Hug an Oyster for Wildlife!

I recently wrote a post for That’s Life Science, a science blog run by peers at the University of Massachusetts Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Program. It covers a sliver of the giant topic that is the history of conservation in the United States.

Here’s an excerpt from the post Hug an Oyster for Wildlife Conservation:

A group of birders peer avidly through binoculars at a rare sighting in a town park [1]. Fishermen cast into the Refuge’s coastal surf, hoping to land the catch of a lifetime. Hikers at a National Monument stare in awe at an ewe in the distance. All of these diverse outdoors experiences are linked by the public land and wildlife in them. Have you ever wondered how our wildlife and wild spaces got protected for the public to enjoy? It hasn’t always been like this in the United States and there are still groups aiming to privatize public resources. To understand what a public land even is, we may have an oyster or two to thank…

Shellfish have been an important harvest across the East Coast of the United States starting long before colonization [2]. European colonists quickly followed the lead of Native Americans in accessing the massive bounty of these morsels. As more settlers came in and the United States began to grow as a nation, so did the consumption of this popular mollusc. The oyster capital was Baltimore, located in the Chesapeake Bay. The name itself gives away it’s shellfish importance, likely derived from the Algonquin word “Chesipiook,” meaning “Great Shellfish Bay” [3].

By the mid-1800’s oysters were being canned (Fig. 1) or shipped on ice to distant American markets from the central-Atlantic states [4], leading to a maritime “wild-west” of oyster pirates coming from New England and the start of “Oyster Wars” between rowdy crews of sailors [5] where gunfights could break out when ships got close to each other. Some folks claimed these “Yankee” pirates were taking what belonged to them. States passed legislation curtailing harvest by non-residents, but enforcement was difficult. Even the Civil War barely hindered the rate of harvest. As demand continued to rise, ship captains would sometimes resort to drugging and kidnapping sailors from bars and brothels to get enough seamen to work for the season…..

Read the rest of the post here!

Fig. 1 – Oysters off to market. (source: The Library of Congress)

Fishing for mammals: using environmental DNA from rivers to monitor mammals on land

Check out this research blog, that I just happened to write. It’s on a new paper that came from a large, international collaboration.

The Applied Ecologist

New research by Sales and colleagues looks at the monitoring of terrestrial mammal communities and compares the efficacy of landscape-level monitoring using environmental DNA (eDNA) to that of conventional methods. Here the authors summarise their findings.

Accurately and effectively monitoring biodiversity is a key consideration in this rapidly changing world. Consistent and regular monitoring of species communities is pivotal for ongoing management, conservation and policy implementation within ecosystems. Over the last decade, the use of environmental DNA (eDNA) as a method to detect and monitor individual species or whole communities (eDNA metabarcoding) has drastically increased. eDNA is DNA left in the environment by organisms, often in the form of faeces/urine, blood, hair or flakes of skin; and it can be recovered from water, soil or even air.

To date, most applications of eDNA have been focused on monitoring aquatic organisms such fishesor macroinvertebrates. Mammals, among which…

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Wildlife Confessionals


It was an exhilarating moment when I opened the package. The book had that new book smell. But most importantly, when I flipped through the pages, I landed on one that had something unique to me: my name.


It had been quite the journey getting it there. Nearly 3 years (and maybe a little more like 4) had passed since I submitted my stories to the anthology. I learned a lot about patience and a little about how book publishing works during that time.

Not that I was doing any of the heavy lifting, but the editors of the volume were quite transparent and let me and the other contributors know what was happening every step of the way. The insights, though small, into the publishing world were rather neat, little slivers of light illuminating a business I knew nothing about. I had just written a couple stories about my fieldwork in Arizona.

(C) Joe Drake 2020

A hidden canyon in the far southern reaches of Arizona.

The anthology, if this is all new to you, is a collection of short stories by wildlife professionals, called Wildlife Confessionals (see what they did there).  The proceeds go to the Western Section of the Wildlife Society, a professional organization for wildlife biologists. The money helps students attend workshops and conferences, and conduct research. For more on the book and to buy your own copy go to the book’s webpage at

The worst part about it, was how much I enjoyed the dang thing. It means I will probably, someday, post-phd, try to toss my hat into the ring once again. It would be rather nice to have a whole book of my own out there. Who knows, maybe one day.


