Adventures with Bats: Conservation of Canada’s Flying Mammals

I’ve been a little bit bat crazy ever since reading the Silverwing series as a kid. But more recently my bat love has turned from reading about them to working with real live bats! Last week I had the opportunity to help with mist netting project for bats in Ontario. I’ve assisted with mist netting in Costa Rica and really fell in love with bats while I was there. What I took away from my experience in Costa Rica was that the bats of North America, particularly Eastern North America, are in trouble! I learned a little bit about white nose fungus, which can be a fatal problem for bats and is currently spreading into and across Canada.

A little brown bat, very common in Southern Ontario - Photo by Christy Humphrey

A little brown bat, very common in Southern Ontario – Photo by Christy Humphrey

Most people don’t realize how large of a role bats play in our ecosystem. They are responsible for seed dispersal, pollination, and some serious insect control. Like, 1,000 mosquitoes per hour insect control! Even as someone who loves animals I can appreciate a hatred of mosquitoes. Bats also pollinate agave plants, which are used to make tequila. So when you think about bats, think about drinking tequila outside while not being bitten by mosquitoes. Just picture that for a moment…Now hopefully you’re on board with saving the bats! Which we’ll come back to in a moment.

Save the bats, save the tequila.

Save the bats, save the tequila.

Outside of a known roosting site, a church in Southern Ontario, we set up some large mist nets (mist nets look like volleyball nets, but are made with very fine mesh the bats have a difficult time detecting). This was luxury mist netting, in Costa Rica we set up our nets across paths in the jungle! We counted over 200 bats flying out of the roost and caught 38 of them. The studies I assisted with in Costa Rica were purely population dynamics: identify, record gender and species and let them go. This was a little more invasive. We held the bats until they were processed and then released them.

A bat caught in a mist net. As long as you are diligent about checking the nets frequently they don't get too tangled. Photo by Stuart

A bat caught in a mist net. As long as you are diligent about checking the nets frequently they don’t get too tangled. Photo by Stuart

Processing involved weighing, measuring the wing, banding with an individual ID tag, checking for scarring on the wing (evidence of white nose fungus), taking a small sample of tissue from the wing for DNA analysis (surprisingly this did not seem to disturb the bats based on their lack of reaction), and taking a small hair sample for molecular analysis of metals.

Placing a lightweight band on a little brown bat - Photo by Christy Humphrey

Placing a lightweight band on a little brown bat – Photo by Christy Humphrey

The primary purpose here was to monitor for white nose fungus. This fungus was first recorded outside of New York in 2007 and has since spread up to 2,000 km away, infecting bats in many Eastern states and provinces. As of 2013 the fungus has been confirmed in bat populations as far West as central Ontario in Canada and Western Missouri in the US.

A distribution map of white nose fungus from whitenosefungus.org

A distribution map of white nose fungus from whitenosefungus.org

White nose syndrome is named for the appearance of a white fungus on the face - Photo by US fish and wildlife services

White nose syndrome is named for the appearance of a white fungus on the face – Photo by US fish and wildlife services

This fungus causes bats to behave strangely, coming out of hibernation in the winter which results in excess energy being used and an inability to survive the winter. Approximately 50% of little brown bats in an affected colony will die over the winter in an affected colony. 90-100% of bats in some regions have died. In Southern New Brunswick, an area boasting a population of 7,000 bats in 2011, the estimated population is 22 bats in 2014. That is not a typo. Twenty two bats!

The fungus causes damage to the wings, and even those who survive the winter often have extensive scarring on the wings. - Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Services

The fungus causes damage to the wings, and even those who survive the winter often have extensive scarring on the wings. – Photo by US Fish and Wildlife Services

Stopping, or at least slowing, the spread of this fungus is extremely important. Bats are important everywhere, but our Westernmost province has the most to lose. With 16 species of bats (including 8 endemic species) found in British Columbia, half of which are either red or blue listed, BC would be hit hard by this fungus.

Cavers are very important in helping to stop the spread of this fungus! If you enter a cave, after ensuring it is safe and not closed due to conservation reasons, always wash everything you were wearing/using before entering another cave. Humans moving between roosting sites, mostly while caving, have been the main factor in spreading this fungus. You can report any strange behaviour in bats (ie. flying around in the middle of the winter) to the local natural resource agency, build a bat box to provide a roosting site for bats (plans can be found online), and not disturb hibernating bats. See other suggestions on how you can help bats here: https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/what-can-you-do-help

There are many myths out there about bats, but once you get past all of the bad media they are amazing creatures and very necessary for our ecosystem to thrive and survive! We need these little creatures to stick around, so try your best to love the bats. When in doubt, think of the tequila.

