Hurricane Sandy may have had a huge impact on the New York metropolitan area, but it also whipped up 23-foot waves on Lake Huron that may have killed thousands of Mudpuppies. These large (10-15 inch) aquatic salamanders are native to many lakes and river systems in the eastern half of the U.S., including Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes, where they reside in shallow water. But the day after Sandy rolled through, the beaches of Lake Huron were covered in dead Mudpuppies. Some think it was the physical agitation of the water that killed the salamanders, but others are unsure.
When I enrolled in the Middlebury class of 2016 last spring, I didn't have much of a plan for the next 8 months. As a freshman slated to begin college in February 2013, I was suddenly presented with an opportunity to create experiences that I couldn't find in the classroom. One of the first places I went was VCE. I already knew the VCE biologists through our mutual interest in birding, and I had a desire to try my hand at serious fieldwork. As luck would have it, Kent McFarland and others needed help with data collection for some field projects.
When I enrolled in the Middlebury class of 2016 last spring, I didn’t have much of a plan for the next 8 months. As a freshman slated to begin college in February 2013, I was suddenly presented with an opportunity to create experiences that I couldn’t find in the classroom. One of the first places I went was VCE. I already knew the VCE biologists through our mutual interest in birding, and I had a desire to try my hand at serious fieldwork. As luck would have it, Kent McFarland and others needed help with data collection for some field projects.
Two days after finishing high school in mid-June, I was on my way to Quebec with Chris Rimmer. We joined two Canadian Wildlife Service colleagues to explore a region of the Laurentian Mountains where Bicknell’s Thrush were known to occur. That single week provided some of my most memorable experiences of the entire summer. Our first night found us camping on spectacular Mont Acropole, after a grueling hike with backpacks, thousands of feet above a precipitous river valley, and high enough above tree line to escape the black flies. Fox and White-throated Sparrows serenaded us at dusk.
Elsewhere, the bugs could not be evaded. I spent much of the next five days wrapped in a bug shirt as swarms of blackflies, mosquitoes, and deer flies did their best to find any patch of bare skin. Thankfully, biting insects were far from the only wildlife we encountered. Black bears, moose, and porcupines all made appearances, while birds were in abundance. We managed to net and band more than a dozen Bicknell’s Thrush, and collect information for the Quebec Breeding Bird atlas on species such as Barrow’s Goldeneye, Philadelphia Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, and Rusty Blackbird.
The endangered White Mountain Fritillary navigates to Spencer
Returning to Vermont, fieldwork was nearly as exciting. I was assigned to three projects, each involving a different group of organisms. During the avian breeding season I spent several nights on Mt. Mansfield, putting in long hours of banding Bicknell’s Thrushes and other species with the VCE team as part of its long-term monitoring of high-elevation birds. The other two projects introduced me to biota I had never paid much attention to — insects. All summer I was collecting Bumblebees for the inaugural year of the Vermont Bee Atlas. This work took me all over southeastern Vermont and exposed me to new horizons, including the nuances of bumblebee identification and the chance to work independently. My third project may have been the most glamorous. Brendan Collins (a long-time VCE field biologist) and I were tasked with hiking the alpine zone of Mt. Washington. The subject of our quest wasn’t necessarily what one might expect to find in such a harsh environment — we were surveying for the White Mountain Fritillary, a small orange butterfly subspecies found only in a narrow zone of this one mountain (see photo). We collected basic natural history information such as habitat niche, flight period, and a rough estimation of its population.
Once the field season wrapped up, I continued to assist VCE with data entry for the projects I worked on this summer. However, no amount of data entry can return to VCE the benefits I have gained in the last 5 months. On top of the amazing field experience and training, the VCE staff has been incredibly supportive of my endeavors. Their numerous letters of recommendation helped not only with college applications, but most recently to secure my spot on an expedition to Patagonia as part of a conservation effort for the endangered Hooded Grebe. That’s another story, to be told when I return, before school beckons.