And Then There Were None (book review)

Although there is a wonderful murder mystery by Agatha Christie by the same title, I’m here to talk about the work by wildlife biologist Paul R. Krausman.

And Then There Were None: The Demise of Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness is geared around a specific population of bighorn sheep that disappeared from a wilderness area adjacent to the city of Tucson, AZ.

If you are like me and love the Southwest and are generally interested in desert biology, this book is a pretty brilliant read.  Not only does Krausman pack in a sophisticated story of management and biology with a succinct narrative, he does it with a minimum of jargon (there is still some, sometimes it is hard to get around). Although more geared to biologists and managers, this work can be read by a general audience that is interested in the subject.


The cover of the book.

And if you are one of the biologists or managers this book was geared towards, it is not only an interesting read, but a blueprint for how to proceed.  Although geared towards large mammals, there is an underlying structure that should be of use to any imperiled mammal.  By addressing the story of a specific population, Krausman has actually made it easier to find common links with any other species and populations compared to if he had tried to be polemic.  It is also a wonderful collection of citations for those interested in any specific area, you could find what you need to get started on your own research.

In the book he addresses the biology, the historical (sometimes mis-) management, and the lessons learned for what we assume today to be our best working knowledge.  He strongly draws on the peer-reviewed and grey literature to make his case, as well as interviewing other prominent bighorn biologists.  He argues for structured decision making, wide and diverse stakeholder involvement, and inclusion of evolution in wildlife research and management.  It is also a very interesting read for urban ecologists as it deals with large mammals and urban influences on species persistence.

It’s a pretty quick read and worth the time. If I had the extra cash for a copy I would get it. As it is, I am returning my copy to the library tomorrow. It’s well worth checking out (library pun!).


I also really like the illustrations by Bethann Merkle that are spattered through the book.

That’s Life [Science]: Crap you didn’t really need to know

I am a sometimes contributor to the UMass graduate student produced blog That’s Life Science and this post is another part in the series on water vole field work and biology.  This is just a preview of the post; find the whole post at:

Crap you didn’t really need to know

“How do you count an animal you can’t see, hear, or find? By its poo of course!”

How do you count animals that don’t want to be seen?

By their poo of course! Counting poo is one way that ecologists can record information about animal populations that are hard to find, rare, or very secretive. Different animals have unique shapes and sizes of feces (or faeces) which can aid in identification. As part of my research I had found myself hiking in a way that resembles a mix of ungraceful falling and unsuccessful breakdancing across the uneven terrain of the Scottish Highlands.

Other studies have used droppings to count deer [1], tigers, and snow leopards or to locate penguins; but I was looking for a more dangerous beastie: the water vole. Arvicola amphibius is a small rodent that lives….


See the rest of the post here.



Water vole juvenile. Photo used by permission. By Rebecca Tanner.

Wildlife Confessionals

This will be a short post. But an important one (at least to me).

The Wildlife Society’s Western Section has collected and is printing some wonderful fieldwork stories into an anthology.  I happen to be one of the authors in the collection and proud of it.  There are some great stories in this anthology that should help explain what it is really like to be a wildlifer in all its poignant glory and all its humorous repugnancy.


Below are a couple of excepts from the two stories I contributed to the anthology.  A lot of people donated their time and effort to pull this together including 12 other authors that contributed great stories.  Pre-order a copy to help the TWS Western Section raise funds for student scholarships.  Thanks guys, cheers!!!

When it rains bullets and beer cans on his first day of work, getting stuck in the mud becomes the least of Joseph Drake’s worries during the eventful evening of The First Day.

“The patch of road ahead was giving him cause to reconsider his trajectory. But even as he eased on the brakes, the truck jerked to a stop and our inertia was redirected from forward motion into a sinking feeling. We abandoned the cab to assess our situation. The front tires had clearly sunk several inches. Having become so intimate with the road slop, we quickly realized that we had been skipping like a giant stone across the mud at high speed. It was only when we had slowed down that we lost momentum and succumbed to the mud. When James tried to gun the truck back onto the road, it simply lurched forward into the mud until the spinning wheels began digging deeper and deeper. It was a beautiful attempt but the mud won again.”


