Science Spotlight

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  • October 25, 2017

At night, two bats fly low over yellow flowers
California leaf-nosed bats. CDFW photo by retired biologist Andy Moore.

hundreds of bats fly overhead at sunset
Hundreds of bats in flight. ©Dave Feliz, all rights reserved.

a little brown bat with white fungus on nose hangs upside-down in a cave
Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome. US Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

a bat with enormous ears and teeth showing, in flight
Townsend's big-eared bat in flight. National Park Service photo.

The last seven days of October are celebrated each year as Bat Week – a time to learn about the importance of bats in our environment.

Bats are nature’s best pesticide. According to a study by the University of California, Davis, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, each of these small mammals eats between half and 100 percent of its own weight in insects every night. Some California species consume as many as 600 insects per hour. Imagine living with all the mosquitoes, flies, midges, moths and agricultural pests that are now consumed by bats!

In monetary terms, the natural pest control that bats provide is extremely valuable to the state’s $54 billion per year agriculture and $450 million timber industries. The bats’ appetite reduces the need for chemical pesticides, reduces crop losses and curtails the spread of crop diseases. According to the US Geological Survey, a recent economic analysis indicated that insect suppression services provided by bats to American agriculture is worth something between $4 billion and $50 billion per year.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Senior Environmental Scientist Scott Osborn notes the estimate’s wide range makes it hard to know exactly how much money bats save farmers. “But even the low estimate, $4 billion, is an impressive amount,” he said. “Bats are an important part of integrated pest management systems.”

As the wildlife trustee agency in California, CDFW is engaged in several activities to help us understand the conservation status of bats in the state, as well as to address threats to bat populations. At statewide, regional and local scales, our scientists have been deploying acoustic bat detectors to determine the distribution of California’s 25 bat species. When CDFW’s bat acoustic data are combined with data collected by partners at other state and federal agencies, academic researchers and non-governmental organizations, we should have more accurate knowledge of where various bat species occur, as well as their seasonal movements.

White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is now a real threat to California’s bats. WNS is a fungal disease that is estimated to have killed more than 6 million bats in eastern North America. With the discovery of WNS for the first time on the west coast (in Washington state) last year, California is bracing for potentially devastating impacts to our bat populations. CDFW is working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to conduct surveillance for the fungus that causes the disease, as well as develop plans to manage the disease when it arrives in California. So far, all of the samples collected from bats and their roosts in California have been free of the fungus, but increased vigilance is necessary to help ensure the disease is detected immediately when it arrives. Special measures to reduce the impact of WNS on hibernating bats may include closing caves and other roosts to visitors, because people can unwittingly spread the fungus on their clothing, shoes and gear. Ultimately, it is hoped that ongoing research into the disease will provide tools to either eliminate or control the fungus, both in the environment and in infected bats.

To learn more about the exciting world of bats and how you can “Go to Bat for Bats!” check out the link opens in new tab or windowBat Week 2017 website.

Top photo: A California bat in a crevice. ©Dave Feliz, all rights reserved.

Categories: General
  • August 8, 2017

A woman in a marsh holds a turtle
Two men in a marsh, one holds a turtle
Gloved hands hold a pond turtle with long claws
A man throws a trap into a marsh slough
A pond turtle in a marsh pond
Pond turtle's face, close-up
Gloved hands hold a pond turtle as someone neasures its height
Hands hold a six-inch pond turtle with long claws

Does the Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata), a freshwater species native to the Pacific Coast, hold secrets to survive climate change and adapt to rising sea levels? CDFW biologists want to know and have partnered with UC Davis and the Department of Water Resources to conduct a long-term study in Solano County’s Suisun Marsh to better understand the aquatic reptiles.

Officially, the Western pond turtle is a Species of Special Concern in California because of declining populations brought about by habitat loss, degradation and competition from that pet store favorite – the non-native, red-eared slider. The pet slider turtles are often released into the environment by their owners after outgrowing or outliving their welcome. They also outgrow and out-compete the medium-sized western pond turtles for food and critical basking spots. Western pond turtle populations are faring even worse in Oregon and Washington.

And yet in the Suisun Marsh, with its brackish water and high salinity, the Western pond turtle appears to be thriving. The Suisun Marsh, ironically, may now be home to one of the strongest populations of Western pond turtles on the West Coast.

