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College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture–Research & Development


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Some Landowners Embrace Sustainability, Some Don’t — SSI Examines Why

Why do some landowners embrace sustainability and conservation in their environs while others ignore these concepts altogether? This was one of the main questions Michael Quartuch explored in his doctoral research at UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI).

It’s a complex query. As part of SSI’s People, Landscape and Communities team (PLACE), Quartuch, a recent Ph.D. graduate of SSI and UMaine’s School of Forest Resources, wanted to know what lurked beneath the surface of land use decision-making.

“At a broad level, my research focused on understanding and predicting the ways in which humans interact with and shape the surrounding environment. I was very interested in identifying why people are motivated to act sustainably. Specifically, I wanted to explore whether and to what degree landowner stewardship ethics influence individual land use decisions. Similarly, I wanted to test the role landowner place attachment and sense of community play in terms of influencing behavior,” Quartuch said.

Led by associate professors Kathleen Bell and Jessica Leahy, the PLACE team studied small landowners in Maine to develop solutions on key fronts. The team surveyed landowners in an effort to better understand their concerns, attitudes and behaviors. The responses are helping the team to identify outputs of interest to landowners and key stakeholders who frequently interact with them, including local businesses and local and state governments.

“The ability to tap into landowners’ moral and ethical connections with their land, including sense of place and community, has the potential to influence attitudes and behavior. Research findings suggest that landowners feel real responsibility for their property, a sense of stewardship that is evident in both their environmental attitude and their perception of their ability to act on these beliefs,” Quartuch said. “With this information in hand, we can deviate from traditional outreach and education efforts, concentrating on future conservation and sustainable development initiatives.”

Quartuch, a native of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has accepted a postdoctoral research associate position at Cornell University in the Department of Natural Resources, Human Dimensions Research Unit. Quartuch’s research will focus on a variety of social aspects associated with wildlife management and conservation.

Supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine.

Research Shows 15-year History of Wetland Management

A new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) documents nearly 15 years of vernal pools research and management by the University of Maine’s Aram Calhoun who is leading an interdisciplinary team at the Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI), a program of the Sen. George J. Mitchell Center.

In the article, published this week online at pnas.org, Calhoun and three co-authors analyze a timeline of action and scholarship that spans from 1999 to the present. In that time, the professor of wetland ecology and director of UMaine’s Ecology and Environmental Sciences program has collaborated closely with academic colleagues, government at all levels, nongovernmental organizations, landowners, developers and concerned citizens in an effort to create an environment in which these small, but significant, wetlands can flourish.

The article’s co-authors and SSI collaborators are Jessica Jansujwicz, a SSI postdoctoral fellow, Kathleen Bell, associate professor of economics, and Malcolm Hunter Jr., Libra professor of conservation biology and professor of wildlife ecology. The authors acknowledge and thank the many additional faculty and students who contributed to the research and outreach reported in the article.

“It is our hope that the work presented in this paper will inspire other researchers, practitioners and citizens dedicated to planned development and conservation of natural resources to forge new working relationships,” Calhoun said. “Our work shows that time, patience, open-mindedness and the willingness to assume a bit of risk are key to successful collaborations on difficult conservation issues. We have found that the time invested is well worth the effort. The exchange and synthesis of diverse ideas lead to outcomes that are more widely embraced and enduring.”

The effort to protect vernal pools has required a high level of perseverance and creativity, Calhoun says. Tensions among private landowners, ecologists and government entities over resource location, function and management strategies have stymied progress for years. Thus, vernal pools require a different kind of attention than many other types of natural resources, Calhoun and colleagues say. The pools, located mainly on private land, are a key-breeding habitat for several amphibians and serve as an important wetland resource for wildlife. They can be hard to detect. The tiny pools fill with water each spring and often dry up by summer’s end. Researchers stress that multidisciplinary, stakeholder-engaged efforts open the door to innovative strategies that can conserve pools while encouraging development. The diverse perspectives provide a basis for compromise, they say. It is the very nature of these pools, their size and locations that introduce this opportunity for practice of a new sustainable science model, researchers say.

