This September, Professor Aaron Wirsing joined his doctoral student Shannon Kachel in Kyrgyzstan for a couple weeks of field research. Working in collaboration with Panthera and the local managers of the Sarychat-Ertash State Nature Reserve in the Tian Chan Mountains, Shannon is exploring interactions between snow leopards and wolves, which compete for prey (argali and ibex) amid the regions’ towering peaks.
Doctoral student Shannon Kachel.
“During my stay, we weathered a tornado, forded rushing rivers on horseback, and hiked hard every day in a truly herculean effort to capture and collar these elusive carnivores,” says Aaron. “I left the field camp without seeing a leopard, but not without indelible memories of stunning alpine scenery and the bumps and bruises to show for some truly challenging field work at 3,000 meters (~10,000 feet). I am also happy to report that, merely a week after my departure, Shannon and company captured their first snow leopard of the season, a male!” (Read more about their first successful collaring last fall.)
Prior to returning to Seattle, Aaron also enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime visit with his father, Robert, in the Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek. Through an incredible coincidence, Robert—a recently retired professor—was doing his own research in the area, and they were able to rendezvous for two nights (though it took nine hours, in turns by horse and by car, for Aaron to reach the rendezvous point!). The highlight, says Aaron, was a trip to Ala Archa National Park, which offers majestic alpine vistas just 40 kilometers outside of the city.
Now in its fifth year (and counting), the Alaska Bear Project continues to build momentum. Working in collaboration with Professor Tom Quinn from the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Professor Aaron Wirsing just returned from Bristol Bay, Alaska, where researchers have been non-invasively studying brown bears hunting along six sockeye salmon spawning streams since 2012. Thus far, they’ve collected more than 2,000 hair samples for genetic analysis using barbed wires strung across the streams, and detected 121 individual bears.
Professor Aaron Wirsing, left, and Professor Tom Quinn on the tundra near one of their bear wires on Whitefish Creek.
This year, for the first time, they’ve also been collecting video using motion-activated trail cameras deployed in conjunction with the wires, and elsewhere, on each stream. They’ll be analyzing the videos to explore bear behavioral responses to the wires (e.g., do they learn to avoid them?), and to track the timing and location of different bear behaviors, including foraging and traveling. Working with Anne Hilborn, a doctoral student in Professor Marcella Kelly’s lab at Virginia Tech, they’re also using the videos as a means to better communicate their work and findings to the public.
Below, check out one of their videos from this summer, which provides a great example of the type of footage they’re collecting: a brown bear mother passing by with two cubs!
Funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the lesson is designed for use at multiple grade levels—from elementary to high school—and facilitates learning about ecosystems, animal behavior, the importance of predators, and how ecosystems and animals respond to environmental changes by allowing the students to be the scientists. The video, which focuses on how wolves are impacting deer behavior in Washington, spurs students to form their own hypotheses about the research, and it also includes a teacher packet with suggestions for how to extend the exercise and differentiate instruction.
Aaron says they anticipate the video will reach thousands of students as part of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s ScienceFusion program, which aims to build inquiry and STEM skills.
Professor Aaron Wirsing just returned from a sabbatical sojourn in Australia, where he spent six weeks as a visiting professor at the University of Sydney. Hosted by SEFS Affiliate Assistant Professor Thomas Newsome, Aaron says the trip turned out to be quite the adventure.
Along the way, he logged more than 4,000 kilometers on the ground, highlighted by an epic drive from Alice Springs to the Tanami Desert along the legendary Tanami Track, which most Australians never see. He also paid visits to Melbourne for a guest lecture at Deakin University, and to Yulara for some hiking in the iconic Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Wildlife abounded at every turn, including a flood plains monitor (the biggest lizard he’s ever seen), a host of small marsupials in the Simpson Desert, and numerous dingoes.
This fall, the SEFS Research Committee awarded five Graduate Research Augmentation Grants through the McIntire-Stennis Cooperative Forestry Research program, totaling $72,209 in funding.
This special round of grants was designed to support graduate student research, with awards targeted for Spring 2016 or Summer 2016 (and with all funding to be spent in full by September 30, 2016). Read more about the funded projects below!
