Marine Biologists Take to the Skies

orcadroneIn a perfect union of science and technology, marine biologists took to the skies this summer to investigate the effects of salmon fisheries on the federally Endangered southern resident killer whale population, one of the four resident communities in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. The concept of using Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) – aka drones – to study killer whale health was first conceived by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard from the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Research Program and Dr. John Durban from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Centre after the two attended several workshops on salmon fisheries and killer whales. Together with Dr. Holly Fearnbach from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Centre, NOAA biologist Wayne Perryman, and Don Leroi of Aerial Imaging Solutions, the researchers set about testing the concept that killer whale health could be ascertained from an individual whale’s width-to-length ratio, which might show slight changes in shape and condition.

Where previous aerial imagery could only be collected by helicopter at heights of as much as 800 feet (to avoid disturbing the whales), the use of drones allowed researchers to collect higher resolution imagery at closer distances of as little as 100 feet. This being a good Chinook year, the researchers found that while both the northern and southern resident killer whale populations were generally fit, malnourished whales could be distinguished from the air well before they showed signs of ‘peanut head’, a condition of severe malnourishment that manifests as an indentation that develops behind the blowhole from which afflicted whales rarely recover. Of note were sightings of pregnant females (which showed as visibly pear-shaped from the air); the natural loss of two northern resident whales, the older A37 as well as I63, a possibly sick female that had lost a newborn calf earlier in the year; and the opportunity to inspect a young female that had been caught underwater in a gill net before she was cut loose half an hour later for trauma or residual gear.

You can read more about the study and their findings on Barrett-Lennard’s blog, here.



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The Shirt Off My Back – Redbubble

The dog days of summer got you down? Beat the heat with a swanky t-shirt. This natural selection of nature-themed tee’s comes to you from Redbubble:

Where to find them ::  Bodega Bay Bird Sanctuary {LINK} :: Vintage California Republic {LINK} :: Oregon {LINK} :: Jackalope {LINK} :: Strange Prey {LINK} :: Jackalope Crossing {LINK} :: Walden {LINK} ::


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Swinhoe’s Softshell Turtle: Captive Breeding Program Update

The annals and magazine of natural history : zoology, botany, anGiven that there are only four of the world’s rarest freshwater turtle, Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtle’s (Rafetus swinhoei), known to exist in the wild or captivity today, the news this fall from the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program that their male may be infertile has forced researchers to reconsider the program’s future.

Not only is it the rarest freshwater turtle species, Swinhoe’s softshell turtle is also famous for it role in Vietnamese legend as the fabled Sword Lake Turtle, which inhabits Hoàn Kiếm Lake (“The Lake of the Returned Sword”) in Hanoi, Vietnam. But of the handful of Swinhoe’s softshell turtles known to scientists to exist in the wild or captivity in recent years, five have died since the 1990s, leaving only four remaining: one in Hoàn Kiếm Lake, one in the wild in Đồng Mỏ Lake west of Hanoi, and two in captivity, the latter now both part of the Suzhou Zoo’s captive breeding program.

Since 2008, when the Changsha Zoo’s female, “China Girl,” was relocated to Suzhou, scientists at Suzhou Zoo have undertaken a captive breeding program with their older male turtle. But despite repeated bouts of courtship displays and mating between the pair in the years since, the resulting eggs – this year’s, too – have failed to hatch. Remediative actions to date, including steps to improve their diet by constructing a glass wall to prevent visitors from tossing junk food into their inclosure, provisioning the pair with a more natural diet (e.g. whole shrimp, freshwater crayfish, fishes, freshwater snails, frogs, quail, pigeons), and redesigning their enclosure to allow the pair more time together, have proven unsuccessful.

This fall with the support of the Turtle Survival Alliance, Kaitlin Croyle, a research assistant with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, visited the Suzhou Zoo to remove the yolk membranes of fresh laid eggs and examine them microscopically for sperm, a technique known as ovo sperm detection. Croyle was unable to detect sperm, confirming what many have long suspected, that the male is likely infertile.

Despite this setback, with the permission of Chinese officials Rafetus stakeholders are instead exploring the option of artificial insemination. But to do so, they need a new male Swinhoe’s softshell turtle. To this end, herpetologist Gerald Kuchling is following up on anecdotal observations of possible Swinhoe’s in the Red River in Yunnan Province, China. There, Dr. Kuchling and Dr. Rao Dingqi at the Kunming Institute of Zoology are using collapsible “cathedral traps” designed to trap deep waters, but which are also buoyant enough to allow turtles to surface and breath. Unfortunately, scientists aren’t the only ones interested in catching Swinhoe’s soft-shell turtles. Locals and fisherman see the turtles as food. According to an August 2014 update by Kuchling in the Turtle Survival Alliance’s magazine, Turtle Survival, “There is a real danger that the last wild R. swinhoei in China could end up at a banquet rather than in a breeding program.”

