Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Does the Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata), a freshwater species native to the Pacific Coast, hold secrets to survive climate change and adapt to rising sea levels? CDFW biologists want to know and have partnered with UC Davis and the Department of Water Resources to conduct a long-term study in Solano County’s Suisun Marsh to better understand the aquatic reptiles.
Officially, the Western pond turtle is a Species of Special Concern in California because of declining populations brought about by habitat loss, degradation and competition from that pet store favorite – the non-native, red-eared slider. The pet slider turtles are often released into the environment by their owners after outgrowing or outliving their welcome. They also outgrow and out-compete the medium-sized western pond turtles for food and critical basking spots. Western pond turtle populations are faring even worse in Oregon and Washington.
And yet in the Suisun Marsh, with its brackish water and high salinity, the Western pond turtle appears to be thriving. The Suisun Marsh, ironically, may now be home to one of the strongest populations of Western pond turtles on the West Coast.
“It’s just a really unique population in a place where we didn’t expect to see a freshwater species,” said Mickey Agha, the UC Davis Ph.D. student leading the university’s turtle research with Dr. Brian Todd, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.
As if to underscore the point, researchers this summer collected a turtle with a barnacle attached to its shell – a testament to the marine-like environment to which the Suisun Marsh turtles have adapted.
Researchers also have been impressed with the age, health and size of the individual turtles. At 1 ½ to 2 pounds and with an upper shell that stretches up to 8 inches in length, researchers are discovering some of the largest Western pond turtles ever recorded in California.
“Looking at the ones we’ve collected, we’re seeing a lot of healthy turtles in good body condition,” said Environmental Scientist Melissa Riley, who is leading CDFW’s efforts.
The research began in the summer of 2016 with scientists trying to get a basic sense of turtle population numbers. The turtles are trapped in baited, floating hoop nets, their size, weight and age recorded. Before being released, each turtle is marked by filing a unique pattern of small notches along the edges of the upper shell. More than 125 turtles have been recorded in the project’s database.
Turtle trapping is taking place on three sites at the Suisun Marsh in and around the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. Biologists are particularly interested in turtles at the Hill Slough Wildlife Area along Grizzly Island Road as 500 acres there will soon be restored to tidal marshland. Biologists plan to affix tiny, solar-powered, GPS tracking devices to some of the turtles to study their movements and see how they respond to the increasingly saltwater environment at Hill Slough and other parts of the marsh.
“That’s one of the many questions we have,” Agha said. “If sea level rise occurs, what happens to these turtles?”
Porcupine1: NRVP participants Greg Moore, Mike Maulhardt, Charles Brown and Ben Smith volunteered to service and maintain porcupine stations at Red Lake Wildlife Area.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but studying California’s porcupines hasn’t traditionally been a high priority for CDFW.
Wildlife research funding is limited, especially for non-game species, and species listed as threatened or endangered are typically given top priority. That means that scientists sometimes need to be creative – and frugal – in their efforts to survey and manage non-listed, non-game species.
Stacy Anderson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist specialist based in Rancho Cordova, recently conducted a pilot project that does just that.
Anderson developed an interest in the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) in 2017, after acknowledging that anecdotal evidence seems to indicate their numbers are on the decline.
Porcupines have historically inhabited diverse habitats including Humboldt County, along the Sacramento River, in the Coast Ranges, the Klamath Mountains, the southern Cascades, the Modoc Plateau and the Sierra Nevada. But in her conversations with unit biologists and wildlife officers in some of these areas, Anderson took note that many were reporting a substantial decrease in the number of calls from residents whose property – typically wood structures such as decks and outhouses – had been damaged by porcupines in recent decades. Informal surveys of veterinarians across the state also indicated a decline in the number of pet owners seeking quill removal from their pets.
Perhaps most telling, CDFW’s Sierra Nevada monitoring project, which has studied portions of the Sierra for the past nine years, has documented only seven porcupine sightings out of 750 stations surveyed via trail camera.
“We are worried about them because we don’t have a lot of sightings,” Anderson said. They live in low densities and they have only have one baby per year, so they don’t repopulate quickly.”
Recognizing the need to gather more information, Anderson and Evan King, another CDFW environmental scientist, launched a pilot effort last year to improve surveillance of porcupine, with a long-term goal of determining distribution and population numbers.
Anderson and King were inspired by the work of Uldis Roze, a researcher who has long studied porcupines in the Catskills of New York by using wood soaked in salt brine as a porcupine attractant. His research indicates that porcupines show a strong seasonality of salt use, which peaks in April through May and August through September. Because porcupines’ diet of plant matter is generally low in sodium (salt), they seek out other dietary sources of sodium to maintain normal levels in their bodies.
