Science Spotlight

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  • July 26, 2019

Small brown rodent on white background
A tagged Amargosa vole. (National Geographic stock photo)

Group of three people wearing hats standing in dirt and cut grass next to large cage made of chain link fence in grassy area.
The “soft release structures” built for the voles were constructed in their natural habitat, giving the captive-bred animals time to adjust to the outdoors. (Photo courtesy of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine)
 

Wildlife veterinarians recently hit an important milestone in their collective efforts to conserve a tiny endangered mammal native to the Mojave Desert. The population of Amargosa voles (Microtus californicus scirpensis), restricted to one small town in Inyo County, is now perilously small, due to habitat destruction, climate change and water diversions created to benefit humans. With much of the voles’ natural habitat now decimated, scientists estimate that fewer than 500 currently exist in the wild. (Read the original California Department of Fish and Wildlife Science Spotlight on Amargosa voles).

Co-led by CDFW Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford and UC Davis Veterinarian Dr. Janet Foley, the Amargosa vole recovery program started in 2012. After the population became nearly extinct in 2014, a captive breeding program was launched at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine as a last-ditch effort to save these tiny creatures, which are a key link in the food chain in their native habitat.

Since the breeding program’s inception, 364 voles have been born and weaned. Several small-scale trial releases have been attempted over the last few years, leading the scientists to identify a clear problem: the animals raised in captivity didn’t necessarily know how to behave in the wild. “The colony animals were a little pampered,” said Foley, referring to the first few trial releases. “They didn’t seem to have the skills to thrive on their own.”

So how to teach a pampered vole to fend for itself? The team members tried several approaches, finally solving an important piece of the puzzle last month. The key was to introduce captive-bred animals to their wild counterparts – and let the former learn from the latter.

The team chose to pair six captive males from the facility at UC Davis with six wild caught females. The voles were introduced to each other for 10 days in temporary indoor cages in Shoshone Village to see which pairs appeared compatible for mating.

Once voles had established pairs, they were moved outdoors. Large dog runs were carefully constructed in their marshland, over the native bulrush that provide shelter and food for the voles. Each run was lined with hardware cloth in order to contain the voles and keep out predators (including coyotes, bobcats, snakes, numerous bird species, bullfrogs, house cats and stray dogs).

For the next 21 days, the new vole pairs continued to get to know each other. Project staff used pit tags – basically telemetry microchips – to monitor their movements and to ensure that they were thriving.

“We used an antenna array around the feeding station, which connects to a computer, so we could watch how they move,” Foley explained. “Most of the time they’re under the bulrush so you can’t see them with the naked eye … but we were amused to see that they’re really not that shy. One male built a tunnel in his natural habitat, but when staff was nearby, he would come out and look right at us before he grabbed food and went back in.”

At the end of 21 days, the kennel doors were opened, allowing the voles to venture out on their own. Foley says that the team was somewhat surprised to see that the pairs generally continued to come and go from the kennels, demonstrating a comfort level with the makeshift shelter. More importantly, at least one of the pairs produced a litter, and several of the other females may be pregnant.

At some point, the team will remove the kennels entirely, at least until the next captive release occurs, likely sometime next spring or summer.

Foley said that she views the July release as a rousing success – not just because the animals are thriving, but because of the body of knowledge the team learned from this experience. “It was really important for us to learn that the colony animals could learn survival skills from their wild counterparts,” she explained. “It was a gamble, and the fact that it worked is so exciting.”

The team will continue to use this technique for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, the goal is to create sustainable populations of Amargosa voles in several different areas. “If there’s a big fire, it could wipe out every marsh in the area,” Foley says. “Our work – and the techniques we are working to perfect -- will help ensure their survival.”

The captive breeding program is one part of a larger joint effort between agencies, universities and nonprofits to save the Amargosa vole. “Together with our partners at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, BLM, UC Davis and UC Berkeley, Shoshone Village and the Amargosa Conservancy, we are conducting habitat restoration, translocations, genetics and health monitoring and community engagement,” Clifford added. “What we’ve learned here not only helps voles, but also helps conserve the other species that rely on these fragile desert marshes.”

Photos Copyright UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Top Photo: One of the recovery team staff members monitoring the vole’s outdoor enclosure during the introductory period. (Photo Courtesy of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine)

Media contacts:
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8988
Trina Wood, UC Davis Communications, (530) 752-5257

 

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • March 25, 2019

Partial map of the State of California with area marked in black outline and covered in small black dots.
CDFW scientists conducted a groundbreaking survey of lizards across the entire Mojave Desert. CDFW graphic.

One might say that a groundbreaking new study conducted by two CDFW scientists and their research partners provides a leap forward in lizard research.

Dr. Brett Furnas, a senior environmental scientist with CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab, is the lead author on a paper entitled link opens in new tab or windowHierarchical distance sampling to estimate population sizes of common lizards across a desert ecoregion. The co-authors on this paper are Scott Newton and Griffin Capehart, both formerly contractors for the Wildlife Branch at CDFW, and Dr. Cameron Barrows with the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of California, Riverside.

