Surprisingly Similar: Deer and Elephant

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a Syracuse University  senior studying Biology and Economics. Her summer research was on the nexus of biodiversity and water resources. She already has 3 NWNL blogs on African and N American watershed species:  Wild v Hatchery Salmon; Buffalo & Bison; & Papyrus & Pragmites.

Jones_180225_K_6049.jpgAfrican Elephant, Mara Conservancy, Kenya 

INTRODUCTION

This blog compares Africa’s savannah elephant (Loxodonta africana) to the N. America’s white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in North America’s eastern United States. They present unlikely, but strikingly interesting comparative behaviors and impacts within their watersheds.  

In the Pliocene Era, elephants roamed and trumpeted their presence across the planet. Today they are a keystone species in African watersheds, including the Nile, Mara and Omo River Basins. Yet these giants are increasingly vulnerable to human poaching, hunting and destruction of habitat and migratory corridors. As a result, African savannah elephants are categorized as a “vulnerable” species.

In North America, white-tailed deer (also called Virginia deer) are present across the continent from the Atlantic Coast’s Raritan River Basin to the Pacific Coast’s Columbia River Basin. These nimble jumpers probably came to N America in the  Miocene Era as browsers competing for their niche with American rhinos. As they wheeze, grunt and bleat their presence today, they have few natural predators remaining, other than car collisions. Deer in the eastern US are a “Least Threatened” species – while Columbian white-tailed deer in Oregon’s Lower Columbia River Basin are “Near Threatened”.  

Jones_090629_NJ_1137.jpgWhite-Tailed Deer , Upper Raritan River Basin, New Jersey

North American male deer stand at 6-7 feet and weigh 100-275 pounds (¼ of a ton, the weight of a baby elephant).  In contrast, full-grown elephants stand at 11 feet (twice as tall as deer) and weigh up to 13,000 lbs (6.5 tons). Yet despite these huge size differences, these 2 species impacts on watershed forests are quite similar. As herbivores, both threaten and alter their habitats’ vegetative diversity, growth and regeneration.

VEGETATION & FOREST INTERFACE

Elephants alter their watersheds by converting woodland to shrubland. Elephants consume large amounts of vegetation allowing growth of plants previously blocked from the sun. However the benefit of increasing plant diversity is countered by the destruction elephants cause while browsing their way through watersheds. They remove trees, trample grasses and compact the soil. This limits forest regeneration since seedlings cannot grow and their trails cause soil erosion.

Similarly, deer today are increasingly damaging forest vegetation due to their soaring populations. In the Raritan River Basin, impacts of high deer populations have resulted in habitat loss for birds and other animals that rely on vegetation for protection. Thus, native species are decreasing and could eventually disappear locally.

HUMAN INTERFACE

Another similarity both species face is that of negative interactions with humans. Elephant and deer both damage farmers’ crops.  Elephant contact with humans continues to increase as they lose their traditional habitats due to human infringement and development. Increased development has also led farmers to further transgress into what was elephant rangeland or migratory corridors. In following and browsing along their ancient pathways and territories today, elephants can trample crops and even kill people. Those elephants are often killed in retaliation. In Tanzania’s Serengeti District, the effect of elephants raiding crops means a bag of maize can be locally more valuable than the cost of building a classroom or tarmac road.

In America, deer find an ideal environment in urban and suburban areas with their mix of ornamental shrubs, lawns and trees.  Since deep forest vegetation is too high for them, deer browse along the “edge habitat” which also provides easy access to suburban yards.

deer crossing road.jpgWhite-tailed deer crossing a road (Creative Commons)

With the loss of wolves, bears and cougars, deer have had a lack of predators, causing their populations to soar. Now their biggest predators are human hunters and car accidents which cause deer and human fatalities. As well, human health impacted by deer that browse in the woods, meadows or dunes with ticks carrying Lyme disease (Lyme borreliosis). Lyme disease can be lethal, or at the least debilitating, for humans, livestock and pets.

For elephant and deer, interaction with humans is not beneficial for either species. Sadly, given less space for the exploding human race, these fateful interactions will only increase.

WATER INTERFACE

The spread of human settlements, agriculture and livestock farming have replaced elephants’ natural habitats. Clearing of those traditional lands disturbs and decreases water volume in their rivers and lakes. Yet, when elephants were there, they created water holes which increased water availability for themselves and other species. Simultaneously, humans are increasing their consumption of today’s decreasing water and other natural resources.  

This scenario is dramatically playing out in Kenya’s Mara River Basin. In the Mau Forest highlands, human deforestation has depleted flows of source tributaries of the Mara River, a lifeline to the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. In turn, lowered water levels downstream have increased temperatures and disrupted local rainfall patterns. Thus the human takeover of the Mau Forest has chased out the elephant and disturbed downstream ecosystems, which in turn will contributed to decreases in wildlife populations and thus park revenues from tourism.

Elephants have direct impacts on water sources and availability since they are a “water-dependent species.” When water is scarce, they dig in dry river beds to provide water for themselves, other animals, and humans. Additionally, elephants migrate to find water – even if only via artificial, supplementary water points. More research is needed, but water availability may become a useful tool for regulating elephant distribution and managing ecological heterogeneity.  Yet an abundance of artificial water should be avoided in conservation areas where the presence of elephant would cause vegetation degradation.