Anderson and King theorized that brined wood could be effective in attracting California porcupines, too. A plan was made to soak stakes made from 2x2s in a sodium brine to monitor activity. In theory, tooth scrapings on the wood could also be identified to species.
“It’s not a full-blown study – it’s just a way to test a plan of action that can maybe be used in a study later,” Anderson explained. “We don’t want to waste valuable resources on untested methodology, so this is a way to find out first if the methodology is going to work. It’s a low-cost, high yield approach.”
Twenty-three stations were set up for the 2017 pilot project, which was conducted from April to October. Members of CDFW’s Natural Resources Volunteer Program, who support departmental operations, supplied much of the labor, and the study costs were kept low. Expenses added up to less than $100, including salt for brining and wood. Trail cameras borrowed from other researchers were utilized to help monitor the stations.
Researchers were pleased to learn that the porcupines took to their efforts with a grain of salt (so to speak). They determined that brined-wood monitoring is more effective than traditional bait or game-trail monitoring, at least in the study area in northern Sierra and along the Sacramento River. Preliminary results indicate that the brined wood appeared to lure porcupines into the area of a camera station -- although most did not approach the wood and fewer still left a distinctive chew mark on the brined wood. But the trail cameras provided clear, useful photographs.
“We still have unanswered questions about this technique that will need to be addressed before we can consider it a success,” Anderson said. “However, our pilot efforts are promising.”
CDFW is seeking additional funding through state wildlife grants and collaborative efforts with other researchers and agencies to gain a better understanding of the North American porcupine’s status. Anderson plans to continue refining the methodology of her study, along with other survey techniques including habitat surveys, feeding signs, tree girdling, scat searches and the use of detection dogs.
Anderson also encourages members of the public to help CDFW’s efforts by reporting detections of live or “roadkill” porcupines.
CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Porcupine photo by CDFW Warden Chad Alexander.
A tiny, endangered mammal is the subject of an extraordinary conservation effort near the communities of Shoshone and Tecopa in Inyo County.
The Amargosa vole is unique to the Mojave Desert, and today, scientists estimate there are only about 500 remaining in the wild. Though the Amargosa vole is rarely seen by humans, biologists recognize that it is a key link in the native food chain. Predators, including raptors and water birds, share the desert marshes where they live, and the extinction of the Amargosa vole would have a ripple effect on these and many other species as well.
For a year, a scientific team consisting of CDFW, UC Davis and US Geological Survey biologists have conducted intensive research into the life cycle of this little vole. The team visited every marsh that potentially could be inhabited by voles – they mapped the marshes, assessed habitat quality, and determined whether or not voles were present. In a subset of larger marshes the team conducted more detailed assessments of water inflow-outflow, soil moisture and vegetation, and captured voles to estimate local population numbers, assess the health of the voles and take samples for disease and genetics studies. In addition to the hands-on study in the desert, they also studied satellite data to track the amount of vegetation and water in the area over a period of time. A grim picture emerged of a habitat range in decline, due in large part to climate change and human modification.
Some of the findings included:
Scientists believe that the network of springs and marshes in the vole’s natural range has been so extensively modified by humans that the vole’s future existence will depend almost entirely on whether humans continue to supply water where and when needed. They found evidence to support this, as an intensive restoration effort at one of the largest marshes showed signs of successfully supporting and sustaining voles.
The report authors identified several specific measures that could be taken to increase vole habitat and improve their chances of survival – including reconfiguring water inflow and outflow, changing elevations and planting vegetation that would enhance existing marshes and/or better connect adjacent marshes.
This study is part of a larger long-term effort to secure a future for the Amargosa vole and the unique marsh ecosystems it depends upon in the Mojave Desert. In late 2014 vole numbers became so low that scientists initiated a captive breeding program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to reduce the risk of extinction. Today more than 100 voles are in the captive colony at UC Davis – providing a potential source of animals for release into restored habitats, and an important insurance population to prevent extinction.
Photos by Don Preisler/UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
Deep in the pickleweed in the San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun Bays, the tiny salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) tries to avoid predators and compete with other species for prime habitat. Food and cover are abundant, but its overall habitat is shrinking as humans encroach upon its home range. In south San Francisco Bay alone, 95 percent of the historic salt marsh has been lost to industrial parks and subdivisions. Annual flooding in the winter can be perilous, too -- when vegetation is topped by rising tides, the mice must scramble to find taller vegetation or into upland habitat (grasses around the wetlands that don’t get flooded by the tides).
