Archive for the ‘Ecology & Environmental Sciences’ Category

Just Add Water

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
pikeDetecting invasive lake and river species using just a water sample would be a dream come true for wildlife managers and regulators in the state. And University of Maine researchers may soon make this an inexpensive reality.

Michael Kinnison, professor of evolutionary applications at the University of Maine, realized the need for an early invasive species detection system that would be more sensitive, require less specialized training and labor by field staff, present little to no threat to non-targeted species, and could be implemented at a fraction of the cost of current detection approaches.

The method now typically used for detecting the presence of invasive species is word of mouth from anglers and other concerned members of the public, followed by many hours of netting, angling and electrofishing by state biologists, says Kinnison.

Many times, reports go unverified until fish are abundant enough to be regularly caught. Current methods also are unlikely to detect the presence of invasive juveniles before they are large enough to be caught by anglers and biologists.

Kinnison is leading a project to adapt emerging environmental DNA (eDNA) approaches to detect the presence of invasive species, and other aquatic species, in Maine waters. Environmental DNA detection targets species-specific DNA material shed by aquatic organisms when they die, defecate or shed skin cells. That DNA can last up to several weeks in surrounding waters and be detected in water samples.

The pilot portion of this project, funded by the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, includes use of water samples to describe the extent of invasive northern pike, Esox lucius, in the Penobscot River system.

“This technology has the potential to greatly enhance detection of many aquatic species by providing a much more sensitive and cost-effective approach than current field survey approaches,” he says.

According to the Maine Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Department, Northern Pike was illegally introduced into the Belgrade Chain of Lakes in the 1970s. Today, they are present in at least 16 lakes in the Kennebec, Androscoggin, and coastal river drainages and are suspected in several other locations. Managers have traced the introduction of species such as pike from illegal transport or by out-migration from lakes where they have become established. Because pike are top predators, their introduction negatively impacts the state’s prized salmon populations.

Kinnison and ecology and environmental science graduate student Lauren Turinetti refined a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) primer set, and fluorescent DNA binding probe, to detect a short but unique sequence of the northern pike DNA. The PCR amplification system turns a few original copies of pike DNA in a water sample into billions, and the fluorescent probe signals how many copies are made. Using this technique they have successfully detected pike DNA in water samples collected from Pushaw Lake in Penobscot County, Maine. The water samples they used were no bigger than a normal soda bottle (1 liter). They’re now working to refine their field sampling and detection approaches to implement a wider-scale survey for pike in the Penobscot drainage.

By collecting water samples throughout the drainage the investigators hope to obtain a snapshot of how far pike have spread in places where dam removals, passage projects and repairs have improved migration of anadromous species — but also may have inadvertently opened the door to pike, says Kinnison.

Further funding by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service State Wildlife Grants Program via the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife will allow Kinnison to expand this technique to other species of special concern, including imperiled native species.

This relatively quick and inexpensive method could help Maine combat its invasive species crisis and help managers more efficiently apply their limited resources to a diversity of conservation challenges, saving valuable resources for management of invasions from the start rather than detecting them when they’re already established.

The most widely referenced paper (Pimental et al. 2005) on this issue reports that invasive species costs the United States more than $120 billion in damages every year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service.  Invasive species are also a leading cause contributing to the demise of many threatened or endangered species.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has adopted eDNA early detection as a core component of its invasive Asian carp monitoring program in the Great Lakes region. In 2010 alone, the federal government spent $78.5 million to prevent the introduction of carp to the Great Lakes, where they would threaten Great Lakes fisheries and endangered aquatic species.

In the future, the researchers hope to fine tune the method so it will not only determine the presence of multiple species, but also abundance.

“Right now we are using quantitative PCR to detect single species, but with the developments that are occurring, we are probably not that far down the road from being able to detect and estimate the abundance of numerous species within the same water samples,” says Kinnison.