Jones_090930_K_0584.jpgAfrican Elephants crossing the Mara River, Mara Conservancy, Kenya

Deer, unlike elephants, have a more indirect impact to water resources. Their impacts are more about quality of water than its availability. The nutrients and pathogens excreted by white-tailed deer become water pollutants in nearby streams and groundwater, especially during in storm runoffs.  Deer waste dropped in and along streams in the Raritan River Basin produces greater pathogenic contamination than cattle manure deposited away from streams.

HUNTING AS A WAY TO REDUCE HUMAN-WILDLIFE CONFLICTS

Hunting is a controversial solution to controlling these species’ threats of ecosystem degradation and human conflict. Hunting elephant to counter their negative impacts has much greater negative consequences than hunting deer. Elephant poaching for  lucrative ivory profits became such a serious threat that elephants became listed as an Endangered Species. While a 1989 ban on international ivory trade allowed some populations to recover, illegal ivory trade still occurs and threatens elephant populations. Thus, shooting elephants marauding crops and killing farmers is not an option – thus the search for other means to controlling elephant degradation.

After elephants devour all vegetation in an area or during droughts, they migrate. However, that puts them face to face with today’s man-made fences and trenches built to stop elephants, as well as with new communities and farms. Thus Kenyan conservancies, International Fund for Animal Welfare,  Addo Elephant NP, Sangare Conservancy and other groups began creating “protected elephant corridors.” Such corridors provide elephants safe migratory paths where they don’t disturb humans.

Jones_180129_K_7661.jpgRanger at the entrance gate to Sangare Conservancy, Kenya

Deer hunting however is viewed  by many as a positive means to control over-abundant deer populations destroying gardens and forests. In rural regions, deer are still hunted for food and sport which helps save forest saplings from deer browse. But that removes only a limited number, and there have been traditional limits on deer hunting. Along Mississippi’s Big Black River, the state still restricts  killing year-old bucks and any deer hunting during floods. Many such restrictions are being loosened today to help counter the rapid growth of deer populations. As well, to reduce deer browse and car collisions, some suburbs hold carefully-organized, targeted hunts by licensed “sharp-shooters,” and the venison is harvested for homeless shelters. Suburban methods to combat deer intrusions also often include installing 8-foot tall fences to protect gardens, landscaping and critical ecosystems.

Jones_180129_K_7681.jpgFence of the Sangare Conservancy, Kenya 

FOREST IMPACTS

Elephants’ foraging creates open habitats for other species. However, browsing of resulting mid-successional species by elephants and other species can stop regrowth of trees and forest. “As go the elephants, so go the trees.” This issue is similar to deer browsing on soft-leaved saplings in N. American forests that preventing the growth of future forests.

Yet elephants compensate for their heavy vegetative consumption.  More than a dozen tree species depend on forest elephants for to spread their seeds. This type of seed dispersal occurs via each elephant’s daily  200-lb. dung droppings, thus ensuring survival of vegetation. Another benefit of creating open spaces by altering and removing trees is the opportunity for greater faunal diversity. Elephants uproot and fell trees and strip bark; but in this process, they break down branches which provides access to food for smaller wildlife.

TZ-ELE-215.jpgHerd of African elephants with newborn, Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania

All this change created by elephants creates “a cyclical vegetational seesaw of woodland to grassland and back to woodland.” As debris of trees felled by elephants shields pioneer grasses and shrubs from trampling, deep-rooted perennial grasses can grow. These grasses attract grazers to the area, while the browsers leave. When the woodlands regenerate, elephant number will return, followed by browsers.  

Deer, unlike elephants, are non-migratory however, and thus they don’t spur cycles of regeneration. Therefore, watersheds with deer-infested forests face ongoing degradation. Today’s soaring numbers of deer prevent any chance of forest recovery from their constant browsing. Deer also displace native wildlife, which furthers the cascade of ecosystem degradation. When a forest loses trees, there is less water recycling  since trees produce and move rain downwind to other terrestrial surfaces.  Water retention in a forest is also related to presence of ground cover – also eaten by deer – which decreases stormwater runoff and downstream erosion in floodplains or wetlands. A lack of ground cover causes inland forests and downstream areas to become arid and potentially a waste land. The deer do not produce compensatory benefits that elephant produce.

Jones_090629_NJ_1120.jpgWhite-tailed deer Upper Raritan River Basin, New Jersey

CONCLUSIONS

Elephant and deer each have increasingly negative impacts on watershed vegetation and human communities. However a big difference exists in effective stewardship for controlling these species. In Africa, elephant numbers (2007-2014) have dropped by nearly a third, representing a loss of 144,000 elephants.  Begun in 2014, the Great Elephant Census (GEC) accounted for over 350,000 savannah elephant across 18 African countries and states the current yearly loss at 8 per cent. Tanzania, having one of the highest declines, and Mozambique have lost 73,000 elephants due to poaching in just five years.

However deer populations have exploded.  In 2014, US deer populations across the United States were estimated at over 15 million. In New Jersey, there are approximately 76-100 deer per square mile; yet a healthy ecosystem can support only 10 deer per square mile.  These high densities of deer are decimating US forests.

Making elephant poaching illegal and banning ivory trade has saved elephant populations in Africa. But in N America further controls of the growing population of deer is badly needed. The most obvious step towards this goal would be to remove deer hunting restrictions – the very opposite of Africa’s stopping the hunting and poaching of elephants.

