Volume 5 of Evotis focuses on the ways in which tools and technology enable researchers and veterinarians to do their work. We explore everything from the GPS tracking of mountain lions and southern right whales to the use of drones (like the one pictured above) in oiled wildlife reconnaissance. Enjoy!
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Highways and housing developments straddle the hills and valleys of Southern California, cutting across the landscape from Los Angeles all the way down to San Diego and into Mexico. Southern California came to prominence with the rise of the automobile, making it a signature example of how urban sprawl can encroach on the natural territory of wildlife.
One species feeling the effect is the mountain lion, whose survival is dependent entirely on its ability to range widely across the landscape to hunt and establish territory. Predator-prey dynamics have evolved so that the prey knows when the predator is near; therefore the predator must be constantly on the move in order to catch the prey by surprise.
Because mountain lions are not hunted by humans in California, many people have no idea that they are under significant stress in some parts of the state. But their struggle is complex. Mountain lions and other wide-ranging animals in Southern California have essentially become boxed in by the human world that surrounds them.
They are threatened by vehicle strikes as they cross roads. They are killed through depredation permits by landowners who have lost livestock to them. The inability to cross large highways has resulted in a loss of genetic diversity, leaving them exposed to birth defects and diseases caused by inbreeding.
The three mountain lions featured below were tracked with GPS collars by researchers with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and collaborative partners. Strategically placed motion-sensing trail cameras photographed and videotaped them as they moved through undercrossings. Animals were sampled so that their genes could be analyzed to measure genetic diversity.
Each mountain lion tells a different slice of the story, which is the ongoing struggle of the species in Southern California.
Young male mountain lions are the most likely to carry genes from one territory to another because they range so widely. Such travel is key to increasing genetic diversity in populations.
During a three-and-a-half week period, M56 (Male #56) crossed many large highways, including Interstate 5 multiple times. Through his travels, he managed to avoid succumbing to the top cause of death for mountain lions in the Santa Ana Range: vehicle strikes.
He traversed more than 100 miles across highly fragmented landscapes from Orange County all the way to the Mexican border across all kinds of terrain, both urban and natural.
But his story ended abruptly: He killed several inadequately protected sheep on private land and was promptly killed when a local person obtained a depredation permit. His GPS collar stopped moving, and just like that, his story was over.
“M56 was killed doing what we expect any predator to do if encountering a ‘free meal’ like inadequately protected small livestock," said Winston Vickers, who co-leads the Southern California Mountain Lion Project for the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. "Livestock owners, especially those with small livestock like goats and sheep, need to have their animals in a fully enclosed pen with a solid roof from dusk to dawn. As veterinarians, we have just as much concern about the domestic animals as we do the mountain lions; it's a matter of protecting them from a natural threat.”
Even after surviving his long journey across dangerous highways and interstates, he was killed by the number one cause of death in the Peninsular Range: depredation permits.
Such is the challenge for a young male mountain lion looking to establish territory.
Cut off by freeways and human development, mountain lions in Southern California are facing a severe loss of genetic diversity.
A recent study published in PLOS ONE and conducted by the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, raises concerns about the long-term outlook for mountain lions in the Santa Ana Mountains and across Southern California.
The Santa Ana range is surrounded by urbanization and a growing population. A small habitat linkage to the southeast connects mountain lions to the Peninsular Range, but it is bisected by the bustling Interstate 15 and other associated human development. There is very little connectivity remaining for the mountain lions in the Santa Anas, which is where F89’s story takes place.
F89 is a female mountain lion who mothered the children of M86 – the only mountain lion that the team has confirmed migrated west across the 10 lane highway, Interstate 15 – an extremely rare occurrence. M86 had not yet been collared when he crossed the Interstate; researchers learned of his origin after they trapped him and analyzed his genes.
As you can see in the family tree above, F89 gave birth to three kittens.