“It’s just a really unique population in a place where we didn’t expect to see a freshwater species,” said Mickey Agha, the UC Davis Ph.D. student leading the link opens in new windowuniversity’s turtle research with Dr. Brian Todd, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

As if to underscore the point, researchers this summer collected a turtle with a barnacle attached to its shell – a testament to the marine-like environment to which the Suisun Marsh turtles have adapted.

Researchers also have been impressed with the age, health and size of the individual turtles. At 1 ½ to 2 pounds and with an upper shell that stretches up to 8 inches in length, researchers are discovering some of the largest Western pond turtles ever recorded in California.

“Looking at the ones we’ve collected, we’re seeing a lot of healthy turtles in good body condition,” said Environmental Scientist Melissa Riley, who is leading CDFW’s efforts.

The research began in the summer of 2016 with scientists trying to get a basic sense of turtle population numbers. The turtles are trapped in baited, floating hoop nets, their size, weight and age recorded. Before being released, each turtle is marked by filing a unique pattern of small notches along the edges of the upper shell. More than 125 turtles have been recorded in the project’s database.

Turtle trapping is taking place on three sites at the Suisun Marsh in and around the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. Biologists are particularly interested in turtles at the Hill Slough Wildlife Area along Grizzly Island Road as 500 acres there will soon be restored to tidal marshland. Biologists plan to affix tiny, solar-powered, GPS tracking devices to some of the turtles to study their movements and see how they respond to the increasingly saltwater environment at Hill Slough and other parts of the marsh.

“That’s one of the many questions we have,” Agha said. “If sea level rise occurs, what happens to these turtles?”

Categories: General
  • June 13, 2017

A buck with a collar walks through brush on a hillside
A young woman attaches a trail camera to a dead tree trunk.

Deer population estimates are an important element of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) management decisions regarding the species – including setting quotas for deer-hunting seasons, acquiring land and identifying habitat improvement projects. Historically, CDFW has relied upon helicopter surveys to obtain these population estimates, but such surveys can be problematic. While they are effective in open and largely flat areas, they are less so in tree-laden areas where deer are hidden from sight. They can also be extremely expensive.

Now, thanks to emerging DNA technology, scientists are exploring a less invasive, cost-effective alternative: Analysis of what the deer leave behind.

The use of DNA is not new, of course – CDFW has used hair or tissue samples to extract DNA and identify individual animals for years. But scientists are finding that the painstaking collection and analysis of deer droppings is particularly useful because it allows them to gather the necessary information without physically touching (or stressing) the animals. And that, one might say, is the “bottom line.”

Fecal DNA analysis is being used by wildlife biologists in the North Central Region as part of a six-year region-wide study of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) that will provide population estimates in areas where data has previously been lacking. CDFW scientists, in cooperation with UC Davis, will use the deer pellets to take a genetic “fingerprint” designed to help estimate deer populations.

Starting in 2016, a crew began setting transects for pellet collection in the standardized sampling locations (known to hunters as deer zones X6a/b, X7a/b and X8) which are located in Lassen, Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer and Alpine counties. After starting points were randomly selected, habitat information and pictures were collected along with fresh pellets. After the pellets were removed from the area in an initial sweep, scientists revisited the transect once a week for three more weeks to collect new samples. Between July and September of 2016, biologists visited 43 different transects in the summer range and collected and analyzed 458 fresh pellet samples. Staff also captured 20 does and seven bucks and fit them with satellite collars that produced data that helped identify summer home ranges.

CDFW will also use DNA to identify individual deer to help gather buck/doe/fawn ratios. Biologists will then combine the DNA data with home range data from collared deer to calculate the estimated number of deer in the population. This year staff have already completed another 36 plots and collared 18 more deer. Another series of pellet collections is scheduled next year, with a goal of continuing until all 17 counties in the region have been sampled.

Although several DNA projects are occurring across the state, this project is the largest landscape-level study for deer in California. The study is funded through CDFW’s Big Game Account, a dedicated account that provides research and management funds for game species. The University of California will conduct the laboratory work and statistical analysis.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • May 31, 2017

a tiny, gray rodent in a gloved hand
a tiny, brown rodent in a gloved hand
a tiny brown rodent in a gloved hand

A tiny, endangered mammal is the subject of an extraordinary conservation effort near the communities of Shoshone and Tecopa in Inyo County.