As part of the effort to monitor and conserve this state- and federally-listed endangered species, biologists conduct annual surveys of the salt marsh harvest mouse. The effort involves setting up traps stuffed with cotton batting and baited with birdseed and walnuts, taking measurements and collecting other data on the subjects that are captured. In some studies, the mice are fitted with GPS collars for tracking, or ear tags to help identify them upon recapture. In other studies, the biologists simply clip away fur on the mouse’s flank or neck – another method that helps them determine whether a mouse in a trap has crossed paths with them before.
Once a mouse’s measurements have been recorded, they are set loose to scamper back into the pickleweed. The data that’s been collected will later be entered into a larger database that will be accessible to researchers from multiple state agencies (CDFW, the Department of Water Resources), federal agencies (US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Geological Survey), educational research institutions (UC Davis, CSU San Marcos, San Francisco State) and private industry.
By comparing population fluctuations and other data throughout the range, scientists hope to identify threats and increase their understanding of this rare rodent’s biology and behavior – ultimately helping to better inform future decisions on habitat management, restoration and enhancement efforts.
A tiny transponder is placed inside the body cavity of each female salmon. When the fish lay their eggs, the transponders will be expelled, providing scientists with information on when, where and how successful each spawning female is.
After the salmon are tagged, they are returned to a holding pond while the anesthetic wears off.
CDFW scientists electronically identify and perform an ultrasound on each fish in order to assess their pre-spawning condition.
Each salmon in the project received a tiny identity tag that is entered into a database. The computerized system allows biologists to follow individual fish throughout their life cycle.
A team of scientists read, evaluate and record data for each individual salmon.
On Thursday, May 18, fisheries biologists implanted acoustic transponders into 60 endangered adult spring-run Chinook salmon. The transponders will track their movements and help determine spawning success later this season. The salmon will be released to spawn naturally in the San Joaquin River near Friant over the next three months.
Spring-run Chinook have been absent from the river for many decades. Reintroduction is one of multiple strategies biologists are using to reestablish naturally spawning runs of these fish as part of the San Joaquin River Restoration Project. The project – which is jointly coordinated by CDFW, the Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service – is a comprehensive, long-term effort to restore flows to the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River and restore a self-sustaining Chinook fishery while reducing or avoiding adverse water supply impacts from restoration flows.
A total of 120 salmon will be implanted and released at two different times. Biologists will track the fish from each release to determine which is most successful. This release strategy provides the hatchery-raised salmon the opportunity to select their own mates, construct redds (a spawning nest in the stream gravel) and spawn naturally.
CDFW photos by Harry Morse
The automated recorder model the scientists used. (CDFW photo by Brett Furnas)
Two avian researchers recently completed a groundbreaking study on the effects of climate change, based on the calls of California’s songbirds. By recording the sounds made by eight different songbird species, and tracking the dates they are most vocal and how frequently they sing, the scientists were able to develop a method to measure how the birds are adjusting to climate change.
CDFW Wildlife Ecologist Dr. Brett Furnas and William Jessup University’s Professor Michael McGrann analyzed data from two bird surveys, one done by CDFW and another led by William Jessup University, in the Klamath Mountains and Southern Cascades of northern California. Both studies used automated recorders to monitor bird sounds between 2009 and 2011. The results of their analysis, detailed in a research article entitled Using Occupancy Modeling to Monitor Dates of Peak Vocal Activity for Passerines in California, were published this month in a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, The Condor: Ornithological Applications.
Furnas and McGrann’s study was prompted by the scientists’ concern that climate change could throw bird’s reproduction cycles out of sync with the seasons. Their work, which represents the first comprehensive assessment of songbird occupancy over approximately 15,000 square miles in California, earned high praise from Steve Beissinger, an expert on avian phenology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Furnas and McGrann provide a textbook example of how to detect differences in the timing of nesting among bird species using information on the peak date of singing derived from surveys and automated recorders,” Beissinger said. “Their results support recent findings of a five-to-twelve day shift forward in the timing of peak singing by California birds in the nearby Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges in response to climate change.”
Because birds’ songs are correlated with their breeding behavior and are easily identifiable to species, the scientists found them to be a useful tool to provide new baseline data for the birds of northern California. Working together, they identified the precise dates of peak vocal activity for eight songbird species: Hutton’s vireo, hermit thrush, dark-eyed junco, Nashville warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, yellow warbler, western tanager and black-headed grosbeak. In addition to gathering baseline data, Furnas and McGrann developed a method to track advances in the timing of vocal activity in the coming decades.