1. Nisqually Garry Oak Habitat: Cultural and Ecological Considerations for Successful Restoration in the Nisqually Tribal Reservation
PI: Professor Ernesto Alvarado, SEFS
Co-PI: Professor Steve Harrell, SEFS
Garry oak (Quercus garryana) ecosystems are a designated Priority Habitat for management in Washington State (Larsen and Morgan 1998). Although there are many research projects that examine how to restore Garry oak ecosystems for the purposes of establishing more habitat for endangered and threatened species like the golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) and Mazama pocket gopher (Thomomys mazama), respectively (Larsen and Morgan 1998), there are few studies that look at restoration for the objective of developing an environment for the purpose of cultural restoration, specifically agroforestry. We intend to evaluate whether Garry oak ecosystem restoration for the intended purpose of cultural activities (traditional medicinal and edible plant harvests, inter-generational education) will greatly change the components of the restoration and management plan of the Garry oak ecosystem.
Award total: $13,232
2. How Do Conclusions About the Effectiveness of Fuels-reduction Treatments Vary with the Spatial Scale of Observation?
PI: Professor Jon Bakker, SEFS
Co-PI: Professor Charles Halpern, SEFS
Restoration of dry-forest ecosystems has become a prominent and very pressing natural resource issue in the western U.S. Although mechanical thinning and prescribed burning can effectively reduce fuel loads in these forests, scientists and managers remain uncertain about the ecological outcomes of these treatments. This uncertainty reflects the short time spans of most restoration studies and a limited consideration of how ecological responses vary with the spatial scale of observation. This funding will support graduate student research that explores how ecological responses to fuels-reduction treatments vary with the spatial scale of observation, and will complement ongoing research on the temporal variability of responses.
Award total: $15,114
3. Growth and Physiological Response of Native Washington Tree Species to Light and Drought: Informing Sustainable Timber Production
PI: Professor Greg Ettl, SEFS
Co-PIs: Matthew Aghai, third-year Ph.D. student at SEFS; Rolf Gersonde, affiliate assistant professor with SEFS and Seattle Public Utilities Silviculture; and Professor Sally Brown, SEFS
Intensive management of the conifer-dominated forests of the Pacific Northwest has resulted in millions of acres of largely mono-specific second- and third-growth forests. These forests have simple vertical structure and low biodiversity, and consequently much lower value of non-timber forest products. Research on establishment of underplanted trees in partial light is needed to increase structural and compositional diversification of Douglas-fir plantations undergoing conversion to multispecies stands. However, the ecology of seedling establishment under existing canopies is poorly understood. The general aim of our research is to address the need for improved structural diversity in managed forest systems through a better understanding of species-specific performance potential of underplanted seedlings. This proposal extends ongoing research; in this phase we will document physiological differences in seedling performance.
Award total: $17,004
4. A Novel Reactor for Fast Pyrolysis of Beetle-Killed Trees
PI: Professor Fernando Resende, SEFS
In this project, we will optimize the production of pyrolysis bio-oil from beetle-killed lodgepole pine using a technique called ablative pyrolysis. We developed a novel and unique system for pyrolysis of wood that has the capability of converting entire wood chips into bio-oil. This characteristic is important for mobile pyrolysis units, because it eliminates the need of grinding wood chips prior to pyrolysis.
Award total: $15,887
5. Modeling the Effects of Forest Management on Snowshoe Hare Population Dynamics in Washington at the Landscape Scale
PI: Professor Aaron Wirsing, SEFS
The Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) is already listed as Threatened in Washington and, following an ongoing status review, likely to be designated as Endangered because much of its habitat has been lost to a series of large wildfires since 2006. Lynx subsist on snowshoe hares (Lepus americanus), and it is widely acknowledged that habitat quality for lynx is tied to the availability of this prey species, so forest management with the goal of promoting lynx conservation requires an understanding of the relationship between silvicultural practices and hare abundance. Accordingly, we are requesting summer 2016 funds to complete the third and final phase of a graduate research project whose objective is to assess the impacts of forest management on hare numbers across a large landscape in north-central Washington. By sampling a network of snowshoe hare fecal pellet transects spanning protected and harvested portions of the Loomis State Forest for a third consecutive summer, we will produce a model of hare relative abundance that will enable managing agencies to tailor their harvest plans such that they promote snowshoe hare availability and, as a result, lynx population persistence.
Camera trap photo of a snow leopard in Kachel’s study area.
The news was particularly exciting since snow leopards are among the most secretive and least studied of the big cats. They are listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and scientists estimate that only 4,500 to 10,000 adult snow leopards remain in the wild. The exact number is difficult to pinpoint, though, since few leopards are ever seen. That’s why the GPS collaring is such an important breakthrough, as it will open an unprecedented window into the leopard’s movements and range—and also help with broader conservation efforts in the region.
