Kiss Your Ash Goodbye…No, Really!

Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis)

Way back in 2009 I wrote a blog about Emerald Ash Borer at a time when it was becoming clear it would indeed break out of attempted containment areas in the Mid-west and spread across the east. Well, since then we’ve watched it move inexorably towards Rhode Island and now it is here. Rhode Island DEM announced today that Emerald Ash Borer has been detected in Rhode Island at at least one site.

Emerald Ash Borer or EAB (Agrilus planipennis [Fairmaire]) is a beetle of the Buprestidae family, commonly known as the metallic wood boring beetles. Generally, the adult beetle lays eggs in or under the bark of trees and the larvae feed on the sapwood under the bark. They pupate in galleries in the wood and emerge through holes in the bark. They do serious damage to the tree which, after several efforts to sprout new branches, will die.

People who collect insects to look at (as opposed to those who collect them for scientific purposes) think Buprestidae are the bomb because they are (especially in the tropics) shiny, colorful, and sometimes have funky tufts. Also, they are mostly diurnal (active in the day), which means they tend to be wary and fast (hard to collect) and hence less well represented in collections (perceived as rare).

A whole grove of dead and dying ash trees in western New York, where Emerald Ash Borer has been for a few years.

Emerald Ash Borer is native to northeastern China and Japan. It was first detected in the U.S. in Michigan in 2002. It probably entered the country in wooden packaging (pallets, etc.). It is shiny green and about 1/2 inch long. Adults leave a distinctive “D”-shaped hole in the bark when they emerge in June. It only attacks trees in the ash genus (Fraxinus). Ash is an economically, culturally, and aesthetically important tree. It is an important component of hardwood forests (upland and wetland) throughout eastern North America.The wood is useful for handles, baskets, furniture, and other stuff. This is a tough street tree and has been planted widely in cities, especially in the mid-west (doh!).

Here’s a great link with all the info on EAB that you could possible want, including info on identification:

Official info on this and other forest health threats can also be had from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)

Notes on Ash
Plant breeders are looking for variation in ash seedlings. Since ash produce male and female trees, there should be some variability out there. They are sampling seedlings from various parts of the US to see if they can find genes for EAB resistance. White ash is considered an upland species and the green ash is considered a lowland species. The black ash performs best in wetland areas.

Posted in Animals, Biodiversity, Conservation, Invasives, News, Plants, Uncategorized |

Marine Mammals of Rhode Island, Part 11, Common Dolphin

by Robert Kenney

An uncommon view of a common dolphin off the northeastern U.S., showing the distinctive color pattern that gives rise to the names “saddleback” or “hourglass” dolphin. [photo by Todd Pusser, NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center, from the NEFSC Photo Gallery

Mother Nature is never quite as neat as we’d like her to be. Common dolphins are a good case in point; over the years they have given me quite a headache. Although I first learned as a graduate student that there was just a single species with a global distribution, by 2001 when Pete August, Tom Husband, and I wrote the checklist of Rhode Island mammals for Vertebrates of Rhode Island (volume 2 of the Biota of Rhode Island series), the official position was that there were three species—the short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis), the long-beaked common dolphin (D. capensis), and the very-long-beaked Indian Ocean common dolphin (D. tropicalis). We included both the short-beaked and long-beaked species in the checklist as potentially occurring in Rhode Island waters, but that turns out to have been a mistake. Later research showed that only short-beaked common dolphins occur in the North Atlantic. Scientists were also arguing about whether D. tropicalis was a valid species or simply a sub-species or variety of D. capensis, but at least that was not a concern for us here in New England. However, now that I’ve gotten completely used to writing out “short-beaked common dolphin” every single time, the latest conclusion from the Society for Marine Mammalogy’s Committee on Taxonomy is that D. capensis is not a valid species. The genetic evidence is showing that longer-beaked forms in different parts of different oceans are not all closely related to each other, and may have evolved separately. In their words—“The long-beaked condition is apparently a convergent character state induced by regional ecology.” So now we are back to where I started—there is a single worldwide species of just plain “common dolphin.” But stay tuned—more genetic research is likely to lead to splitting off multiple long-beaked species in different oceanic regions around the globe.

Common dolphins are probably the most abundant cetaceans off the Atlantic coast, with perhaps 240,000 or more between Florida and Labrador. Naturally, they are not listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and are classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List. Common dolphins, along with bottlenose dolphins and harbor porpoises, were caught for human consumption in the Black Sea by fishermen from Turkey, the Soviet Union, Romania, and Bulgaria. That fishery began in the late 19th Century, and tens of thousands of animals were taken annually. It ended in 1966, except in Turkey where it continued to 1983. Common dolphins are taken incidentally in a number of commercial fisheries worldwide, in particular in gillnets and in the eastern tropical Pacific purse-seine fishery for tuna. In the western North Atlantic, common dolphin bycatch mortalities have occurred in a number of different fisheries. Annual mortalities in recent years have averaged about 260–320 in trawl fisheries, 100–120 in gillnets, and 2 in pelagic long-lines.

Description: Common dolphins have the typical form of oceanic dolphins, with a streamlined body, a distinct beak, and a prominent dorsal fin. They are slender, and range up to 2.3–2.6 m in length, with males slightly larger than females. The color pattern is striking and distinctive, leading to the alternative common names of “saddleback,” “hourglass,” or “criss-cross” dolphin. Dr. William Perrin from the NOAA Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California developed a scheme for systematically classifying the pigmentation patterns of dolphins and porpoises. There are two areas of dorsal pigmentation—the “cape,” which is generally smaller and more anterior, and the “dorsal overlay,” which is larger and extends farther posteriorly. The overlap of the two results in the typical pattern for a particular species. In common dolphins the cape is yellowish-tan, wider in the front and narrower in the back. The dorsal overlay is light gray and opposite—narrower in front and wider in back. Where the two areas overlap, the color is dark gray to black, resulting in a rather narrow black band that starts at the head, widens to a sharp point directly below the dorsal fin (the “saddle,” where the margins of the cape and the dorsal overlay cross), and then narrows to a point on the mid-back behind the dorsal fin. In front of the saddle the color on the side is yellowish tan (the cape alone); behind it and onto the back near the tail the color is gray (dorsal overlay alone). The belly is white. The dorsal fin is tall, curved backward, in the middle of the back, and black, often with a paler gray center. The lips, flippers, flukes, and a small circle around the eye are black. There are thin black stripes from the upper beak to the eye, and from chin to the flipper.

Natural history: Common dolphins occur in tropical to temperate waters around the world. In the western North Atlantic, they occur from Iceland south, but the southern limit of the distribution is unclear and appears to vary between years. Older reports of common dolphins off Florida or in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean are likely to be misidentifications of Clymene dolphins, which for years were not recognized as a separate species. Common dolphins have an atypical seasonal pattern off the northeastern U.S., with peak abundance in fall and winter—very different from all other dolphin species in the region.

Common dolphins are known to aggregate into extremely large herds at times, however those schools are composed of smaller groups of 20–30 related individuals. Large herds chased during tuna fishing would break up into successively smaller groups, but the smallest groups of 20–30 animals remained tightly aggregated and never separated. Offshore fishermen tell of seeing herds of common dolphins on Georges Bank that take hours to pass by. Off the northeastern U.S. in 1979–1981, the average group size sighted was 54.8 dolphins, but the average was skewed by a few sightings of groups as large as 2000 individuals.

Common dolphins feed on small fishes and squids, including species that school in near-surface waters and midwater species that occur near the surface at night. Tagging studies in the North Pacific showed that foraging dives commenced at dusk and continued all night long. They were apparently feeding on deep-scattering layer fishes that migrate upwards at dusk and return to mid-depths at dawn, as well as on the squid that were also feeding on the small fishes. They do not appear to be deep divers, with most dives to less than 50 m and only a few dives to as deep as 200 m.

