view counter

Features (Creature Feature)

Citizen scientists join the search for other life forms

With summer comes longing for adventure. Motivated to engage with nature and be a part of something bigger, I signed up to study the parasite Loxo and mud crabs at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
    Small by any standard, the white-fingered mud crab, aka Atlantic mud crab, is “small as a flea” or large as an inch, according to Smithsonian scientist Alison Cawood. This small crustacean plays a large part in our Bay’s ecosystem. A key indicator species, it preys on oysters, barnacles and worms, at the same time serving as a snack for birds, fish and other critters.
    It is also the unwilling host of a “bodysnatching parasite,” an invasive species called Loxothylacus panopaei. A pointy headed member of the barnacle family, Cawood explains, Loxo burrows into the mud crab during its molt, when it’s most vulnerable, and hijacks its body. It does this dastardly deed by injecting fewer than 200 cells into the crab’s nervous system. Once in, these cells take over. The crab becomes “a barnacle in a crab suit.” Loxo even uses the crab to carry its offspring, parasitic larvae, in its external sack.
    With a five-minute instructional how-to and tiny forceps, our group of 12 pull mud crabs out of small milk crates filled with mud and oyster shells, all gathered from sample sites on the Rhodes River. The result of our intricate game of I Spy is a jar full of lively crabs to be further studied for zombification by scientists and lab-certified volunteers.
    Our final task is to check another team’s milk crate remains for missed mud crabs. These crabs would be not only examined for the virus but also cataloged by number and size for another ongoing study.
    We volunteers were the subject of that second study, our accuracy factored with age, time spent, educational level and previous field study experience. This is important for Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which depends on some 6,000 hours annually of volunteer research in its ongoing studies.
    If you take the time to get scientific this summer, you will learn odd things and find it rewarding. For upcoming opportunities for citizen scientists, check Bay Weekly’s 8 Days a Week.

This year, the winged swimmers are protected

One sunny afternoon with no breeze and the air hot and sticky, fishing was becoming a drag. We were ready to pack it in when the line zinged. With a leap of excitement, I grabbed the reel and began the labor of dragging the catch in. This would be no easy feat as the line doubled over.
    We were both tired when I lifted up my prize: a tiny baby cownose ray.
    This majestic giant of the Chesapeake is near and dear to my heart. As a girl, I have fond memories of watching their tips break a still surface of the morning water, like dancers. These schooling brown rays make our backyard their home when they arrive in early spring to mate and eat, through fall. Bottom feeders, rays do eat clams and oysters but not to the extent once believed.
    Because they were thought to be hungry hazards to some of our favorite resources on the Chesapeake, including crabs, rays were targeted for hunting and harvesting. Bow-fishing for rays became a niche sport.
    Now these creatures are protected by a moratorium through July 2019, passed unanimously by Maryland senators. The moratorium is timed to allow scientific observation and study of the species to see what effects these rays actually have on the aquatic ecosystem.
    When you’re out on the water this summer, catch a look at their effortless glides. If you happen to hook one, enjoy the fight, then carefully release it. Rays are strong and slippery with whip-like tails.

Firefighters save Lassie look-alike Siri

Anne Arundel County Firefighter Brian Doyle and his team were out on the water training when they got the call. A dog trapped down a hole near Edgewater needed rescuing.
    His Special Operations Confined Space Rescue Team jumped into action, splitting up so that some could get their special rescue rig from the Jones Station firehouse while the rest headed to the scene.
    In what appeared to be a collapsed well, Siri was trapped. At eight feet, the hole was too deep for the collie mix, a Lassie look-alike, to crawl out. Complicating the special operation, the rain-drenched soil was too soft to hold weight directly. To rescue Siri, they would have to get creative.
    First, they cleared brush. Then, avoiding power lines, the team strung a ladder over the hole at about a 45-degree angle. In a harness and rigging line, Doyle was lowered into the hole.

    “It was a tight fit going down,” said the broad-shouldered fireman. The bottom was cavernous, so Doyle had to scan the dark hole to locate the dog. Even stuck in the mud, Siri happily wagged her tail. Good thing, for Doyle had to secure her in webbing, then hold her in a big bear hug while the pair were hoisted to the surface.
    “The owner was smart to call in professionals,” Doyle said. “It was definitely a team effort.”
    For their effort, the team was honored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which rewarded them with a plaque, The Engine 2 Diet vegetarian cookbook and a tin of vegan cookies.

