Around the world in 400,000 years: The journey of the red fox

Red FoxImagine attempting to trace your genetic history using only information from your mother’s side. That’s what scientists studying the evolution of the red fox had been doing for decades. Now, University of California, Davis, researchers have for the first time investigated ancestry across the red fox genome, including the Y chromosome, or paternal line. The data, compiled for over 1,000 individuals from all over the world, expose some surprises about the origins, journey and evolution of the red fox, the world’s most widely distributed land carnivore.

“The genome and the information it contains about our ancestry and evolution is huge,” said lead author Mark Statham, an assistant project scientist with the UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory. “If you’re only looking at what your mother’s mother’s mother did, you’re only getting a small portion of the story.”

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Molecular Ecology, represents the most globally comprehensive work yet on the red fox.

Conventional thinking based on maternal genetics suggested that red foxes of Eurasia and North America composed a single interconnected population across the Bering land bridge between Asia and Alaska. In contrast, this new research shows that the red foxes of North America and Eurasia have been almost entirely reproductively isolated from one another for roughly 400,000 years. During this time, the North American red fox evolved into a new species distinct from its Old World ancestors.

The previous view was distorted by the maternal picture because a single female line transferred from Asia to Alaska about 50,000 years ago.

The new genetic research further suggests that the first red foxes originated in the Middle East before beginning their journey of colonization across Eurasia to Siberia, across the Bering Strait and into North America, where they eventually founded the North American population.

“That small group that got across the Bering Strait went on to colonize a whole continent and are on their own evolutionary path,” Statham said.

During the red foxes’ journey over millennia, ice sheet formation and fluctuating temperatures and sea levels offered periods of isolation and reconnection, impacting their global distribution. Statham said understanding the evolutionary history of the red fox can provide insight into how other species may have responded to climate change and those same environmental shifts.

Source: UC Davis press release.

Scientific Journal Article: Mark J. Statham, James Murdoch, Jan Janecka, Keith B. Aubry, Ceiridwen J. Edwards, Carl D. Soulsbury, Oliver Berry, Zhenghuan Wang, David Harrison, Malcolm Pearch, Louise Tomsett, Judith Chupasko, Benjamin N. Sacks. Range-wide multilocus phylogeography of the red fox reveals ancient continental divergence, minimal genomic exchange and distinct demographic histories.Molecular Ecology, 2014; 23 (19): 4813 DOI: 10.1111/mec.12898

You Are Invited to the Otter Creek Audubon Annual Dinner & Meeting

Originally posted on Otter Creek Audubon Society:

Dr. Rosalind Renfrew

Dr. Rosalind Renfrew

The Otter Creek Audubon Society Annual Dinner and Meeting will take place Thursday November, 13. Our keynote speaker this year will be Rosiland Renfrew from the Vermont Center for Ecostudies who will give a presentation titled The Double Life of the Bobolink. The effervescent, enchanting song of the Bobolink fills our grasslands during the summer, but where do they go the rest of the year, and what do

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The Natural and UnNatural History of the Common Loon

VCE loon biologist, Eric Hanson, recently spoke to a crowd at our monthly Suds and Science series at the Norwich Inn. Eric discussed the “natural and unnatural history” of the Common Loon recovery in Vermont over the past 25 years. Thanks to CATV 8/10 for producing a video of the event, you can learn about it too. You’ll hear about everything from late-night rescues of loons in distress to what information loons convey in their calls to one another. And as always, Eric answers participant’s burning questions about loons. If you have some of your own that are not covered, please let us know.

Vermont Loon Recovery Project from CATV 8/10 on Vimeo.

Take a Time Out for Turtles: Volunteers Needed for Nesting Beach Clean Up Day

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is looking for volunteers to help with spiny softshell turtle nesting beaches on Saturday, October 25 at North Hero State Park.  Photo by Tom Rogers, Vt Fish & Wildlife.

The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is looking for volunteers to help with spiny softshell turtle nesting beaches on Saturday, October 25 at North Hero State Park. Photo by Tom Rogers, Vt Fish & Wildlife.

The annual spiny softshell turtle beach cleanup day is on Saturday, October 25, and Vermont Fish & Wildlife is looking for volunteers to help.  Participants are asked to arrive at North Hero State Park between 10 and 11 a.m.

Volunteers will pull up vegetation on nesting beaches to prepare turtle nesting sites for next year.  They may also find a few hatchlings that occasionally remain in nests underground this late in the year.  In addition to threatened spiny softshell turtles, these nest sites are also used by map turtles, painted turtles, and snapping turtles.