Nature’s Engineers: Bird Nests

Animals have been building nests for millions of years, there are even fossil records of dinosaur nests! Over time nests have become very complex and from birds to turtles to termites and wasps there is beauty, diversity and much to be learned from these structures!

When we hear the word “nest” we tend to think of a standard woven cup structure built by a song bird of some sort, but there is an amazing amount of diversity in nests; materials, shape, strength, size that we don’t necessarily think about.

There is quite a bit of evidence for evolution in bird nests. Some ground nesting birds don’t build nests at all, others make small depressions by rubbing their breast into the ground. Some birds make stick nests either on the ground or in trees and others weave together materials into some of the more complex animal built structures. Birds are always competing for resources, and nest materials are no exception. To deal with competition for nest materials some birds use specific materials or habitats not utilized by other species for nesting. Using different materials can sometimes require some creative engineering, and we end up seeing some amazing structures as a result, such as the hanging nest of the Montezuma Oropendola:

The Montezuma Oropendola weaves a hanging basket using sturdy vines attached to overhanging branches. It continues to add smaller wines and other fibrous material until the basket is complete. These birds utilize the environment by nesting in areas with hornets in them! The honets deter cowbirds, who often lay eggs in the Oropendola nests.  Photo by  Amy Evenstad

The Montezuma Oropendola weaves a hanging basket using sturdy vines attached to overhanging branches. It continues to add smaller wines and other fibrous material until the basket is complete. These birds utilize the environment by nesting in trees containing hornets! The honets deter cowbirds, who often lay eggs in the Oropendola nests. Photo by Amy Evenstad

The Great Crested Flycatcher will often weave a snake skin into it's nest

The Great Crested Flycatcher will often weave a snake skin into it’s nest (2)

A particularly interesting example of creative uses of materials to build a unique structure suited perfectly to utilize an environment uncommon for nesting is the cliff swallow.

A cliff swallow leaving it's nest: a mud based structure on the side of overhanging cliff faces, man made structures such as houses and the occasional tree. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.

A cliff swallow leaving it’s nest: a mud based structure on the side of overhanging cliff faces, man made structures such as houses and the occasional tree. Photo by Jerry Kirkhart.

There are not many birds who a. nest on cliff faces and b. utilize mud as a primary building material. The cliff swallow is really taking advantage of a niche market. Even between Cliff and Barn Swallows (another mud utilizing nest builder) the mud composition is different, so the two species are not competing over the same mud. This likely contributes to the differences in nest shapes between the species. Barn swallows build a more cup shaped nest while the cliff swallows build a dome. Cliff swallows (both male and female) will collect mud pellets from alongside bodies of water and place them on a vertical wall, under overhanging structures to create a nest composed of 900-1,200 individual pellets of mud! They will often also add plant fibers and hair to the structure, then line the inside with feathers and other softer fibers.

Cliff Swallows will nest in groups of up to 1.000 individuals!

Cliff Swallows are very social when it comes to nesting, and will nest in groups of up to 3,700 nests! A great way to deal with predators of other species, but sometimes this results in nest parasitism, where one bird will lay it’s eggs in another bird’s nest.

It takes 1-2 weeks for the Cliff Swallow to build it’s nest, which all things considered is actually rather fast! This structure has no load bearing capabilities from below, yet will support 4-6 eggs for 12-14 days and once hatched, nestlings will remain in the nest for 23 days. The design of the cliff swallow nest has been studied by engineers and shown (in engineering terminology I don’t completely understand, but appreciate due to the parts I can understand as well as trust in the peer review process) to have a nearly perfect design for it’s use!

Basically what I’m trying to say is that bird nests are amazing. From the ground nests of penguins, to goldfinch cups, mourning dove, chipping sparrows and cliff swallows. Nature’s engineers are hard at work creating amazing structures in which to raise their young.

Mourning doves create a rather flimsy platform of twigs, sometimes using an old nest from another bird as a base. photo by mnchilemom

Mourning doves create a rather flimsy platform of twigs, sometimes using an old nest from another bird as a base. photo by mnchilemom

The American goldfinch creates a cup shaped structure built of woven plant fibers including bark strips, all bound together using spider webs, caterpillar silk, and other woven fibers.

The American goldfinch creates a cup shaped structure built of woven plant fibers including bark strips, all bound together using spider webs, caterpillar silk, and other woven fibers. The goldfinch will always build it’s nest above a fork in a tree branch.

