Archive for the ‘College News’ Category

Maximum Impact

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Tidal marsh

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is monitoring infrastructure repair efforts around Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Superstorm Sandy killed 73 and caused billions of dollars in damage when it barreled ashore a little more than two years ago.

In January, Brian Olsen, assistant professor of biology and ecology, will start gauging the restoration of tidal marshes and birds along the same stretch of coastline impacted by the most deadly and destructive storm of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which works with other agencies to conserve migratory birds for the public good — awarded Olsen a $1.4 million grant to conduct a 22-month study on the recovery of birds associated with tidal marshes from Virginia to Maine.

The area is home to 56 percent of the world’s salt marsh specialist vertebrates, including a number of at-risk migratory birds, he says.

“A thorough understanding of Hurricane Sandy’s effects on tidal marsh wildlife is needed to help direct remediation funds where they will have the greatest impact,” Olsen wrote in the project overview.

For the study, he’ll utilize four years of data — the two immediately prior to Hurricane Sandy and the two immediately following it.

The data, he says, will provide an unprecedented opportunity to document the superstorm’s short-term impacts on tidal marshes — including reproduction and survival rates of threatened species.

“By noting which marshes within the storm’s path were most impacted, we will be able to identify what makes a marsh resilient to change,” says Olsen.

“We hope that information will help us to increase the resiliency of the region’s marshes to future challenges.”

The data also will inform long-term impact projections of future storms on the resilience of willets, clapper rails, Nelson’s sparrows, seaside sparrows and saltmarsh sparrows. Olsen and his colleagues will integrate the estimates into population viability analyses to benefit conservation planning and restoration efforts.

The universities of Delaware, Connecticut and New Hampshire are participating, as is the State University of New York, Syracuse.

In November, Olsen began participating in a University of Connecticut-led, two-year $820,000 study on the effectiveness of Hurricane Sandy restoration projects on tidal marshes and their wildlife. The goal is for direct conservation actions to be applied where they’ll most benefit increased resilience of green infrastructure.

“We view the tidal marshes of the Northeast U.S. as a sort of shadow infrastructure for the nation. They are the water filters and storm buffers and fish hatcheries for every major coastal city from Portland [Maine] to Boston to D.C.,” Olsen says

“Since the 1600s, however, New York and New Jersey alone have lost thousands of acres of this green infrastructure … at precisely the same time that our need for the marshes increased. If only a fraction of that lost habitat had been maintained, the impacts of Hurricane Sandy on traditional human infrastructure would have been much different. We’re trying to reverse the trend.”

One task will include incorporating models for sea-level rise and storms into a modeling framework. This — in combination with other predicted effects of climate change, urban growth and conservation of tidal wetlands and adjacent uplands — will guide adaptive decision-making and management.

“The health of wildlife populations gives us a glimpse into the health of our green infrastructure,” says Olsen, who also is an assistant professor with UMaine’s Climate Change Institute.

“If we can understand what makes these marshes resilient to disturbances, we can understand how to preserve their benefits to society as economically as possible.”

Part of Olsen’s portion of the study includes monitoring restoration and control sites in Connecticut and northward during the 2015–16 field seasons. The University of Delaware and State University of New York are also participating.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Passing the Test

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Wildlife decoy painting

How old is a deer that has all its teeth and three cups on the four premolars?

Eighteen months old.

Which species of tree was the Carolina Parakeet’s primary food source?

The bald cypress.

Which university rapidly and successfully fielded a variety of far-ranging wildlife questions — including law, policy and forestry — to place second among 22 teams from the United States and Canada at The Wildlife Society’s 2014 National Quiz Bowl?

The University of Maine.

Marie Martin, Abigail Feuka, Caitlin Gunn, James Petersen and Karla Boyd — undergraduate members of the UMaine Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society — proved their expertise during a six-hour Jeopardy!-like competition in October at the 21st Wildlife Society Annual Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

At the National Quiz Bowl, they were asked to view a live snake and provide the name of the species. They also were challenged to rattle off Latin animal phyla names, distinguish species of birds by their auditory calls, identify trees and answer policy questions, says faculty adviser Faren Wolter, a certified wildlife biologist.

UMaine’s second-place finish is even more impressive, says Wolter, considering it was the first time in a number of years that the Black Bears participated in the national competition.

“That speaks volumes about how well our students were prepared,” Wolter says, adding she was equally impressed with the poise and collegiality of UMaine contestants.