According to Furnas, monitoring programs that survey many wildlife species at the same time across large geographic regions are important for informing conservation decisions, but reptiles are often missing from these efforts because they are difficult to survey. Therefore, the researchers applied a new distance-sampling approach to more accurately count lizards across the entire Mojave Desert within California (25,803 square miles in total).

“As far as we know, this is the first time a lizard population has been accurately enumerated over such a large area of desert,” said Furnas.

Visual surveys of lizards were conducted in 2016 along quarter-mile long transects at 229 widely dispersed sites throughout the desert. The surveys were repeated several times during the same month, which allowed CDFW scientists to correct for lizards that were missed during any one visit due to hot weather and other factors. The researchers validated their results by comparing them against a different set of surveys conducted by Barrows over a much smaller area at Joshua Tree National Park.

After using advanced statistical models to extrapolate survey results across the entire desert, CDFW estimated 82 million lizards for the three most common species of lizards across an area amounting to 16 percent of the total land area of the state. The population numbers reflect an average of 3,170 lizards per square mile.

“Having a good measure of population size for any species is important because it allows us to make more effective conservation decisions when we know how abundant a species is, what habitats is uses, and whether it is increasing or declining in numbers,” Furnas said. “These are often the first questions decision-makers want answers to.”

This is especially important in the deserts of California and the Southwestern United States, which are already experiencing severe increases in temperature and reductions in rainfall due to climate change. There is concern that these increases in temperature may already be exceeding the physiological limits of some lizard species, thereby increasing their risk of extinction. 

“Lizards and other reptiles are particularly sensitive to temperature, in part because they are ‘ectothermic,’” explained Furnas. “Unlike mammals, reptiles cannot use their metabolism to regulate body temperature; instead they may need to take shelter on very hot days, which may limit the time they can spend foraging for food.”

In addition to demonstrating the value of a new method for monitoring reptiles, the study was able to map the distribution of lizards throughout the Mojave Desert and show how population levels and the behavior of lizards vary with differences in vegetation cover, human land use, and temperature. Of the three species studied, Western Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris) and Common-side Blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana) were more abundant in cooler places found at higher elevations or where there was greater vegetation cover. On the other hand, Zebra-tailed Lizard (Callisaurus draconoides) was more tolerant of high temperatures, but was the most sensitive to human development and disturbance.
CDFW Photo and Graphic. Top Photo: This common side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana) was surveyed at Joshua Tree National Park. CDFW Photo by Cameron Barrow.

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Media Contacts:
Kyle Orr, CDFW Communications, (916) 322-8958
Brett Furnas, CDFW Wildlife Investigations Laboratory, (530) 227-3998  

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • May 31, 2018

Diver underwater in black diving suit holding underwater writing tablet underwater in kelp forest
WARC diver Shelby Kawana assesses habitat at one of the CDFW red abalone stocking sites located off the coast of southern California.

Diver underwater in black diving suit holding a large grid made from PVC pipes and wire in kelp forest
WARC diver Armand Barilotti assesses habitat at one of the CDFW red abalone stocking sites located off the coast of southern California.

Curled up octopus hiding underwater
Octopus are a top abalone predator and therefor pose a threat to newly stocked juvenile red abalone populations. Researchers catch and relocate octopus when they are found hiding in crevasses near stocking sites.

Abalone attached to a rock
A rediscovered stocked red abalone was found clinging to the underside of a rock during a one year post stocking survey.

Harvesting abalone for dinner used to be as fundamental to a Southern California lifestyle as fish tacos and flip-flops. But by 1998, a combination of overfishing and disease led to the closure of all abalone fishery south of San Francisco. By 2001, the white abalone was listed as an endangered species because populations continued to decline despite protection from fishing pressure. Population numbers are so low today that the only option for recovery is believed to be through a robust captive breeding and stocking program.

Scientists from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) White Abalone Recovery Project and their partners in the White Abalone Recovery Consortium (WARC) are working to bring back the iconic white abalone from the brink of extinction. Since 2016, CDFW and partners have been working to actively restore abalone populations through stocking of young captive-reared abalone. Successful stocking is the critical next step to reestablishing self-sustaining wild populations of this culturally and ecologically important mollusk. The early stocking studies have aimed to perfect the methods that will be used to restore wild white abalone populations in the future by using red abalone as a test case. Red abalone, a sister species of the white abalone, lives in the same deep kelp forest habitats, and their populations in Southern California have also been very slow to recover.

Every few months, scientific divers on board the CDFW research vessel Garibaldi wrestle into thick neoprene wetsuits and load heavy steel tanks onto their backs in order to check on the stocked abalone. As the divers descend deeper into the kelp forest, they enter the world of the white abalone. Sunlight streams through the towering giant kelp, briefly illuminating the shiny sides of the small fish taking cover in the kelp blades. Lobsters and octopuses are tucked into the crevices of rocks, and abalone and urchins shelter in the shadows. Many of those abalone are adorned with small brightly-colored numbered tags that identify them as the new additions to the neighborhood. After a few months in the wild, the stocked abalone can show an extensive amount of growth which speaks to the quality and abundance of resources in their new habitat.