One of the males was killed on the 241 Toll Road, which was built in the late ‘90s to connect Interstate 5 to the heavily traveled 91 freeway. The 241 cuts directly through mountain lion territory and has been the scene of numerous vehicle strikes over the years. The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency, which oversees the toll road, is currently constructing a fence along a portion of the highway to attempt to reduce mortalities of mountain lions and other wildlife.
The other male died of unknown causes in November of 2014. Foul play on the part of a landowner is suspected, but tests are still being run to confirm.
The only surviving offspring of F89 is F92, who gave birth to three kittens, two of whom survived and appear to have dispersed from their mother. They represent a glimmer of genetic hope for the population, but the long-term problem is much larger:
Interstate 15 is a behemoth, and it, along with adjacent development, are absolutely blocking the movement of mountain lions.
“Improvements need to be made to I-15 to ensure safe passage under or over that roadway for mountain lions and a variety of other species,” said Trish Smith, a Regional Ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. “We know they stop and they sit there and they ponder crossing, but they do not cross the I-15 to make that connection.”
For a textbook example of why genetic diversity is important, look to the Florida panther. Loss of genetic diversity among the panthers had become so severe by the 1990s that panthers were having trouble reproducing. Several of those that did reproduce had babies with heart defects. Millions of dollars have since been spent on their slow recovery.
But researchers believe it’s not too late to protect the region’s mountain lions.
“I think there could be hope for this population,” said lead author of the PLOS ONE study, Holly Ernest, a former professor with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center. “They’re at a point where they can be monitored and protected. They don’t have to end up like Florida panthers. With early interventions, we wouldn’t have to spend millions and millions of dollars later.”
Click and slide the blue bar right and left to compare the mountain lion GPS points to the landscape. Interstate 15 cuts through the black space that divides the two population clusters. Note: This is not precise map of the GPS coordinates; it's a representation of the divide.
If a highway has the ability to divide mountain lion territory, imagine what a nearly impenetrable border fence can do.
The straight line that divides California and Mexico is a division that was drawn with humans in mind. It has zero regard for the natural landscape or the wildlife that inhabits it, which is why M53’s crossing back and forth from California to Mexico many times is noteworthy. He is an example of why preservation of connectivity is important not only in Southern California, but also beyond.
M53 recently dropped his collar and his status is currently unknown, but while he was being monitored he went from Anza Borrego Desert State Park in California to Parque Nacional Constitución in Mexico, 50 miles south of the border, several times. He did so despite the fencing that blocks much of the border. Where he crossed the border is a pinch point, but animals are still managing to cross in the mountains where the fence hasn’t been completed.
“The mountain lion habitat continues south of the border,” said Vickers. “We don’t have one geography in one country and a different geography across the border. It’s important that animals be able to cross.”
Meanwhile, north of the border, rapid development continues. The population in Orange, Riverside and San Diego Counties jumped from 2 million in 1960 to 9 million in 2010, and it’s not stopping. It’s projected to surpass 12 million by 2060.
The fragmented landscape will be an ongoing challenge for mountain lions, bobcats and other wide-ranging species in Southern California, even if a solution to the I-15 barrier emerges.
“It’s not just one isolated spot you can dismiss,” said Vickers. “It can happen anywhere. If we keep building without attention to these issues, we’re going to keep creating more pockets of isolation where animals can no longer connect with each other.”
And if the animals can’t connect with each other, the loss of genetic diversity will continue, and mountain lions will end up in the same boat as the Florida panther.
Contributors to this piece: Christopher Ancheta, Matthew Blake, Brian Cohen, Justin Cox, Doug Feremenga, Kat Kerlin, Valerie McFall, Trish Smith and Winston Vickers.
With the PREDICT project, the UC Davis One Health Institute and its partners are conducting global surveillance to detect and prevent the spillover of pathogens of pandemic potential that can move between wildlife and people. Through consensus polymerase chain reaction (cPCR), the One Health Institute Lab is able to detect known and novel pathogens in tandem, rather than sequentially. These tactics can help reduce the spread of viruses that could lead to illness, epidemics and pandemics in people. The OHI lab at UC Davis is part of a global network of labs investigating viral families in 20 countries.