Team captain Martin says the squad’s composure and runner-up finish indicates the quality of the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology that rewards naturally curious individuals. “It is because of our natural propensity towards that information that we were so successful,” she says.

Boyd, a wildlife, fisheries, and conservation biology major with a conservation biology concentration, says UMaine’s quiz bowl participants were wonderful ambassadors for the university.

“Most schools were nervous and competitive, and we went up and wished everyone well, but didn’t put any stress on ourselves to come out on top, and we still did really well,” says the resident of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

The Lumberjacks of Humboldt State University in California bested Maine in the championship round. The Lumberjacks, who take a three-credit course to prepare for the competition, tore through the field en route to their 10th title in the 17 years.

UMaine outscored State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) to advance to the final. It was victory for the Black Bears; Wolter says SUNY ESF topped the Black Bears at a regional conclave earlier this school year at Pennsylvania State University.

The UMaine students’ varied wildlife interests — including fisheries, insects and statistics — buoyed the Black Bears’ expertise and balance, Wolter says.

Petersen, for instance, needs to hear only a fraction of a second of a birdcall to identify the species, says Wolter of the wildlife ecology major from Summit, New Jersey.

Petersen, who is on track to graduate in December, says he appreciated other aspects of the annual meeting as well, including the resume critique.

His teammates, including Gunn from Hampden, Maine, agreed the myriad of chances to network and learn at the conference were beneficial.

“I had the opportunity to have my resume critiqued, attend a trapping workshop and, overall, I was highly intrigued by the speakers and posters on current research being conducted around the globe,” says Gunn, a wildlife ecology major with a wildlife science and management concentration.

Feuka, who is slated to graduate in 2016 with a degree in wildlife ecology and a minor in Earth sciences, also valued the chance to interact with experts.

“My favorite part of the conference by far was meeting a so many accomplished scientists, policy specialists, game wardens, managers, professors and students all in one place,” says the resident of Perry, Michigan. “It was a wealth of knowledge and experience all in one place, and I was able to make some great connections because of this.”

The Wildlife Society, based in Bethesda, Maryland, is an international network. It seeks to “inspire, empower, and enable wildlife professionals to sustain wildlife populations and habitats through science-based management and conservation,” according to its website.

The 33 members of the UMaine Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society meet weekly. The group, founded December 1964, is open to all majors and was formed so students could gain experience and skills in wildlife science as well as to network and learn about graduate school and employment opportunities.

The UMaine group recently teamed with the Unity College Chapter of the Wildlife Society to bring a speaker from Tigers for Tigers to Maine. Tigers for Tigers is a coalition of colleges with tiger mascots that works to preserve wild tigers through national and international education, research and service learning projects.

Members of the UMaine student chapter also regularly repair duck nesting boxes at area refuges, participate in the annual Maine Cooperative Owl Survey organized by Maine Audubon and Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife and collect biological data from moose killed in the annual fall hunt.

Students interested in learning more about the UMaine chapter are encouraged to contact Abigail Feuka at, check out the webpage at or follow on Facebook at

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Marine Ecosystem Health

Monday, November 10th, 2014


Understanding the biodiversity of bacteria associated with marine algae that contribute to marine ecosystem health is the focus of a study led by three University of Maine researchers.

Susan Brawley, a professor of plant biology in the School of Marine Sciences and a cooperating professor in the School of Biology and Ecology, is leading the three-year project. At UMaine, Brawley is working with John Singer, a professor of microbiology, and Benildo de los Reyes, a professor of biological sciences.

The three-year study is a collaborative research project with Hilary Morrison at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and is funded by a more than $1.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation — $986,515 to UMaine and $480,016 to MBL.

“The macroalgal microbiome in space and time — maintaining primary producers in the Atlantic rocky intertidal zone,” will focus on interactions between microbes and intertidal macroalgae, and how their relationships change in response to natural and human-driven stresses.

Intertidal macroalgae, or seaweeds, provide shelter and food to many invertebrates and young fishes. Although much is known about how intertidal algae react to natural stresses, little is known about their associated bacteria and how these bacteria react to those stresses. Past studies found that some macroalgae disintegrate after bacteria are removed, suggesting the bacteria are essential to the algae’s health, according to the researchers.

The study will examine genetic, taxonomic and functional aspects of the biodiversity of bacteria associated with seaweeds that are important to the health of marine ecosystems. It will determine how the bacteria change depending on the season, position within the intertidal zone and latitudinal range, the researchers say.