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721

Learning From Insects

Thursday, June 25th, 2015
Edith PatchWhen Cassie Gibbs came to the University of Maine in 1971, a photograph hanging in an office in Deering Hall captivated her. She was studying it one day when Geddes Simpson, head of the Entomology Department, informed her that the woman was Edith Marion Patch, UMaine’s first female entomologist.

From that day forward, Gibbs — UMaine’s second female entomologist — made it her mission to learn all she could about Patch. Simpson fueled Gibbs’ fascination by regularly leaving on her desk letters, laboratory notebooks and children’s books authored by Patch. The collection grew steadily during Gibbs’ years as a noted aquatic entomologist, filling boxes and folders that she tucked away in her office.

It wasn’t until Gibbs retired in 1995 that she set out to document the life of Patch — a distinguished, nationally recognized aphid taxonomist, naturalist and educator — who became the first female president of the Entomological Society of America in 1930, during a time when women were a rare sight in the scientific community.

Twenty years later, Gibbs has published the biography, “Without Benefits from Insects: The Story of Edith M. Patch of the University of Maine,” a publication of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station.

Its publication coincides with the 150th anniversary of the University of Maine.

“Edith Patch is recognized as the first truly successful professional woman entomologist in the United States,” said Gibbs. “She was among the early scientists to write and speak of the threats to the environment from the widespread applications of chemical insecticides and to bring this to the public’s attention.”

Nearly 60 years after her death in 1954, Patch’s legacy is thriving, kept alive by her world-renowned scientific writing, a nonprofit organization named in her honor and a group of individuals dedicated to passing on Patch’s lessons to generations to come.

An extensive collection of archival records on Edith Patch, including some of the first memorabilia given to Gibbs, can be found in Fogler Library’s Special Collections at UMaine. The Patch homestead, once bursting with colorful gardens and buzzing insects, still sits on College Avenue on the Orono/Old Town line.

Patch’s faculty office was in Holmes Hall. A residence hall now on campus is named in her honor.

Bug enthusiasts may still see her extensive, internationally recognized insect collection, The Patch Collection, at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

But the most recognizable essence of Patch can be found in her writing.

Patch had an incredible gift — the ability to communicate scientific ideas to all ages. She believed that nature was a child’s greatest mentor and that appreciation of the natural world did not belong solely to the scientist. She charmed nature lovers young and old with her enthusiasm for some of the world’s tiniest creatures, publishing many internationally recognized children’s publications, scientific papers and books throughout her lifetime.

“One of Patch’s greatest strengths was her understanding of the power of story. As a scientist, she herself was drawn to investigate nature’s ever-unfolding story,” said Mary Bird, member of the organization Friends of Edith Patch, dedicated to celebrating and continuing the legacy of Patch.  “As a teacher, she realized that it is through story that each of us can find our own ways to connect with the living world around us and to make meaning of what we find there. She skillfully engaged her audiences, youth and adult, lay and scientific, in exploring and learning from nature’s stories.”

Patch’s career as an entomologist emerged in July 1903 when Charles Woods, the director of the then Maine Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES), invited Patch to Orono. At the time, Patch was in her second year teaching high school English in Minnesota after being unable to secure a position in the field of entomology. Woods offered her an unpaid position teaching English and entomology, with the potential to establish a department of entomology the following year.

Patch packed her bags and moved to Maine.

Woods faced ridicule for his decision to invite Patch to UMaine, but his response was telling: “So far as the people on my staff are concerned, I am not at all concerned whether they are attired in trousers or skirts, just as long as they do the work.”

A year after her arrival at UMaine, Patch received a formal appointment as assistant professor of entomology.

Though being one of the only female scientists in a male-dominated profession often presented difficulties, Patch persevered with grace and patience. She had practice. Growing up, she was on a baseball team with boys and girls. She had attended a coeducational university — University of Minnesota — to earn a bachelor’s degree in English. She grew up walking side-by-side with males, so why would a professional position be any different?

Patch was expected to adhere to certain societal etiquettes, only some of which she followed. But her polite, often wordless deviation from the norms of her time helped pave the way for the success of women in science.