Most information about reproduction and life history comes from populations where large numbers were taken either in directed fisheries, as in the Black Sea, or as bycatch in commercial fisheries, as in the eastern tropical Pacific. Sexual maturity occurs at 6–7 years and 195–208 cm in females, and 7–12 years and about 200 cm in males. Gestation is 10–11 months. Calves are born at about 80–90 cm in length, and wean in about 5 or 6 months, but begin feeding on solid food as young as 2–3 months. In the Pacific, there are two peaks in calving, in the spring and fall.

Aggregated sighting, stranding, and bycatch records of common dolphins in the Rhode Island study area, 1882–2007 (n = 435: winter [blue] = 95, spring [green] = 146, summer [red] = 114, fall [brown] = 79, unknown = 1). [from R.I. Ocean SAMP technical report]

Historical occurrence: Cronan and Brooks reported two historical records of common dolphins in Rhode Island—a specimen from Block Island with no date given and one captured alive in Point Judith Pond on 12 August 1966. The former most likely refers to the oldest known record in the study area in the Smithsonian dataset—a 203-cm dolphin captured (most likely harpooned) “off Block Island” on 7 August 1882. Other historical sources reported occasional strandings and sightings in both Massachusetts and New York. Of note was the occurrence of a herd of 30–40 common dolphins seen in the Hudson River in October 1936, almost as far upriver as Albany.

Recent occurrence: Common dolphins occur in the waters off southern New England year-round, across much of the shelf but most commonly in waters deeper than about 60 m (see the distribution maps). A summertime concentration of sightings from whale-watching boats southeast of Montauk Point is evident, in the area where the 60-m isobath comes closer to shore. Seasonality is not particularly strong, with 34% of records in spring, 26% in summer, 18% in fall, and 22% in winter. Because they tend to occur in much larger groups in fall and winter, abundance is actually highest during those seasons. Common dolphins are the most likely dolphin species to be spotted in Narragansett Bay, usually in late fall or winter and occasionally up as far as the Providence River. On Election Day in 2016, Dale Denelle, who was responsible for reporting the first beluga sighting in Rhode Island, captured a school on video between Point Judith and Block Island (while driving his boat with one hand and flying his drone with the other). His video, set to music, is posted on-line through Vimeo for all to enjoy.

Five-year stranding frequencies for common dolphins in Rhode Island, 1983–2015 (data collected by Mystic Aquarium and the Northeast Regional Stranding Network).

Strandings also occur year-round. Common dolphins are the most frequently stranded cetacean in Rhode Island. In the R.I. Ocean SAMP report, we tabulated 23 strandings in Rhode Island between 1983 and 2005. In the succeeding ten years, 2006–2015, there were 55 more, with clear evidence of an increasing trend over time (see first chart). Strandings are even more frequent in Massachusetts, mostly on Cape Cod, where mass strandings of entire herds are common events. My graduate student C.T. Harry finished a master’s thesis in 2015 that showed common dolphin stranding frequency in Massachusetts to be correlated with variability in the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). NAO is a major driver of both climate and oceanographic conditions in the North Atlantic; and changing climate also could be behind the increase in dolphin strandings in Rhode Island.

Monthly stranding frequencies for common dolphins in Rhode Island,
1983–2015. (red = 1983–2005; blue = 2006–2015)

There is also a clear seasonal pattern in common dolphin strandings in Rhode Island, but it has been changing (see second chart). In 1983–2005 the seasonal peak was in winter, with 10 of 23 strandings (43%) in December–January. In the last ten years there was a spike in strandings during October (18 of the 55), shifting the seasonal peak to fall (49% for 2006–2015 alone, and 41% for the overall 1983–2015 period) from winter (25% for 2006–2015 and 31% overall). Changing climate and warming ocean temperatures are likely culprits here as well.

Coming next in Marine Mammals of Rhode Island: gray whale

Posted in Animals, Biodiversity, Conservation, Education, News |

Lone Star Ticks vs. Chiggers

by David Gregg

Credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County

One nymph and a bunch of larvae. Credit: Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County

The $5 term for the ticks and mosquitoes, no-see-ums, deer flies, horse flies, and all that literally bug us while we’re enjoying our outdoors pursuits, collectively, is “haematophagous arthropods.” Mites are in the Acari, a sub-class of the Arachnida (spiders and kin) and are themselves broken down into ticks and proper mites such as those we’re most familiar with here, the really red ones that crawl around on sunny rocks. In Rhode Island, people aren’t used to blood sucking mites. Globalization and climate change, however, have got everyone on the lookout for novel organisms and so when, in the past few years, Rhode Islanders began reporting extraordinary itchy spots and rashes after outdoor activities, especially at the sock or belt line, associated with microscopic or even “invisible” parasites, many began to wonder if we were witnessing the arrival of a bite-y sort of mite here, the chigger. [Just because it’s a crawly, bite-y sort of creature doesn’t mean it’s an Acari: pubic, body, and head lice are insects in the order Phthiraptera, sub-order Anoplura, and bed bugs are insects in the order Hemiptera (True Bugs).]

There is quite a bit of confusion over this and a lot of people are convinced that these kinds of bites, new in the last decade, are chiggers. The medical description of the itchy lesion is the same for chiggers and larval ticks, as is the experience for the bitee. So it is understandable that people with experience of chiggers in the American south would identify these bites as chigger bites. But they’re not.

With questions of ticks versus chiggers spreading around, I took samples of the organisms to Dr. Howard Ginsberg, an expert in haematophagus arthropods at the University of Rhode Island. We looked at them under a microscope and they were very clearly larvae of lone star ticks (Amblyomma americanum). We walked through the diagnostic features in the reference literature and the body plan and mouth parts of larval ticks aren’t at all like those of chiggers. Ginsberg said he’s been challenged by a number of people from coastal southern New England recently about chiggers but he has yet to find or hear of anyone else finding a confirmed population of chiggers.

I asked why if there are so many larvae of lone star ticks we don’t see many adults, whereas we never see larvae of dog ticks but get plenty of adults on us. He said that dog ticks typically lay a thousand or more eggs for every adult that eventually hangs off a grass blade but because dog tick larvae parasitize small mammals like mice and voles, not large ones, we never see them. He told me that as of now lone stars are mostly distributed along the coast, with a smaller number inland. Lone stars move on birds so they CAN get virtually anywhere; however, their new residence along the coast may be because the already moderate coastal winters are becoming even more so due to climate change. Ginsberg has published on the spread of lone star ticks. Check out: “Increased population densities of Amblyomma americanum (Acari: Ixodidae) on Long Island, New York.” Ginsberg HS, Ewing CP, O’Connell AF Jr, Bosler EM, Daley JG, Sayre MW. J Parasitol. 1991 Jun;77(3):493-5.

Lone star tick larvae can move quite fast and they’re virtually invisible (and I mean invisible!) and so it isn’t surprising you rarely see the tick. In fact, many people probably scratch them off before ever seeing them. On many people, the bite will itch for days even if the tick is removed within an hour. With regard to prevention, therefore, permethrin-treated shoes, socks, and pants are more effective than trying to pick yourself clean after exposure. Studies by URI researcher Tom Mather show that permethrin treated shoes, socks, and pants are very effective at preventing the bite of deer ticks and personal experience tells me it also works for lone stars. Once it has dried, permethrin is probably absorbed less by the skin than DEET, which you have to apply especially thickly to stop lone star tick larvae. One could reasonably argue that permethrin is less injurious to your health than the 6 or 8 really nasty diseases you can get from ticks. Larval or nymphal ticks in your clothes can be easily killed by drying. Larval or nymphal ticks, if they aren’t attached to a host, need regularly to escape back into the leaf litter where the humidity is virtually saturated or they dehydrate and die. So hang your clothes in the sun or toss them into the dryer for 15 minutes if you’ve been out stomping around in the bushes. FYI, this is why deer ticks are very rare in the centers of sunny meadows. You could literally roll around in the middle of a large, sunny meadow and probably not get deer ticks but don’t try the same thing in the woods or edge of the woods! And you could still get regular old dog ticks and new-fangled lone-stars in an open field.

