

The proposal announced this week goes well beyond those items, however, calling for a 90-percent reduction in plastic drink-bottle waste, possibly through a deposit system. In addition, plans are underway for new waste-disposal programs, ongoing cleanups, and educational efforts designed to reduce the purchase of and encourage the proper disposal of food containers, plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, wet wipes, balloons and fishing gear. Manufacturers of plastic products would help fund those various programs, according to the proposal.

See news releases and related documents from the European Commission:

In 2015, the E.U. took action to ban most plastic bags with the E.U. Plastic Bags Directive (PDF 233 kb).

The new legislation, which must be approved by the E.U Parliament and Council, goes far beyond anything being proposed in the United States, but it seems that awareness of the marine debris problem has been growing among Americans.

The June issue of National Geographic magazine is devoted to the marine debris problem in a package of stories called “Planet or Plastic?”

“Nine million tons of plastic waste winds up in the ocean each year,” writes National Geographic reporter Laura Parker, who reports that ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Among the losses are 700 different species, including endangered species.

“Some are harmed visibly — strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings,” Parker said. “Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across.

“On Hawaii’s Big Island, on a beach that seemingly should have been pristine — no paved road leads to it — I walked ankle-deep through microplastics,” she said. “They crunched like Rice Krispies under my feet. After that, I could understand why some people see ocean plastic as a looming catastrophe, worth mentioning in the same breath as climate change.”

Unlike climate change, there are no “ocean trash deniers” — at least not so far, Parker notes. “To do something about it, we don’t have to remake our planet’s entire energy system.”

I believe Parker’s story could be eye-opening for many people. National Geographic is certainly concerned about the plastics problem, as the magazine launches a multi-year campaign against plastics starting tomorrow. The magazine will take steps itself, first by eliminating its plastic mailing wrapper. The organization is encouraging everyone to take a pledge to reduce plastic waste. Other organizations leading the charge include the Plastic Pollution Coaliton, which even built a page around the NatGeo information.

While there is no legislation to impose a nationwide ban on plastics, California and Hawaii have statewide bans on plastic grocery bags and are looking at other items. (See Monday’s L.A. Times.) Many local communities across the country have taken various actions. In Washington state, King and Thurston counties have banned plastic bags, and the idea is under consideration throughout Kitsap County, where the city of Bainbridge Island has imposed such a ban.

Kitsap Sun reporter Chris Henry does a nice job outlining the situation in Kitsap, where county leaders would like to see the ban imposed by all city governments at the same time a new county ban goes into effect — perhaps with some action by the end of this year. Port Orchard officials held a town hall forum on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

To learn more about plastic pollution in Puget Sound, check out the slideshows and videos from last year’s Plastics Summit coordinated by Zero Waste Washington.

With regard to the European Union, the proposal is expected to reduce Europe’s littering by more than half for the 10 single-use items targeted by the proposal. The monetary savings in environmental damages is estimated at 22 billion Euros — or about $26 billion in U.S. dollars — by 2030. Consumer savings is estimated at $6.5 billion Euros — or $7.6 billion. Carbon emissions are expected to be reduced by an equivalent 3.4 million tonnes — or 3.7 million U.S. tons — in that time frame. (See news release from the E.U.)

Targeted items are cotton buds (swabs); cutlery, plates, straws and stirrers; sticks for balloons and reduction of balloon waste; food take-out containers; drink cups; beverage bottles; cigarette butts; bags; wrappers for candy, cookies, etc.; and wipes and sanitary products. Fishing gear is on a separate action list.

Frans Timmermans, first vice president of the European Commission, stressed the importance of European nations working together for solutions, including banning some products, finding new alternatives for others and getting people to properly dispose of plastic to avoid pollution. He wants the E.U. to lead the way in cleaning up the world’s oceans, and he downplayed any inconvenience that people may experience.

“You can still organize a picnic, drink a cocktail and clean your ears, just like before,” he was quoted as saying in a New York Times article. “And you get the added bonus that when you do so, you can have a clear conscience about the environmental impact of your actions.”