When Patch was discouraged from attending an after-dinner address during a meeting of the Entomological Society of America because the men would be smoking (women were not allowed to be in the presence of a man while he smoked during this time), she figured out where the meeting was, walked in and quietly took a seat. The smoke-filled room fell silent as the men looked side-to-side, eyebrows raised. Within seconds, every cigar and pipe in the room had been put out.

She was present at all subsequent meetings.

Jennifer Lund, a UMaine entomology graduate student, says she is grateful for the legacy Patch left behind. Lund received one of the 2015 Edith Patch Award, which honors outstanding undergraduate and graduate women for distinguished work in the fields of science, agriculture, engineering and environmental education.

“I am so very honored to win an award that is named after such a phenomenal female entomologist and scientist,” said Lund.  “I often think about how my research here has been influenced by all the entomologists that have come before me but especially Edith Patch who paved the way for female entomologists at the University of Maine so early in the university’s history.”

Patch specialized in aphids — small sap-sucking insects commonly known as plant lice. Their complex life cycles, multiple host plants and ability to transmit pathogens made the group particularly difficult to study.

Her fascination for aphids began when she was an undergraduate student in Minnesota, under the direction of Oscar Oestlund. Researchers from Belgium to Brazil began seeking her counsel on how to manage aphid populations that had been infesting their agricultural crops. Before long, she had become the world’s aphid specialist. Today, her publication, The Food-Plant Catalogue of Aphids of the World, is still referenced as the most comprehensive record of aphids and their host plants.

Before completing her master’s degree in entomology at the University of Maine in June 1910, Patch had already published seven papers on aphids and related species, five of which appeared in national journals. The seventh became her dissertation for her Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University in 1911. Patch’s research at Cornell focused on the evolutionary origins of the wing veins of aphids and their close relatives the psyllids, aleuronids, and coccids.

During her time at Cornell, Patch collaborated with John Henry Comstock, a distinguished researcher and author of her beloved first insect book, the Manual for the Study of Insects. She purchased the manual during her final year of high school after winning a $25 prize for an essay she wrote dedicated to the monarch butterfly.

Patch became lifelong friends with Comstock and his wife Anna Botsford Comstock, an illustrator and author of natural history books for young people.

After establishing her career as an entomologist, Patch purchased her home, which she named Braeside. The name — derived from the Scottish word brae — translates to bank, referring to its location on the edge of the Stillwater River. Built in the 1840s, the house was sited on a 50-acre plot of land surrounded by exquisite wild gardens bustling with insect life. Here, she spent much of her free time observing and writing about the natural world.

Her home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. For the past 15 years, the Friends of Edith Patch organization has raised nearly $200,000 for the rehabilitation of Braeside. Once restored, the facility will house the Edith Patch Environmental Observatory, which will feature a museum, educational resource center, and facilities for environmental research, education and policy. The property surrounding the historic home will mirror the gardens depicted in many of Patch’s writing for children.

Patch published her first children’s book — Dame Bug and Her Babies — in 1913. The book, a collection of 18 stories about insect mothers and their offspring, sold for 75 cents, plus postage. This marked the beginning of her lifelong mission to write biologically accurate stories that invoked curiosity in young readers. Many publications followed, including Little Gateways to Science, which told the story of 12 birds and the inauspicious effects human activity can have on the natural world.

“With academic specializations in both English and entomology, she thoroughly understood that the work carried out in lab and field would be meaningless if it could not be connected in real and meaningful ways to those whom it was designed to serve,” said Bird. “She used her skills as both a scientist and a writer to create pathways into understanding and appreciation of science and the world it seeks to explore and explain.”

Dedicated to educating the next generation of scientists, Patch’s expertise often took her away from Orono. She traveled all over the country giving talks about her work, and, in 1927 took a six-month research trip to the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, England to study the migratory aphid, Myzus pseudosolani, which had become a concern in New England.