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The Wildlife Confessional

image003Call for Submissions

The Western Section of The Wildlife Society is excited to announce a call for submissions for consideration in The Wildlife Confessional, an anthology of stories by wildlife professionals about their adventures, misadventures, revelations, reflections, mishaps, and pivotal experiences in the field.

In its finished form, The Wildlife Confessional will serve three primary purposes: (1) to record the oral histories, memories, and experiences of wildlife professionals in a way that promotes collegiality and camaraderie, (2) as a recruiting tool to educate and attract students to enter the field of wildlife biology and join The Wildlife Society, and (3) to apply money raised through book sales to support student involvement in the society by funding scholarships, grants, and training opportunities.

The Wildlife Confessional will endeavor to show the humor and poignancy in the day-to-day adventures that sometimes define and enlighten us or that, sometimes, we’d rather forget.

Submissions Guidelines

Who Can Submit: Anyone in the wildlife profession (wildlife biologists, game wardens, land managers, researchers, students) with a good wildlife story to tell. If you’ve told – or been told – a good yarn over a campfire or a cold beer or a long car ride… yep, *those* are the stories we’re looking for. Now’s the time to put your story on paper, or to nudge that old-timer collecting dust in the corner office to tell theirs…

Subject Matter: Submissions can be humorous, reflective, poignant, inspirational, but should ultimately embody professionalism and a respect for the natural world; submissions should be non-fiction, but should *not* be technical or how-to in nature.

Submittal Deadline: Submissions must be received no later than May 15, 2015.

To Learn More:

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The Pond Turtle in the Pool, Part II: The Release

It’s been said time heals all wounds, but there’s no provision in that proverb to address spray paint. The slash of orange on the carapace of the western pond turtle I had helped rescue from a neighborhood swimming pool earlier this year was like a bull’s eye, sure to mark her unreleasable – or so I thought when I brought her to the Lindsay Wildlife Museum for treatment (read about it here). The turtle in question, an adult female, had been through the ringer: the pads of all four limbs cut and raw, missing claws on each outermost digit, a laceration on one hind leg, her tail-tip necrotic and dangling, and that damned orange spray paint. Over the next few weeks, I called every few days to check on her status. Within a week of admission, the turtle had been moved to a turtle tank and was taking chunks of fingerling trout. But despite her recuperation, the paint weighed heavy on my mind.

And so it was that when an email appeared in my inbox two months later, I was surprised to learn the turtle had received a clean bill of health. The only thing missing (besides the turtle’s tail) was a suitable release site. After reconnoitering several neighborhood creeks, each no more than a trickle in the drought, I reached out to the staff at Save Mount Diablo to see if there was any pond within their 110,000-acre inventory of preserved lands that was still holding water this late in the year.

And there was.

The Big Bend property, one of Save Mount Diablo’s newest land acquisitions on the east side of Mount Diablo acquired in an online auction earlier this year, is an unassuming parcel in Eastern Contra Costa County that borders Marsh Creek. The land has been ridden hard, first as a golf course, later as a pasture for up to 50 to 60 horses at a time. But there’s a sizable pond in the bend, and George Phillips, land conservation manager for Save Mount Diablo who’d been pivotal in green-lighting the release, assured me turtles had been sighted here not too long ago.

Wending my way east along Marsh Creek Road now in late August, I miss the driveway and have to creep backwards along the gravel shoulder until I can nose into the hidden driveway. At the end of the rutted drive, I cross over the sorry excuse of a golf course to join today’s release team. Phillips is talking with Lindsay Wildlife Museum wildlife rehabilitation technician Eugenie Riberi. At Riberi’s feet is a cardboard pet carrier. Phillips points across the baked golf course to our destination. This drought year, the Big Bend pond is the only one of three possible ponds in the neighborhood on Save Mount Diablo’s lands with standing water.

With pleasantries behind us, we hoof it across the rough to scout out the release site. The pond turns out to be a sizable scrape in the ground scooped out by a previous owner. As we crest the embankment overlooking the water, we hear a plop! Something has tumbled into the pond to take cover beneath a protective skin of duckweed. Even though it’s late summer, at 8:30 in the morning the sun is still struggling to overtop Mount Diablo and the phalanx of cottonwoods hemming us in. Scanning the pond surface for signs of an emergent nose, or outstretched logs for an early recumbent riser, we see nary a ripple. If the elusive plop! was a basking turtle, it had been an early riser indeed.