In her 15-year involvement with vernal pools in Maine, Calhoun has played a major role in shepherding in a new era. In 1999, Calhoun and others in a diverse working group pushed for a new state law that better protects vernal pools. It passed. They coupled important scientific discoveries with successful public education programs. More recently, Calhoun, SSI researchers and key stakeholders collaborated to develop a streamlined, locally-tailored approach to regulation, one that could make compliance less encumbering for towns and land developers while better protecting vulnerable amphibian populations. Bell says the successful collaboration laid out in the article is a model of sustainability with real world impact.

“This paper is exciting because it advances interdisciplinary, engaged research as a viable tool to address complex conservation challenges,” Bell said. “It is a story about sustainability science — a journey to link knowledge with action along the road to conservation solutions.”

Hunter added that the team’s work has major implications for conservation far beyond Maine and the region. “One of the most important aspects of this work is that it nicely illustrates a larger principle: that focusing conservation on small bits of the landscape can have disproportionately large effects on ecological integrity at a much larger scale,” he said. Vernal pool conservation was the focus of Jansujwicz’s dissertation. She emphasizes SSI’s mission to include stakeholders as partners in research and solutions: ”Our research demonstrates the value of engaging stakeholders throughout the research process. With their participation, we can design and conduct research that is more flexible, creative, and responsive to diverse concerns.”

Next up for Calhoun and SSI vernal pool researchers: continued study funded by a $1.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Competition (CNH) Program. The four-year project, Of Pools and People, began in 2013 and supports research focused on more effective strategies when it comes to vernal pools and small, natural landscape features that contribute disproportionately to larger ecosystem functions.

Supported by National Science Foundation award EPS-0904155 to Maine EPSCoR at the University of Maine.

Image Description: vernal pool

Blomberg Studying Population Dynamics of Ruffed Grouse

Erik Blomberg, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Conservation Biology at the University of Maine, received a $181,518 grant from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife for his proposal, “Understanding population dynamics of ruffed grouse.”

The three-year project aims to better understand how forest management practices and sport hunting influence Maine’s ruffed grouse populations. According to the proposal, the native bird benefits from many forms of forest harvest and is widely used as a game species by Maine residents and visitors.

Blomberg and his team will implement a large-scale field study to evaluate how components of ruffed grouse biology, such as seasonal and annual survival and nest success, respond to different types of forest composition and management. Researchers also will estimate harvest rates throughout the annual hunting season from October to December.

Collected information will close a large gap in the current understanding of ruffed grouse ecology in the region and will contribute to future management of Maine’s popular game bird, as well as contribute to the general understanding of wildlife ecology in forest ecosystems, according to the researchers.

The researchers say they will work closely with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife to ensure results provide the greatest benefit to Maine wildlife management.

Spawning Sea Lampreys Amplify Streambed Diversity, Say UMaine Scientists

Sea lampreys impact rivers for months, perhaps years, due to their disturbance of streambeds when they spawn, say University of Maine researchers.

Robert Hogg, a master’s graduate who participated in the study, writes in a journal article that sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are ecosystem engineers.

The physical disturbance caused by their “nest-building activity was significant and persistent” and increased “habitat heterogeneity” and favored “pollution-sensitive benthic invertebrates and, possibly, drift-feeding fish,” according to the researchers.

Sea lampreys increase the complexity of a streambed by “creating and juxtaposing shallow, swift, rocky habitat patches with deep, slow, sandy habitat patches,” says the article. The effects are “similar to those of Pacific salmon.”

As an adult, sea lampreys are parasitic fish that resemble eels. They use their circular mouths filled with circular rows of teeth to latch onto other fish and feed on their blood.

Hogg and the research team examined spawning sea lampreys in Sedgeunkedunk Stream, a tributary of the Penobscot River, in 2010 and 2011. The team says it conducted the study during “a modest run” of sea lampreys, since access to Sedgeunkedunk Stream had only recently been restored due to dam removal.

“The scale of this reported influence, therefore, is a fraction of the potential ecological impact that larger populations of sea lampreys may formerly have delivered to habitats throughout their native range,” the scientists say.