Patch was not only a distinguished scientist and world-renowned author, but also one of the first environmentalists of her time. In a compelling speech given in 1936 for the Maine Agricultural News Radio Program titled “Aphids, Aphids, Everywhere,” Patch explained the dangers of excessive use of insecticides. Using the life cycle of the aphid as an example, she pointed out that there are many natural factors controlling aphid population and that it is not necessary to rely on insecticides to keep the insect populations in balance.

This speech was given 26 years before the dangers of insecticides were echoed in Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring, which is given considerable credit for igniting the environmental movement in the 1960s.

“Even as a girl of 7 in Minnesota, she (Patch) was a lover of all natural things, and she remained a naturalist until the day she died. The naturalist tradition is a long one. It always has included a love of — and appreciation for — the beauty of nature,” said James Slater, who delivered the Entomological Society of America’s 1996 founders’ memorial and lecture honoring Patch.

Patch’s environmental concerns resonated again during her address at the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She pleaded to the audience — filled with scientists like herself — to look closer at the adverse effects chemical insecticides can have on non-targeted insect populations and their surrounding ecosystems. Her statement — “the welfare of humankind depends on the protection of insects” — sounded the alarm and made newspaper headlines nationwide. This speech was later published as a bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society in 1938, titled “Without Benefit of Insects,” and became one of her most-noted publications.

After a long successful career, Patch retired in July 1937 after 34 years at UMaine. She was named entomologist emeritus and was awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree at UMaine’s 66th annual commencement. She was flooded with correspondence from researchers and friends thanking her for her many contributions to science. At the time of her retirement, she had published 15 children’s books and 78 scientific articles.

Though she no longer held a formal position at the university, Patch remained active in the scientific community. In a speech addressed to the Garden Club Federation in 1939 titled, “Our insect friends,” she continued to stress the importance of insects as pollinators and the benefits they have to our agricultural system.

“We have a lot we can learn from Patch. She wanted children to be loving towards the natural world, not destroying it or invading it in any way,” said Nancy MacKnight, member of the Friends of Edith Patch organization.  “She taught us that if you want to do something, you have to persevere. Patch tried to get a job in entomology, and she couldn’t. Maine was the only place that offered her anything connected to entomology, and it was unpaid for a year. It took a lot of courage to enter a man’s field at that time. We owe a lot to Edith Patch.”

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721

Fungus Joins the Fight

Monday, June 15th, 2015
fire antsUniversity of Maine researchers are one step closer to controlling the ever-growing invasive fire ant populations, Myrmica rubra, that have been spreading throughout Maine for the last 15 years.

Due to the highly competitive and aggressive behavior of these fire ants, eradication has proven to be almost impossible. UMaine researchers are turning their attention to a different kind of control to try and combat these tiny stinging insects. Their weapon — pathogenic fungi.

“We are attempting to try and grow this newly discovered fungi in the lab in order to look at its utility for management of the ants, but it may be too difficult to reproduce which would hamper its development as a biological control mechanism. We aren’t convinced, but we are looking into it,” said Eleanor Groden, UMaine professor of biological sciences. “It has some potential.”

By encouraging the growth of the pathogenic fungi, these researchers hope to scale down the populations of invasive fire ants, which will alleviate Maine residences from the painful stings the tiny insects administer.

In an article that appeared in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, titled “Ophiocordyceps myrmicarum, a new species infecting invasive Myrmica rubra in Maine” researchers Rabern Simmons (now at the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida), Groden, Jennifer Lund and Tamara Levitsky isolated and described a newly discovered fungus which they identified as being a member of the genus Hirsutella. The fungi is the first species in this genus to be isolated from the North American European fire ant in New England, though there are two other pathogens within the genus which infect M. rubra in the United Kingdom.

The researchers suspect that the relatedness of the taxa infers that O. myrmicarum is a native of North America or a relatively recent immigrant along with the invasive European fire ant. They also hypothesize that the dramatic increase in fire ant populations over the last decade could be causing increased transmission of the fungi and could explain why we have only observed the fungi in Maine, not in European ant populations.

