Wildlife Wednesday: the vagrant sea eagle boosting North America’s economy

Plus: Canadian scientist witnesses sperm whale birth, wildlife get that shrinking feeling, migratory birds fly ever higher, and teeth tell time (sort of)

A long-roaming Steller's sea eagle is boosting North America's tourism economy. (Photo: © Copyright David Dixon [CC BY-SA 2.0])
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Just how big an impact can one bird make?

In summer 2020, a bird with a two metre wingspan made landfall on the North American continent for the first time. Its golden-orange beak and distinctive flashes of white on its shoulder and tail feathers identified it as a Steller’s sea eagle, native to the  Russian Far East down and coastal Japan. It was soon photographed in Matanuska-Susitna County, Alaska, and shared among the online birder community. Already so far from home, “Stella” didn’t stop there. The following spring it was sighted more than 5,000 kilometres away in Victoria, Texas. Next up were stops in the Gaspé Peninsula, Que., and New Brunswick in summer 2021, followed by Nova Scotia in the fall and a winter spent in Massachusetts and Maine. Stella has been bouncing around Atlantic Canada and Northeastern United States ever since. 

Stella has garnered a massive following in the online birder community, many of which have gone as far as to make the pilgrimage to see the majestic sea eagle in person. Brent Pease, a professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, set out to quantify how Stella has impacted the U.S. communities it visited on an economic level. Using eBird and Twitter to track sightings and reach out to the estimated 2,115 to 2,645 bird fanatics travelling far and wide to catch a glimpse of the celebrity sea eagle, Pease collected data on how much people were spending along the way. His team found that the average person spent $243 (excluding travel time) or $374 (including travel time) to see the bird, generating almost $1,000,000 of total spending.

With Stella having spent much of 2023 in Newfoundland, and plenty of tour operators offering chances to spot the bird, it’s no doubt having a big impact on the province’s tourism economy. For more on what’s causing Stella to travel so relentlessly, read here.

Miracle of nature

Canadian whale biologist Shane Gero and his team have become the first people to document the birth of a sperm whale. (Photo: Project CETI)
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Canadian whale biologist Shane Gero and his team have become the first people to document the birth of a sperm whale. Gero, lead biologist for Project CETI and a scientist in residence for Carleton University, was off the coast of the eastern Caribbean island of Dominica searching for a family of sperm whales when he and his team witnessed the event. They started the day with the aim to record videos of the whales with overheard drones and audio using underwater hydrophones, then use advanced machine learning to decode and translate the whale’s ping-like communication. 

After an hour of observing the family of whales all grouped up, Gero says he and his team were caught by surprise when a sudden gush of blood was followed by the appearance of “these beautiful, tiny, little floppy flukes of the new baby who had just been born.” It was an experience he describes as surreal.

At first, the researchers feared the calf was stillborn because it was so floppy, but after a few minutes realised the newborn — a female — was breathing, kicking and moving. “To have [the whales] all writhing around like spinning spaghetti around your fork so elegantly and gracefully in the ocean was pretty unbelievable,” said Gero on the CBC radio show Quirks and Quarks


Small worries

A study has found that a whole lot of the world’s animals, such as the little brown bat, are getting smaller. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters [CC BY 2.0])
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A big study has found that a whole lot of the world’s animals are getting smaller. The paper, published in Science, which reviewed 60 years of data comprising 5,000 ecosystems, recorded significant changes in 4,300 unique species. The findings are a big deal because healthy ecosystems are generally structured by size, with apex predators eating smaller animals, which, in turn, prey on smaller animals and so on down the line. If certain animals are getting smaller, the effects are felt all along the food chain.

Little brown bats in parts of the Yukon are one of the animals that are definitely shrinking, according to scientists there. Climate change means southwestern Yukon is experiencing rainier summers, and all those raindrops make it more difficult for the bats to use their echolocation to catch flying insects. That leads to smaller bats, which don’t survive as well. And fewer surviving bats is creating big problems in the boreal forest, where little brown bats play a key role in eating the insects that prey on young trees. As the bats decline, so, too, does the health of the entire forest system. Forests in the Yukon and southern Northwest Territories are regarded as particularly vulnerable because they have less biodiversity than southern forests.

Flying high

Some songbirds, such as the warbling vireo, adjust their breathing patterns during migration to bring more oxygen to their flight muscles with each breath, thus allowing them to fly at much higher altitudes. (Photo: Steven Kersting [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0])
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Global warming is making migration even tougher as birds, already flying thousands of kilometres, now have to brave changing temperatures, changing humidity, wildfire smoke and changing altitudes. New research from Western University’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research has shown that some songbirds adjust their breathing patterns during migration to bring more oxygen to their flight muscles with each breath, thus allowing them to fly at much higher altitudes (where oxygen availability is limited) during long-distance flights — as much as 4,000 metres (approximately half the cruising altitude of a commercial jet) above sea level. But not all birds will be capable of flying at higher and higher altitudes to avoid major shifts in temperature and weather conditions because of climate change.

The Journal of Experimental Biology published this study, which saw researchers put various songbirds through their paces in a wind tunnel that can simulate different altitudes and conditions. The concern is that, as climate change heats up the Earth, not all birds will thrive at the higher altitudes that they will need to fly at to stay cool. Researchers plan to investigate the migrations strategies of more warblers and thrushes this fall.

Long in the tooth

Like trees, wildlife teeth contain annuli which can be examined to determine the age of animals through cementum analysis. (Photo: Patti Black/Unsplash)
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What do trees and teeth have in common? They can both tell time — well, sort of. A brand-new lab at Lethbridge College, located in Alberta, is examining wildlife teeth to figure out the age of animals using cementum analysis (an interpretive science used to determine age). Much like cement, cementum holds teeth in place and inside, there are annuli (ring-like bands and spaces similar to the rings found in the trunk of a tree). 

Environmental sciences instructor Everett Hanna explains that unlike a tree where you can simply cut into it and look at the rings, a tooth requires you to go through a chemical process to access the annuli embedded in the roots of the teeth. Once the annuli can be examined, the lab can then provide an age estimate for wildlife mammals. Hanna says that this process is useful for harvest allocation in disease management or hunting as well as understanding reproductive history in some cases. For example, with species like black bears, the annuli of females with young cubs will be closer together when the bear is lactating versus further apart during years when they are not. 

As the first of its kind in Canada, the Wildlife Analytics Lab at Lethbridge College was provided with $145,000 from the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society (APOS) to purchase new equipment, hire student lab techs and a dedicated lab technician. Once the lab is fully operational, the goal is to be able to analyze four to five thousand teeth per year and use acquired data to track migration patterns in the future. 

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