The research team also included UMaine Associate Professor of Freshwater Fisheries Ecology Stephen Coghlan Jr., Joseph Zydlewski with the U.S. Geological Survey, Maine Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, and Kevin Simon of the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The team’s research results are included in “Anadromous sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are ecosystem engineers in a spawning tributary,” which will be published in the June edition of Freshwater Biology.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

Image Description: Lamprey

Making Sense of Maple Syrup

Understanding more about the relationship between weather and maple sap flow, and how Maine syrup producers will adapt to climate change is the focus of research being conducted by a University of Maine graduate student.

Jenny Shrum, a Ph.D. candidate in the ecology and environmental sciences graduate program in the UMaine School of Biology and Ecology, is attempting to unravel the biophysical relationships between weather and sap flow. The goal is to better understand what drives flow and how expected trends in climate may affect the processes and harvesters in the future.

Shrum plans to collect on-site weather station data and sap flow rates at three test sites and to interview small- and large-scale producers to determine if those who have been managing sugar maple stands for years will be more or less resilient to climate change, and if large-scale producers will be better equipped to adapt. Her research is supported by the National Science Foundation and EPSCoR through UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative and its Effects of Climate Change on Organisms research project.

The physiological process for sap flow is not completely understood, Shrum says. It involves a complex interaction between freezing and thawing of the xylem tissue within the tree, and the molecule sucrose which maple trees use to store carbohydrates between seasons.

“When the tree defrosts, the frozen liquid in the tree becomes fluid and that provides a medium for the sugars that are stored in the trunk to get to the branches,” Shrum says, adding that in order to continue flowing, the ground also has to be defrosted so the tree can pull in water during the next freeze cycle and recharge the positive pressure in the trunk to restart sap flow.

Sugar maple trees grow as far north as New Brunswick and as far south as Georgia, yet maple syrup is only produced commercially in the 13 most northern states because of the colder weather, Shrum says.

In Maine and other northern areas, more than one freeze-thaw event happens during the winter. This lets the process repeat and allows the season to last between six and eight weeks as opposed to a few days, which is likely in southern states such as Georgia and Missouri, where maple trees grow but aren’t commercially tapped. Warm weather or microbial build-up in taps usually ends the season, according to Shrum.

In Maine, the season usually starts sometime between the middle of February and the middle of March, and continues for about six weeks, Shrum says.

“This winter has been really weird; we’ve had really warm weather and really cold weather and as far as sap flow, that might be a good thing,” Shrum says. “But not enough is known.”

One change that has been proven is the start time of the sap season.

“Studies are starting to show that the preferred block of time for tapping is starting earlier if you base it on ideal temperatures,” Shrum says, citing a 2010 Cornell University study by Chris Skinner that found that by 2100, the sap season could start a month earlier than it does now.

For big-time operations, Shrum says an earlier season probably won’t be a problem because they can just tap their lines earlier, but she’s not sure how smaller Maine operations will adapt.

“They might not be able to change their season,” she says. “A lot of the smaller operators have multiple jobs; they make money off maple syrup, but also in other fields such as woodcutting or construction. It just so happens maple syrup is a block of time when they’re not doing anything else, so it makes sense. But if that season changes, it might not fit into their schedule as well.”

Shrum will interview a variety of producers — small- and large-scale operators, people who have been tapping trees for 30 or more years and people who started within the past five years — to learn the reasons for tapping and better understand resilience within these groups.

To record weather and sap flow data, Shrum, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Humboldt State University, will deploy weather stations at maple tree stands in Albion, Dixmont and Orono. She’s also using iButtons to record soil temperatures and time-lapse photography of the buckets to record hourly sap flow rates. She can then relate flow rates to variables the weather stations record, such as temperature, precipitation and sunlight.

Although climate change is likely to affect sap flow, Shrum is confident there will always be maple syrup made in Maine.

“None of the climate change scenarios that have come up result in maple trees not growing in Maine. We’re definitely still going to have freezing events in Maine; it’s not going to get so warm that that’s not going to happen,” she says.