Most approaches to viral discovery are extremely expensive and available only in sophisticated labs with teams of diagnosticians. Because PREDICT's lab work takes place in some of the most resource-constrained countries around the globe, a cheaper, more technologically simple alternative was sorely needed. The short animated video above, narrated by OHI Lab Director Tracey Goldstein, gives a glimpse into how this approach works and why it's so valuable.
Millions of pounds of Dungeness crab are pulled in each year from Morro Bay to the California-Oregon border, making for an industry valued at $32 million to $95 million per year. But there’s another catch: Many of the thousands of crab pots set in the sea don’t make their way back.
Now, a group of fishermen collaborating with the SeaDoc Society are working to remove the lost crabbing gear from the ocean and sell it back to the original owners under what they hope will be an economically sustainable model for future cleanups.
Some of the gear sits conveniently atop the seafloor, waiting to be hauled in and sold back to local fishermen. But some crab pots burrow deep into the ground as the waves and currents move the sand for months at a time. The video below highlights the simple but powerful tools used to dig up the lost gear.
“The most exciting thing about this project is that the fishermen themselves are taking the lead,” said Kirsten Gilardi, director of the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, and co-director of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “They are mobilizing the fishermen to participate, conducting all the transactions of funds and gear, and even realizing financial benefits for their hard work to clean the ocean.”
The UC Davis researchers have teamed up with the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association and commercial crab fishermen in neighboring Del Norte County. Since late July, they have collected 556 derelict crab pots.
The fishermen are participating in the recovery effort in the off-season. They have concentrated on the waters off Eureka, Trinidad, and Crescent City — the state’s top crab-producing region, hauling in more than 16 million pounds of Dungeness in 2013.
The peak of the Dungeness crab season, December through February, comes when the Pacific Ocean is prone to massive winter swells, rollicking waves, and energetic rains and wind. It's no surprise crab pots are commonly lost at sea.
The lost pots’ long buoy lines pose an entanglement hazard to other boats, fisheries and wildlife, including whales. The fishermen want to create a truly sustainable fishery, free from these hazards. They are also concerned that prime crabbing grounds are becoming littered with lost and abandoned gear.
“Everybody knows there’s gear around,” said Kevin Pinto, a commercial crab fisherman in Eureka and captain of fishing vessel Seaila. “Now we’re working pretty hard to try to keep it cleaned up.”
The California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project has been operating since 2005, mostly in Southern California, where they contracted with sea urchin divers to recover fishing gear. However, ocean conditions on the North Coast aren’t typically conducive to divers. Further, the pots are often lodged deep in the sand and mud and irrecoverable without specialized pumping equipment.
In Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the scientists and fishermen created an alternative solution to contract divers. Part of a grant to UC Davis from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fishing for Energy program, subawarded to HFMA, reimburses fishermen for fuel expenses to retrieve the crab pots using boats equipped with pumping gear. Jennifer Renzullo, Eureka-based field manager for the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project, rides along and records the exact location of the recovered gear, its condition and the number of pots collected.
Each pot has an identifiable tag tracing it to the owner. The pot is either sold back to the original owner for $50-$75 (a new pot costs between $160-$200), or recycled. The money collected is set aside to fund future years’ recovery efforts.
“What’s great is the fishermen are talking about how we can make this sustainable to continue this program in the future,” Renzullo said.
In the meantime, the local response has been positive. Shortly after the first cleanup off the Trinidad coast, a fisherman who had helped in the effort was sport fishing in the area for salmon. Over his VHF radio, he heard fishermen talking to each other about how their gear had been getting hung up in other fishing areas but that the waters off Trinidad were so clear.