Vermont Fish & Wildlife biologist Steve Parren will have hatchling spiny softshell turtles on hand and will talk about his long-term recovery efforts with the species.  Some hatchling turtles will be raised in captivity by the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center while they are small and most vulnerable to predation.  They will be released back into Lake Champlain next spring.

“This is a great way to help conserve a threatened species right here in Vermont,” said Parren.  “It’s also a fun way to learn more about the turtles and to see some recently hatched baby turtles.”

Participants are asked to dress in layers of warm clothes and to bring work gloves, a leaf rake, short-handled tools such as trowels, and their own lunch.  Families and kids are welcome.  The cleanup may run until 4 p.m., although participants can choose how long to assist.

“Last year we had nearly 50 participants, so we’re anticipating a strong turnout again this year,” said Parren.

To get to North Hero State Park, follow Route 2 north past Carry Bay in North Hero.  Take a right on Lakeview Drive, just before Route 2 swings west toward Alburg.  Follow Lakeview almost to the end until you reach the North Hero State Park entrance sign on the left.  Drive to the end of the road always bearing right.

August iNaturalist Vermont Photo-observation Winner

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) photo-observation by Joshua Lincoln.

To celebrate our wonderful plants and your amazing iNaturalist Vermont photo-observations, Sue Elliot, July’s winner, chose six wonderful photo-observations from August. Voters chose the beautiful Cardinal Flowers captured by Joshua Lincoln. Check out his amazing photo-observation at http://www.inaturalist.org/observations/855831. Get out and explore and submit your photo-observations as the leave change and maybe you can be a winner for September!

‘Green wave’ explains migratory bird routes

1.7 million crowd-sourced bird checklists from eBird used to construct a detailed picture of species occurrence for each week of the year to help explain bird migration patterns

Team VCE watching a pair of Orchard Orioles in the early morning fog. Observations like these are entered into Vermont eBird.

Team VCE watching a pair of Orchard Orioles in the early morning fog. Observations like these are entered into Vermont eBird.

Migratory songbirds enjoy the best of both worlds—food-rich summers and balmy winters—but they pay for it with a tough commute. Their twice-a-year migrations span thousands of miles and are the most dangerous, physically demanding parts of their year.

Surprisingly, for many North American species the best route between summer and winter homes is not a straight line, according to new research published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In spring, the study shows, birds follow areas of new plant growth—a so-called “green wave” of new leaves and numerous insects. In fall, particularly in the western U.S., they stick to higher elevations and head directly southward, making fewer detours along the way for food.

“We’re discovering that many more birds than anyone ever suspected fly these looped migrations, where their spring and fall routes are not the same,” said Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “And now we’re finding out why—they have different seasonal priorities and they’re trying to make the best of different ecological conditions.”

The research—the first to reveal this as a general pattern common to many species—may help land managers improve conservation efforts by improving their understanding of how birds use habitat seasonally.

“All this information helps us understand where we should focus conservation across time,” La Sorte said. “Then we can drill down and make local and regional recommendations. In the West particularly, the systems are very complicated, but we’re starting to build a nice foundation of knowledge.”

In a 2013 study, La Sorte and his colleagues discovered that many species of North American birds flew looping, clockwise migration routes. But they could only partially explain why. For eastern species, it was clear from atmospheric data that the birds were capitalizing on strong southerly tailwinds in spring over the Gulf of Mexico and less severe headwinds in fall. By adding the effect of plant growth, the new study helps explain why western species also fly looped routes.

The study examined 26 species of western birds, including the Rufous Hummingbird and Lazuli Bunting, and 31 species of eastern birds such as the Wood Thrush and Black-throated Blue Warbler. Birds on both sides of the continent showed a strong tendency to follow the flush of green vegetation in spring.

In the relatively continuous forests of the eastern U.S. this tight association with green vegetation persisted all summer and into fall. In the West, however, green space occurs along rivers and mountains, and is often isolated by expanses of desert or rangeland.

“Western migrants can’t necessarily cross big stretches of desert to get to the greenest habitat when it’s the most green,” La Sorte said. “So in spring, they stick to the foothills where insects are already out. But in fall they tend to migrate along browner, higher-elevation routes that take them more directly south.”

For decades scientists have known that some herbivorous species, including geese and deer, follow the “green wave” of spring vegetation on their northward migrations. La Sorte’s study is the first to extend that idea to insectivorous species, which are tiny (most weigh an ounce or less) and much harder to study using tracking devices.