Since restoration stocking began in 2016, the partnership has stocked close to 10,000 red abalone off the coast of southern California. These studies are helping scientists understand how stocked abalone interact with their new environment in the wild. Researchers are increasing the effectiveness of future stocking work by teasing out the risk factors that abalone face in their new environment. For multiple years after releasing the abalone, divers track the number and identity of each abalone, and assess the ecosystem health and predator abundances at each site. The divers also collect any abalone shells encountered to determine the effects of different predators at each site through time.

Octopuses, lobsters, sea stars and fish are all major predators of the young abalone, and care is taken to introduce the abalone during times of the year when the predators will be least abundant. All of the data from these early studies are aimed at lessening the risks that stocked abalone face, and to improve long-term growth and survival.

The WARC understands that abalone are at the heart of coastal California’s identity and culture. The return of red and white abalone to the wild marks the beginning of a new chapter in the love story between California and this amazing mollusk. This is true for the ecosystems that rely on them as well as for the humans that cherish them. Please stay tuned for updates on the lessons learned from these studies, and plans for upcoming white abalone stocking work!

For more information, please visit the following pages:

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Newly tagged red abalone that are ready to be released into the ocean during a WARC stocking study in 2016.

Categories: General
  • April 20, 2018

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform standing in the bed of a truck shoveling rocks

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform standing in stream pouring rocks into stream from large bucket

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform crouching in stream looking at the water

Stream with rocks lining the streambed

California’s drought emergency was officially declared to be over last year, but its deleterious impact on fish habitat is still being felt in many parts of the state -- especially in arid parts of Southern California. In order to help offset these effects at one site in northern San Diego County, CDFW biologists and other staff recently toiled to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.

The Sweetwater River is a second-order stream located within Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The underlying rock is granite, which, as it erodes, creates sand that accumulates in the low-gradient portion of the river. Previous surveys in the Sweetwater River revealed a lack of high-quality spawning habitat for the rainbow trout population, which was reduced by 70 to 80 percent during the recent drought.

Seeing an opportunity to restore habitat to this waterway, South Coast Region fisheries biologists came up with a plan to place suitable materials into Sweetwater for the rainbow trout to use for new spawning grounds. Beginning on March 20, CDFW Environmental Scientist Russell Barabe, scientific aids Joseph Stanovich and Ken Sankary and volunteer Mark Berlin worked in the hot sun and dry conditions to rehab the streambed. Using a nearby dry stream channel, the team shoveled hundreds of pounds of rocks and materials through mesh screens to remove fine sediment and sand and clean the rock, called cobbles, to make them ready for placement into Sweetwater River. All the rock had to be moved one bucket at a time and poured into pool tailouts (the downstream end of a pool where the water gradually shallows) to create spawning beds about three feet square for rainbow trout.

Though similar work has been done in northern California – specifically two larger-scale projects in the American and Sacramento rivers, which served as the inspiration for this project – it had never been done in this small a stream before.

This small but important project could increase the spawning success of a drought-reduced population in a stream with easy public access. If successful, this project could be used as a model for future habitat restoration activities in other small trout streams. The fisheries team’s work is an example of how our scientists put the mission of CDFW – to conserve California’s fish and wildlife resources for the use and enjoyment of the public – into action.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW Scientists hauling buckets of rocks to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.

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Categories: General
  • April 12, 2018

CDFW wants to know if, when and where you’ve seen an elk in California – and they’ve just created a new online reporting tool that makes it easy for members of the public to share this information.

CDFW scientists will use the raw data to help guide their efforts to study statewide elk distribution, migration patterns and herd movement, population size estimates, habitat use, health and diseases, and causes of mortality.

“We have limited resources and our scientists cannot scan the entire landscape,” explained CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Figura. “This tool provides a way for us to leverage the many sightings of the wildlife-watching public. People often get excited when they see elk, and hopefully now they will channel that excitement by reporting the location and time of their sighting to our department.”

There are three subspecies of elk in the state – tule, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt -- and all three have expanded their range in recent years according to Figura.

CDFW has elk studies underway in the northern part of the state: one is focused on Roosevelt elk in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, and the other is focused on elk in Siskiyou and Modoc counties. Tracking and studying such a large mammal is a complex undertaking as elk herds are wide-ranging, and often graze and browse in areas that are not easily accessible, and there are only so many scientists to monitor their movements.

The launch of the reporting tool is just the latest effort to enhance the management of elk in California. Last year CDFW released a public draft of the Statewide Elk Conservation and Management Plan that addresses historical and current geographic range, habitat conditions and trends, and major factors affecting elk in California.

The plan will provide guidance and direction for setting priorities for elk management efforts statewide. CDFW is reviewing public comments on the plan and will incorporate appropriate changes into the final document prior to its release, which is expected soon.

CDFW Wildlife Branch Chief Kari Lewis has termed the plan an “important milestone” and explained that public feedback is a critical part of shaping the effort, which emphasizes a sharing of resources and collaboration with all parties interested in elk and elk management. This, she said, is essential to effectively managing California’s elk populations.

For more information about elk in California, please visit CDFW’s elk management webpage.

CDFW File Photo. Top photo: Group of Tule Elk.

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Categories: General