“He called me up really excited,” Renzullo said. “It was a great feeling.”
Tim Williamson was only five years old when he took control of his first piece of heavy machinery. Propped in the front seat of his father’s Jeep, he towed a hay trailer from one end of his family’s ranch to the other, back and forth.
“All I had to do was point it down the field,” he says now, decades later. “You just steer the thing from here to there, and people will throw the hay on it.”
He makes it sound simple enough, but that doesn’t change the fact that most five-year-olds have only piloted toy trucks at that age.
Williamson is the Facilities Coordinator for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), which is a program of the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis. Most of his colleagues are scientists and researchers working directly with wildlife. He maintains and builds the tools and equipment they need to do their job -- whether that is a straight-forward oil change on a service vehicle or the design and construction of a pump system to test the effects of chemical dispersants on oiled birds. (More on that later)
The job requires a unique skill set, which Williamson began accumulating the first time he pulled that hay trailer on his family’s ranch in Mendocino County. By the time he was 12, his dad bought him his very own tractor, which he was in charge of operating and maintaining.
“He told me, ‘This is your tractor, and you’re going to operate it in any spare time you have,’” he said. “After school and all summer long, I worked on the ranch.”
Over time, this carved out an affinity for tinkering in Williamson: “How do I fix this? How do I make this work better?” Those are the questions that propel him in his job and in his hobbies, which are pretty much one in the same.
After a year of college, where he studied electronics, Williamson was drafted into the Navy during the Vietnam era, where he worked as a boilerman on the USS Midway aircraft carrier. The Navy put him through propulsion school, where he learned about the inner workings of pumps and motors – a vital skill that he applies in his current role with the OWCN.
When he got out of the Navy, he followed his gearhead sensibilities into the racing industry, building engines for boats, cars, and motorcycles. After 20 years in racing, he met a man by the name of David Jessup – the veterinarian who helped found the OWCN. Williamson’s career working with wildlife began with that relationship.
We sat down with Williamson in November to talk about his work.
I had met David Jessup while in the racing industry, and I started fixing things for him. He’d come up with an idea and say, “What do you think about this?” and I would do it for him. I had my own machine shop and I wasn’t doing the work I really enjoyed anymore. I was managing people, which was not much fun, so I decided to change my path.
I started volunteering for the (California) Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) while working as a construction framer in housing. I also worked as an electrician, a plumber and I did concrete. After some time spent volunteering with Fish and Game, I was hired at their Wildlife Investigations Lab in 1989, and I stayed in Fish and Game until 2011 when I came over to the OWCN. Largely, I’m working with the same people I was working with there, doing many of the same things.
I work with all of the equipment. If it’s going to be a really big spill, then you have to think: In the future, are we going to need more pools? We have tent structures; are we going to need those? A lot of those experiences have actually happened, so we have a lot of those supplies in stock. You have to think about the future before it happens. You have to be on the fly all the time.
I’m involved with upgrades on facilities and making sure everything’s ready to go anytime. Right now, we’re redoing the filter systems on the pools at our facility in Cordelia, California. There was some research several years ago about a pool filter that’s designed to take suntan oil out of public swimming pools. We thought, “why wouldn’t that work for taking oil out of our pools?” So we’re actually installing a couple in Cordelia to see if they’ll work.
It may already exist in some form, but I would really like to design something portable that has water softeners, pressure pumps and heaters all in one. You could just slide it into a truck and take it somewhere. It takes about 100 gallons of water to wash a bird. The water has to be 3-5 grains of hardness in 101-106 degrees, plus up to 60 pounds of pressure at the nozzle. Getting all those things in one spot at the location of an oil spill is a problem.
They sit me down and tell me what they want to do, and I figure out how to make it work. It’s a lot of fun. I think about my raw materials or what I have to work with and try to figure out the most dependable, quickest way to go. I’ll probably do a prototype immediately, then ask the researcher, “Would this type of thing work?” They generally end up asking, “Where did you come up with that?”