Ants were collected live from Acadia National Park near Breakneck Ponds, Mount Desert Island, in fall 2010 and 2011. The researchers isolated and maintained the ants in cultures in order to collect morphological data. They then used techniques such as DNA extraction, amplification, sequencing and phylogenetic analysis to determine if it was, in fact, a new species.

The researchers conducted an exposure trial in seven separate chambers, four of which were inoculated with the fungi. Of the four chambers exposed with O. myrmicarum, all individuals died within 30 days, whereas no ants in the remaining three chambers died during the same period. Once dead, the infected ants were transferred to well plates to be monitored for several weeks, during which 20 of the 73 dead ants produced the reproductive structure of the fungal pathogen.

The exotic ant species was first documented in New England in the early 1900s. According to the researchers, the native populations — ranging from Great Britain to Siberia and the Black Sea to the Arctic — remain relatively low in population density. But in New England and other various locations throughout North America, the population density is high for the invasive species.

“There are a lot of steps between what we are doing and determining if a strategy like this would be viable. But, it’s very exciting,” said Groden.

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lund

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Conserving Nature’s Stage

Monday, June 15th, 2015
blueberry fieldConserving nature’s stage — the physical features such as landform, soil and bedrock that contribute to species biodiversity — is the focus of a special section of the June issue of the international journal Conservation Biology that includes research by two internationally recognized scientists at the University of Maine.

The special section emphasizes the value of incorporating a variety of geophysical settings into conservation planning when managing diverse species adapting to climate change.

Malcolm Hunter, UMaine’s Libra Professor of Conservation Biology; Paul Beier of Northern Arizona University; and Mark Anderson of The Nature Conservancy are the guest editors of the journal section, which includes 10 research papers by 33 co-authors on the conservation approach known as conserving nature’s stage (CNS).

The approach provides a structure for creating conservation plans that recognize that nature is dynamic and resilient, and needs arenas for evolution.

In 2013, Hunter, Beier and Anderson led a three-day international workshop on the CNS approach to conservation management, funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The result is the collection of papers now featured in the Conservation Biology special section.

The principal paper authors include Jacquelyn Gill, UMaine assistant professor of terrestrial paleoecology, writing on “A 2.5-million-year perspective on coarse-filter strategies for conserving nature’s stage.” Gill, Hunter and four other co-authors explore how geodiversity minimized the number of global extinctions caused by past episodes of climate change, despite many local extinctions. They conclude that CNS accommodates dynamic processes, including extinction, evolution, community turnover and novelty, and acknowledges changes as “intrinsic properties of the very nature we aim to conserve.”

Hunter also co-authored two of the other research papers: “Incorporating geodiversity into conservation decisions” and “Why geodiversity matters in valuing nature’s stage.”

Being Persistent

Monday, June 15th, 2015
BisonA University of Maine researcher, a doctoral student and an undergraduate are at Wind Cave National Park in Hot Springs, South Dakota excavating cave fossils that date back 11,000 years to the end of the most recent ice age.

Scientists say preliminary samples from the material — which includes at least 22 species — will help them understand how the region, including climate, has changed.

The UMaine contingent includes Jacquelyn Gill, assistant professor of paleoecology and plant ecology; Jeff Martin, a Ph.D. student affiliated with Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT); and Chason Frost, an undergraduate.

The UMaine trio has partnered with the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs for the project centered around a cave that is 27 feet long and less than two feet high.

“What’s really cool about the cave is that it includes these animals that are both extinct and animals that are survivors of the Ice Age,” Gill told the Rapid City Journal as she sifted through fossilized teeth, vertebrae and rib bones the size of fingernail clippings.

“When you can put all these different pieces of ecosystem together it basically gives you a sense of how an environment changes as the climate changes.”

Gill is working with plant fossils and Martin is interested in bison fossils.

Marc Ohms, a physical science technician at the park, discovered Persistence Cave, as it has been dubbed, in spring 2004; its presence was kept a secret until now so amateur explorers wouldn’t damage the material inside.

Jim Mead of East Tennessee State University is head of the crew that also will screen-wash the material and prepare it for curation.