On both continents, immediate solutions are critical if we are to protect our forests and water supplies – critical natural resources of our watersheds – from degradation being increasingly incurred by both species. Elephants consume vegetation and degrade areas of abundant water; while tick-carrying deer contaminate water with their excrement and threaten the future of our forests. One could summarize the consequence of too many deer as “No Forests – No Water” – and the consequence of losing elephant as “No Elephants – No Water.”

All photos © Alison M. Jones unless otherwise noted.

Bibliography:

World Wildlife Fund for Nature, accessed on June 28, 2018
Gereta, Emmanuel Joshua. Department of Biology Norwegian University of Science and Technology, accessed on June 18, 2018
African Forest Policy Forum – Proceedings, accessed on June 28, 2018
Chamaille-Jammes, Simon. Journal of Applied Ecology, accessed on June 28, 2018
Mutugi, Marion. European Scientific Journal, accessed June 28, 18 by BE
Kideghesho, Jafari R. The International Journal of Biodiversity Science and Management, accessed on July 2, 2018
Landman, Marietjie. Understanding Long-Term Variations in an Elephant Piosphere Effect to Manage Impacts, accessed on July 2, 2018
New Jersey Institute of Technology, The Neshanic River Watershed Restoration Plan, accessed on July 2, 2018
Opar, Alisa. Audubon, accessed on July 2, 2018
Woods, John J. Bucks On The Big Black, accessed on July 2, 2018
Ohio Wesleyan University. The Waning of the Elephants, accessed on July 16, 2018
Ohio Wesleyan University. The Waning of the Elephants, accessed on July 16, 2018
Gomez, Monserrat. Nikela, accessed on July 16, 2018
Marshall, Jessica. Discovery Channel, accessed on July 16, 2018
Thorman, Cartin. Minnesota Economy, Environment, accessed on July 16, 2018
Meyer, Amelia. Elephants Forever, accessed on July 17, 2018
Louisiana Sportsman, accessed on July 24, 2018
Steyn, Paul. National Geographic, accessed on August 7, 2018
Hersher, Rebecca. National Public Radio, accessed on August 7, 18 by BE
Pennsylvania State University New Kensington. The Virtual Nature Trail, accessed on August 7, 2018
Franklin Reporter & Advocate, accessed on August 7, 2018
Hurley, Amanda. CityLab, accessed on August 7, 2018
World Wildlife Foundation, accessed on August 7, 2018
Elephant-World, accessed on August 7, 2018
Chafota, Jonas. Effects of Changes In Elephant Densities On the Environment and Other Species—How Much Do We Know? Accessed on August 8, 2018
Howard, Meghan. Animal Diversity Web, accessed on August 8, 2018
Sheldrick, Daphne. Elephant Conservation, accessed on August 8, 2018
Sjogren, Kristian. ScienceNordic, accessed on August 8, 2018
Platt, John. Scientific American, accessed on August 8, 2018
Swit, Nadia. The Downtown Review, accessed on August 8, 2018
Hilderman, Richard. The Effect of Deforestation on the Climate and Environment, accessed on August 8, 2018
National Park Service. Draft White-Tailed Deer Management Plan/ EIS, accessed on August 8, 2018

Papyrus and Phragmites: Invasive Species

By Bianca T. Esposito, NWNL Research Intern
(Edited by Alison M.  Jones, NWNL Director)

NWNL research intern Bianca T. Esposito is a senior at Syracuse University studying Biology and Economics. Her research this summer is on the nexus of biodiversity and water resources. Her earlier NWNL blogs were: Wild Salmon v Hatchery Salmon and Buffalo, Bison & Water.

 

My 3rd NWNL blog on biodiversity compares papyrus in Africa and phragmites in North America. I will highlight both flora’s ecological benefits, ecological threats and impacts to water, as well as solutions to prevent their uncontrollable spread.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a tall, aquatic perennial shrub, ranging from 8 to 10 feet in height. This invasive species rooted into the ground, bearing simple brown fruit with brown/cream/green colored flowers, forms floating islands in tropical African swamps, rivers and lakes. In non-native habitats, papyrus will spread and invade the space of other native plants unless pruned. Commonly known as the “Paper Reed,” papyrus is native to Egypt and Sudan along the Nile River in North Africa, a NWNL case-study watershed. Papyrus is now also found in two other NWNL case-study watersheds: along Ethiopia’s Omo River (where damming has stabilized water levels allowing roots to take hold) and Tanzania’s Mara River Estuary.

Papyrus in Uganda .jpgPapyrus in Uganda (Creative Commons)

Once a well-known resource for paper making, today papyrus has potential for biofuel production. Papyrus also has many ecological benefits. Its value ranges from assimilating significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to providing breeding grounds for fish species, and feeding grounds for grazing herbivores.

In its native habitat, papyrus lines bodies of water, serving as a filtration system for removing sediments, sewage, and heavy metals that pollute the water. However, papyrus poses ecological threats to introduced environments, such as Italy and the United States, after being imported for ornamental use. Since it is invasive, papyrus disrupts ecosystems, threatens the growth of the native species, and impedes the flow of waterways. Papyrus will continue to expand problematically in introduced ecosystems if temperature warming continues to increase.

Jones_091003_TZ_1505.jpgPapyrus blooms in the Mara River Basin, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Major impacts papyrus has on non-native water ecosystems include: reducing native biodiversity by altering habitat; threatening the loss of native species; altering trophic levels; modifying hydrology; modifying natural benthic communities; and negatively impacting aquaculture and fisheries.