But if you just relax and think about it, it’s easy. I started working like this when I was five. It might take a little while to draw an idea out of your head, but it’s there. What spurs me on is the dedication of everybody else; they’re just so into this.
Oh yeah. When I have an idea I start searching for what’s available, and generally speaking, if you have the overall knowledge, you can tell yourself something like, “Well, I have a pump that has to deal with a bit of oil in it, and it has to be water tight, and it has to be able to operate under water if possible,” and you just work with the information you have.
Prior to now, we only responded to marine spills on the coast. Now we’re going to respond to any spill in the state of California, and we won’t know exactly what species we’ll be dealing with. Before it was primarily birds, but now you could be washing a skunk. I mean, in the spill in Canada last year, they were washing rats and beavers, and you name it. Skunk washing doesn’t appeal to me [laughs], but it could happen now.
Mike Ziccardi (Director of the OWCN) asked me the other day, “Are you bored yet?” I said, “Hell, I never know exactly what I’ll be doing the next day. How can I be bored?” It’s a wonderful thing. If I didn’t like the job, I wouldn’t be doing it.
By Jasjeet Dhanota
Saving birds and marine mammals after an oil spill requires quick action and the ability for many teams to work together. The faster an animal is recovered, the more likely it is to survive.
One tricky part of that response effort involves aerial surveying: a team flies a fixed-wing plane over the potentially affected beaches and waterways looking for oil-threatened animals. It’s a crucial part of the process. After all, responders must be able to locate oiled animals before they can capture them and begin the rehabilitation process.
But there are drawbacks to these flights that can put both animals and humans at risk. To be able to locate, quantify, and distinguish species, reconnaissance aircraft must fly at low altitudes, which can scare the animals and cause them to scatter, sometimes in the direction of the oil. And there’s also the risk of a crash when flying at low altitudes, which can potentially harm people in the aircraft and on the ground, and cause another disaster along with the original oil spill itself.
Drones, which have typically been characterized as weapons of war, could alleviate both of those problems, and more.
“In ten years, I think we’ll look back and they’ll be standard,” said Dr. Tim Bean, an Assistant Professor who specializes in spatial and landscape ecology at Humboldt State University. “The Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) is so prepared for everything that needs to happen in a spill, so this is a good opportunity to just plug in this new technology.”
The OWCN, which is housed within the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at UC Davis, has funded Dr. Bean’s project, which will be the first to test the use drones in oil spill reconnaissance. The project is in its early phases, but it will continue throughout 2015.
“The addition of drones to our toolbox of oil spill response can really improve how we send wildlife recovery teams into the field,” said Kyra Mills-Parker, Field Operations Coordinator for OWCN. “It has the potential to increase our speed of capture and help us focus our efforts where we’re needed most.”
Here are five ways in which drones could improve upon manned reconnaissance flights:
A suitable aircraft and trained observers are not always immediately available for reconnaissance. While “operational overflights” often happen before the Aerial Survey Team has arrived, those flights don’t typically carry biologists with the expertise to identify individual species on the ground.
A drone – or Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) as we’ll call them from here forward – could be deployed with greater ease.
Surveying wildlife from the sky is hard and has the potential to produce inaccurate information. It’s possible for observers to pass by individual birds before identifying them, especially as flock sizes increase. Meanwhile, the observer is expected to transfer that information to a single navigator on the plane, complicating data collection even further. There is also a time lag for this information to go from the experts on the plane, to the Wildlife Branch Director at the Command Post, to the Wildlife Recovery Group Supervisor in charge of sending field teams out.
UAVs can allow for both live flight video and/or geo-referenced imagery to be downloaded and analyzed on the ground. This technology can provide more accurate counts and location of oiled wildlife in the area. Because the UAV team would be placed on the ground rather than in a plane, direct communication and coordination with field operations could become much more fluid.
