NB researchers monitor invasive tunicates

Lurking just across the St. Croix River, an invasive species with a deceptively innocent name has slowly been making its way toward New Brunswick, and it has some researchers worried.

The pancake batter tunicate, which resembles its namesake, blankets everything from docks to sea floors and poses a threat to the local ecosystem’s diversity, Jennifer Martin said. She is the lead researcher on a team of scientists and divers that will head to Campobello Island and Deer Island at the end of the month to spend two days monitoring the spread of the species that has been causing problems for north-eastern American states since it first snuck into the area aboard a mussels ship from Japan.

Tunicates, also known as sea squirts, are invertebrate filter-feeders that can largely carpet ocean floors. They usually move around by hitching a ride on something faster, such as a boat.

“It can smother and out-compete anything that is in our natural environment,” Martin said.

The researchers at the St. Andrews Biological Station have been monitoring the spread since 2009. At last inspection it was growing on pontoons and wharves in Eastport, Maine. They haven’t yet seen it in New Brunswick waters.

But Martin said it wouldn’t be a big jump to make. The two sides have nearly identical environments.

In late September, St. Andrews researchers will lead a diving expedition to Eastport, where they will study the invasive species to determine if there has been any progress since last year.

The researchers from St. Andrews Biological Station will be joined by counterparts from Halifax, Montreal and P.E.I., as well as some partners from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Maine.

This year will be their biggest team yet, at about 14 people in total, Martin says.

While species that get buried beneath its quarter-inch shell still seem to be able to breathe, the tunicate impedes growth. It can also latch itself to and weigh down fishing gear, aquaculture structures and buoys.

Unfortunately, Martin said there’s not a lot people can do once it’s there. They can scrape it off surfaces with a paint chipper, but this poses possible threat of spreading it further.

On Sept. 27 and 28, divers will go down during low tides, when the current is calm, to take photographs of the species and retrieve samples, which will be taken to the lab for study. They will also drag for scallops, which will likely haul up some of the tunicates at the same time, if present.

Tunicates can also be monitored by deploying collectors (plates) attached to floating docks or buoys.

In recent years, there has been increased efforts to study the invasion of aquatic species, as international trade expands and more vessels enter the Bay of Fundy.

To date, the Bay of Fundy tunicate monitoring program has provided evidence that the golden star tunicate, and the vase tunicate are present in the Bay of Fundy.

The pancake batter tunicate has been observed on the U.S. portion of Georges Bank and in northern Maine, including Eastport in Passamaquoddy Bay. But as Martin said, nature knows no political boundaries.

Previously published by the Telegraph-Journal; Sept. 1, 2011

East N.A. coast among places that merit protection

The waters around New Brunswick and along the northeast American coastline have been cited in a new study as being among the top nine marine places in the world that merit protection.

The study criteria looked at how many marine mammal species are there, how rare they are, and how at risk they are from human influence.

While 20 sites were highlighted worldwide, the report’s authors determined that by preserving just 2.5 per cent of the ocean, they could protect the vast majority of marine mammal species.

“We’re in a very important species extinction crisis,” researcher Gerardo Ceballos said in a telephone interview.

Like all the hot spots, eastern Canada is at a medium to high level of dangerous human impact, Ceballos said. He and Sandra Pompa Mansilla co-authored the study from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

They worked on the study for four years with a fellow researcher at Stanford University and published the paper in the Aug. 16 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The key sites seem to congregate in upwelling oceanic areas, where cold currents meet warm ones. These often produce areas of high primary production, which are good feeding grounds for marine mammals.

Southern New Brunswick, which is known for its whale-watching industry, serves as the summer home of the right whale, an endangered species that was pinpointed as one of the animals of particular concern by the scientists. Other species frequenting the Fundy area are the minke whale, the humpback whale, the finback whale and white-beaked Dolphins, among other species.

Although they are known to visit, it’s considered rare to see a blue whale, sperm whale, killer whale or beluga whale.

Marine mammals provide some of the best-known cases of population and species extinction through overexploitation, the study states.

For the North Atlantic, the study lists the whale-watching industry, toxic waste dumping and vessel collisions with whales as the most dangerous threats to the rich marine population in the North Atlantic.

The researchers are the first to combine various habitat maps of marine mammals around the world into an all-inclusive map showing the hot spots, Mansilla said from her university office in Mexico.

But Ceballos said their study “is a guideline for some of the most important places … but it doesn’t mean that the rest of the areas shouldn’t be taken into account.”

The other nine sites are located off the coasts of Baja California in Mexico, Peru, Argentina, northwestern Africa, South Africa, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

Of the 129 species of marine mammals on Earth, including seals, dolphins and polar bears, approximately 25 per cent are facing extinction, the study said, ranging from being considered vulnerable to critically endangered.

Previously published by the Telegraph-Journal; Sept. 6

Scientists try to breed better bees

After suffering hard losses during the worldwide colony collapse, New Brunswick’s bee population seems to be on the mend.

This trend will continue if researchers in Manitoba and Ontario get their way.