Kachel, who is working with Professor Aaron Wirsing in the Predator Ecology Lab, is the principal investigator on a project involving a diverse range of international partners, including Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization, and several Kyrgyz state agencies and research institutions. He and his research team had spent months trying for a successful capture, including suffering through several near misses. In the video below, for instance, a snow leopard investigates but ultimately shuns a snare on the right side of the frame. “That one is truly painful for me to watch,” he says. (The relevant footage ends around 43 seconds.)
So when Kachel was there for the actual capture of the female snow leopard, the experience was all the more unforgettable.
“When trapping snow leopards,” he says, “we continually monitor the status of the traps using radio transmitters that trigger an alarm when a trap is disturbed. At any hour of the night, we might be called on to hike out into sub-zero temperatures to release the animal as quickly as possible. On this particular night, I’ll admit that after my share of false alarms, I forced myself to keep my excitement in check for the long, dark hike up the canyon to the trapline. Even as I approached the final few meters to the trap, I still couldn’t see what we’d caught, until at the last minute, F1 (the cat’s designation) jumped up as far as the snare on her foot would allow her. She is the first wild snow leopard I’ve ever seen—after nearly nine months of studying the species in the field here in Central Asia—which made the experience all the more exhilarating. I didn’t really let it sink in until we had her safely collared and released.”
Kachel, left, listening for F1’s signal a few days after fitting her with the GPS collar, which will upload a location to his e-mail every five hours. “I wake up every morning eager to make sure she remains healthy and active—and awesome!”
Kachel’s research is among only a handful of telemetry or satellite-based studies of snow leopards, and it is the first to focus on a population that exists independent of domestic livestock and the conflicts between large predators and grazing. Collaring this snow leopard, he says, will finally give researchers the opportunity to investigate snow leopard ecology in rare depth. Among other questions, they’ll get to explore the behavioral and numerical dynamics between snow leopards and their prey (mostly ibex and argali), as well as the dispersal patterns of subadult animals (tracks near the trap site suggest the leopard may have been traveling with three subadults on the verge of dispersing to find territories of their own).
Perhaps most critical for such a threatened species, this project will also give researchers a chance to answer the basic question of what kills snow leopards. It will help them build a more comprehensive understanding of direct threats to the species, and how to anticipate and account for the effects of human activities, like grazing and mining—as well as the risks climate change could pose in the snow leopard’s high mountain habitat.
Eventually, Kachel hopes to expand the study and collar the wolves that share the landscape with the snow leopards, and to investigate the direct and indirect effects of competition and coexistence between the two carnivores. He also would like to extend his project to neighboring areas to investigate interactions between snow leopards and human activities.
In the meantime, he can savor an incredible research accomplishment, which he says belongs to a wide range of partners.
“This truly was a team effort,” says Kachel. “I’m deeply grateful to the dozens of folks who have worked hard to make this dream a reality, and who put their trust in me to realize this vision—in particular Professor Wirsing here at SEFS, along with Tom McCarthy, Zairbek Kubanychbekov, Rana Bayrakcismith and Tanya Rosen Michel at Panthera.”
The program involves a number of partners, including the Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), a consortium of 31 tribes whose mission includes providing educational opportunities to the native people of the Bristol Bay region. Each summer, BBNA research interns contribute to the Alaska Salmon Program, and this year Nadezdha Wolcott (below left) and Malcolm Upton assisted with hair sample collection as part of the noninvasive genetic component of the research.
“The bears were really active this year, the fourth of our study,” says Professor Wirsing, who recently returned from a field trip to Alaska. “So we really appreciated the interns’ help in collecting all of the hairs snagged on our barbed wires!”
Starting this fall, the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) will begin participating in the UW in the High School program, which offers high school students the opportunity to complete University of Washington courses—and earn UW credit—in their own classrooms, and with their own teachers. These students get to use our course curriculum, activities, texts, tests and grading scale, as well as a chance to experience the depth and challenge of college-level material.
In this first year, SEFS will be supporting two courses, ESRM 101 (Forests and Society) and ESRM 150 (Wildlife in the Modern World). Professors Kristiina Vogt and Aaron Wirsing will assist with the classes, including training teachers to deliver and maximize the course material.
Participating high schools so far include Chief Kitsap, Ferndale, Garfield, Granger, Kentlake, Kentwood and Sammamish. The first training session was two weeks ago, when Vogt and Wirsing spent a couple hours with the teachers who’ll be leading these classes; at least three of them will begin teaching the material this fall. Both professors will then drop in on classes periodically and generally support the teachers throughout the semester.