Solutions to prevent further papyrus spread into other ecosystems are the use of  physical, biological, and chemical controls. Physically, we could cut down and rake up the shrub. Biologically, we could use a novel fungal isolate that releases a phytotoxin to inhibit the growth of papyrus. And chemically, herbicides are a successful method to control papyrus spread.

Jones_091002_TZ_1209.jpgWoman collecting water in the Masurua Swamp with Papyrus in the background, Tanzania (© Alison Jones)

Phragmites (Phragmites australis) is a tall perennial grass that can grow up to 15 feet or more in height, with dense clusters of purple fluffy flower heads. Referred to as the “Common Reed,” this species is native to Eurasia and Africa. Our focus is on its impact in North America. Outside of its native habitat, phragmites is “cryptic invasive,” meaning that as this non-native species spreads within another native species’ range, it will typically go unnoticed due to its misidentification for the native species. Phragmites ideal habitat is marsh communities bordering lakes, ponds and rivers. Phragmites are present in the Columbia River Basin, Mississippi River Basin, and Raritan River Basin, the three North American NWNL case-study watersheds.

Jones_160414_NJ_3373.jpgPhragmites on the Raritan Bay, NJ (© Alison Jones)

The ecological benefits phragmites provide include improving habitat and water quality by filtration and nutrient removal, serving as shelter for birds and insects, as well as providing food for sparrows. Phragmites also help to stabilize soil against erosion. In light of climate change, this species is beneficial because its accretion rate keeps up with rising sea levels for protection.

Phragmites benefit marsh lands because of their ability to take up 3x more carbon than other native plants. When there is excessive carbon in the atmosphere sea level rises and allows for more frequent and intense storms, so keeping phragmites could help better protect marshes from rising sea levels and erosion. Phragmites also help build up more soil below the ground compared to native plants.

CT-NWK-514.jpgPhragmites at sunrise in Norwalk, CT (© Alison Jones)

Some ecological threats phragmites pose are as follows. Since phragmites grow in thickets by shallow water, they can displace native wetland plants, alter hydrology, and block sunlight from reaching aquatic communities. Phragmites decrease plant biodiversity, causing declines in habitat quality for fish and wildlife. This tall grass can also pose a driving hazard, as it blocks road signs and views around curves. Phragmites can also be a fire hazard when dry biomass is high during its dormant season.

The Neshanic River, a tributary of the Raritan River Basin, provides an example of the threats of non-native invasive phragmites. Here, it grows without regard to competition by suppressing regeneration of native vegetation and limiting biodiversity in the area.

Jones_120430_NY_1751.jpgPhragmites with redwings blackbirds on Long Island, NY (© Alison Jones)

Some solutions to combat the threats phragmites pose are similar to the methods used to control papyrus. Methods used include cutting or mowing the tall grass, applying herbicides (such as Glyphosate or Imazapyr), and controlling the spread of this invasive plant with molecular tools and fungal pathogens. Additional solutions would be to burn the plant, excavate the area, cover the area with plastic causing suffocation, increase plant competition in the area, increase grazing by herbivores, or use of biocontrol organisms (such as insect herbivores) to combat the spread of phragmites.

Whether in Africa or North America, we can see how detrimental non-native invasive plant species can be to the health of an ecosystem. Although papyrus and phragmites both have some positive benefits, they overwhelmingly impact aquatic habitats negatively with their spread. Thus many have concluded that the best thing to do is limit spread with the solutions suggested above, rather than attempt complete eradication. In some cases, they can become “guest invasives,” welcomed for the services they do supply, especially for wetlands and riverbank stabilization which minimizes storm damage.

 

Bibliography:
Morais, P. PubMed, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Saltonstall, Kristin. PNAS, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link.
Swearingen, J. Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, accessed on June 13, 2018, via link
National Parks Flora & Fauna Web, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link
Plants & Flowers, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Popay, Ian. CABI, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Hazelton, Eric. Annals of Botany Company, accessed on June 14, 2018, via link.
Sturtevant, R. Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, accessed June 14, 2018, via link.
New Jersey Institute of Technology, The Neshanic River Watershed Restoration Plan, accessed on July 2, 2018, via link.
Oregon Department of Agriculture. Plant Pest Risk Assessment, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Hauber, Donald P. Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, accessed on July 17, 2018, via link.
Gaudet, John. Papyrus, accessed on July 23, 2018, via link.
Jackson, Harrison. Phragmites invasion: Detrimental or beneficial? Accessed on July 25, 2018, via link.

Notes from Garden & Afield in Jersey Midlands

By  Joseph Sapia – NWNL Guest Blogger, from a Pine Barren outlier region in New Jersey’s Raritan River Basin  All content and photos © Joseph Sapia.  His email is Snufftin@aol.com.

“From the Raritan River to the Mullica River,

From the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean.”

2017:  
Sunday,  June 25, to Saturday July 1

Note:  The yard references are to my house in the section of Monroe between Helmetta and Jamesburg in South Middlesex County. My yard is in a Pine Barrens outlier on the Inner Coastal Plain, the soil is loamy, and my neighborhood is on the boundary of Gardening Zones 6b (cooler) and 7a (warmer). Afield references are to the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, unless otherwise noted. Notes and photographs are for the period covered, unless otherwise noted.

clip_image002Pickerel weed flowering in Helmetta Pond.