The researchers solved that problem by using sightings data—lots of it—to substitute for tracking data. They analyzed 1.7 million crowdsourced bird checklists from eBird, a free online birding-list program, to construct a detailed picture of species occurrence for each week of the year. Then they used satellite imagery to determine the ecological productivity—or amount of new plant growth—across the U.S.

What emerged was a composite picture of where each species occurred, week by week, that the scientists then compared with satellite-derived estimates of where the greenest or most productive habitats were.

“Up till eBird data became available, people have had to look at migration on a species by species basis, by tracking individual birds,” La Sorte said. “We’re bringing in the population perspective using big data, and that’s enabling us to describe general mechanisms across species.”

Study: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1793/20140984.abstract?etoc

Field Report: Final 2014 Bird Banding on Mt. Mansfield

Dusk in the Clouds on Mt. Mansfield, VT / K.P. McFarland

Dusk in the Clouds on Mt. Mansfield, VT / K.P. McFarland

VCE wrapped up its 2014 mountain bird field season with an overnight visit to our Mt. Mansfield ridgeline study site on Tuesday.  Arriving at the upper toll road parking lot ~5 pm, we were greeted by chilly, damp conditions, but also by calling Bicknell’s Thrushes (BITH), which annually undergo a resurgence of vocal activity in mid-September. We set up 17 mist nets, mostly on the Amherst and Lakeview trails, and ran them until dusk.  BITH calls pierced the skies until darkness fell, and a few birds sang briefly.  The frequency and vigor of vocalizing was nowhere near that of 3 months ago, but the chorus was a far cry from the eerily quiet evening of our visit in late July.

The ridgeline was still bathed in clouds when we returned at 5:45 am to open nets, and temperatures hovered in the raw low 40s F.  BITH put on a solid dawn chorus, as we heard 16-18 birds total. Swainson’s Thrushes were nowhere to be seen or heard.  Our nets started filling, and by noon we had captured 76 birds. Yellow-rumped Warblers were by far the most abundant species on the ridgeline, and in our nets, but BITH may have been second, judging from both captures and birds heard vocalizing.  Of the 13 BITH we mist-netted, 5 were recaptures of adult males from June and July (one a bird originally banded in 2011).  Our total of BITH captures for 2014 ended up at 57, possibly a single-season record over our 23 years of banding.

Steve Faccio removing a Bicknell's Thrush from a mist net for banding. / K.P. McFarland

Steve Faccio removing a Bicknell’s Thrush from a mist net for banding. / K.P. McFarland

Overall diversity on the ridgeline was low, as we identified only 16 species during the morning, which included 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks and a single Peregrine Falcon.  One unexpected encounter was of 3 Ruffed Grouse flushed at ~3800 ft elevation on Tuesdayevening. Surprisingly, Black-throated Blue Warblers, which our fall migration banding study in the mid-1990s showed to be the most abundant transient species on Mansfield, were almost non-existent – we saw and netted only one bird.  [read more about our results from that study, http://www.vtecostudies.org/PDF/WB112.pdf].

Our combined capture totals for the 16-17th:

Black-capped Chickadee    1
Bicknell’s Thrush    13 (7 immatures, 1 new adult, 5 recaptured adult males)
Nashville Warbler    1
Blackpoll Warbler    6 (2 immatures, 4 adults)
Black-throated Blue Warbler     1 imm. female
Yellow-rumped Warbler    50 (41 immatures, 9 adults)
White-throated Sparrow    6 (3 immatures, 3 adults)
Dark-eyed Junco     8 (7 immatures, 1 adult)

Mist net in the fog. / K.P. McFarland

Mist net in the fog. / K.P. McFarland

A final note: there are very few cones on the balsam fir trees (and we saw or heard no red squirrels), so it’s likely that squirrel populations will again be low in 2015, leading to higher breeding productivity by BITH and other open-cup nesting species.  The biennial “boom-bust” cycle of cone crops, which has been remarkably consistent across the entire Northeast for many decades, appears to have broken down in recent years.  Whether this results from climatic changes and/or other environmental factors, and whether the cycle will self-correct or not, is unknown.  In the short term, the current scarcity of cones in montane forests appears to be benefitting BITH, which have shown relatively high recruitment of young birds during the past 3 summers, and probably will again in 2015.

VCE will be back at it again next June, so stay tuned.

Chris Rimmer checking the skull ossification  of a banded bird. / K.P. McFarland

Chris Rimmer checking the skull ossification of a banded bird. / K.P. McFarland