The UMaine contingent will take part in live-tweeting sessions (twitter.com/hashtag/cavebison), in partnership with UMaine’s Follow a Researcher, at 1 p.m. EST Tuesday, June 16, and Thursday, June 18. The expedition hashtag is #cavebison.

In addition, Martin is blogging about the experience at bisonjeff.weebly.com/bisonlarge-blog.

Capps Part of Mexican Stream Ecology Collaboration to Study Urban Rivers

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Krista Capps, a research assistant professor in the University of Maine Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology, is leading a project that aims to provide the foundation for greater understanding of urban rivers in developing countries.

The project, “Mexican Urban Stream Ecology Collaboration (MUSE),” received a $60,690 grant from the National Science Foundation for initial data gathering in Mexico.

Much of what scientists know about the influence of urbanization on stream ecology comes from studying rivers and streams in countries such as the United States and Australia, according to the researchers. However, urban rivers in developing economies may be used by humans for sources of untreated drinking water, direct conduits for sewage and freshwater fisheries.

Understanding how biological communities and processes are affected by increasing urbanization is essential to correctly manage urban watersheds in developing regions, the researchers say.

MUSE will bring together stream ecologists and fish biologists from the United States and Mexico to begin to understand the links among urbanization, stream ecology, and freshwater fisheries in southern Mexico.

The researchers say they hope the project initiates a new collaboration that will generate knowledge and resources for scientists and natural resource managers.

Maximum Impact

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Tidal marsh

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is monitoring infrastructure repair efforts around Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Superstorm Sandy killed 73 and caused billions of dollars in damage when it barreled ashore a little more than two years ago.

In January, Brian Olsen, assistant professor of biology and ecology, will start gauging the restoration of tidal marshes and birds along the same stretch of coastline impacted by the most deadly and destructive storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which works with other agencies to conserve migratory birds for the public good — awarded Olsen a $1.4 million grant to conduct a 22-month study on the recovery of birds associated with tidal marshes from Virginia to Maine.

The area is home to 56 percent of the world’s salt marsh specialist vertebrates, including a number of at-risk migratory birds, he says.
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Preserving Biodiversity

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Falkland Islands

Learning more about the biodiversity of the Falkland Islands and what can be done to preserve it is the focus of a planned trip for three University of Maine researchers.

Jacquelyn Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology and plant ecology in the University of Maine’s School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute (CCI), is leading the fieldwork that will be completed from Dec. 4–22 on the small, remote group of islands about 300 miles east of South America.

Gill will travel with two graduate students — Kit Hamley, who is pursuing a master’s degree in quaternary studies at CCI, and Dulcinea Groff, a doctoral student of ecology and environmental science in the School of Biology and Ecology and CCI, who also is part of a two-year fellowship called Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) in Adaptation to Abrupt Climate Change (A2C2).
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Science Evolves

Friday, September 12th, 2014

salmon

While evolution often evokes thoughts about ancient origins of life, University of Maine researcher Michael Kinnison says applied evolutionary biology is about improving the future — including pressing matters of day-to-day life and issues of international policy.

A paper by lead authors from the University of Copenhagen and the University of California, Davis, as well as Kinnison, highlights ways in which food security, human health and biodiversity can benefit in the short- and long-term by using principles of evolutionary biology.

The paper published online Sept. 11 at Science Express indicates when evolution is overlooked the prevailing approaches to treat human disease, reduce agricultural pests and manage at-risk wildlife can be detrimental to achieving sustainable solutions and exacerbate the very problems they’re trying to prevent.
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Fantastic Migrants

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Sandpiper

Saturday, Sept. 6 is World Shorebirds’ Day — a time to celebrate “fantastic migrants.” For biologists Rebecca Holberton and Lindsay Tudor, nearly every day is World Shorebirds’ Day.

They’re in the midst of a two-year study of one of those fantastic migrants — the semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla). Named for the short webs between their toes, the small sandpipers scurry synchronously on black stilt-like legs, “cherking” and searching for food on the shore.
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