Robert Currie is an entomologist at the University of Manitoba. He has partnered with the Ontario Beekeepers Association to breed a better bee. Specifically, a bee with a higher immunity to one of the principal causes of bee colony collapse – the varroa mite. Currie’s lab has been working toward this for the past seven or eight years, he said in an interview.

The theory is simple. Find bees that have particular resistance to the mites and the parasites that go with them, and breed them to pass along and strengthen those characteristics.

When a progress report was done two years ago, researchers found that their selected brood had a higher chance of living than a bunch of regular honey bees that hadn’t been specially bred.

While only 40 to 45 per cent of the unselected stocks survived the winter, about three quarters of Currie’s selected stocks made it through.

In about five years they should have significant overall resistance in Canada’s bees, Currie said. And while he said these bees should be able to integrate into New Brunswick colony’s, Richard Duplain has his doubts. Duplain is the vice-president of the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association and said that what might work for one region might not work in another.

To breed a bee that is completely resistant to the mites is a “laudible goal,” he said, but the chances of it happening are unrealistic.

Currie agrees to an extent.

“If you’re trying to find the silver bullet and trying to say that this is the end-all be-all?…?I think that’s probably not going to be the case,” he said. “But I think what we can do is make significant progress in reducing a lot of the chemical treatment that we’re putting in place and also increasing the survival rate of the bees.”

New Brunswick’s boost in survival rate since 2010 could be due to a favourable position in a cycle of good and bad years, but it’s also partly because many commercial apiarists use Apivar. Apivar is a varroa mite treatment in the form of a rigid polymer strip impregnated with the antiparasitic drug amitraz. It is registered under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and has no effect on the bee, honey or wax.

Other more labour-intensive methods (and thus less popular among commercial apiarists) include wafting the hives with vapour from organic formic and oxalic acids, which are found naturally in honey. This from Fletcher Colpitts, the chief inspector at the New Brunswick Beekeepers Association.

But the mites aren’t the only cause of failing bee colonies.

Other likely factors include increased pesticide use, air pollution and a possible interference of cell phone towers into the bees’ ability to navigate their way home.

It’s normal for some bees to die over the winter, but Canada (and the world) have been dealing with above-average colony losses since 2006. Bees are important because farmers rent them to pollinate their crops, usually blueberries and cranberry fields.

Previously published July 25, 2011; Telegraph-Journal, Times & Transcript

Couple helping abandoned puppies to recover

When seven puppies were abandoned on the side of a highway to die, Denise Tramble said she and her husband didn’t hesitate.

“Yes, we will take these puppies,” she told Moncton Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. She hadn’t even seen them yet. The next day she brought two carrying cases full of two-week-old husky-mix pups to her home in Moncton.

RCMP officers had found them in a box beside a northern New Brunswick road on July 10 and called in the report that they were dead. Then they heard a faint yelp. Miraculously, all were still alive. But the puppies, who had likely sat on the side of the road for 36 hours on a hot day, were severely dehydrated and barely moving.

They were rushed to the veterinarian and then to the Moncton society, where Denise volunteers.

Denise and her husband Steve agreed to foster the puppies, which will need constant love and care.

“It was the right thing to do,” Steve said.

Denise isn’t working currently, so she’s usually able to stay home with them, but she said they also have neighbours and friends working in shifts to help out. And there’s plenty of helping to do.

For the first two days, the seven puppies – each of which is named after a Snow White dwarf – were fed every two hours, though that has since been lengthened to four-hour increments. They suckle from baby bottles filled with a mixture of puppy formula, evaporated milk, corn syrup and water. They are burped after meals, exercised in the backyard and snuggled often.

The Trambles usually keep their home phone unplugged so it doesn’t wake dozing puppies. The “puppy room” – formerly known as the spare bedroom – is equipped with a baby monitor. Denise and Steve don’t get much sleep, but they said it’s all worth it.

“I’m in puppy heaven,” Denise said. “They bring such joy to me.”

Her voice chokes over the phone line when she mentions the mystery person who left them for dead.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t cry,” she said.

Denise hopes the media attention will help expose whoever abandoned the puppies.

“I want them charged, I want them fined, I want them with a permanent criminal record,” she said.

There is no shame in bringing a litter of puppies to the Moncton Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Denise said. To do so costs only $50, she said.

By Wednesday they’d had the puppies for a week. The day also marked the couple’s eighth anniversary. But, Denise said they’ve been so wrapped up in the puppies neither of them realized it until the reminder alarm on her phone went off. Celebrations will likely involve taking the puppies outside to play, she said.

When the puppies are six to eight weeks old, they will be ready for adoption. Interested parties can submit an application, and if approved can buy the pup for $200 (the Moncton society runs mainly off donations and adoption fees), with a deposit of $100 that is returned once the puppy has been spayed or neutered. There are four males and three female pups.

Previously published July 21, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Research project to test viability of on-land salmon farming

Salmon farming is moving on land.

The Atlantic Salmon Federation and the Conservation Fund are joining forces in a research project that will try to rear salmon in a freshwater closed-containment system.