“The Chapters about Whales”
Technically, chiggers are larvae of certain species of mites in the families Trombiculidae and Leeuwenhoekiidae. The lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum) is a hard-bodied tick (family Ixodidae), as is the deer tick. It isn’t even in the same phylogenetic Order as chiggers. Lone star ticks are new in our area and their spread has been attributed to global warming, resurgence of deer and turkeys, globalization, and suburbanization but the real reason(s) isn’t well understood.

The most common North American human chigger, Eutrombicula alfreddugesi, has been recovered in Massachusetts by scientists studying parasites of migratory birds so it is not impossible that one or two chiggers could be found in our area; however, because only the larval stage is parasitic, by the time one dropped off the migratory host, that would be all the biting that individual would do. If it survived the winter (which they usually don’t) and found a mate (which would be darn lucky) then there could be new, resident parasitic larvae at that point…but consider what it would take!

For what it’s worth, the two organisms, ticks and chiggers, feed by fairly different means. In case you were wondering, chiggers dissolve your tissue with enzymes and then suck up the gravy. Whereas ticks pierce your tissue, inject anti-coagulant saliva, and suck out your blood. On the bright side, it is less likely (though not impossible) that larval ticks will be carrying diseases. Infections of the skin from scratching seem to be a greater risk. Tick nymphs and adults by contrast can have a really nasty suite of diseases.

Posted in Animals, Climate, Education, News |

Digital Herbarium is NOT an Oxymoron

By Keith Killingbeck

A KIRI specimen image from the CNH portal, of common tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) collected in Kingston September 30, 1896, by URI's first professor of botany and first female professor, Harriet L. Merrow.

A KIRI specimen image from the CNH portal, of common tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) collected in Kingston September 30, 1896, by URI’s first professor of botany and first female professor, Harriet L. Merrow.

From the annals of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and The Magnificent Carnac, the answer is … KIRI. The question is: What is …
a) a genetically engineered fruit from New Zealand similar to the kiwi?
b) Google’s version of Siri?
c) a new country in Africa just north of Namibia?
d) the official name in Index Herbariorum of the herbarium housed at the University of Rhode Island?

You get three gold stars and free tea at the Survey office on Wednesday afternoon if you who chose d), the official name of the herbarium at the University of Rhode Island.

The derivation of the name is extraordinarily simple – Kingston, Rhode Island. KIRI, one of approximately 3,000 herbaria in the world, is home to plants from 47 states, the District of Columbia, and eight additional countries. Specimens from 193 families, 791 genera, and 2,440 species make up the 12,682 individual pressed vascular plants preserved in the collection (plus hundreds of non-vascular plant specimens).

Two thousand sixteen has been a banner year for KIRI. A partnership between URI and Yale University resulted in the transfer to New Haven, and return to URI, of our entire vascular plant collection. All of the 12,000+ vascular plants in our collection were photographed and digitized over the summer and early fall. The digitized images were then integrated into the website of the Consortium of Northeastern Herbaria, a portal that provides access to the collections of almost all major herbaria in northeastern North America. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Patrick Sweeney and his team from Yale did an incredible job with our collection. This step forward for KIRI could not have happened without their resources and talents.

The Consortium of Northeastern Herbaria web portal is searchable in multiple ways. Information about each herbarium (number of species, genera, families, etc.) can be found through the ‘collections’ section, including the University of Rhode Island KIRI Herbarium profile page. The images of our specimens on the website are organized by taxon and can be displayed beside all other images from northeastern North America for that taxon.

Because the Consortium site is easy to use, costs nothing to enter, and contains a wealth of information that would take eons to retrieve from individual herbaria, it will be a go-to resource for those of us in the Rhode Island Natural History Survey who are smitten by all things green … frogs included, but there are no pressed amphibians in the KIRI cabinets. To make full use of the Consortium of Northeastern Herbaria website, simply start a ‘new account’ from the ‘portal’ page.

By the way, for those of you who may be unfamiliar with Carnac the Magnificent, check out his wikipedia entry or the many YouTube clips that feature the all-knowing soothsayer and sage from days of TV past. Checking this out will not bolster your plant IQ, but it could evoke a smile or two.

Posted in Biodiversity, Education, Historical, Naturalists, News, Plants, Resources |

A Barnacle Stranding at Block Island

by Robert D. Kenney

Wait a minute. Who cares about barnacles washing up on a beach? Isn’t the beach where barnacles are supposed to be? But what if they’re attached to a whale? Everyone gets excited about a dead whale on the beach, but sometimes it’s the smaller things that few people even notice that are the most interesting.

Dead humpback whale on the beach below Clay Head on Block Island on March 27, 2016. (Photo by Kim Gaffett)

Figure 1. Dead humpback whale on the beach below Clay Head on Block Island on March 27, 2016. (Photo by Kim Gaffett)

On Easter Sunday, 2016, a dead humpback whale was discovered on a rocky beach near Clay Head on Block Island (Figure 1). Island resident and fellow RINHS board member Kim Gaffett went to check it out. It was a relatively small animal, estimated at 20–25 feet long (which would make it a calf or maybe a yearling). But her naturalist’s curiosity led her to look at more than just another stinky whale carcass. She noticed other animals that were attached to the corners of the whale’s tail. They appeared to be barnacles, relatively large ones. And it looked like there were two different kinds—one a typical “acorn” barnacle entirely encased in a hard shell and the other a “gooseneck” barnacle with an elongated, fleshy stalk. So she took a picture of them and emailed it to me with questions (Figure 2).

A cluster of barnacles from the tail of the whale in Figure 1. (Photo by Kim Gaffett)

Figure 2. A cluster of barnacles from the tail of the whale in Figure 1. (Photo by Kim Gaffett)

Kim was exactly right—there were two species of barnacles. But only one was growing on the whale; the other was attached to the first kind of barnacles. Coronula diadema is an acorn barnacle that normally only occurs on humpback whales, hence the common name of “humpback whale barnacle.” The occasional appearances on other whales are believed to be due to hanging around with humpbacks. They would be the hard, white, hexagonal barnacles in Figure 2. They get a lot bigger than the barnacles we see on the rocks along the shore, sometimes over 3 inches across. The other species is Conchoderma auritum, the “rabbit-ear barnacle,” and it only grows attached to Coronula diadema. In the gooseneck barnacles, the hard shells can be smaller and almost invisible in some species, although they can be partially seen as paired white structures in Figure 2. Figure 3 shows a preserved specimen of Coronula with several attached Conchoderma. Since the fleshy parts of the rabbit-ear barnacles have not gotten all dried out from exposure to the air, the embedded shells cannot be seen at all.

Figure 3. Preserved specimens of a humpback whale barnacle and several attached rabbit-ear barnacles from Sitka, Alaska. (Photo by Paul Norwood; Natural History of Southeast Alaska;; used under Creative Commons license).

Figure 3. Preserved specimens of a humpback whale barnacle and several attached rabbit-ear barnacles from Sitka, Alaska. (Photo by Paul Norwood; Natural History of Southeast Alaska;; used under Creative Commons license).

Barnacles have always interested zoologists, and more than 1200 species are recognized. Charles Darwin spent years studying barnacles and published four volumes on them between 1851 and 1854 (two on living species and two on fossil forms). They were long misclassified as mollusks because of the calcareous outer structures, but they are in fact crustaceans—related to lobsters, crabs, and shrimp. The barnacles comprise a separate group of crustaceans known as Cirripedia (literally, “hairy-footed”). Their legs are covered with tiny hairs that serve to filter small food particles from the water as the long, jointed legs are uncurled through the opening in the shell and then swept through the water. A barnacle was called “nothing more than a little shrimp-like animal standing on its head in a limestone house and kicking food into its mouth” by Louis Agassiz, 19th Century zoologist and founder of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard (and if I trace back through six generations of graduate advisors, my academic “ancestor”). Figure 4 is an illustration of several Conchoderma attached to one Coronula, showing the long, feathery, multi-jointed legs of each of the gooseneck barnacles extended for feeding.