In Bender Springs, Drake trades the woods for a white-knuckle summer dogding unexploded ordinances and drug smugglers to inventory the deserts’ tinajas.

“We reach another bad stretch of road and I try to thread the needle on a section washed out from the recent monsoons. Instead the truck slides abruptly to the right as the sand and rock collapse under the tires. Just as quickly, the truck lurches to the left as a fountain of rocks and soil erupt skyward. Time slows, but not before I hear a sharp intake of air from Jordan and I try to make sense of what – on this former bombing range littered with unexploded ordinances – what could possibly have gone wrong this time.”


Giving thanks… and gifts even when you don’t feel like it.

It’s been a year since I posted this. It still is pertinent. Don’t get “outrage fatigue” quite yet. There are still a lot of good people doing good work for conservation at your state level, the national level, and for the globe. You can be one of them. Happy Thanksgiving everybody in the States and just have a wonderful day if you are elsewhere!


The Secret Life of a Field Biologist

As you are sitting around at home surrounded by family getting ready for the dreaded Thanksgiving Dinner conversation with extended family that may or may not share your world views, and you are thinking “What am I gonna do for holiday gifts?” or maybe not, but I think you should consider the following [toolongdon’twannareadspoilers: buy park passes and donate to conservation advocacy groups, see below for suggestions and links]….

As you are trying to find common ground across the stuffing this Thanksgiving, remember that most of the people sitting there care about the lands, lakes, and woods (or deserts or mountains).  They just may use different language to show their passion about the environment.  That Uncle of yours that voted a way you didn’t like (whether it was Hillary, Trump, or 3rd party; hey but at least he voted) has probably donated more to conservation this year through hunting…

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Unwanted Americans – an invasive immigrant’s tale

Water voles are believed to have lost 90-95% of their historic numbers in the UK.  Although they may seem to be flourishing if you see them, that is only because it is a local group doing well.  These small groups of voles, seemingly doing well one year, can blink out of existence.  Why would a local group disappear even if they have great habitat, with plenty of lush grasses and other vegetation to munch on?  Maybe they just moved out to find an unrelated mate. But there may be another more dire reason for their disappearance.

Enter the Unwanted American: the American mink (Neovision vison).  Imported in the 1930-50’s, these mustelids were farmed for their fur.  “Unwanted” is a slight misnomer for then, but now, now the fur farms have been shuttered and in the decades from their inception, mink escaped and established a population in the wilds.  Mink are super good at what they do, and that happens to be reproducing and hunting.  The mink likes the same type of habitat that water voles like.  This habitat overlap makes for bad neighbors.  The mink slip right into the vole burrows and carry off vole after vole to the waiting teeth of its young.


An American Mink. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)



Mink aren’t the only thing that the vole gets predated by.  Other predators include foxes, birds of prey, and this guy: A stoat! (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Research has shown that water voles are disappearing wherever these mink are cropping up (and they impact important economic species like salmon).  So far the worst hit areas have been the lowland populations in the southern half of the UK, but the mink is moving north.  Right now the Assynt area seems to be free of them, but if a couple of mink wander in the right direction, that may change.  There are currently efforts underway to trap and remove the mink but the best way to do it is to keep them from establishing a presence in the first place.  Monitoring for early “pioneers” is the best way to keep them from creating permanent settlements and drive out the natives (they eat more than just water voles too).

There are several less dramatic, but equally bad-ending reasons for the disappearance of your local water vole group too. Sometimes, when an animal lives in small groups they can have something happen out-of-the-blue that could cause a local extinction.  These could be large storms or fires or other natural disasters that kills or removes the animals homes.  Other times, it can be something more subtle.  What if one year, all the female voles gave birth to only female offspring?  There would be no one to mate with!  The smaller the population, the more likely that something like these freak events could have serious consequences for a population of animals.