You can find a bird nest yourself by going out and following a bird carrying food or nesting materials, just remember not to get too close. Bring a pair of binoculars and look from a distance or wait until the nest has been abandoned to get a closer look. If you disturb the nest the baby birds might try to fly away before they are ready!

The Biochemistry of Defense: Vinegaroons

Here at the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens we have the decepetively named “tailless whip scorpion”, which is not a scorpion at all but an amplypygid. Slightly more difficult to pronounce but a much more accurate name. The amplipygid has no stinger, no venom, no defense mechanism at all really. For capturing prey it has are some modified front legs. She essentially hugs her prey to death via impalement, which is pretty neat, but not nearly as cool as the chemical defense the similarly named whip scorpion possesses.

Tailless whip scorpion, aka Amplypygid

The tailless whip scorpion, aka amplypygid, we have at the Monteverde Butterfly Gardens

So, kind of related: The whip scorpion, similar to the tailless whip scorpion only by name and being an arachnid, does has a chemical defense. As the name implies, this creature has a tail from which she can quite accurately, aim and spray a chemical defense: acetic acid, aka vinegar, which is where it gets it’s more appropriate name, the vinegaroon. So normally, vinegar is a very low percentage of acetic acid. The vinegaroon actually has the highest concentration of acetic acid found in nature: 84%.

Vinegaroon aka whip scorpion

Vinegaroon ready to spray 1

This chemical is used defensively, primarily other things with exoskeletons. The vinegaroon has a slight problem though. Although acetic acid is quite a wonderful defense on soft fleshy parts, it is water soluble and will roll off of an exoskeleton of it’s attacker without harming it. So it needs to employ another tactic. Mixed with the acetic acid is another acid, caprylic acid, which is able to move through the waxy cuticle of the exoskeleton. This mixture with spread to cover more area as well as actually getting under that exoskeleton so it can do some damage. In the end, when the mixture is actually shot out of two storage compartments in the vinegaroon it is composed of 84% acetic acid, 5% caprylic acid, and 11% water.

A Bombardier Beetle spraying a chemical mixture which is 100 degrees celcius!

A Bombardier Beetle spraying a chemical mixture which is 100 degrees celsius! 2

Chemical defense is quite amazing and is found in many species of insects and arachnids. One famous chemical defense is the bombadier beetle which uses a mixture hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide from two separate chambers and shoots out a 100 degree celsius mixture at it’s predators. As there are many more insects waiting to be discovered and/or studied I’m sure we’ll be learning about many more amazing chemical defenses in the future.

In the meantime, poke insects you don’t recognize with care or you may find yourself smelling kind of funny.

Info from:

For Love of Insects by Thomas Eisner
Secret Weapons: Defenses of Insects, Spiders, Scorpions and Other Many Legged Creatures 2005 (Eisner, T., Eisner, M., Siegler, M.)

Food Preferences of Idotea: Little Isopods in Big Waves

It’s that time of year: the temperature is dropping, the trees are changing colour, and students everywhere are submerging themselves in their textbooks and hunkering down for the winter. At Bamfield Marine Sciences Center we have just started our research projects and my classmate Sam and I have decided to team up!

Me, Sam and Rihana out for a hike at Cape Beale

We have three separate weeks throughout the term set aside for our research projects, but can work on them in our free time as well. Sam is interested in algae and has been involved with the Martone lab at UBC researching seaweed biomechanics and I am interested in invertebrates and biomechanics. So we began talking to other scientists around the marine station and brainstorming.

Waves in a rocky exposed site at Cape Beale near Bamfield

Life in the intertidal is very stressful for many reasons. Some of them are chemical, as I discussed in my research this summer, and some are physical. Waves in the intertidal can be huge and put a lot of selective pressure on both animals and algae living there. One problem with these wave forces is dislodgement. If you are an alga or animal trying to live in these high flow areas you have to be able to hold on or you could easily be swept out to sea.

An Idotea: Cute may be an exaggeration, but they are pretty awesome. Note the hooks on the end of their legs which are assumed to be used for attachment. *photo from marLIN

There are these cute little isopods called Idotea that feed on algae in the intertidal. They are important herbivores in the intertidal and can be found at wave exposed sites. These animals are obviously well adapted to hold on for dear life in high water flow. Sam and I had many thoughts and questions, so we sat down and packed them all up into one overall question:

“By what morphological and behavioural mechanisms do Idotea survive wave action while grazing effectively?”