The researchers say little is known about how macroalgal microbiomes change in space and time, and they hope the study will serve as an important trans-Atlantic baseline of the microbiomes’ biodiversity.

The project is one of 12 studies funded by NSF’s Dimensions of Biodiversity Program. A total of $23 million was invested with contributions from NSF’s Directorates for Biological Sciences and Geosciences, the Sao Paulo Research Foundation and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, according to the foundation.

The Dimensions of Biodiversity Program differs from traditional biodiversity research that focuses on one ecosystem by integrating multiple aspects into research projects and offering opportunities to make advances in understanding the generation, maintenance and loss of biodiversity, the NSF states.

“This year’s portfolio of projects will accelerate our understanding of biodiversity across disciplines and across scales of time and space,” Penny Firth, director of NSF’s Division of Environmental Biology, says in a press release. “Through this program, we’re witnessing a transformation in our ability to bridge scientific approaches and perspectives.”

The research will fill in gaps in biodiversity knowledge, Firth says. It also has the potential for significant effects on agriculture, fuel, manufacturing and health.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Preserving Biodiversity

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Falkland Islands

Learning more about the biodiversity of the Falkland Islands and what can be done to preserve it is the focus of a planned trip for three University of Maine researchers.

Jacquelyn Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology and plant ecology in the University of Maine’s School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute (CCI), is leading the fieldwork that will be completed from Dec. 4–22 on the small, remote group of islands about 300 miles east of South America.

Gill will travel with two graduate students — Kit Hamley, who is pursuing a master’s degree in quaternary studies at CCI, and Dulcinea Groff, a doctoral student of ecology and environmental science in the School of Biology and Ecology and CCI, who also is part of a two-year fellowship called Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Research Traineeship (IGERT) in Adaptation to Abrupt Climate Change (A2C2).

The researchers will study the islands’ environmental history throughout the last 20,000 years to establish a baseline for conservation efforts, and to understand the effects climate change and human land use have on the area’s biodiversity, according to Gill.

“The Falklands are home to some of the most important penguin rookeries in the world, and a number of species not found anywhere else,” Gill says. “Sadly, this biodiversity is at risk due to a number of threats. Climate change and sea level rise threaten critical habitat already degraded by sheep grazing, and offshore oil drilling is scheduled to begin in the next couple of years.”

The researchers hope to learn more about when humans arrived on the islands and what the ecosystem was like before their arrival. They want to research the threats facing the Falklands’ wildlife — climate change, sea level rise, overgrazing, tourism and offshore drilling — and help residents develop sustainable practices in sheep grazing, eco-tourism and fishing that would benefit the economy in addition to wildlife, she says.

The researchers will collect data from locals, as well as materials, including cores from peat bogs, ponds and lagoons, that we will be shipped to the U.S. and analyzed in UMaine labs. The cores contain records of past climate change, fire history and species composition, Hamley says.

The team plans to travel around the islands, visiting penguin rookeries, including the world’s largest rockhopper penguin colony, according to Gill.

Groff’s Ph.D. research will focus on the sensitivity of the penguin-tussac grass relationship to abrupt climate change since the end of the last ice age.

The native grass provides habitat for penguins and other seabirds and marine mammals and relies on nutrients provided from the animals’ waste. The relationship may be threatened by climate change’s effect on the ocean food web, which would affect the nutrients the animals bring to land. Sheep grazing has also reduced the plant’s presence, according to Gill.

While in the Falklands, Groff will collect sediment cores from several locations. She will study pollen and seabird guano, or waste, within the cores.

“By looking at the records in these cores I will be able to reconstruct how penguin and tussac grass populations have fluctuated through time, under different climatic conditions, especially during times when it is known that climate changed within a short time span,” Groff says.

She also will collect environmental samples including plants and soil to learn more about how tussac grass uses nutrients from penguin guano.

“The overall theme of my project is what I call a marine-terrestrial linkage,” Groff says. “The marine-terrestrial linkage is the connection of nutrients originating in the marine ecosystem that are transferred to the terrestrial ecosystem. The soil in the region is very nutrient poor, which makes nutrients coming from the marine ecosystem very important.”

Groff hopes her research will be used to help predict what will happen to the island’s wildlife and vegetation in the event of a future abrupt climate change scenario.

Hamley’s research will focus on the Falkland Islands wolf, or warrah, a fox-sized carnivore that was the first canid to go extinct in the historic record and was found only on the archipelago, according to Gill.