     PINE BARRENS AROUND HELMETTA:  Continuing flowering at Helmetta Pond were pickerel weed, “Pontederia cordata,” and fragrant water lilies, “Nymphaea odorata” Heads up on chiggers, family “Trombiculidae.” It may sound early, but I was scratching a little above my ankle and it felt like the beginning of a season of itchy chigger bites. Then, a local woodsman told me chiggers are indeed out. Avoid chigger bites by staying out of low brush. Another pest this time of year is the pine fly, genus “genus “Chrysops.”

clip_image004Sunset at Helmetta Pond.

     TURTLES:  I am still hearing a lot of talk about people coming across turtles, including misidentifying box turtles, “Terrapene carolina Carolina,” as water turtles. While a box turtle will go into water, it is generally a land turtle. So, if it is necessary to move a turtle for its safety, simply move it in the direction it is traveling. In recent days, Garden and Afield reader Bill McGovern came across two box turtles in his yard in Brick, Ocean County, and he reported, “Of course, I didn’t disturb the moment!” But he did supply a photograph of the mating turtles.

clip_image006Mating box turtles in Bill McGovern’s front yard in Brick, Ocean County. An easy way to identify the gender of box turtles is by their plastrons, or underside. A female’s is flat. A male’s is concave, so he can ride the female in mating, as shown in the photo.

     BLUEBERRIES:  Sophie Majka, a long-time neighbor of my family in the Pine Barrens around Helmetta, told me a little bit of local lore: Blueberries are ready to pick on St. John’s Day.

     Saturday, June 24, was St. John the Baptist Day. So, a few days later, I did a quick check of the woods and found a few berries — actually, probably black huckleberry, “Gaylussacia baccata.” A few ripened blue, most still green. Based on reports I have been seeing from the main Pine Barrens to the south, they have been ripe there for several days. The berries will be around for the upcoming weeks.

     Black huckleberry — along with low-shrub blueberries of the genus “Vaccinium” — are found on the uplands as the shrub understory of the forest. In the fall, these low-shrub berry plants are easy to identify because they turn flame red with the changing of “fall foliage” colors.

     For those more daring, head to the swamps for taller blueberry bushes of the genus “Vaccinium.”

     Just a note: Wild blueberries are not commercially cultivated berries, so they are smaller.

     A few years ago, Mrs. Majka and I spent some time up Jamesburg Park, picking the low-shrub blueberries. Mrs. Majka died at 92-years-old in March. This week, in the area where she and I picked, berries were ripening, providing a nice memory of Mrs. Majka.

clip_image008“Blueberries,” probably black huckleberries, at Jamesburg Park.

     IN THE GARDEN:  I am harvesting carrots, but not to the extent I thought I would. Lettuce has taken on a bitter taste, so I stopped harvesting that. Cantaloupe and zinnia plants are flowering. Also watching tomato, cucumber, and sweet corn grow. Aside from harvesting carrots, I am back to the three Ws:  Weed, Water, and Wait.

clip_image010Zinnia, with which I hope to attract pollinators for the food plants, beginning to bloom in the garden.

     GARDENING KNOW-HOW:  I use various sources to learn about my food gardening:  my colleagues at the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension/Middlesex County Master Gardening program, other gardeners, farmers, farm-garden shows and articles. In her column this week in the Philadelpehia Inquirer newspaper, Sally McCabe talked about gardening deadlines associated with the Fourth of July, including it being the last time of the season to plant tomatoes. I had already planted tomato by seed and plant, but with the early lettuce done, I had gardening space to spare. After Sally’s column, I happened to be near one of my favorite gardening centers, Tony’s Farm and Garden Center in Windsor, Mercer County. At Tony’s, I picked up 12 plants in six varieties of Chef Jeff’s tomatoes. And following grandson Tony Ciaccio’s advice, I got them in the ground immediately.

clip_image012A last planting of tomatoes – various Chef Jeff’s brand – in the garden.

     WATERING THE GARDEN:  I water the garden daily, giving it a good soaking before 10 a.m. I either use hose-and-sprinkler, tapping house water, or I use a sprinkling can, using mostly rain, recycled cellar dehumidifier water, or recycled water from my sprinkling. When I use the hose-sprinkler system, I aim for 20 minutes; When I use the sprinkling can, I probably would use about 30 gallons to cover my entire garden of approximately 315 row-feet, or about 950 square feet. But, now, I am re-thinking this – Perhaps, I should go to a more soaking sprinkling, but fewer times a week. Thoughts?

     AROUND THE YARD:  Knock Out roses are starting to bloom for a second time this season.

clip_image014Rain clinging to a pitch pine, “Pinus rigida,” in my backyard.

     FEEDING BIRDS IN THE YARD:  This summer, I am trying something different – essentially not feeding birds, except with the finch feeder. I am keeping the finch feeder because I love the colorful males of the state bird, the eastern goldfinch, “Spinus tristis.” The idea of not feeding this summer is to let the birds enjoy my yard, with the three birdbaths I keep filled, and help me by eating insects. Birds, nature’s pesticide! Of course, not buying expensive bird seed saves money. However, I still have seed in a garbage pail in the garage. When I am home, I usually have the garage door open and, of course, the squirrels, “Sciurus carolinensis,” have discovered the garbage pail. Clang! That is the sound of the squirrels knocking something down as they open the garbage pail.

clip_image016A birdseed thief trying to hide in the garage.