Shrum says maple syrup could become a big commodity in Maine if more of a market was created through government incentive plans, and if the state decided to make it a priority — similar to Vermont.

“Everything is good about maple syrup. There’s very little that’s controversial about it, and the biology is fascinating,” Shrum says.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Image Description: maple syrup

Sexual Selection May Result in Bigger-Billed Male Birds, says UMaine Researcher

To female coastal plain swamp sparrows, male bill size matters.

When looking for a mate outside of their pair bond, female coastal plain swamp sparrows (Melospiza georgiana nigrescens) choose males with large bills, according to a University of Maine-led study conducted along Delaware Bay.

Small-billed males are more at risk of being cheated on by their mates. Males with larger bills than their avian neighbors, on the other hand, sire a greater percentage of young birds in their territory, says Brian Olsen, assistant professor in UMaine’s School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute.

Thus, Olsen says, sexual selection may explain why males have larger bills than females along the Delaware coast.

“Conventionally, bird bills have been considered one of the premier examples of how diet shapes morphology: the right tool for the right job,” he says.

For the past 40 years, researchers have explained differences between the shapes of male and female bills by differences in diet. But Olsen and his colleagues say their research suggests that female mating preferences alone could do it.

“It really makes me wonder how much of bill shape, or the shape of any other structure for that matter, is due to mating preferences instead of better survival,” Olsen says.

Olsen and his fellow researchers also found that bill size increases with age. So, by selecting males with larger bills, females are picking a mate that has the right stuff to survive and successfully defend a territory over multiple years.

“In other words,” says Olsen, “the genes of older males have been tested and proven worthy, and females who prefer to mate with the largest-billed males can then pass these good survivor genes on to their offspring.”

Since the difference in large and small bills is only a few millimeters, Olsen says he doesn’t know how female swamp sparrows make the distinction. He suspects song may play a role, since male bill shape can greatly influence singing.

Russell Greenberg of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the National Zoological Park; Jeffrey Walters of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biological Sciences; and Robert Fleischer of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics at the National Zoological Park also participated in the study.

The team’s research article, “Sexual dimorphism in a feeding apparatus is driven by mate choice and not niche partitioning,” was published in the November 2013 issue of Behavioral Ecology.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Pools and People

A University of Maine wildlife ecologist will utilize a $1.49 million National Science Foundation grant to improve protection of small natural landscape features that significantly impact the larger ecosystem.

The four-year project, “Of Pools and People,” will inform conservation management of relatively tiny natural resources — such as vernal pools, prairie potholes and desert springs — that maintain biodiversity in urbanizing landscapes, says Aram Calhoun, professor of wetland ecology and director of the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program.

The collaborative eight-member research team will offer insights to safeguarding these important resources, particularly on private lands. Small natural resources often can be saved while development, forestry and agriculture activities continue, Calhoun says.

Prevailing conservation strategies often do not fully utilize management opportunities, Calhoun says, sometimes because interactions among biophysical and socioeconomic components — the regulator, community and landowner decision-making — are not understood.

This project, funded by the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems Competition (CNH) Program of the NSF, began Sept. 1.

UMaine researchers joining Calhoun on the Senator George J. Mitchell Center Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI) project are: Malcolm Hunter Jr., Libra professor of conservation biology; Kathleen Bell, associate professor in the School of Economics; Michael Kinnison, professor of evolutionary applications in the School of Biology and Ecology; Cynthia Loftin, associate professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey, Maine Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; and Krista Capps, postdoctoral research fellow in sustainability science. In addition, Dana Marie Bauer, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environment at Boston University, and Erik Nelson, assistant professor of economics at Bowdoin College, are participating in the research.

SSI is a partnership between UMaine and other higher education institutions that seeks to produce knowledge and initiate action that addresses human needs and preserves the planet’s life-support systems.

In addition to giving stakeholders efficient and flexible management tools, researchers will share results and mentor a range of students and faculty, including those in rural and Native American schools, and integrate findings into interdisciplinary courses and citizen-science programs.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Image Description: vernal_pool

It’s Clear: Water Clarity Is Declining.