“It’s huge, it’s groundbreaking,” Bill Taylor, the federation’s president, said. “Hopefully it will help us move towards much more environmentally friendly and wild-salmon friendly aquaculture.”

Over the next year, the federation plans to grow 10 tonnes of salmon in a circular, stainless-steel tank that is slightly larger than an Olympic swimming pool.

The Conservation Fund, an American non-profit organization, has successfully conducted similar trials with St. John River salmon in smaller qualities, but Taylor said this project is the first trial of this magnitude. Taylor said the project’s budget is $120,000.

Jonathan Carr, the federation’s director of research and environment, said the goal is to provide an environmentally friendly solution to the growing global demand for salmon.

He said there has been concern in recent years about farmed salmon escaping their confines and contaminating wild fish stocks. The on-land, closed-containment system would eliminate this risk, Carr said.

It would also result in a better product for consumers, since pesticides and harsh chemicals would no longer be necessary to raise the fish to maturity. And farmers would be able to charge more for the higher quality, making it cost competitive, Taylor said.

He added that commercial salmon farming is on the brink of maxing out its growth potential. On-land fish farms could be the answer to global demand for salmon, which continues to rise, he said.

But this may be a pipe dream, according to some. Pamela Parker is the executive director for the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association.

“Closed containment is not the magic bullet that some people make it out to be,” she said.

There are significant questions surrounding energy usage and the amount of water that a large-scale operation would use, she said.

Every minute, 5,000 litres of water would pass through the system. However, Taylor said 99.8 per cent of it would be recirculated into the ground, just as clean as when it entered their system.

While Taylor said he couldn’t see closed-containment farms replacing existing fish farm operations, he said it would be great to see in the future. But what may work on a small scale doesn’t always translate to a functional, large-scale operation, Parker said.

To be economically viable, Carr said they would need to grow two to three thousand tonnes. In comparison, Parker said, New Brunswick fish farmers produce a total of 35 thousand metric tonnes of salmon.

To match that output, the tanks would need to cover the space of about 8,000 football fields, Parker said.

“we’re very supportive of new research,” she said, “we’re just not convinced … (this) could be justified.”

The project will be housed in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Taylor said, “there’s certainly risk but we think it’s very low.”

Previously published June 24, 2011; Telegraph-Journal

Devastating disease threatens bat population in province

Karen Vanderwolf & Don McAlpine; Telegraph-Journal Archive

New Brunswick could lose its entire bat population in a few short years, researchers say, because of the devastating white nose syndrome that is ravaging caves from Nova Scotia to Oklahoma.

The fungus, whose scientific name is almost self-explanatory (geomyces destructans), was first detected by researchers in a cave in Albert County on March 15.

At that point about a quarter of the bats in the cave were dead, said Karen Vanderwolf, a University of New Brunswick graduate student. The cave floor was littered with dead bats and the air “smelled of death and rotting carcasses,” she said.

Dressed in HazMat suits, she and her research supervisor Don McAlpine, the zoology curator at the New Brunswick Museum, returned to the cave in late April. In little over a month, mortality had jumped to almost 90 per cent.

“And that’s a minimum,” Vanderwolf said, “A lot of the bats on the wall that we counted as alive were probably dead.” Half of them already had visible signs of the fungus.

The fact that Vanderwolf and McAlpine were able to go back at all is unusual. Many jurisdictions are prohibiting any human entry to the caves, to help prevent the disease from spreading.

“It’s a good thing we went back in because otherwise we wouldn’t have realized how serious a problem it is,” said Graham

Telegraph-Journal archive

Forbes, who is co-supervising the research. Forbes is a professor at the University of New Brunswick.

On June 29, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it may add two bat species to its endangered species list because of white nose syndrome. One of those species – the northern long-eared bat – is one of New Brunswick’s most common bats.

Forbes, who also serves as a co-chairman for the committee on the status of endangered wildlife in Canada, said there has been preliminary discussion of whether Canada should follow suit.

Luckily, the disease doesn’t seem to have spread to other parts of the province, Vanderwolf said. But she expects that will have changed by next winter.

Forbes said New Brunswick is on the verge of losing a species that has traditionally been one of the province’s most plentiful creatures. And if that is the case, he said it could be up to 50 or 60 years before the population recovered. This is because bats are the slowest reproducing mammal in the world for their size, often bearing only a single baby per year.

If bats were wiped out, there is the possibility that its main food sources – mosquitos and moths – would multiply to irritating and dangerous levels. Crops could suffer from higher populations of harmful bugs, Forbes said.

The fungus works by seeping into the skin, irritating the tiny creatures into wakefulness during their hibernation period. More time awake means using more energy, and the bats’ fat stores soon run dry. Vanderwolf said researchers so far know the disease to attack nine different bat species, including the common small brown bat.

Vanderwolf said there is no chance white nose syndrome could spread to people because the fungus favours colder host habitats that fall below the human body temperature.

Previously published July 5, 2011; Telegraph-Journal