Figure 4. Illustration of a humpback whale barnacle with multiple attached rabbit-ear barnacles, showing the legs of the latter extended for feeding. (Taken from one part of plate 57 of “Kunstformen der Natur,” by Ernst Haeckel, 1904, Verlag des Bibliographischen Institut, Leipzig and Vienna. The original illustration was white on a black background, but photo software was used to reverse the image to better show the details.)

Figure 4. Illustration of a humpback whale barnacle with multiple attached rabbit-ear barnacles, showing the legs of the latter extended for feeding. (Taken from one part of plate 57 of Kunstformen der Natur, by Ernst Haeckel, 1904, Verlag des Bibliographischen Institut, Leipzig and Vienna. The original illustration was white on a black background, but photo software was used to reverse the image to better show the details.)

You might be asking yourself, how does a barnacle get onto a whale? Or why? A number of barnacle species have evolved to be specialists—living only attached to another organism, including whales, sea turtles, mollusks, crustaceans, corals, and sea snakes. They are not true parasites, since there is no real harm done to the host animal. This sort of relationship is called commensalism—where one species gets a real benefit (the humpback whale barnacle gets a place to live and free transportation to lots of areas where there might be good food resources) while for the other it’s essentially neutral.

All barnacles go through a very similar life history. Most species are hermaphrodites, simultaneously male and female. Every barnacle can mate with every one of its neighbors that is within reach of its elongated penis. The fertilized egg hatches into a small larval stage called a nauplius, which is released into the water. The nauplii feed on tiny plankton, grow, and molt into larger nauplii. After six naupliar stages, they molt into non-feeding larval stages called cyprids. It is the cyprid that seeks out the appropriate substrate for settlement. A pair of Japanese researchers published a very neat study in 2006, where they raised Coronula nauplii in the laboratory, and found that the cyprids would only settle in petri dishes with small bits of humpback whale skin. There is likely some chemical cue that each species of barnacle uses to identify the appropriate settlement location.

Since the nauplii spend a couple of weeks swimming around on their own before settling down on the whale, the process works best when and where the whales are aggregated. For North Atlantic humpback whales, animals from multiple feeding grounds ranging from the Gulf of Maine to Norway all gather in the winter on shallow banks off the West Indies for calving and breeding. That is also the season for barnacle reproduction.

Once the cyprid settles on the whale, it moves around until it finds a good spot. They appear to select places where there will be good current flows, like the head, the flippers, and the tail. It metamorphoses into a juvenile, attaches, and begins to secrete six plates of calcium carbonate that will become the “house.” The walls of the shell have hollow spaces in them, and the whale’s skin grows into those spaces, which attaches the barnacle very firmly. In Figure 2, the triplets of black spots around the rim of each shell are the tips of small fingers of whale skin growing up through the hollow spaces in the wall, visible where the outer part of the shell has worn away. In the lower right, one shell is broken, showing the entire lengths of those whale skin segments inside the wall of the shell.

Oddly enough, the barnacles appear to go through that entire life cycle every year. Some of them get torn off during aggressive encounters with other whales, especially for adult males. But apparently most or even all of a whale’s barnacles (which might weigh half a ton all together) die and fall off during the winter in the tropics. The underlying cause is not known—it could be a genetically programmed life-span or some environmental factor like lack of food or warm temperatures. The result is whales returning to their feeding grounds in the spring with a new crop of small barnacles and a collection of circular scars from the ones that came off (Figure 5.)

Figure 5. The head of a humpback whale photographed in the spring in the Gulf of Maine, showing that year’s crop of small Coronula diadema barnacles and lots of scars from larger individuals from the previous years. (Photo by the author.)

Figure 5. The head of a humpback whale photographed in the spring in the Gulf of Maine, showing that year’s crop of small Coronula diadema barnacles and lots of scars from larger individuals from the previous years. (Photo by the author.)

Humpback whales have barnacles living attached to their skin, and their barnacles have other barnacles attached to them in turn. It would not be a surprise to find that the rabbit-ear barnacles have some other commensals of their own. As Jonathan Swift put it in 1733:

So, naturalist observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite ’em,
And so proceed ad infinitum.

Posted in Animals, Biodiversity, Education, News |

Marine Mammals of Rhode Island, Part 10, Pilot Whale

by Robert Kenney

We’ve reached the point in this series where we need to talk about the differences between a dolphin and a whale. The truth is that there isn’t a real definition; it’s pretty much arbitrary. In general, bigger animals are called whales and smaller ones are called dolphins, but it isn’t consistent. For example, bottlenose dolphins and Risso’s dolphins are both larger than melon-headed whales or pygmy killer whales. To confuse the issue even more, all four of those species taxonomically are dolphins—belonging the same family, Delphinidae. That is also the case with the subjects of this installment; pilot whales are big dolphins.

Delphinidae is the most diverse family of cetaceans, with 17 genera and 38 or 39 species currently recognized. Those numbers will keep changing as additional populations are recognized as separate species and as our understanding of higher-level taxonomy improves. There are two species of pilot whales in the world, the long-finned and short-finned pilot whale. The species are well-defined and mostly geographically separated, however, both occur in the North Atlantic and their ranges overlap in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region. They are also extremely difficult to differentiate in the field, so we are forced to consider them together.

 One of two adult pilot whales swimming around in a cove next to the Beacon Rock estate in Newport in December 1983, showing the characteristic bulbous head and heavy dorsal fin. (photo by the author)

One of two adult pilot whales swimming around in a cove next to the Beacon Rock estate in Newport in December 1983, showing the characteristic bulbous head and heavy dorsal fin. (photo by the author)

All of the large, black, blunt-headed delphinids (including pilot whales, false killer whales, pygmy killer whales, melon-headed whales, and sometime killer whales) are often collectively referred to as “blackfish,” an old whalers’ and fishermen’s term. Pilot whales are sometimes also called “potheads,” referring not to their preferences in recreational pharmaceuticals but to the resemblance of the head to an old cast-iron cooking pot. Their genus name, Globicephala (“round-headed”) also refers to this feature.

Neither long-finned nor short-finned pilot whales are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act or on the Rhode Island state list, and both are classified as Data Deficient on the IUCN Red List. The total abundance of either species of pilot whale in the North Atlantic is not well known. Canadian scientists in the 1970s estimated that there were 50,000–60,000 long-finned pilot whales in the western North Atlantic. A study in the 1990s estimated 778,000 in the eastern and central North Atlantic. Because of the difficulty in identifying pilot whales at sea, off the eastern U.S. the two species currently must be combined for estimating abundance. Based on a 2004 summer survey, the combined stocks of both species between Florida and the Bay of Fundy included over 30,000 animals.

Directed pilot whale fisheries targeting both species have occurred in many places around the world. A drive fishery (where hunters in boats herd an entire group of animals into a fjord or inlet to be killed) in Newfoundland took almost 10,000 pilot whales in 1956 but declined during the 1960s and eventually ended. Small-scale pilot whale fisheries formerly took place in Norway, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, and Cape Cod, and Inuit subsistence hunters in Greenland still take small numbers every year. A drive fishery for long-finned pilot whales in the Faroe Islands (located in the northeastern North Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland) dating back to at least the 16th Century is the only substantial hunt still continuing in the North Atlantic. It takes several hundred whales per year, with little evidence for any negative impacts on overall pilot whale stocks in the northeastern Atlantic. Short-finned pilot whales were hunted for centuries in Japan, and there are still catches of a few hundred per year.

Pilot whales are also impacted by bycatch in commercial fisheries. In U.S. Atlantic waters, average annual fishery-related mortality during 2009–2013 was 192 short-fins in the pelagic long-line fishery for swordfish, 29 long-fins in the Northeast bottom trawl fishery, and 1 long-fin each in both the Northeast sink gillnet and midwater trawl fisheries.

Description: Pilot whales are easy to identify, but differentiating the long-finned and short-finned species in the field is exceedingly difficult. Both species are large, robust animals with a distinct “barrel-chested” appearance. Both are sexually dimorphic, with males larger than females. The head is rounded and bulbous with a very prominent melon, a slight beak, and an upturned mouth. The tailstock has prominent dorsal and ventral keels. The flippers are curved, tapered, and pointed. The dorsal fin is low, rounded to somewhat falcate, broad-based, and located well in front of the middle of the body. The color is black, dark gray, or brown overall, except for a whitish “anchor” mark on the chest, lighter gray “eyebrow” streaks from the eyes to the back, and a light gray “saddle” behind the dorsal fin.