Water clarity, a strong indicator of water quality, is deteriorating in Maine lakes, according to a University of Maine graduate student’s study.

The decline, says Ian McCullough, may be a trend toward eutrophication — a process in which excess nitrates and phosphates, generally due to fertilizers and sewage, stimulate growth of algae, which depletes oxygen in the water.

Using satellite-based remote sensing, McCullough found a decrease in average statewide lake clarity from a depth of 4.94 meters in 1995 to 4.38 meters in 2010.

Water clarity, he says, ranged from 4 to 6 meters during the time frame, and consistently worsened from 2005 to 2010.

McCullough divided the state, which has more than 5,500 lakes and ponds larger than 10,000 square meters, into three regions: northeastern, south-central and western. He assessed data from 547 lakes for the study.

McCullough found lakes with reduced clarity occurred disproportionately (in 52 of 63 lakes) in larger lakes in the remote northeastern and western regions. Clarity in these two regions decreased from 5.22 meters in 1995 to 4.36 meters and 4.21 meters, respectively, in 2010.

Climate changes that impact algal growth and changes in forest cover due to timber harvesting may have contributed to the disproportionate decline in these regions, he says.

Meanwhile, lake clarity in the south-central lake region remained at 4.50 meters from 1995 to 2010 and lakes with improved clarity occurred most often in this region (in 52 of 72 lakes).

The proportion of eutrophic lakes (those with excessive nutrients and dominated by aquatic plants and algae) increased from 35.3 percent in 1995 to 42.6 percent in 2010. While the proportion of mesotrophic lakes (medium levels of nutrients and a high diversity of plants and animals) was unchanged, the proportion of oligotrophic lakes (lacking in plant nutrients and having an abundance of dissolved oxygen) decreased from 14.8 percent in 1995 to 6.8 percent in 2010.

Taken together, McCullough says these results suggest a general trend toward eutrophication in Maine lakes.

Although the results are potentially discouraging, McCullough says individual property owners and lake associations can employ various mitigation strategies. They include enhancing or restoring shoreline buffers with native vegetation, updating septic systems in lakeshore homes, controlling invasive species and minimizing impervious surfaces in lake watersheds.

In addition, statewide programs such as LakeSmart and the Maine Volunteer Lake Monitoring Program already partner with local lake associations to educate and engage people about protecting and restoring healthy lake ecosystems.

McCullough, who earned his master’s in ecology and environmental science at UMaine, is a graduate student researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara.

His study is titled “Landsat imagery reveals declining clarity of Maine’s lakes during 1995–2010.” Co-authors are Cynthia Loftin, a UMaine associate professor and leader of the U.S. Geological Survey, Maine Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; and Steven Sader, UMaine professor of forest resources.

The Society for Freshwater Science published the study online in June 2013.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Image Description: Water_clarity

Ten-State Study Focuses on Hurricane Sandy’s Effects on Tidal Marsh Birds, Plants

The effects of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation on plant and bird communities in coastal marshes from Maine to Virginia are the focus of a 10-state study by researchers from the University of Maine, University of Connecticut, University of Delaware and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Information gathered from more than 1,700 sites before and after the October 2012 hurricane will advance researchers’ understanding of how major disturbances affect these populations and what characteristics make a marsh more vulnerable.

The data will also provide information on the allocation of millions of dollars of federal restoration funds, coastal management planning and the status of species at risk of endangerment.

The yearlong study was awarded nearly $200,000 from the National Science Foundation and is part of the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program, which was founded by a group of academic, governmental and nonprofit collaborators — including UMaine — to provide tidal-marsh bird conservation information.

Brian Olsen, assistant professor in UMaine’s School of Biology and Ecology, is a co-principal investigator of the study. Maureen Correll, an ecology and environmental Ph.D. student in Olsen’s lab, is working on the project as part of her dissertation. Two additional student researchers from UMaine are expected to participate in the study.

Other co-principal investigators include Tom Hodgman, senior wildlife biologist at the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife; Chris Elphick, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut; and Greg Shriver, associate professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware.