Hamley will look into whether indigenous people brought the warrah to the Falklands before Europeans arrived.

“Before the warrah was hunted to extinction in the 1870s, the islands were home to no other terrestrial mammals, and had no human inhabitants, raising the question of how and when the wolves first got to the islands, which are separated from mainland Patagonia by 600 km [about 373 miles] of ocean,” Hamley says. “They would have either had to swim, cross a theoretical land or ice bridge — which to date has not been shown to have been present — during periods of lower sea level, drift across on an ice chuck or log, or perhaps be transported via canoe by early humans.”

At this point, no archaeological record has been discovered in the Falkland Islands to definitively indicate that humans were there before European arrival, according to Hamley. She will use the same core samples as Groff to look at charcoal within them to determine if there was a human presence in the Falkland Islands before Europeans arrived.

Hamley will visit sites where warrah bones have been found to look for human artifacts. She will also visit a local museum to take samples of warrah bones for carbon dating.

The islands are home to less than 3,000 residents, according to Gill, and the main economies are fishing, sheep and wool, and tourism, with offshore oil drilling expected in the next couple of years. The climate is windy, cool and damp year-round.

“The Falklands are a fascinating place — home to biodiversity found nowhere else on the planet, and yet they’ve had a long history of human impacts,” Gill says, citing as examples the arrival of the warrah as a native predator, early whaling years, sheep ranching and the Falklands War that left large areas roped off with land mines.

“The past has thrown a lot at the wildlife of the Falklands,” she says. “The future has even more in store, and it’s critical that we get a baseline sense of the biodiversity and how sensitive it is to global change.”

Gill says the islands have a lot in common with the Gulf of Maine, including potential threats to seabirds due to climate change and land use. She says researchers can benefit from studying both areas.

To help fund the $20,000 trip, Hamley and Groff have created and launched a crowdfunding campaign through The students hope to raise $10,000 in 35 days.

“We started this initiative because we feel this project has the potential to be successful in the crowdfunding realm as it deals with a lot of issues that people care deeply about; climate change, loss of unique biodiversity, conservation and human history,” Hamley says.

Gill says while she is applying for traditional funding sources, there are a lot of alternative methods such as crowdfunding to kick start new projects.

“Crowdfunding also provides the public with a direct connection to science so they can feel like they’re closely connected to the research,” she says. “You’re not just funding my students’ exciting research, you’re also investing in them as future scientists and conservation leaders, who are trained right here at the University of Maine.”

Groff says those who contribute to the campaign will be able to follow the team’s updates during fieldwork and in the lab when they process the cores.

The Falkland Islands research is part of a new partnership between the CCI and the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI), a U.K. organization in the Falklands.

“SAERI approached the Climate Change Institute to develop a partnership, as they are keenly interested in developing research in climate change in particular,” Gill says. “We’re a world leader in climate change research, so there was a natural connection there. Most of SAERI’s expertise is in marine sciences, so they’re excited to have folks working on land.”

Donations to the crowdfunding campaign can be made online.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Oceanographer Tracks Gulf of Maine Changes From Orono Lab

Friday, October 31st, 2014

satellite imageAndrew Thomas has a bird’s-eye view of the Gulf of Maine from his lab in Aubert Hall at the University of Maine in Orono.

The oceanography professor directs the University of Maine Satellite Oceanography Data Lab, which receives daily real-time high-resolution data from NASA’s meteorological satellites.

In this Sept. 27, 2014 satellite image of the Gulf of Maine, Thomas observes several points of interest, most notably the contrasting green summer foliage near the coast and to the south and the developing fall foliage in northwest regions.

He also points to cumulus clouds (concentrated white dots), cirrus clouds (white wisps) and color patterns in the ocean. At the head of the Bay of Fundy, huge tides stir considerable suspended sediment and the water appears brown. Greener ocean waters are indicative of shallow banks and phytoplankton (microscopic plants). Clearest ocean waters are blue.

The images and the collected data, including sea surface temperature and ocean chlorophyll concentrations, allow Thomas to track developing and long-term changes in the ocean, including the impact of water temperature variability on the number and distribution of fish as well as summer algae blooms.

Thomas says tools can be developed for management in the face of those changes.

The lab is part of the University of Maine Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Applications — a cross-disciplinary initiative funded by UMaine and NASA’s Earth Sciences Division).

For more information and to view additional satellite images and data, visit