Long-finned (top) and short-finned (bottom) pilot whales compared. (Illustrations © Garth Mix,, used by permission).

Long-finned (top) and short-finned (bottom) pilot whales compared. (Illustrations © Garth Mix,, used by permission).

Long-finned males may be as long as 7.6 m, while females reach a maximum of only 5.7 m. Their flippers are longer at about one-fifth of body length, with an obvious “elbow.” Short-finned pilot whales are somewhat smaller, and possibly slightly more thick-bodied, with males up to 6 m and females up to 5.5 m. The flippers in short-fins are shorter (about one-sixth of body length) and more curved, but the length ranges overlap, making the difference in flipper length nearly useless as a field character for sightings of live animals. In both species, dorsal fin shape changes in older adult males, with a tendency to become more broad-based in long-fins and more broad-based and hooked in short-fins. Additionally, in at least some short-fins, the saddle and lighter streaks on the head may be more distinct, and the overall color more brown than black.

Natural history: Pilot whales live in permanent social groups of about 10–50 animals, but at times pods join to form aggregations of hundreds of animals. Off the northeastern U.S., they commonly associate with other cetaceans. The most frequently observed mixed-species herds in western Atlantic shelf-edge habitats were pilot whales and offshore bottlenose dolphins. They also have been observed associated with Risso’s, common, and spotted dolphins and sperm whales, as well as in the same areas as fin and humpback whales in more inshore waters.

Our knowledge of their diving behavior is relatively sparse. Short-finned pilot whales that were trained by the U.S. Navy routinely dived to 300 m, and were capable of dives of 15 minutes and to at least 500 m and probably over 600 m. In our region, three different long-finned pilot whales have been rehabilitated after stranding and then released with satellite-tracked radio tags. In 1987 three juveniles were released after 7 months in captivity. One of them, a 3-m, 2-year-old male, was tagged and tracked for 94.5 days and a minimum distance traveled of 3144 km. The overall range of dive times was 6 seconds (between breaths at the surface) to almost 28 minutes, with a tendency for shorter dives during the daytime and longer dives at night. Two juvenile males, both tagged, were released in October 1999 after four months in rehab. Most dives were less than 2 minutes and shallower than 15 m, but both whales made dives exceeding 26 minutes. Their deepest dives were 312 and 320 m, which is approximately the depth to the bottom in the area where they were at the time

Much of what we know about pilot whale reproduction is based on information from hunting. In North Pacific short-fins, there are separate southern and northern stocks. In the southern stock, mating is mostly in April–May and births are in July–August, but some births occur year round. In the northern stock calving is more strictly seasonal, with breeding in September and calving in December. Calves are about 1.7 m long at birth. The age at weaning is longer than in long-fins at 3.5–5.5 years, and an older female might nurse her last calf for as long as 15 years. Females reach sexual maturity at 9 years on average and males at about 16 years. From the fisheries in Newfoundland and the Faroes, long-finned pilot whale calves in the North Atlantic are born in July–October at about 1.7 m. Estimates of gestation period range from 12 months to as long as 15–16 months. Calves are weaned at about 22 months, and females that are simultaneously pregnant and lactating are rare. The average inter-birth interval is about 40 months. Females reach sexual maturity at 6–8 years of age and 3.6–3.8 m long and males at about 12–17 years and 4.8 m. Reproductive senescence seems to be less common than in short-finned pilot whales; a pregnant 55-year-old was observed in the Faroes, though ovulations appear to be spaced further apart in older females.

Details of the social structure of long-finned pilot whale herds have been examined by genetic sampling from entire groups killed in the Faroe Islands fishery. All of the adults in a pod are related to one another. The calves and juveniles are offspring of the adult females in the pod, but the pod’s adult males are not their fathers. Both males and females remain with their mothers for their entire lives. It is believed that mating occurs in large temporary aggregations, when the adult males are able to breed with females in other pods. Pilot whales also are one of the only non-human mammals with evidence of reproductive senescence, with post-reproductive individuals contributing to the survival of the young. In this system, the long-term benefits of group-living, social facilitation, and learning are maximized while still avoiding inbreeding.

Both species of pilot whales are known to strand commonly in large groups (“mass stranding”), which occurs only in social toothed whales such as sperm whales, pilot whales, and some dolphin species. The causes of mass strandings are not well understood, and there are numerous hypotheses, including disease, parasites, geomagnetic anomalies interfering with navigation, social cohesiveness, and others. A common site for long-finned pilot whale mass strandings is in Wellfleet on the inside of Cape Cod. The next time you drive out the Mid-Cape Highway toward Provincetown, watch for the sign in the salt marsh saying “Blackfish Creek”—named for the pilot whale strandings that have happened there at least since colonial times. Cape Cod is a good illustration of how multiple causes can interact and lead to a mass stranding. Stranding events there tend to happen in winter, after storms when the water is murky and visibility limited. The bottom slope is nearly flat, so that echolocation provides no cue as to which direction is offshore, which also means that very wide mud flats are exposed at low tide. There is a known area of geomagnetic anomalies. It also may be possible that the usual direction to safety offshore for our pilot whales is south and east, which does not work well inside Cape Cod Bay. In some strandings, rescue attempts are unsuccessful as animals seem to intentionally beach themselves again. Sometimes it appears that one or more individuals may be debilitated by disease or other cause, and the rest of the herd is trying to stay together. The adaptive value of social cohesion may be maladaptive under those circumstances.

The preferred prey of both pilot whale species is squid, although at least long-finned pilot whales have been observed to feed on fish in the North Atlantic. Pilot whales were commonly taken in foreign fishing activities that were conducted in winter and spring during 1977–1991 along the shelf edge off the northeastern U.S., with 391 taken in the mackerel fishery and 41 taken in the squid fishery. It is unclear whether mackerel is an important prey item in winter in our region, or whether the whales were simply feeding opportunistically on mackerel scavenged from the trawl nets.

Aggregated sighting, stranding, and bycatch records of long-finned, short-finned, and unidentified pilot whales in the Rhode Island study area, by season, 1834–2006. (from the R.I. Ocean SAMP technical report).

Aggregated sighting, stranding, and bycatch records of long-finned, short-finned, and unidentified pilot whales in the Rhode Island study area, by season, 1834–2006. (from the R.I. Ocean SAMP technical report).

Historical occurrence: The earliest pilot whale records for our region were reported by James De Kay in 1842, who described a stranding at Fairfield Beach, Connecticut in October 1832 and two animals captured at the eastern end of Long Island in 1834. Cronan and Brooks reported three early records from Rhode Island. One pilot whale stranded in Middletown in September 1959 and a 197-cm calf was caught in a fish trawl in March 1961 about 50 km south of Narragansett Bay. The third was “the famous ‘Willy the Whale’ that cavorted about in the upper Providence River in July 1962. ‘Willy,’ who was actually a female, was over 18 feet in length.” There were also multiple stranding and sighting reports from Long Island and Cape Cod, including a very large group of 1,975 seen off Blackfish Creek in Wellfleet in 1895.

Recent occurrence: Pilot whales occur in our area in all four seasons, with a very strong peak in the spring, and roughly equivalent proportions in the other. Sightings were across the entire study area from the inner shelf to the slope, with more in shallow water in the spring, which is most likely related to the inshore spawning of long-fin squid. Although most records are not identified to species, they are almost all most likely the long-finned species. Only one short-finned pilot whale has been identified in or near Rhode Island—a single animal stranded on 6 June 2001 at Snake Hole Beach on Block Island. Otherwise, short-finned pilot whale strandings along the East Coast have occurred only from New Jersey south.