Before Hurricane Sandy, Olsen’s team was working on a study to assess the distribution and densities of tidal-marsh birds from Maine to Virginia. The study was intended to give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service more information on bird populations that are in danger due to the loss of tidal marshes from sea level rise, particularly the saltmarsh sparrow, Olsen says.

Hurricane Sandy struck in the middle of the researchers’ survey range after they had collected data for two years, giving them information from both inside and outside the storm’s path. The team sought NSF funds to conduct the surveys again to see which birds and marshes were most affected within the hurricane’s range. The marshes outside the storm’s path will serve as control sites, Olsen says.

“What predicts whether you’re a winner or a loser if a hurricane hits you is really an open question,” Olsen says.

The study will also test two common ecosystem stress hypotheses among researchers. One of those hypotheses, Olsen says, is that stresses on an ecosystem build up over time, making the addition of any new stress more dramatic than if it were to act alone. Multiple stresses can bring any species of the entire community closer to collapse with every additional stress.

“The hurricane ends up being the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says.

Another common theory says multiple stresses eliminate the weak players, leaving only the strong ones.

“When the hurricane comes in, all the sensitive players have already been eliminated by previous stressors and you’re only left with the ones that are robust to stress; they can handle it, and the hurricane has little effect,” Olsen says.

Based on this theory, the pristine tidal marshes — ones that have more sensitive plants and animals that aren’t accustomed to stress — may appear to have been more affected by the hurricane, he says.

“I’d really like to understand what makes marshes sensitive to large-scale disturbances and how marshes are likely to respond to the predicted increase in storm frequency and intensity in the future,” Olsen says. “What makes them sensitive and what’s likely to happen as the climate changes?”

Researchers will also pay attention to whether urban development had any effect on how the storm affected the marshes.

“You get the same hurricane that’s barreling down on two different marshes. Do marshes that are completely developed right up to the marsh edge fare better, worse or the same as those that are in pristine habitats in national parks? Does conservation do anything to birds that are still around or does that not matter when there’s a wall of water coming down on you? We get to ask that for a fleet of different species,” Olsen says.

Saltmarsh sparrows, clapper rails, Nelson’s sparrows, seaside sparrows, willets and black ducks are the six major bird species in the study. Plant species the team will study include smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), salt hay (Spartina patens), seashore saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) and black needlerush (Juncus gerardii).

The surveying of saltmarsh sparrows is important because the team is able to track the species’ entire range and population. The species is also declining fast and talks have begun on whether to list them under the Endangered Species Act. The team’s data on the birds will be used to help make that determination, Olsen says.

Using the information from hundreds of marshes with different characteristics, Olsen’s team hopes to be able to predict what causes ecosystems to shift from one type of tidal marsh to another following a major storm, or more dramatically, what causes shifts from tidal marsh to open water or beach dunes. By determining these factors, researchers will have a better understanding of where to focus energy for conservation and where to expect ecosystem shifts in the future, Olsen says.

“We’ve visited a couple places already this summer where last year it was a beautiful tidal marsh with picturesque streams, and now it’s sand dunes or open water; it’s just gone,” he says.

The team hopes their information will help influence agencies using Hurricane Sandy relief funds to restore wildlife communities by prioritizing the marshes that would benefit the most from conservation efforts and have the lowest chance of being destroyed by a similar storm in the future.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Image Description: Olsen

Pooling Resources

Massachusetts native Kristine Hoffmann feels right at home in her wading boots in vernal pools in Orono, Maine.

As a youngster, she enjoyed exploring a spring wetland close to her Bay State backyard. And these days, vernal pools — forest floor depressions that fill with water in the spring and generally dry out in late spring or early summer — are again an interest for Hoffmann.

The University of Maine doctoral student is studying the breeding ecology, habitat selection and life histories of the blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale), including the distance they emigrate from vernal pools.

Hoffmann recently followed one salamander 280 meters from a local vernal pool, multiple times the distance she anticipated.

“When I saw this job, it felt like coming home,” Hoffmann says of her dissertation research. “It’s a great opportunity.”