     PEDDIE LAKE:  Peddie Lake, created by the damming of Rocky Brook, is approximately 15 acres in Hightstown, Mercer County. Rocky Brook is a tributary of the Millstone River, part of the Raritan River-Bay watershed.

clip_image018Peddie Lake

     SUNRISE/SUNSET:  For July 2, Sunday, to July 8, Saturday, the sun will rise at about 5:35 a.m. and set about 8:30 p.m.

     WEATHER:  The National Weather Service forecasting station for the area is at http://www.weather.gov/phi/.

     Joe Sapia, 60, is a lifelong Monroe resident. He is a Pine Barrens naturalist and an organic vegetable-fruit gardener.  He gardens the same backyard plot as did his Italian-American father, Joe Sr., and his Polish-immigrant, maternal grandmother, Annie Poznanski Onda. Both are inspirations for his food gardening. Joe is active with the Rutgers University Master Gardeners/Middlesex County program.
He draws inspiration on the Pine Barrens around Helmetta from his mother, Sophie Onda Sapia, who lived her whole life in these Pines, and his Grandma Annie.  Joe’s work also is at @JosephSapia on Twitter.com, along with Facebook.com on the Jersey Midlands page.

It’s Not Easy Being a Horseshoe Crab in New York Harbor

Blog by Joe Reynolds, Coastal Naturalist

100_5288_0001

Photo by Joe Reynolds.

Intro by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director: To honor last week’s Endangered Species Day, we’re posting Joe’s blog on horseshoe crabs which are “Near-Threatened” per Endangered Species International.

My children grew up on Long Island Sound mesmerized by the spring tide of these prehistoric, armored invertebrates. Since they’re now rarely seen on those shores, I couldn’t resist a bit of further research and adding some Editorial Notes!

Author and coastal naturalist Joe Reynolds is also an activist — and he can count. NWNL applauds his monitoring of these “upside-down skillets with tails.” I look forward to joining his next full-moon count in Raritan Bay! Check Joe’s blog with pictures, video and stories of wildlife from Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay and Lower New York Bay: http://www.nyharbornature.com

selfie

“Selfie” provided by Joe Reynolds.

WHAT’S HAPPENING UNDERFOOT?

Watch where you step this spring! Horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) are beginning to crawl ashore on beaches around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, Jamaica Bay, and other shallow estuarine sites around New York Harbor. They mate on full and new moon evenings in May and June.

Yet another spawning season for horseshoe crabs has commenced, an annual rite of spring that goes back 450 million years. For Jurassic Park movie fans, that’s 230 million years before the first dinosaur! [Ed note: They even survived the Permian extinctions when 95% of all marine species disappeared.)

Known as “living fossils,” horseshoe crabs are harmless, ancient creatures effectively unchanged through time. Horseshoe crabs are more closely related to spiders and scorpions than to crabs. However, as marine arthropods, they are really a prehistoric family of animals unto themselves.

In late April, horseshoe crabs begin to migrate from deeper ocean waters into estuaries to breed. First on the beach are often males, waiting for available females. What follows is like a primitive singles bar, minus a colorful tiki bar. But alcohol isn’t needed here.

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Photo by Joe Reynolds.

When a single female crab crawls out of the surf, she releases chemical cues called “pheromones” that help attract a breeding male. He then grasps her from behind with special appendages shaped like tiny boxing gloves on the end of his front walking legs. With her male in tow, she moves through the intertidal zone – a beach area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide. There they deposit and fertilize 60,000 to 120,000 lime-green eggs in batches in wet sand.

In 2 to 4 weeks the eggs hatch. The size of a human fingernail, the young are a near–replica of an adult, though tail-less. The small crabs head straight to the water where they will grow in sandy shallow areas of the estuary. It takes 8 to 12 years for a crab to sexually mature and migrate back to bay beaches to breed.

 

THE VALUE OF HORSESHOE CRABS

Who would guess horseshoe crabs are critical to migratory shorebirds? But, yes, the fatty eggs of horseshoe crabs provide an important food source for many migratory shorebirds, including red knots (Calidris canutus), ruddy turnstones (Arenaria interpres), and sanderlings (Calidris alba), as they pause in their northward journeys to breed in the Arctic.

[ED Note: The red knot (part of the sandpiper family) makes one of the longest migrations of any bird: 15,000 km (9,300 mi) from Tierra del Fuego in S. America to the Arctic. On their mid-Atlantic stop, they re-energize and fatten up by feasting on what was a superabundant supply of horseshoe crab eggs. Red knots were numerous in N. America until masses were shot in the 1880’s. With further declines since the 1960’s, they are a “threatened species,” per the Endangered Species Act. So healthy horseshoe crab populations are critical to red knot survival. (Citation: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/red-knot)]

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Red knot. Photo by Dick Daniels, in Creative Commons.

STEWARDS STUDYING THEIR DECLINE

Although the world’s largest spawning horseshoe crab populations are in Delaware Bay, the busy New York Harbor has crabs too. Few people welcome them; but those that do, know when and where to find them by the dozens, hundreds, or even thousands along the shore.

Our Bayshore Regional Watershed Council is an environmental group dedicated to improving water quality and restoring the wildlife habitat of Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay. Since 2009, our volunteers have counted horseshoe crab populations along the southern shore of NY Harbor in Monmouth County, NJ. Our goal is to note their spawning population and ascertain if it is stable, increasing or decreasing.
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Volunteers tagging a horseshoe crab to monitor its New York Harbor location. Photo provided by Joe Reynolds.