Strandings of single long-finned pilot whales in Rhode Island occurred in Newport in May 1974, in Newport in November 1989 (a 192-cm calf), in Little Compton in April 1990, at Clay Head on Block Island in April 1994, near Goddard Park in Warwick in October 1998, at Third Beach in Middletown in June 2002, at Easton’s Beach in Newport in July 2003, and at Sandy Point on Block Island in May 2004. There were also four strandings of unidentified pilot whales: December 1981 at Apponaug Cove in Warwick, December 1985 at Brenton Cove in Newport, February 1987 in Newport, and March 1987 in Newport. There was one mass stranding—11 long-finned pilot whales in Cow Cove on Block Island on 22 December 1983. The following day only five remained, all dead, but it is unclear from the Smithsonian data record whether the others were pushed off, left on their own, or died and washed out with the tide and waves. From necropsies of the five carcasses by Rob Nawojchik from Mystic Aquarium, the event was not a typical pilot whale mass stranding with a cross-section of ages and sexes. All five were adult females of about the same size (442–457 cm), and all had some sort of medical problems (missing or broken teeth, thin blubber, kidney abnormality, abdominal fluid build-up).

Coming next in Marine Mammals of Rhode Island: short-beaked common dolphin

Posted in Animals, Biodiversity, Conservation, Historical, News |

A Copperhead in Rhode Island?

by Todd McLeish

northern copperhead

northern copperhead

When a northern copperhead snake was reported to have bitten an East Providence resident in his driveway last week, it raised a number of concerns among Rhode Islanders about the state’s snake population. The bite from the venomous snake resulted in a hospital stay for the man who attempted to pick up the animal, and it generated numerous news stories and postings on social media.

Lou Perrotti, a reptile expert and board member of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey who works at Roger Williams Park Zoo, said there is little for local residents to worry about from wild snakes in Rhode Island. None of the Ocean State’s 11 snake species are venomous.

“Snakes are a valuable part of every ecosystem they inhabit, acting as both predator and prey,” he said. “They help to control rodent populations, and they even keep the incidence of Lyme disease down by preying on deer mice, the first host of the Lyme-carrying deer tick.”

Although many people are frightened of snakes, Perrotti said they need not be. Snakes are misunderstood animals. “Children do not naturally fear snakes; they are taught to fear snakes,” he said. “We need to teach them, the future caretakers of this planet, that all species deserve respect and protection no matter how they look or how dangerous they are. If we fail, we will have very fragmented and non-functioning ecosystems that will be in danger of crashing.”

The northern copperhead that bit the East Providence man is not native to Rhode Island and has never been recorded here in the wild. There are populations in Connecticut and Massachusetts, but Rhode Island does not have the proper habitat to support copperhead populations. “It was not a wild snake from an unknown population. There are no copperheads living in Riverside,” Perrotti said.

It is illegal to own a venomous snake in Rhode Island without a permit, and the only permit-holder in the state is Roger Williams Park Zoo. However, that does not mean that a wild copperhead was not collected from a protected population and kept in captivity illegally and later intentionally or mistakenly released in Rhode Island.

“We don’t have a problem with pet snakes being released into the wild like they do in the Everglades and elsewhere,” Perrotti said. “If that’s what happened in this case, it’s highly unusual.”

So what is Perrotti’s message to Rhode Islanders in light of the copperhead incident? “Don’t be afraid of snakes. But also don’t pick up a snake if you can’t identify it.”

Posted in Animals, Education, News |

Marine Mammals of Rhode Island, Part 9, Fin Whale

by Robert Kenney

Although they don’t get the publicity that North Atlantic right whales or wandering belugas do, or the love from the public that humpback whales do, fin whales (also known as finbacks) are the most common large whale species in New England waters. If you were to take a whale-watching trip with the Frances Fleet from Galilee, Rhode Island, the most likely whale to see would be a fin whale. In fact, the whale-watching boat that worked out of Montauk, New York in the 1980s and 1990s was called the Finback for that reason. It is even possible to see fin whales from the shore in Rhode Island, usually in late fall when the herring are around; I’ve seen them from Narragansett Pier on more than occasion.

A typical rorqual, showing the slender form, distinct dorsal fin, and short baleen plates hanging from the upper jaw. The ventral grooves appear as lines on the lower jaw and belly. (from Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon, by Robert A. Sterndale; Thacker, Spink, and Co.; Calcutta, 1884)

A typical rorqual, showing the slender form, distinct dorsal fin, and short baleen plates hanging from the upper jaw. The ventral grooves appear as lines on the lower jaw and belly. (from Natural History of the Mammalia of India and Ceylon, by Robert A. Sterndale; Thacker, Spink, and Co.; Calcutta, 1884),

Fin whales are broadly distributed throughout the world’s oceans, from the temperate regions poleward. Their range in the North Atlantic extends from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea, and Mediterranean Sea in the south to Greenland, Iceland, and Norway in the north. The fin whales off the eastern U.S. and Nova Scotia are believed to comprise a stock that is more or less separated from other North Atlantic stocks—Newfoundland/Labrador, West Greenland, East Greenland/Iceland, Norway, western Europe, and Mediterranean. Fin whales off the northeastern U.S. are most abundant from spring through fall, with smaller numbers of animals remaining through the winter. Most of them are believed to migrate offshore and south during the winter.

Fin whales are classified as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, as Federally Endangered on the Rhode Island state list, and as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In my opinion, North Atlantic finbacks do not really fit the definition of an endangered species, and may never have, but there is a lot of politics involved in endangered species classification (perhaps a topic for another day). There is no precise estimate of the total abundance of fin whales in the North Atlantic, given their immense range. A probable range for their abundance across the entire North Atlantic might be around 50,000 to 60,000, perhaps more. The population off the northeastern U.S. likely includes about 5,000–6,000 fin whales.

On average, about one fin whale per year from the U.S./Nova Scotia stock dies from entanglement in fishing gear, and perhaps twice that number from ship collisions. Ship-struck fin whale carcasses are sometimes discovered in New York harbor or nearby in New Jersey, where they are carried in on large ships (unbeknownst to the crew). Other serious conservation concerns are rare, although some commercial whaling is still going on (see below). There are detectible contaminant levels in fin whales from waters near industrialized coasts such as the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, but they appear to be relatively low. Feeding relatively low on the food chain makes them less likely to accumulate harmful concentrations.

Whaling: The first person known to have tried to kill a fin whale in New England was Captain John Smith (yes, the same one of the Pocahontas legend)—off Monhegan Island, Maine, in 1614. He chased the whale for the better part of a day but was unable to catch up to it. Fast-swimming whales like finbacks simply could not be caught using vessels powered by sails or oars; whalers had to wait until the development of modern technology in the second half of the 19th Century. Modern whaling began in Norway in the 1860s with the marriage of harpoon cannons and exploding harpoons to steam-powered catcher boats. Norwegian whalers depleted local stocks of blue whales in about a decade, and switched to hunting fin whales. By the beginning of the 20th Century, Norwegian finback stocks were also depleted and the hunt expanded across the North Atlantic and eventually into the Antarctic, where the real carnage in the 20th Century took place.

Many thousands of North Atlantic fin whales were killed during the 19th and 20th Centuries. There was some whaling in U.S. waters, but it was relatively minor and ended around the turn of the century. There was also a brief period of whaling from three shore stations in eastern Canada in 1965–1971, with about 1,400 fin whales killed by whalers from Blandford, Nova Scotia. The U.S. ended commercial whaling in 1972 with passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and Canada ceased whaling at about the same time.

In July 1982, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) approved a measure setting whaling catch limits to zero for all stocks beginning in 1986—establishing a world-wide moratorium on all commercial whaling. The moratorium was to be reviewed after five years, but the anti-whaling faction at the IWC has blocked any changes. Legal whaling since 1986 has been conducted only under (1) an exception for “aboriginal subsistence” whaling, (2) scientific research permits, or (3) objection (under the terms of the treaty, a nation that formally objects to specific IWC regulations is not bound by them). A subsistence hunt in West Greenland takes 10–15 fin whales per year. Iceland took 292 fin whales from 1986 to 1989 under a research permit, and subsequently withdrew from IWC membership. They rejoined the IWC in 2002, and in October 2006 announced the intention to resume small-scale commercial whaling. Seven fin whales were killed in Iceland in 2007, and more than 100 were killed each year in 2009, 2010, 2013, and 2014.