One of our smaller questions within this involves the trade off between food choice and habitat. In life there are always trade offs. Just as we have to balance love of chocolate and daily caloric intake, herbivores in the intertidal have to balance nutritional value and safety from wave forces causing dislodgement. There are many different algae in the intertidal offering different protection and nutritional advantages.

Ulva lactuca, a thin green bladed algae common in the intertidal

Fucus distichus, a brown algae commonly found in the intertidal

We want to test the trade offs involved in feeding and habitat preferences of Idotea. We’re using the algae MacrocystisFucusPorphyra, and Ulva in our study. We believe Ulva, a thin green blade like algae, will be a preferred food source due to it’s high nutritional value, but Fucus, a thicker branched brown algae or the kelp Macrocystis will be preferred as habitat. Idotea may be able to attach with more force to Fucus or Macrocystis than Ulva and, in the case of Fucus, be more protected from wave forces.

Over the next few weeks we will be grinding up algae and feeding it to Idotea to see which they prefer as a food source as well as placing Idotea in tanks with un-ground algae in flow and seeing which algae they prefer as habitat.

In the field, the best place to observe and decide what to do next . Photo credit: Rhian Tate

As far as our other hypothesis and experiments go we have quite a few ideas and I think we are going to get some very interesting results. Hopefully we’ll even get to play around with the flume!

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving weekend!

Cheers,
Christina

The Importance of Conservation Genetics

When I told my neurologist that I was interested in conservation genetics he told me, rather unenthusiastically, that it sounded like I just threw some words in a blender and pulled those two out. This is just one example, but a lot of people don’t understand how genetics and conservation go together.

Genetics is a rapidly evolving field providing insight into speciation and differences between individuals and populations. It can be applied to any living system and to me it is the perfect blend of biology, chemistry, and math.

My brother will attest to this, I am a total granola crunching hippy at heart. I love the environment and anything conservation related and I think most of us can agree that protecting our environment and conserving biodiversity is extremely important.

But how can genetics help conservation efforts? I think the real world contributions that this relatively new field of study has already made are the best way to illustrate it’s importance.

Me very excited to be holding an 8 week old cheetah at the Garden Route Game Lodge in South Africa.

My second favourite animal, cheetahs*, are very inbred. The 10,000 that are left share 99% of their DNA between individuals! The low genetic diversity makes the cheetah population very susceptible to disease and extinction.  By using genetic analysis to look at how closely related individual cheetahs are, cheetah breeding projects are able to breed selectively as an attempt to reintroduce genetic variation back into the population.

A girl feeding a Sulcata tortoise at CrocTalk Conservation and Rescue

Michael Russello, my UBCO ecology professor, really got me interested in conservation genetics. I was working at CrocTalk with Sulcata tortoises and taking his ecology course when he told us about some of his research. One Galapagos tortoise, Lonesome George, was thought to be the last of his species from Pinta island as of 1972. This prompted a study to look at tortoises on other Galapagos islands for relatedness to George. Because tortoises were shuffled around quite a bit by ships there are quite a few individuals sharing some of Lonesome George’s DNA. Although Lonesome George died in 2012 without reproducing, selective breeding could be used to reintroduce tortoises to Pinta island and potentially restore the ecology of the island to it’s previous state. Lonesome George lives on via bits and pieces of his genes in other individuals.

Humpback whale tail. Photo by Steph Sardelis

Terrestrial and marine, the Palumbi lab at Stanford University has quite a few interesting genetics projects. One of these is estimating past population sizes of whales. This is important for management and conservation of current populations. They are using current levels of genetic diversity along with known mutation rates to look at what the whale population was like before whaling. So far their numbers have increased previous estimates by up to ten times! These numbers could completely change our thoughts and approaches to whale related conservation and management.

Elephants behind the volunteer camp at the Garden Route Game Lodge in South Africa.

This is the second of my examples which relates to charismatic African animals. You can see where my mind is… In a little over 30 years the elephant population in Africa has declined from 1 million to 470,000 and poaching is very quickly approaching it’s highest ever rate. Samuel Wasser at The University of Washington works with ivory to determine where it is from. By comparing the tusk DNA with that of DNA found in elephants Africa it is possible to determine poaching hot spots and increase conservation efforts in these areas. I love this project particularly because it is non invasive. They are using feces for the population DNA samples instead of using invasive genetic sampling techniques.

These are only a few examples of how genetics are used in conservation efforts. This field is relatively now and growing rapidly as technology improves. It shows a lot of promise in assisting global conservation efforts.

Happy Thanksgiving!

*My first favourite animal is a platypus, in case you were wondering.