“Unlike an AP course, where you get to place out of college courses, UW in the High School allows you to get the credit and actually take the class,” says Professor Wirsing. “That way, high school students come away with a college class in their pocket, and they can apply the credits they’ve earned to any university. The added bonus is that the teachers get training from the professors who teach the classes, and the professors then visit the classes to help those teachers successfully integrate the courses into their curriculum.”
We’re very pleased to get involved in this great program, which allows us to partner with great teachers and students throughout Washington!
This past summer, Professor Aaron Wirsing of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) helped initiate a pilot research program to study the biology of reef sharks on a tiny atoll in the South Pacific. Tetiaroa, located about 33 miles north of Tahiti in French Polynesia, is comprised of a ring of 12 coral islets—also known as motus—surrounding a shallow lagoon. Largely untouched by human development, the lagoon is home to several shark nurseries, or areas where shark pups spend the first part of their lives, making the atoll ecosystem an especially promising site to study shark behavior and development under natural and nearly pristine conditions.
“In most parts of the world, shark populations have been heavily impacted by people,” says Professor Wirsing, who got to spend 10 days on the atoll in August. “So what tantalized us about Tetiaroa is that it’s close to Tahiti and fairly easy to reach, yet at the same time it’s remote enough to have very little human contact.”
Located about 33 miles north of Tahiti, the atoll of Tetiaroa consists of a string of coral islets surrounding a shallow lagoon.
French Polynesia, after all, is a collective of more than 100 islands spread out across a vast water area about the size of Western Europe, though with a total land area only about as big as Rhode Island. Within this sprawling network of archipelagos, moreover, sharks play an important role in traditional and modern Polynesian culture, and the government has established a moratorium on shark fishing. The result is effectively the world’s largest shark sanctuary, about half the size of the United States, making Tetiaroa a paradise for the sharks that live there—not to mention for the researchers who get to study them in this stunning natural laboratory.
Quite a Site
The unique conditions of an atoll ecosystem require an enormous amount of time and very particular geologic circumstances to form. On Tetiaroa, that work started millions of years ago when volcanic upwelling created a land mass above sea level. Coral slowly formed around the edges of the island, and while the volcano eventually became inactive, the coral continued to grow, maintaining its structural shape even as the volcano gradually disappeared under the ocean. In time, all that survived of the original upwelling was a barrier reef surrounding a turquoise lagoon, which floats like a tropical wading pool in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
How Tetiaroa evolved as a base for research operations—and how Wirsing got hooked into this project—began far more recently with the filming of Mutiny on the Bounty in 1961, when actor Marlon Brando first visited and quickly fell in love with the atoll. He ended up buying it in 1967, in fact, and aimed to preserve the natural wonders and biodiversity of the ecosystem.
Brando envisioned Tetiaroa as an ideal location for a luxury eco-resort and a small scientific community to support research and conservation efforts on the island. Though Brando never got to see his dream come to life, his estate—The Marlon Brando Living Trust, which owns Tetiaroa—has recently implemented much of that vision working with two partners: Pacific Beachcomber, which just opened The Brando, a highly exclusive eco-resort (where accommodations start around $3,600 a night), and Tetiaroa Society, a nonprofit scientific and cultural organization that now operates a research facility on the atoll.
Most juvenile reef sharks in the lagoon, like this blacktip, are about 1.5 feet long, though adults can grow larger than 5 feet.
Last year, in anticipation of The Brando’s opening, David Seeley of Tetiaroa Society reached out to the College of the Environment and expressed interest in bringing more researchers out to Tetiaroa. A number of projects are already under way on the atoll, including the work of Oceanography professors Julian Sachs and Alex Gagnon, as well as recent Oceanography alumna Lauren Brandkamp, measuring the effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs. Another big project Seeley targeted—to be funded through a donation from his parents, Jim and Marsha Seeley, of Medina, Wash.—involved studying the atoll’s large population of sharks, including lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) and blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus).
Sharks tend to reproduce in remote areas that are hard to research, and many coastal areas that might have once served as nurseries have been degraded or destroyed. But Tetiaroa’s shallow lagoon—protected from the open ocean and only a couple feet deep in most places—provides a relatively safe habitat for juvenile reef sharks to learn and mature for roughly the first year of their lives before venturing out as adults. That sheltered basin, in short, can open a special window into the shark world. So when the College approached Wirsing about the possibility of setting up a shark research program on Tetiaroa, he jumped at the chance.