Description: Fin whales are the second-largest species of living whale, with adults 17–24 m long. Females are slightly larger than males, with maximum lengths of Northern Hemisphere adults averaging about 22.5 m for females and 21 m for males. There is evidence that the fin whales in continental shelf waters off the northeastern U.S. are somewhat smaller than whales from farther north. The mean adult length from animals measured from aerial photographs was 16.1 m, significantly smaller than fin whales taken in modern Icelandic whaling even after accounting for size selection by the whalers. Possible explanations include size differences between regional populations or habitat segregation by age—e.g., perhaps the largest adults remain farther offshore.

Fin whales and their cousins (blue, humpback, sei, minke, and others) belong to a different taxonomic family than the right whale that was the first subject of this series—the Balaenopteridae, or the “winged whales” (i.e., with dorsal fins). The collective term for the family is rorqual, from the Norwegian for “furrow whale.” Rorquals are much more slender than right whales—with very tapered heads; tall, curved dorsal fins; narrow, pointed flippers; and much shorter baleen plates. The term rorqual refers to the so-called ventral grooves, which are actually pleats in the body wall extending from the tip of the lower jaw back onto the belly. The ventral grooves are involved in their feeding behavior (see Natural History, below).

A fin whale has a very sleek, streamlined body with a flattened, tapered rostrum. The dorsal fin is about 60 cm tall, set about two-thirds or even three-quarters of the way back on the body. There is a distinct ridge along the back from the dorsal fin to the tail. There are 55–100 ventral grooves that extend back to the umbilicus.

The body color ranges from gray to brownish, with a much lighter belly. This dark-above/light-below counter-shading is believed to make marine predators much harder to be seen by their prey. Above the flippers, there is a pale, forward-pointing, V-shaped chevron on the back and swirls of lighter color on the sides. The most interesting thing about the appearance of fin whales is that they are all asymmetrically colored, with the lower jaw white on the right and dark on the left. This would be the equivalent of all dogs in the world having a dark ring around the left eye like “Petey” on “Our Gang.” (Although, if you look closely, the second dog who starred as Petey had the ring around his right eye.) The asymmetrical coloring even extends inside the mouth. All of baleen plates on the left side are dark gray, but the anterior one-third to one-half of the plates on the right are white.

Natural history: Fin whales appear to be similar to humpback whales in exhibiting maternally-directed habitat fidelity, where individuals return to feeding grounds visited with their mothers when they were calves. Even though individual fin whales are more difficult to photo-identify than humpbacks, multiple studies have shown relatively high re-sighting rates and concluded that females tend to return to the same feeding grounds consistently. Habitat use patterns by fin whales off the northeastern U.S. have shifted significantly in some years, as the whales track changes in the relative abundance of their prey species.

Fin whales are fast swimmers and capable of moving substantial distances in relatively short times. They normally swim at 5–8 knots (9–15 km/hr), but are capable of short bursts of 15 (28 km/hr) or even 20 knots (37 km/hr). One finback tracked by a radio-tag in 1980 between Iceland and Greenland traveled 2,095 km in ten days and covered 292 km in a single day.

A fin whale taking a huge mouthful of water and prey. Note the distended ventral pleats and the two-colored row of short baleen plates in the upper jaw. (illustration by Scott Landry, Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, MA;; used by permission)

A fin whale taking a huge mouthful of water and prey. Note the distended ventral pleats and the two-colored row of short baleen plates in the upper jaw. (illustration by Scott Landry, Center for Coastal Studies, Provincetown, MA;; used by permission)

Unlike the skim-feeding right whale, fin whales and the other rorquals are referred to as “gulp feeders,” taking one giant mouthful at a time. The whale swims up to a school of prey in the water and opens its mouth. The ventral grooves expand into an enormous sack that engulfs a large volume of water and prey. Then the whale closes its mouth and muscles in the ventral body wall squeeze the water out, trapping the prey on the inside of the baleen. My friend, colleague, and former grad student George Klein, who died far too young in 2009, used to explain it to boatloads of kids while working as a whale-watch naturalist (much to the chagrin of their parents)—“You take a big spoonful of Jello with fruit in it and stick it in your mouth. Then you close your mouth and squeeze the Jello out between your teeth. The fruit stays on the inside.”

Fin whales often roll onto their right sides during feeding. Some have speculated that their asymmetric coloration was related to feeding, since it maintained their counter-shading and camouflage when they rolled to the right. However, symmetrically colored rorqual species also roll more often to the right than the left.

Southern Hemisphere fin whales feed mainly on shrimp-like euphausiid crustaceans (“krill”). North Atlantic and North Pacific finbacks prey upon a much wider variety of small, schooling prey, including many small fishes (herring, sand lance, capelin, sardine, etc.), squids, and krill.

Fin whale calves are born in the late fall and winter, probably far offshore, after a gestation of about 11 months. Length at birth is about 6 m and weight is 1,000 kg or more. Calves are weaned at 6–11 months old and doubled in length to 11–13 m. Female fin whales mature at 7–8 years of age and males at 6–7, with the corresponding body lengths in the Northern Hemisphere around 17–18.5 m in females and somewhat smaller in males. Full physical maturity in both sexes might not be attained until around age 25. The inter-birth interval is usually 2 or 3 years.

Historical occurrence: Fin whales are the most common large whale in the Rhode Island region at the present time, and likely were common historically. There are multiple 19th Century records from Rhode Island. Glover Allen’s 1916 monograph quoted a newspaper account from 16 August 1873—

“The skipper of the sloop Annie, of Saybrook, Conn., reports a large school of whales in close proximity to home. Monday, while midway between Southeast Point, Block Island, and Montauk, a school of whales, numbering probably thirty-five, was seen from the Annie’s deck, gamboling near the Block Island shore where they had been lured, it is supposed, by the prospect of a good feeding-ground. … The majority were large whales, some of them being not less than 70 feet in length.”

Large schools of whales were seen around Noman’s Land, Cuttyhunk, Gay Head, and Vineyard Sound in October 1874, chasing “great shoals of herring.” A stranding of a very large fin whale was reported near the life-saving station in “Wakefield” (i.e., the present Coast Guard House restaurant in Narragansett, which was not established as a separate town from South Kingstown until 1901) on 18 April 1880. Several whales were sighted off Block Island in early summer 1882. There were two sightings off Block Island in July of 1884—several whales on the tenth and about 20 at mid-month. A fin whale was sighted off Newport in 1885—“In the summer of this year a Finback was seen in Easton’s Bay, R.I., by a number of people, including Mr. Philip Peckham, Jr., on whose authority Major E.A. Mearns reports the fact to me.” An 1887 incident was included by Allen as a possible minke whale, but recorded in the Smithsonian data as more likely a juvenile fin whale:

“Major E.A. Mearns sends me the account of a capture of a small whale that was supposed to have been a ‘young Finback,’ but was perhaps a Little Piked Whale. The incident occurred in Narragansett Bay, R.I., but the exact date is not available. By some curious accident, the whale in rising to the surface caught its head between the stern and the propellor blades of the government steamer Munroe as it lay at the South Dock. In its struggles to free itself the whale nearly lifted the stern of the vessel out of the water. The Captain, seeing that the whale was caught fast, turned on full steam in order to dislodge it. This had the desired result, but the swiftly revolving blades inflicted such injuries on the whale’s head that it rushed upon a shoal at the head of Brenton’s Cove and became stranded. It was finally killed there by soldiers from Fort Adams. … It was said to have been a female, about thirty feet long.”

There were sightings of single whales off Newport on 2 June 1897 and 11 March 1899. Finally, a 15.5-m fin whale stranded at Point Judith on 28 August 1900.