He’s keeping the species alive

It’s a dark and stormy night, the moon is shaded by clouds. The only light streams from our headlamps and the revolving beam of a nearby lighthouse. The rain is pelting sideways, and the water is above our ankles. Tired and cold but hopeful, our trio trudges down a Calvert County beach at 3am, scanning the turbulent water for a prehistoric monster.
    Suddenly in the surf, someone spots a dark silhouette, like a rock … we draw closer, anxious with excitement. It is indeed what we’ve been searching for: a horseshoe crab. Park ranger Chelcey Nordstrom removes the sand around the base of the male, revealing a second larger female crab buried beneath.
    “Horseshoe crabs on shore should be left alone unless they need help being flipped back over. This is true especially when they are stacked on top of each other, which can sometimes be hard to see.”
    A species more than 300 million years old, the Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, seeks out the beaches of Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay to mate, lay their eggs and raise young in these shallow and protected waters. Horseshoe crabs can live 20 years or longer and can travel up and down the east coast. But the species is in trouble, due in part to predation and overharvesting. They are also used actively in medical testing because of their copper-based blood. However, little is known as to why they choose our beaches, where or why they travel or many other habits.
    Data gathered from our Anne Arundel Community College’s science class findings will be used in an ongoing study by college professor Paul Bushman to shed light on these unanswered questions. Last year’s student study group attached radio tags to crabs found, and hopefully collection of those same tagged crabs this year will reveal where they went, how far they traveled, how long they stayed in each location and other curiosities about these ancient creatures. Armed with this new information, advances can be made to further preserve this unique species.

Soon these pullets will be laying eggs

Right about now spring chickens are no longer the cute, fuzzy bundles they were just five weeks ago. Just like human children, they have begun maturing — at first by bits. Now they look like mini adult chickens.
    So it’s a good thing most chick purchases are not for cuddly cuteness but for modern homesteading.
    For now, new chicks are still dependents, requiring extra attention food, shelter and water. Chicks must maintain a body temperature of at least 90 degrees when brought home, with diminishing temperatures after that. They are pullets, the proper name for hens of this transitioning age, no longer chicks but not yet laying.
    Novice chicken farmer Susan Nolan of Lothian has six chickens in her developing flock, two Barred Rock, two Red Stars, one Andalusian Blue and one New Hampshire Red.
    From now until early fall, she gives them two heaping scoops of feed a day. Just like the kids at home, the chicks are messy eaters, leaving more on the ground than in their bellies.
    By early June, they can leave the shelter of Nolan’s home to live in their own residence, the coop.
    Around September, they’ll be feeding Nolan and her family approximately three to five eggs a week per chicken.
    Read more on raising egg hens at:
www.bayweekly.com/node/17991.

Mack the Lab is Maryland’s chief apiary sniffer

Cybil Preston and her bee dog Mack the Lab are official heroes in the state of Maryland.
    Like all heroes and superheroes, Mack rose from a troubled past. He was a puppy in a dissolving family where three small children took up all the time the mother had to give. Preston came to the rescue, sensing Mack had the brains to pick up new skills. He did.
    Preston, Maryland’s chief apiary inspector, needed a new sharp-nosed dog to continue the nation’s longest — and only — canine apiary inspection program. The most famous of the five dogs who held the Maryland job was Klinker, who was featured in a National Geographic segment before retiring in 2014.
    Bee dogs, as the apiary inspectors are known, can sniff out a killing disease. The American foulbrood bacterium kills both pupae and pre-pupae in bee colonies. It spreads in a vegetative form as well as through spores, which means if a hive is infected, any tools used even, potentially, the hive itself may have to be destroyed.
    American foulbrood gets its name from the country in which it was discovered and its foul smell, “like chicken manure,” Preston says. The human nose can detect the scent only if the hive is opened, Preston says, “while Mack need only walk past.”
    He stops and sits to signal an infested hive.
    Mack works only in the cold, below 52 degrees, when bees are dormant, so he isn’t stung. One sting on the nose taught handler and dog that lesson. Mack works on the Preston family farm in his free time, at his master’s side, sidetracked only by a game of Frisbee.
    Quick, cost effective and extremely accurate, bee-sniffing dogs are a key part of Maryland apiculture and agriculture, keeping bees at work pollinating crops.

Mack’s sensitive nose helps Maryland’s chief apiary inspector Cybil Preston find bee hives infested with American foulbrood.