Adverse weather conditions can delay and prevent reconnaissance flights, particularly on the foggy coast where spills are likely to occur.
UAVs, because they are unmanned, can fly in conditions not suitable for manned aircraft.
Lethal crashes in the course of aerial wildlife surveys have sadly become an annual occurrence in the United States. Meanwhile, flying at low altitudes can also present problems for oiled birds and pinnipeds. Sometimes known colonies and rookeries are avoided to minimize wildlife disturbance, but important data can be lost as a result. In some unfortunate cases, aerial surveys can even cause uninjured wildlife to disperse toward a spill.
UAVs drastically reduce the risk to pilots in the event of a crash, because there is no pilot on board. They also reduce the risk for wildlife because they are much smaller and quieter, therefore less likely to cause animals to disperse.
The price of the aircraft and its system, along with cuts to operator time and fuel costs, make UAVs an affordable alternative or supplement to manned aerial surveys.
Dr. Marcy Uhart has been investigating southern right whale health in their breeding ground at Península Valdés, Argentina for more than a decade. But until now, she -- and everybody else -- knew very little about where the whales actually go when they leave the area after the breeding season.
But that changed this fall, when five southern right whales were tagged with GPS tracking devices – the first time ever in this population.
“The whales here have been studied since the 1970s, but where they go beyond their few months at Península Valdés is still a mystery, even after forty years,” said Dr. Uhart, Director of the Latin America Program at the UC Davis One Health Institute. “Where they spend several months each year is a key component of their biology that we don’t know.”
Southern right whales are suffering from an unprecedented mortality event in Península Valdés, Argentina. Over the course of 2012 alone, 116 dead southern right whales were discovered in the local breeding area. This is the highest number of dead whales ever recorded in one season for this species. Several hypotheses are being studied to explain this problem, including the effects of kelp gulls that feed on the skin and blubber of live whales, and potential nutritional deficiencies.
The GPS tracking of the whales will help determine where the whales go when they leave Península Valdés and if the whales are passing through areas that could be a threat to their health.
“There could be some issue in the feeding grounds, or the migration paths where they could be encountering fishery operations, oil drilling and exploration operations or shipping lanes,” said Dr. Uhart.
Of the five whales tagged, two were females with calves and three were juveniles.
This is the first time that the Península Valdés southern right whales have been tagged by satellite transmitters and, naturally, it has come with challenges. To tag the whales, the team of researchers was on the water for two weeks. They constructed a raised platform on the boat so that tagging experts could stand to dart the device vertically into the whales’ thick layer of blubber. This is made extra challenging because years of kelp gull attacks on the whales’ backs have prompted the whales to learn to swim with their backs hidden below the surface as often as possible. This makes it difficult to get a clear angle.
The trackers, which are about 12 inches long, do not cause the whales harm.
“The juveniles didn’t react,” said Dr. Uhart. “They stayed around the boat for a long time afterwards and continued to come very close to it after being tagged.”
Over time, the tracking device will gradually slip out of the whale – kind of like how a small splinter slowly works its way out of your skin. The study period is set to last ninety days, which is long enough for the whales to reach their feeding grounds, but short enough to be fairly certain the devices won’t come out before it’s done.
It’s a short study, but the data began proving its value almost instantly: after just two weeks of tagging the whales, Dr. Uhart was already surprised by some patterns in their movement.
“The mother-calf pairs have been moving around the entire gulf,” she says. “I thought that they were much more static and actually stayed around the same beaches for longer, but they’ve been covering the whole area, and the three juveniles almost immediately headed south-east to the feeding grounds.” (See the map above).
By Jasjeet Dhanota
This international effort includes members from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Aqualie Institute of Brazil, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Cascadia Research Collective, working in cooperation with Fundación Patagonia Natural, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas, Ocean Alliance, the University of California, Davis, with the endorsement of the Wildlife Service, Tourism Secretariat, and Ministry of the Environment of Argentina’s Chubut Province.