In recent years, vernal pools have become a topic of discussion and concern due to a worldwide decline of amphibians, some of which breed in the vernal pool in which they were born.

In order for blue-spotted salamanders to be conserved, Hoffmann says vernal pools and the adjacent forestland need to be protected. When vernal pools and the critical land around them are destroyed, amphibians are lost, biodiversity decreases and food availability for other species is compromised.

Current Maine regulations state that “the basin depression of ‘significant’ vernal pools must not be disturbed,” says Hoffmann, “and at least 75 percent of the critical terrestrial habitat within 250 feet of the high-water mark must remain intact and forested, with native understory and woody debris.”

Those regulations, though, protect fewer than 25 percent of Maine vernal pools, and Hoffmann says that might not be enough to ensure long-term conservation of other salamanders, as well as wood frogs and fairy shrimp that also breed in vernal pools in the state.

Hoffmann says data from her research may inform proposed legislation about zones of consultation in Maine.

Because vernal pools don’t have inlets or outlets and because they dry up, salamanders are at risk from fewer predators than they would be in ponds and lakes.

But there’s a trade-off of sorts — they’ve had to adapt to breed quickly — they arrive early to the pool and hatch and undergo metamorphosis within weeks. The impetus is strong — they have to lose their gills and grow lungs before the seasonal pool is gone.

After blue-spotted salamanders grow lungs, they spend much of their life underneath leaves in the surrounding moist woodlands in eastern central North America, the Atlantic Provinces and northern New England. The nocturnal amphibians with long tails can grow as long as 5.5 inches.

Seven days a week, Hoffmann treks to several Orono-area vernal pools. She dons a broad hat, blue jeans and long sleeves to ward off mosquitoes — a staple of salamanders’ diet.

In a sun-dappled forest near a pollen-coated vernal pool Hoffmann checks whether the adult salamanders she implanted with radio transmitters have moved.

If they have, she marks the new spots with flags then notes factors including canopy density and soil temperature and moisture level.

Hoffmann implanted the transmitters — which will emit signals for about 45 days — during a short surgery in which they were anesthetized in a UMaine lab.

In mid-June, Hoffmann was awaiting the first of this year’s juvenile salamanders to emerge from the pools.

Much of what she’s already learned from her research has resulted in more queries. For instance, she questions why after the mass spring migration there were 700 female salamanders and just three males in one area pool.

There are now two types of blue-spotted salamanders, Hoffman says — Ambystoma laterale and unisexual salamanders, which are the result of prior hybridizing. Today, the unisex salamander steals sperm from the Ambystoma laterale.

Hoffmann will study both blue-spotted salamanders and the unisex salamanders to see what effects genotype (different genetic compositions), female body size and environmental factors have on egg mass structure and fertility.

She’ll also examine which environmental factors — pond depth, canopy density, distance to roads and presence of other breeders in the pool — impact breeding site selection. And she’ll explore whether juvenile habitat choice differs between the genotypes.

“We keep finding out things. We’ve found salamanders with three genomes or four or five genomes,” she says, wondering aloud what that might mean for the salamanders’ health and life expectancy. “If we [humans] get one extra chromosome, we get Down syndrome.”

UMaine undergraduates Eleanor D’Urso from Branford, Conn., Catherine Herr from Cape May, N.J. and Ian Lookabaugh from Lubec, Maine, are assisting Hoffmann with the research.

D’Urso and Lookabaugh are fifth-year wildlife ecology majors and Herr is a fifth-year student majoring in wildlife ecology and mathematics.

Katherine Sypher, an Orono High School junior is also assisting with the study through the OHS-University of Maine Summer Research Experience Program. The program seeks to increase high school students’ science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills.

Sypher says it’s an ideal summer job — she’s paid to work outside while learning and applying practical knowledge.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Image Description: salamander


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Contact Information

College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture--Research & Development
5782 Winslow Hall, Room 101
Orono, Maine 04469-5782
Phone: 207-581-3228 | Fax: 207-581-3207E-mail: fred.servello@maine.edu
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
207.581.1110
A Member of the University of Maine System