The invasive duckweed and a discarded tire are unfortunate reminders of the property’s orphan ancestry. But what’s important is that the pond shows all the qualities of good turtle habitat: emergent vegetation and woody debris upon which to bask, a complexity of water depths which provide nursery grounds for hatchlings in the shallows and foraging habitat and escape cover in the murky depths for adults, and low-lying grassy upland habitat for females to nest. And when we double back toward a stretch of shoreline with an easy approach to the water’s edge, we’re rewarded by a glimpse of a single turtle snout watching us from dead-center in the pond’s marrows.

As Phillips kneels at the waterline to fish a plastic cup out of the water, he scares fingerling Sierran tree frogs from the pocked muddy bank. Riberi pops the top of the pet carrier, and we all take a step forward to peer into the newspaper-lined box. Suddenly the center of attention, the turtle inside begins clambering about as if reminded of the need to protest her imprisonment. Gone now is the orange spray paint that graffitied her shell two months ago. Now, even dry, the marbling on her shell glows in the blemished dawn light. This new un-paint job is thanks to wildlife rehabilitation technician Marianne Dominguez who – realizing that the loud, look-at-me-I’m-over-here paint was standing in the way of the turtle’s release – tackled the tattoo with some warm water and woven gauze and buffed the shell clean.

Up close, it’s apparent how well the turtle has healed. Where there were once angry red abrasions on the pads of her fore- and hind-limbs, the skin has healed over pink and clean. Her tail, dulled to a nub where the necrotic tissue was clipped off, is nevertheless none the worse for wear. She’ll wear these new scars like she’s worn the ones that have long riddled her shell, another badge or two to mark the last – but probably not the last – bump along life’s dusty road. But her skin has healed, and her shell, that cumbersome body armor nicked by tooth and claw and buffed by water and earth, has thus far served its purpose.

This turtle is one of the largest western pond turtles I’ve handled over the years. As I’m measuring the straight-line lengths of her carapace and plastron, the turtle takes this quiet moment to dutifully pee on me. Pee is the western pond turtle’s last offensive strike. Like the jet of water spurted from a trick lapel flower, turtles rely on the element of surprise (and for some, the bonus ‘ick’ factor) on the chance a predator or too-curious human will unceremoniously release them, giving them time to escape. This turtle in particular has earned herself a reputation during her rehabilitation and recovery at the Lindsay Wildlife Museum’s wildlife hospital. Her case history notes “copious urination during exam” upon admission, followed by “hosed down the room with urine unexpectedly.” A few days later, one forward-thinking rehabber warns their colleagues, “Note: this turtle will draw large amounts of water into her cloaca and spray it as a weapon: direct hind end away from people.”

Having been peed on more times than I can count (by turtles, dare I add), I instinctively aim her away from my face and cover her rear quarters as automatically as I once had when changing my son’s diapers. (In both cases, I’ve learned the hard way.) With equivalent plastron (bottom) and carapace (top) shell lengths of 7 inches each, she won’t break any records at the county fair, but she is nevertheless a hale and hearty specimen considering that the average adult western pond turtle today attains carapace lengths of no more than 6 ½ inches, with 7 ¾ to 8 ¾ inches being the upper limits. After a second bout of peeing (and another deft deflection), I take a moment to scratch away some stray fleck of paint. It’s time for the release.

When Riberi sets her down on the shoreline, the turtle beelines for the water’s edge. Moments after the turtle plunges into the water, she dips her head under and then out of the water as if worming her way into a turtleneck sweater, feeling the lap of cool water against her scaly skin. She works her way deeper in, but only a few feet from shore until the water comes close to wetting the dome of her shell. And there, inexplicably, she stops and turns ever so slightly. To watch us, as if to question whether we made a mistake in letting her go. Considering her long journey here, taken from a wildlife rehabilitator from the wildlife hospital from my bathtub from a Coleman ice chest from a backyard swimming pool from the unknown pivotal event that plucked her from the wild who-knows-how-long-ago, this appears to be an unexpected turn of events.

The turtle’s pause somehow seems like approbation. As she watches us watching her watch us, Riberi notices a second, resident turtle – a male – peeking out beneath a hood of duckweed five feet away, come to see what the commotion is all about. This seems as good a time as any to bow out, and we do. On our way out, this time when we pass where the mysterious plop! took place, I see two western pond turtles on a log. The first has already been baked dry by the sun, the second is gracelessly dragging its cumbersome body armor onto a sunny spot next door.

When you think about all the time and people it took to release this one turtle – the Lindsay Wildlife Museum’s rehabilitation staff, veterinarians, and hospital volunteers; California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists; Save Mount Diablo staff; myself and my wife (the photographer); and the thoughtful family who plucked her out of their swimming pool to begin with (not to mention the medical bill) – a cynic might ask if it was worth all that time and money to save a single turtle.

That’s one way to look at.

Or, you could ask instead how the collective time of so many well-meaning souls might otherwise have been spent if someone had simply left the turtle in the wild to begin with.

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