So far our study shows a horseshoe crab population that is less than robust. There’s been a steady decline in adult females. In 2009, the Watershed Council counted 495 female crabs (singles and mating) across 1,000 feet of beach at five sites in Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays. Yet, in 2016 only 217 female crabs were counted at the same sites. (Ed: minus 50% in 7 years). The single female population decreased from 96 to 15 during this time period. (Ed: minus 85%)

Surprisingly, male populations are growing. In 2009, there were 679 male crabs at monitoring locations (single and mating) in Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays. This increased in 2016 to 1,016 (Ed: plus about 75%). The single males also increased: from 251 to 769 (Ed: plus 300%)

This great inequality between sexes affects their spawning. It takes two to make a baby! Swimming pairs (crabs seeking a place to lay eggs) decreased from 265 in 2009 to 130 in 2016 (Ed: minus 50% in 7 years). Burrowed pairs (crabs in the process of laying eggs) decreased from 276 to only 50 pairs in 2016. (Ed: minus 80%)

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Lemon Creek Park, Staten Island, NY, on the Raritan Bay. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

HUMAN OVER-HARVEST of HORSESHOE CRABS

What could cause such a dire decline in females? Humans and money, of course. Increased harvesting of horseshoe crabs in NY waters threatens their population. NY is the only state on the U.S. Atlantic Coast without a horseshoe-crab harvest moratorium during their breeding period.

Females are repeatedly harvested more than males since they are about 30% bigger and thus have more meat. Adult females also often carry eggs, which will make better bait.

Since 2009, NY State’s commercial quota for horseshoe crabs has been around 150,000 crabs. Some come from NJ’s Raritan Bay and the south shore of Long Island. But an undetermined amount of crabs in NY Harbor are being harvested illegally.

In 2013, two men from Brooklyn were arrested for stealing 200 horseshoe crabs from an island locally known as the Ruffle Bar in Jamaica Bay, Queens. They were charged with taking wildlife without a permit and disturbing wildlife breeding practices in a National Park.

On April 30, 2017, a woman was arrested in Jamaica Bay for illegally harvesting 7 horseshoe crabs. She told U.S. Park Police she was harvesting crabs for her business. The body parts of horseshoe crabs command a high price in some parts of the world since they are considered an aphrodisiac for men.

Horseshoe crabs are also used as bait for the American eel and channel whelk (aka conch) which are highly valued by Asians and Europeans. U.S. harvesters use body parts of female horseshoe crabs as bait for eel and whelk. Thus female horseshoe crabs are supplying global seafood needs. In 20 years, the price for 1 horseshoe crab has jumped from 25 cents to over $5.

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Photo by Joe Reynolds.

Horseshoe crabs are also harvested by the medical industry for their copper-based blood which turns blue when exposed to air. Horseshoe crab blood has remarkable antibacterial properties that insure no impurities exist in medicines. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all intravenous drugs, vaccines and medical devices that come in contact with the human body (i.e., replacement hips, hearts, knees or pacemakers) to be tested by crab’s blood for bacterial toxins associated with toxic shock syndrome, meningitis and typhoid. Millions in the US survive each year due to the clotting characteristics of horseshoe crabs’ blue blood.

Unfortunately medical benefits for humans don’t benefit the crabs. Horseshoe crabs are to be caught; bled with about 30% of their blood taken; and then returned to waters where they were found. But according to author Alexis Madrigal, “Between 10 and 30 percent of the bled animals, according to varying estimates, actually die.” In addition, “bleeding a female horseshoe crab may make it less likely to mate, even if it doesn’t kill it.” (The Blood Harvest, The Atlantic, Feb 26, 2014)

Environmental scientists John Tanacredi and Sixto Portilla say many crabs taken from NY waters to be bled are often not returned to NY. Research on horseshoe crabs from Brooklyn to Montauk from 2003 to 2014 showed that numerous crabs harvested in NY and taken to MA to be bled were often released in local Cape Cod waters, not NY as required by permits. “Many of those animals are re-harvested for bait and sold back to NY fishermen at an average cost of $5/crab.” (Horseshoe Crab Biology, Conservation and Management, 2015)

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South Beach on Raritan Bay Estuary, Staten Island, New York. Photo by Alison M. Jones.

IMPACTS OF HARVESTING HORSESHOE CRABS

It’s not an easy life in New York Harbor. The legal and illegal harvesting of horseshoe crabs, especially females, has limited their distribution and breeding, resulting in localized population declines. Horseshoe crabs could disappear locally if nothing is done to safeguard them in NY waters.

NJ instituted a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs in 2007, but not NY where people can still harvest crabs. This puts the crab population under severe threat in the Lower New York, Raritan and Sandy Hook Bays.

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Tagged horseshoe crab. Photo by Joe Reynolds.

YOU CAN HELP!  

Please email both Governor Cuomo (click here) and the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (click here) to ask for greater protection of horseshoe crabs. NY State must restrict harvests in local waters, especially of female crabs. We need Albany to protect these prehistoric animals — before it’s too late.

Also, please share the plight of horseshoe crabs with friends and family. The more who are aware of the threat to horseshoe crabs, the more likely we can ensure their survival in the Raritan, Sandy Hook and Jamaica Bays.

If greater awareness and public support is coupled with greater conservation efforts, then these Ancient Mariners of New York Harbor can fill the beaches for many spring seasons to come. Let’s make sure they endure for another 450 million years!