Water voles give birth spring to summer in the year in the Scottish Highlands. The young of the year eventually decide to try and leave their natal (birth) patch and try to find a new nice little patch of earth to call home.  They have to travel across terrain that is hard for large animals like Ph.D. students to walk around in.  So if it can’t find a new place to call home quickly (or at least a vole equivalent of a hotel), it may never end up finding a home.  When there are fewer good spots left because humans built a house or put barriers up on streamsides, it can make it hard for a vole with a limited number of options to survive.  It can create a spiral that can lead to large areas going completely extinct.


Although this is a picture of a stream that lost it’s natural banks (courtesy of @mtbogan).  No animal is gonna burrow through those concrete banks.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  Because of the hard work of many dedicated people, there are many local conservation efforts to reverse habitat and invasive species damage in the UK.  Read more about them here:

And more about mink in Scotland in general:

Article from the Scotsman:



So, what is a water vole?


This is:

The water voles (Arvicola amphibius) are a large, semi-aquatic rodent in the UK.  Scottish water voles have a slightly darker coat than their English counterparts, which may be explained by a different genetic background migrating to the UK from different parts of Europe at different times.  They are fairly short lived little animals that generally don’t live more than 2 years and a fully grown adult can be anywhere from about 170g to 300g. They are also been known as a “water dog” and you may be most familiar with water voles from the book, The Wind in the Willows.  Ratty was actually a water vole.

But Where does it live?

The live all over the UK and across much of Europe.  In the UK they are found near slow moving water in canals, streams, creeks (known as “burns” around here in Scotland), and ditches.  But they really like to have nice tall and grassy vegetation to eat and soft soil banks that they can burrow into. Imagine something like this ->


A Scottish “burn” with nice vegetation for water voles stream-side, yet surrounded by heather, nasty habitat for these little guys.

In the highlands of Scotland, these places are often fragmented into discrete little patches.  These nice little homes can be separated by miles by harsh unlivable habitat (although gorgeous, see below) for these animals.


The hills near Loch Muick in Balmoral. Hidden thoughout this big landscape are little pockets of good habitat, fragmented by other types of vegetation.

But there is a problem.  In the last several decades, the number of water voles have declined dramatically in the UK, some estimates have put it at 90% reduction from historic numbers.  In much of the lowlands where the biggest colonies existed in large habitat areas, human development has removed much of the available habitat and fragmented those remaining populations too much.  They have also been hit really hard by an invasive predator (more on that in a later post), adding to the troubles for them.

Why does it matter?

Beyond the inherent right to exist without worry of being pushed to extinction by our activities, voles can be important ecosystem engineers, by doing things like aerating soil with their burrows.

Another point is best summed up by a conversation with a “hill walker” (aka hiker) while I was returning from my first series of surveying for these majestic wee-beasties.  He asked me what I was about and I explained why I was out there, surveying for voles.  He replied, “Oh how are they doing, always seems like they are always getting eaten?”  This is a keen insight, as rodents often are a cornerstone of foodstuffs for other animals.  Water voles are prey for weasels, stoats, golden eagles, owls, herons, foxes, pike, and more!  They are important element in the ecosystems they play a part in.

So, I will leave you to mull over that and in my next H2Vole post, I will tell you more about how they have come to be in such a precarious situation in the UK.


For more information on water voles in the UK:

Field Season 2017

Welcome aboard everyone! I hope you enjoy the next 2 months of post here and on Twitter ( handle is @VAN_DLL ). If you are already following, you know I am a field biologist, if you just started following, now you know. I recently​ started a Ph.D. at UMass, and now am heading off again into the wilds to start my latest field season. I hope I can share some of this world’s natural beauty with you and share my sense of wonder if things we encounter along the way.

This year I am heading off to the Scottish Highlands to study the majestic water vole. What is a water vole? I will tell you all about it in the posts to come, but needless to say it is an aquatic rodent. Think muskrat but smaller and cuter. What’s a muskrat? You are on your own there! 

Although they can be a pest in some parts of Europe, the water vole is threatened in the UK.  I will be telling you its story along side the story of the field work too.  

There’s nothing like the field. Which is what I keep telling myself.  As a 6’5″ person made mostly of legs, the upcoming overnight flight to Heathrow is a daunting and tight situation (for my knees at least). I know it’s going to be worth it, the field always is.

See you on the other side of the pond!