Recent occurrence: Fin whales occur throughout continental shelf waters in our region in all four seasons. Sightings are strongly concentrated in summer (81%) and spring (12%) and in the area between Block Island and Montauk Point, however both the spatial and temporal patterns are strongly biased by reports from whale-watching boats from Montauk and Galilee, which generated more than 70% of all records. If the whale-watchers’ sightings are eliminated, the seasonal differences are far less dramatic (53% summer, 30% spring, 10% fall, and 7% winter). Even without the whale-watching data, sightings are still most concentrated in mid-shelf waters between Long Island and Martha’s Vineyard. It does make sense that whale-watchers would focus their cruises where they expect to find whales.

 Aggregated sighting, stranding, and bycatch records of fin whales in the Rhode Island study area, by season, 1834–2008. The large numbers in summer come from whale-watching boats (from the R.I. Ocean SAMP technical report).

Aggregated sighting, stranding, and bycatch records of fin whales in the Rhode Island study area, by season, 1834–2008. The large numbers in summer come from whale-watching boats (from the R.I. Ocean SAMP technical report).

Strandings as a proportion of all records appear to be higher in the fall, which approximately corresponds to the expected time of weaning. Fin whales are the most commonly stranded large whale in and near the Rhode Island study area, with 28 records between 1970 and 2005. Within single years there were between 0 and 2 strandings, with one exception. There were 7 in 1983, with no clear explanation for the apparent anomaly. Possible reasons could be a drastic decline in prey resources, a disease event, a biotoxin event, some other natural or anthropogenic impact, or simply random variability in mortality.

One of the more interesting recent fin whale observations was in July 1983, when a headless carcass was seen drifting for several days. It was seen southwest of Block Island on the 27th and 5 km south of Point Judith on the 31st, with a number of great white sharks feeding on it. In August, as the dead whale continued drifting near Block Island, fishermen took the opportunity to target the feeding sharks. Three very large male white sharks—480, 484, and 497 cm—were harpooned, two even larger animals (estimated at 518 and 610 cm) were tagged, and at least three others were seen.

On 13 July 1989, a moderately decomposed immature female fin whale was found near Quonset Point; it was hauled up at Pier 2 in Davisville the following day. It had a fractured lower jaw and rope entangling the right flipper. On 27 July 1991, an 11-m whale was seen drifting near the south shore; it came ashore on East Matunuck State Beach on the 28th. On 30 April 1996, a 12.8-m fin whale stranded on Warren’s Point in Little Compton. Three fin whales stranded this century in Newport—one in Castle Hill Cove on 25 November 2002, one at Fort Adams State Park on 13 June 2004, and one at Brenton Point State Park on 24 December 2004. Elsewhere in our region, multiple strandings have also occurred in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey.

Coming next in Marine Mammals of Rhode Island: Pilot Whales

Posted in Animals, Biodiversity, Conservation, Historical, News |

RINHS Rediscovers “Lost” Ladybug at Rocky Point

Nine spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) Photo: Todd Ugine; Courtesy L.L.P.

Nine spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata) Photo: Todd Ugine; Courtesy L.L.P.

At a press event Thursday, June 4, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey announced that citizen scientists participating in the 2014 BioBlitz event at Rocky Point Park, in Warwick, re-discovered a species of ladybug once common throughout eastern North America but now virtually absent.

The nine spotted ladybug, or Coccinella novemnotata, used to be a common species throughout the eastern United States, one of several dozen kinds of ladybugs, which are technically beetles, not bugs. But over the past 30 or 40 years, this particularly beautiful species, the official state insect of New York, all but disappeared. A single specimen was discovered during a public biodiversity event held June 13 and 14, 2014, at Rocky Point, only the second site for the species east of the Great Plains and the first sighting in Rhode Island in at least 30 years.

It is still not clear why the nine spotted ladybug has disappeared, though a huge increase in non-native ladybugs, imported to fight crop pests, may be to blame. To investigate the mystery, in 2004, researchers at Cornell University began a program, the Lost Ladybug Project, to encourage citizens all over North America to submit photos of ladybugs via a website ( in hopes someone would find remaining populations of the nine-spotted ladybug in his or her vicinity. After over 30,000 submissions, there was apparently only one population east of the Great Plains, on eastern Long Island, New York. But that was before June, 2014, when volunteers participating in the Rhode Island BioBlitz, an annual biodiversity field day run by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, discovered a nine-spotted ladybug at Rocky Point in Warwick.

The (re-)discovery specimen: it gave its life that others might know its kind still exist.

The (re-)discovery specimen: it gave its life that others might know its kind still exist.

The specimen was captured during the event and saved in a collection for later identification. It was finally ID’ed in March and the discovery confirmed with Cornell University. “We have no idea why this species is still hanging on at Rocky Point, of all places,” says David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey. “The species is known from so few places in the east that we can’t even say what their typical habitat needs are.”

The Natural History Survey is asking Rhode Islanders anywhere, but especially in the Warwick area, to join the Lost Ladybug Project online and submit ladybug photos from their neighborhoods to see if the nine spotted ladybug lives anywhere else in the Ocean State. The site, has instructions for finding and photographing ladybugs. Gregg says, “Anyone can do it, even with a camera phone. Ladybugs are easy to catch, you don’t need a net, and you don’t need to kill the ladybug. Just snap a photo showing the top of the ladybug and follow directions on the website. The site has fact sheets so you can learn to ID the ladybugs of our area and lesson plans for teachers and parents who want to get their students involved.”

The excitement of the story drew press notice from around New England and around the country:
Warwick Beacon
NBC Channel 10
San Francisco Chronicle
San Antonio Express

Rocky Point Park, formerly a summer resort and amusement park, is now owned in part by the City of Warwick and in part by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. Rhode Island Natural History Survey is a non-profit organization founded in 1994 to advance scientific understanding of Rhode Island’s biology, geology, and ecosystems, encourage the application of scientific information to environmental conservation challenges, and spread scientific understanding of the environment to the next generation. BioBlitz sponsors included the Rocky Point Foundation and Roger Williams Park Zoo.

Posted in Animals, Biodiversity, Conservation, Naturalists, News, Opportunities |

Unusual RI Wildflower Rediscovered After 160 Years

spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)

A rare wildflower native to New England but not seen in Rhode Island since 1846 was discovered May 3 on a protected parcel of land on Block Island by staff of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.

Three plants of spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), a tiny white flower with pink highlights and long narrow leaves, were found by Kira Stillwell, program administrator for the Natural History Survey, while she was participating in a bird banding project near Clay Head with master bander Kim Gaffett, president of the Survey’s board of directors.

“We were checking the bird nets and noticed a flower along the trail we hadn’t seen before,” said Stillwell, a Narragansett resident who visits Block Island with her daughter Bryn several times each spring and fall to band migratory birds. “It was different from anything we knew, so we got down on our hands and knees and took pictures so we could look it up.”

When Stillwell and Gaffett were unsuccessful at identifying it themselves, Stillwell plucked a stem and brought it to the Survey office in Kingston, where Survey botanist Hope Leeson made the identification. Survey board member Richard Enser, a retired biologist with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, confirmed the identification.

According to Leeson, spring beauty grows just six inches tall and only blooms for a week or two in the spring, so it is easy to miss. It is listed as a rare species in Massachusetts and Vermont and considered a historic species in Rhode Island. The herbarium at Brown University has a specimen collected from South Kingstown in 1846, making it the last confirmed record of the species in Rhode Island. The only other known record is of a specimen of uncertain date in the 1800s at the New England Botanical Club herbarium at Harvard University that was collected from an “island in the Blackstone River.”

“I suspect it was likely more common in Rhode Island before settlement and that the continual clearing of forest here probably did it in,” said Enser, noting that it prefers rich soils. “Although apparently the bulbs of spring beauty were relished by the Indians and early settlers, so over-gathering could also have been a factor, especially for a plant that would have been uncommon.”

The Natural History Survey will record the plant’s occurrence in Block Island in the group’s database of Rhode Island wildlife and report it to the New England Wildflower Society for periodic monitoring.

Posted in Biodiversity, News, Plants |