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Fisherman at confluence of eastern shore of Cheesequake Creek Inlet with Raritan Bay, Raritan River Basin, New Jersey. Photo by Alison M. Jones. 

NWNL Recommended Reading:

 Safina, Carl. The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2011. One hundred miles east of NY’s Manhattan, the author found a beach house that let him “see the whole world in the view from Lazy Point” – or at least the whole beauty and connected magic of the natural world in which we live. In this renowned conservationist’s observations and pleas for us to adopt a “sea ethos,” he tells of spawning, antedeluvian horseshoe crabs, bluefish, sea ducks and menhaden. He also weaves in tales from afar of brown bears and coral reefs to further deepen our appreciation of nature.

Sargent. Bill. Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism and Human Health. Lebanon NH: University Press of New England, 2006. Social justice and ethics are raised by human medical needs for the blood of these crabs that evolved 300 million years ago. This is a tale of the conflicts between scientific progress and our dwindling natural resources.

For children, Grades 1-4: Crenson, Victoria. Horseshoe Crabs and Shorebirds: The Story of a Foodweb. New York City: Two Lions, 2014. With charming watercolor illustrations, this book shares nature’s amazing connections between a small red-chested bird from the southern tip of S. America with the salty eggs of large, armored crabs on mid-North Atlantic beaches.

Joe Reynolds Recommended Reading:

Fredricks, Anthony D. Horseshoe Crab: Biography of a Survivor. Washington, DC: Ruka Press, 2012.

Cramer, Deborah. The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab & An Epic Journey. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.

McCully, Betsy. City at the Water’s Edge: A Natural History of New York. New Haven, CT: Rivergate Press, 2006.

Waldman, John. Heartbeats in the Much. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2000.

MacKenzie, Clyde L. The Fisheries of Raritan Bay. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992. 

“Living Shorelines” Can Fortify Our Coastlines … A Solution at Work in New Jersey’s Raritan Bay

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A “living wall” of oysters in the South Atlantic. Photo: Alison M. Jones for No Water No Life

By Meredith Comi, Restoration Program Director of the NY/NJ Baykeeper 

After Hurricane Sandy, it was clear that coastal resiliency had become an immediate priority. Thus, Baykeeper began an innovative project to determine if a “Living Shoreline” of oysters could stabilize eroding shorelines of the urban New York-New Jersey Harbor Estuary. Perhaps they would simultaneously protect the surrounding environment, improve water quality, and create healthy aquatic habitats.

Oysters are powerful. They can filter and clean water, a much-needed service today. They can provide reef habitat for other sea creatures and improve resiliency to storm surge and erosion. Oysters once thrived in the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary — so much so that Ellis Island was previously called Little Oyster Island.  However, over-harvesting, pollution and the sedimentation of reefs resulted in a sharp population decline. Today there is no longer a sustainable oyster population in the NY-NJ Harbor area; but NY/NJ Baykeeper is working to restore them. As a bi-state restoration leader, NY/NJ Baykeeper has had restoration projects in both NJ and NY waters.

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“Oyster-keepers” in the Raritan Bay. Photo: NJ/NY Baykeeper

In mid-August, 2016, NY/NJ Baykeeper and its partners installed a first-of-its-kind urban “Living Shoreline” in northern New Jersey waters.  Located in the Raritan Bay at the Naval Weapons Station Earle in Monmouth County, a new 0.91 acre Living Shoreline consists of an artificial reef, using live oysters. Known as “oyster castles,” these new concrete structures are meant to provide the needed hard surface on which oysters can attach and grow. These 137 castles with about 10,000 oyster larvae can thus begin to fortify and protect the Raritan Bayshore.

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Oyster stabilization in the Mississippi River Delta.  Photo: Alison M. Jones for No Water No Life 

In 2010 the NJ Department of Environmental Protection banned all shellfish research, restoration and education activities in waters (1) deemed too contaminated or (2) “Restricted” or “Prohibited” for shellfish harvest.  Thus earlier oyster reef projects in nearby Navesink River and Keyport Harbor had to be moved. At that point, the U.S. Navy and NY/NJ Baykeeper became “Living Shoreline” partners. The U.S. Navy at Naval Weapons Station Earle, with its non-accessible stretch of shoreline, provides protected property, guidance and valuable support for Baykeeper’s oyster restoration activities.

Additional restoration activities at Naval Weapons Station Earle include setting oysters at NY/NJ Baykeeper’s aquaculture facility near the mouth of Ware Creek, and monitoring the oysters and structures in the ¼-acre experimental restoration plot to assess survival and growth.

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Deposition of “oyster castles” into the Raritan Bay at NWS Earle.

NY/NJ Baykeeper has monitored this Living Shoreline twice since its August installation, finding that the oysters grew 22mm in just 2 months!  Other organisms like sponges and algae are attached to the castles as well, further contributing to the Living Shoreline habitat.  All the castles have stayed in place, even during the rough seas when Hurricane Hermine was off shore. This is a good sign of how the castles will hold up in the dynamic Raritan Bay.

This winter, oyster growth will become slower as the water becomes cooler. Since all the oysters are far enough under the water’s surface, they will be protected should the Bay freeze over. Come spring, this Living Shoreline will be expanded, adding more castles and oysters to the system.  Meanwhile, NY/NJ Baykeeper continues its study of biodiversity  and its collection of water quality data.

For further information, please contact Meredith Comi at meredith@nynjbaykeeper.org