“Our work on Tetiaroa can help establish a vital baseline for how healthy reef shark nurseries function,” he says.
Wirsing’s first job was to assemble a team of international shark experts. Though much of his current focus is on terrestrial ecosystems, his doctoral research involved the effects of tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) predation on dugongs (Dugong dugon) in Australia’s Shark Bay, so right away he brought in a long-time collaborator on that project, Professor Mike Heithaus from Florida International University (FIU). Heithaus, who hosted the National Geographic Crittercam television series from 2002 to 2003, runs the Marine Community & Behavioral Ecology Lab at FIU, and one of his postdocs, Jeremy Kiszka, has also joined the Tetiaroa crew. The other principal researcher is Dr. Johann Mourier from the Insular Research Center and Environment Observatory (CRIOBE), based in Moorea, French Polynesia.
Professor Wirsing in the lagoon, which is about 7 kilometers across and only a couple feet deep in most places.
Their next task was to establish whether Tetiaroa would in fact be a good base to set up a shark study, so Wirsing, Kiszka and Mourier spent 10 days on the atoll this past August. While they weren’t lucky enough to get a room at The Brando, the Tetiaroa Society Ecostation itself is an impressive installation, offering cozy lodging and lab space for scientists and students from around the world. (It also features a number of green innovations, including a Sea Water Air Conditioning system that pulls cold water from the deep ocean to provide low-energy cooling for all the buildings on the island, as well as a biofuel power station that runs on locally produced coconut oil.)
They initially set out to answer some very basic questions about the lagoon ecosystem, such as what kinds of sharks live there, how many there are, and why they’re using the lagoon. Since the lagoon is only seven kilometers across, the ecosystem is small and contained enough to map and study in its entirety—potentially to the point of counting every shark in there. Yet given the limited time of the pilot season, the team decided to focus on surveying and mapping two of the largest nurseries to get a sense of their physical structure.
Using a combination of aerial drone photography and underwater videography with stationary cameras, they were able to generate a wealth of spatial and population data. The drones allowed the researchers to run multiple transects over the water, providing a broad sweep and bird’s-eye view of the lagoon and its fish communities. The underwater cameras, meanwhile, captured a more localized and detailed look at the nursery environment (including the footage below of a curious blacktip reef shark jostling the camera!).
Jeremy Kiszka and Johann Mourier, at right, set up a drone to run transects across the lagoon.
This first field season was fairly limited, and the researchers are still working through the data they collected. Yet thanks to another donation from the Seeley family, they’ll be returning to Tetiaroa this summer for a second trip. Professor Heithaus, who couldn’t make the first visit, will be joining the team and helping expand the operation. “This time we hope to actually catch, measure and sample the tissue of sharks to get a sense of what they eat,” says Wirsing, and down the road they might also be able to equip juvenile sharks with tracking technology so they can study their behavior and movements after they leave the nurseries.
“These nurseries are critical to reproduction,” he says. “One of our ultimate goals is to use this ecosystem as a reference point to guide restoration of areas that might someday serve as shark nurseries again, so the conservation implications are huge.”
The University of Washington has recently launched a partnership with a new crowdfunding platform called USEED, and the first College of the Environment pilot project to test its effectiveness involves a research team at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS).
SEFS doctoral student Justin Dellinger (left) and Professor Wirsing use radio telemetry to locate collared deer.
After an absence of nearly 80 years, gray wolves are recolonizing Washington State and many other areas of the American West. To date, most studies of the impacts of wolves in the contiguous United States have occurred in protected areas or wilderness. Yet in Washington wolves are moving into managed landscapes where hunting, logging and livestock ranching also occur. “This study offers a rare opportunity to test if the ecological effects of wolves that have been demonstrated in protected areas like Yellowstone National Park also manifest in areas that have been modified by humans,” says Professor Wirsing.
What differentiates USEED from other crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter or Experiment.com, is that all of the money raised goes directly to the project, and researchers can take advantage of a wide range of training and tools. The USEED program is also unique in that funds go to the project immediately regardless of the total raised, rather than the “all or nothing” funding approach of most platforms. USEED ensures that researchers in Professor Wirsing’s lab are able to access and use every dollar they raise in the next 30 days, and that funding will help drive important graduate student research—and also give donors a chance to have a direct connection to research at UW.