Bats have a colony of mothers

Who knew that bats make excellent mothers? You and I do, thanks to Maryland Department of Natural Resources bat biologist Dana Limpert, who speaks highly of the brown bat.
    “They take excellent care of their young. If a baby falls out of the roost or is injured, the mother will recognize its calls and rescue it.”
    Myotis lucifugus is small, about three and a half inches with a wingspan of nine to 11 inches and weighing less than half an ounce. Their name comes from their long brown fur. Brown bats live throughout Chesapeake Country, especially near water for drinking.
    A female bat gives birth to one or two pups every spring, late May to early June, with twins common hereabouts. During pregnancy and after birth, mother and pups reside in a “maternity colony” that can range from five to several hundred of the winged mammals. Think about a Yaya sisterhood on an animal level.
    Babies not yet able to fly attach themselves to mom immediately after birth and feed on her milk for the first few weeks. When momma bat gets hungry, she leaves her pups in the colony cluster and goes out to hunt for bugs. Upon return she licks faces, recognizing her pups by scent and call.
    In a month or so, pups join their mother in catching and eating bugs.
    Recent developments in gene identification have shown that all members of a colony are related. Colonies live in tree trunks, caves and barns. Eventually — in the fall for females and a year later for males — the pups leave their mothers’ sides to start their own families. The mothers will rejoin their male counterparts in forming a bigger colony to mate, hibernate and begin the cycle anew.
    DNR wants to know if you see bats to help in population studies and preservation of the species, which is under fungal attack: https://tinyurl.com/DNR-bats.

Look up; they’re all around you

Drifting high across most landscapes this time of year, sometimes to altitudes of 16,000 feet or more, are airborne travelers that few people notice, though the fliers may number in the thousands.
    They are spiders seeking new ­territories.
    These ballooning or sailing spiders are generally the smaller of the many spider varieties and are borne aloft by winds on gossamer filaments, usually three, spun by the spider, forming a pyramid canopy that can carry them for miles, sometimes thousands of miles.
    Primarily a migratory activity, especially for young hatchlings, sailing or ballooning is a natural mode of transportation that disburses the spiders from their nesting or home site. When they are ready to travel, the spiders instinctually climb high in the trees or onto higher terrain and spin their webbing. Then, standing on tiptoes, they wait for the wind to bear them away.
    Because of their size they are difficult to see, but you can sometimes spot them on a sunny day by looking up for their long, silvery threads. On a recent fishing trip on the Chesapeake, we were rewarded by spotting a dozen or so of the travelers, a few of which found refuge on our skiff, disappearing into the nooks and crevices as soon as they landed.
    Aerial arachnids that come down on the Bay are not doomed, as they are so light that, with their naturally water-repellent feet, they can skate or scamper across the water’s surface, often to great distance, eventually reaching more hospitable territory. Or nature’s airborne rangers can spin new webs and wait to be carried aloft again.

Fish in the Classroom goes to college

Whoever heard of taking fish back to the water?
    Trout Unlimited did, and that’s why my Anne Arundel Community College environmental studies class of 25 students is carrying buckets of trout to the Little Paxtuxent River near Savage Mill.
    Trout Unlimited believes that the best way to conserve and create more coldwater fisheries is to partner with local hatcheries and release trout into local rivers. The fingerlings we release are Kamloops rainbow trout, grown from some 9,000 embryos supplied by the Albert Powell State Hatchery to be raised in classrooms across the state.
    In the national Fish in the Classroom program, trout are raised in low-income schools by kids who might not have another opportunity to understand water ecology and stream preservation. Teachers can ask to have their classes included in the free program.
    Rainbow trout are not Maryland natives, but they do provide good fishing and eating. Maryland’s native brook trout, a key indicator species, are greatly reduced because of urbanization and rising temperatures.

Atlantic ribbed and hooked mussels are Chesapeake’s Brita filter

Mussels are more than a seafood dish in buttery broth. Unlike those delectable mussels, our Chesapeake Bay mussels are small and tough. Our two native species, the Atlantic ribbed mussel and the hooked mussel, serve environment rather than appetite. Both are believed to be key indicator species of the health of the Bay.
    These filter feeders have a leg up on oysters. Due to their smaller size, they can catch the smaller plankton Picoplankton.
    In doing that job, mussels have been credited with filtering out twice as much plankton as do our oysters, Crassostrea virginica. That’s according to research conducted in 2015 by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientists Denise Breitburg and Keryn Gedan and Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Lisa Kellogg (www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/mussels.php).
    “Hooked mussels were also twice as effective as oysters at filtering picoplankton,” says Breitburg. The tiny picoplankton are particularly abundant in the Bay in summer.
    Lifespans upward of 15 years mean our mussels have long careers. They do their work in the Bay’s most dynamic environments near the water’s edge, helping to reduce sediment. They are also part of the Bay food chain, feeding crabs, shorebirds and ducks.
    You might see these hard-working mussels on the roots of underwater grasses or on hard surfaces like oyster shells, pilings and boat bottoms.