 

The Biochemistry of Light

Many of us have experienced the beauty of marine bioluminescence. After my experience in the Broken Islands and reading a post by The Little Biologist I started thinking…

Bioluminescent waves in the ocean, which I was able to see and swim in last night at Pachena beach near Bamfield (1)

When we see bioluminescence in the ocean what we’re really looking at is millions of tiny plankton, called dinoflagellates, emitting light. But what makes these organisms glow? The answer, of course, is chemistry!

An example of a bioluminescent dinoflagellate (2)

A process called chemiluminescence is used to refer to all light producing reactions. In this specific chemiluminescent reaction, luciferin is reacting with oxygen and luciferase to create oxyluciferin.

Luciferin is a chemical found in the dinoflagellates derived from chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants and algae green and photosynthetic. The luciferin needs luciferase, a catalyst, to react with oxygen.This reaction creates high energy oxyluciferin which creates light. The oxluciferin can then be converted back to luciferin, but this is a very slow reaction.

The luceriferase catalyst has some amazing uses in biology. Every gene has a promotor region which can either turn the gene on or off. Luciferin can be placed next to this promotor region, and then whatever physical trait that gene acts in glows, that means the gene is on! This has been used in many studies, including some on prostate cancer.

Mice with luciferase under UV light(3)

For more on bioluminescence see Jim Morin’s work.

 

Biotic Impacts on Tide Pool Chemistry

I began a research project at Bamfield Marine Sciences Center a couple months ago, and I’ve finally finished collecting and analyzing my data!

A view of the ocean near BMSC

Just a quick recap of what I was looking at: There is quite a bit of information available about tide pool chemistry and how it fluctuates. For example: pH tends to be higher during the summer months and oxygen content increases during the day and decreases at night. I wanted to look at how biotic factors, such as animals and algae, affect their environment chemically. By affecting their environment, organisms affect other organisms within that environment. Some organisms co-exist quite nicely, while others can indirectly compete. An example of a nice co-existence is a seaweed called Cladophora columbiana which lives quite happily in specific areas just because of the chemical secretions of invertebratesinto the water.

Every organism in this tide pool is affecting the chemistry in the water and therefore the other organisms

I described my experimental design for my light and dark experiment in my last post: https://thetransientbiologist.wordpress.com/2012/08/11/bamfield/  basically I tested an algae, sea star and sea snail in light and dark conditions to see how they were affecting pH and oxygen levels.

I also did an outdoor predator prey interaction experiment where I looked at the effects of mussels and sea stars interacting on pH and oxygen content. I wanted to see how each individually affected the tide pool chemistry as well as how they affected it together. There have been studies that have shown that just the presence of a predator, it’s chemical cues and the sight of it, affect the behaviour of prey just as much as a physical interaction between the two. I wanted to test this, so I looked at the sea stars and mussels with a mesh barrier and without a mesh barrier between them.

My predator prey experiment

The beautiful view from my “office”

Four days of data analysis later, I actually got some interesting results! I found that algae act differently in light and dark. Algae photosynthesizes in the light, so it is increasing oxygen and pH, but at night pH and oxygen actually decrease. In sea stars and sea snails the pH and oxygen content decreased during the dark and the light. In my control treatment, which contained only sea water, oxygen and pH stayed the same during the day, but actually decreased at night. This could be due to microorganisms which are opposing each other chemically during the day, but at night the ones which were photosynthesizing and creating oxygen stop counteracting the ones using the oxygen and creating carbon dioxide. To summarize light and dark have significant effects on tide pool chemistry. This could contribute to very different environmental conditions and tide pool communities during the night and day, or summer and winter when daylight hours decrease.

Data management and analysis, aka the things my nightmares are made of

In my predator prey interaction treatment there was no difference between the tide pools containing both mussels and sea stars with a barrier or without a barrier, both decreased oxygen and pH by the same amount. This implies that the mussels are responding the same way to the physical and chemical presence of a predator. Fish and other animals have been shown to change their behaviour when they can sense a predator, so these results are not that surprising but are still pretty interesting to see!

A rainy day of predator prey tide pool sampling

I still have a lot of data and I’d like to play around with it a little more, and I’d like to clean up my paper a little, but over the last couple months I really improved my skills in the whole scientific process. I learned so much about experimental design, reading scientific papers, applying for permits, using various equipment and data management and analysis. Nothing in school can ever prepare you for working with thousands of data points, my organizational excel and R skills have improved so drastically over the last few weeks that I am finally understanding statistical analysis used in papers I am reading.

I learned so much this summer, and I’m excited to apply my new research knowledge to another project this fall!