The Amargosa vole is unique to the Mojave Desert, and today, scientists estimate there are only about 500 remaining in the wild. Though the Amargosa vole is rarely seen by humans, biologists recognize that it is a key link in the native food chain. Predators, including raptors and water birds, share the desert marshes where they live, and the extinction of the Amargosa vole would have a ripple effect on these and many other species as well.

For a year, a scientific team consisting of CDFW, UC Davis and US Geological Survey biologists have conducted intensive research into the life cycle of this little vole. The team visited every marsh that potentially could be inhabited by voles – they mapped the marshes, assessed habitat quality, and determined whether or not voles were present. In a subset of larger marshes the team conducted more detailed assessments of water inflow-outflow, soil moisture and vegetation, and captured voles to estimate local population numbers, assess the health of the voles and take samples for disease and genetics studies. In addition to the hands-on study in the desert, they also studied satellite data to track the amount of vegetation and water in the area over a period of time. A grim picture emerged of a habitat range in decline, due in large part to climate change and human modification.

Some of the findings included:

  • Total available habitat for the voles decreased 37 percent between 2012 and 2015.
  • Over decades, global climate change has caused a gradual decrease in water in this region. California’s recent drought has exacerbated the problem.
  • Of the more than 80 marshes that were documented at the beginning of the study, about 60 have degraded and/or dried up. Those that remain are almost all too small to sustain vole populations. Just as pandas eat only bamboo, the Amargosa vole survives solely on bulrush, a plant that grows in desert marshes.
  • Another important finding was that 80 percent of the individual voles found and tracked during the study were adults. This indicates low birth rates and survival rates for juveniles – more barriers to the species’ recovery.

Scientists believe that the network of springs and marshes in the vole’s natural range has been so extensively modified by humans that the vole’s future existence will depend almost entirely on whether humans continue to supply water where and when needed. They found evidence to support this, as an intensive restoration effort at one of the largest marshes showed signs of successfully supporting and sustaining voles.

The report authors identified several specific measures that could be taken to increase vole habitat and improve their chances of survival – including reconfiguring water inflow and outflow, changing elevations and planting vegetation that would enhance existing marshes and/or better connect adjacent marshes.

This study is part of a larger long-term effort to secure a future for the Amargosa vole and the unique marsh ecosystems it depends upon in the Mojave Desert. In late 2014 vole numbers became so low that scientists initiated a captive breeding program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to reduce the risk of extinction. Today more than 100 voles are in the captive colony at UC Davis – providing a potential source of animals for release into restored habitats, and an important insurance population to prevent extinction.

Photos by Don Preisler/UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • April 11, 2017

Two men capture an elk on grassy hill
Three men fit a research collar on a tule elk
Eight-man stand in front of a red helicopter

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently launched the first phase of a multi-year study of tule elk in Colusa and Lake counties. In partnership with the University of California, Davis and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and with the assistance of capture specialists from Leading Edge Aviation, researchers used helicopter net guns to capture and place satellite collars on 45 tule elk.

The technique of using DNA extracted from fecal pellets to study wildlife populations is a relatively new, non-invasive approach that minimally disturbs animals and enables surveys in low-visibility habitats where sight-based surveys would be relatively ineffective. It is also less costly than other survey methods, and therefore can be used more frequently.

While fecal DNA analysis has been used to estimate abundance and other population parameters in deer herds in California since 2011, this study will be the first application of the technique to free-ranging tule elk. The study results will guide future elk conservation planning efforts.

Tule elk are a native subspecies of elk unique to California. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, they numbered more than half a million statewide, but the population rapidly declined in the mid-1800s due to unregulated market hunting and habitat loss. In 1875, a ranch owner in Kern County took efforts to protect the last remaining tule elk and allowed them to multiply on his property, likely saving them from extirpation.

Since 1975, CDFW has captured and relocated more than 1,500 elk. As a result, there are an estimated 5,100-plus tule elk distributed in 22 herds throughout California today. See more information about the distribution, range and history of this unique animal in California.

Categories: Wildlife Research