At dusk the temperature hovered around 40 degrees and was falling
fast. I could see my breath, but all around me fluttered moths through
the woods. Moths flying on a cold November night? I snapped a few photos
of one and headed home to find out what this was all about.
My colleague Hugh McGuinness, a regional moth coordinator for the
Butterflies and Moths of North America database
(www.butterfliesandmoths.org), identified it as one of two species in
the genus Operophtera, either the native bruceata (Bruce Spanworm) or
the introduced brumata (Winter Moth), devilishly hard to identify by
Either way, both of these small cold weather moths are
thermoconformers and can fly with air and body temperature ranging from
about 27 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Flight is energetically costly,
requiring warm, powerful muscles that can create enough wing strokes to
sustain flight. How do these tiny moths fly in such cold conditions when
muscles don’t operate quickly?
Morphology appears to be the key. The Bruce Spanworm male has one of
the lowest wing-loadings (total weight divided by wing area) of any moth
measured. This reduces the frequency of wing beats necessary to sustain
flight and lowers the energetic cost. They also have one of the highest
flight muscle ratios and these muscles are able to compensate for low
contraction velocity in the cold with a high capacity to generate
tension. Strong muscles, combined with few wing beats allow them to
operate in very low temperatures as they seek the scent of female
The female is also well adapted to low temperatures. They are
flightless. The Bruce Spanworm has no wings at all while the Winter Moth
has just the vestiges of wings on its back. When they emerge in October
or November, they crawl to the lower trunk of a host tree where they
solicit flying males by wafting pheromones into the air.
Without bulky flight muscles weighing them down, Bruce Spanworm
females fill their body from the edge of the thorax to the tip of the
abdomen with eggs, 143 on average. That’s over 60% of their total body
weight. A flight model by James Marden, a biologist at Penn State,
suggests that if a female were to fly again with even weak flight at
optimal temperatures, it would have a 17% reduction in the number of
eggs it could carry. It would experience an 82% reduction in fecundity
to fly powerfully.
Flying and crawling in the cold was probably a great adaptation to a
powerful natural selection force, predation. By late October a large
percentage of insectivorous birds have migrated south and bats have
migrated or hibernated for the winter. With fewer predators comes great
Source: Marden, J.H. 1995. Evolutionary adaptation of contractile
performance in muscle of ectothermic winter-flying moths. Journal of
Experimental Biology 198, 2087-2094.
Much biological research on climate change focuses on the impacts of
warming and changes in precipitation over wide areas. Researchers are
now increasingly recognizing that at the local scale they must
understand the effects of climate change through the intertwined
patterns of soils, vegetation, and water flowpaths—not forgetting the
uses humans have made of the landscape. In the December issue of BioScience
researchers describe how aboveground and belowground responses to
springtime warming are becoming separated in time in a forest in New
England. This and other indirect effects of climate change could alter
the dominant trees and other plants in the region as well as the
wildlife present, with likely consequences for local industry and
The observations could be a bellwether for changes in forests
elsewhere. The researchers, led by Peter M. Groffman, analyzed findings
from the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, which has
been studied for 50 years. Warming means spring has advanced and fall
has retreated over that time. Together with increasing snow and rain,
this has led to an increase in streamflow in winter and summer—but to a
decline in the winter snowpack. The declining snowpack should favor deer
at the expense of moose—which seems to be happening. And the earlier
thaw means soils have been warming earlier in the springtime.
Significantly, the interval between snowmelt and full leaf growth has
increased—by 8 days over 50 years.
Soil nutrients can be more easily washed out during this transition
period, and soil freezing can also occur. This can in turn threaten some
tree species, including yellow birch and sugar maple—the main source of
maple syrup. Soil invertebrates are also killed by soil freezing, so
the species of birds that feed on them will likely change. Groffman and
his colleagues stress that research into the likely effects of climate
change should examine a full range of landscapes, including those
affected by biological invaders. Research should also take advantage of
the range of temperatures at different elevations to explore the effects
of expected warming.
Researchers are identifying the important ecological and
economic contributions of bats; gleaning lessons from incredible bat
abilities that may advance technology; and helping to battle a new fatal