Male songbirds sing for several reasons -- including to advertise their territory or to find a mate with which to breed. When birds are at their most vocal, they are usually near the height of their breeding season, Furnas explained.
Much like the call of the imperiled “canary in the coal mine,” changes in the frequency or timing of these native birdsongs can serve as barometers of the cumulative impact of climate change.
“When the canary starts singing you know that there is a danger, such as a buildup of dangerous gasses in a mine,” Furnas explained. “When the birds in our study start singing earlier in the season, they are warning us that climate change is starting to disrupt complex ecological cycles that developed slowly over millions of years of evolution.”
One of the most interesting findings of the study so far is a hint in the baseline data that migratory birds may be at greater risk than non-migratory birds. “We found the highest singing activity for migrant birds spanned a shorter number of days than the highest singing activity for non-migratory birds,” Furnas said. “This could be because migratory birds have less flexibility to shift the timing of their breeding cycle. If they are prompted by increasing temperatures to migrate earlier in the year, they may arrive at their breeding grounds to find they don’t have enough insects to eat.
“Migratory birds have to compress a lot of activities into a shorter time period with less margin for error,” Furnas explained. “Think of it like scheduling a short holiday somewhere nice, but when you show up, bad weather cancels out a lot of your itinerary.”
This, in turn, negatively affects the very biodiversity that CDFW is responsible for monitoring.
“If all the species adjusted their ecologies similarly, perhaps that would be OK, but unfortunately, we expect that different insects and birds will react in different ways leading to a mismatch of conditions,” Furnas said.
Both CDFW and William Jessup University plan to continue bird surveys over the long term so that California has the information to support effective management of climate change and other conservation challenges.
Top photo: Singing hermit warbler, one of the species addressed in the study. (CDFW photo by Michael McGrann)
CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study.
CDFW Environmental Scientist Brian Ehler measures the hind-foot length on a fawn captured near Medicine Lake for a mule deer study.
Driving up Interstate 5 through Siskiyou County in northern California, one cannot help but take notice of the looming, majestic land mass of Mount Shasta, the largest volcano in the Cascade system.
In this rugged region of the Golden State, mule deer are an iconic species, valued by recreationists and required by wild carnivores who prey upon them for nourishment. Mule deer are considered a “foundation species” because the large landscapes that are necessary for their survival can also be home to a vast array of other wildlife and plant species. But mule deer populations have dramatically declined in recent decades across many western ranges, and in Siskiyou County, this decrease has prompted researchers from CDFW and the University of California, Santa Cruz to partner on a multi-year effort to investigate the population dynamics of this high-profile species.
Since 2015, 51 adult female mule deer and 37 fawns have been captured in the Mount Shasta region. Biological samples, including blood and parasites, have been collected, physical measurements of body condition and age recorded and telemetry collars attached to each subject. Collars on adult deer provide a GPS location every hour and alert researchers when a mortality occurs. The collars also document movement details, including migration routes and the location of critical winter and reproductive ranges. The fawn collars feature location beacons that allow researchers to monitor both general movements and when a mortality has occurred. Once a mortality alert is sent from a collar, a search of the site and an examination of the carcass ensues to determine if the deer died from predation or other causes, such as disease or malnutrition. The collars have timed releases and are set to drop off the animal after 18 months. Researchers can then reuse the collars after retrieving them by following a GPS signal. This high-tech, high-resolution documentation of deer behavior is vital for prioritizing the conservation value of landscapes so they may be better protected in the future.
With the recent arrival of gray wolves to northeastern California, predators are a key focus of the mule deer project. Understanding the influence this large canid will have on natural prey species begins with establishing baselines of how current predators -- including mountain lions, bears, bobcats and coyotes -- are affecting prey in this region. Mountain lions, which rely on deer as the primary component of their diet, are a major focus of this study. Researchers have captured and affixed five adult mountain lions with GPS telemetry collars, allowing them to track and study rates of predation, feeding patterns and diet composition.
The analysis of fecal DNA combined with new statistical techniques is another way to study population density and composition across broad landscapes. DNA analysis allows researchers to determine the sex and identity of an individual deer, which is used to estimate densities and gender ratios. Researchers are collecting fecal samples throughout the mule deer’s summer range, in the hopes of reliably extrapolating estimates of density and sex ratios across the entire region.
This project, which began in 2015, is scheduled to continue into 2019, as researchers strive to gain further insight into the lives of mule deer and predators across this ecologically complex and breathtakingly beautiful region of the state.
California Department of Fish and Wildlife photos.
Top photo: Mount Shasta in winter.
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