According to the state of Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, there are about 84 species of mammals, 335 species of birds, 49 species of reptiles and amphibians, 196 species of fish and an estimated 20,000 species of invertebrate that call be found in the state of Connecticut. However, due to the increasing rate of climate change and rise of sea level, these species & their habitats are at great risk of being threaten and even endangered if solutions are not put into place soon. With the rising sea level impacting the salt water marshes, there are a number of species at highest risk due to climate change.
Some of the specific animals that this unit will focus on are the “winners and losers” of Connecticut including the Saltmarsh Sparrow and the Marbled Salamander. In addition, this unit will also look into other East Coast species and products that have also change dramatically in the past few years. This includes lobsters in New England and the product maple syrup. Within the unit, students will also have the opportunity to research other species who may be thriving or dying in various areas like Connecticut, the East Coast or other areas of the United States of America.
To understand why species are endangered, students need to understand different types of ecosystems. Up until this point in their education, students can most likely identify a few different types of ecosystems. For instance, they may recognize a rainforest, desert, ocean, forest and a savannah. However, students probably never heard of a marshland or have even realized how close the marshland ecosystem is to their homes. By having students study ecosystems and what animals belong in each ecosystem it will allow them to understand how it is affecting a species. For instance, to better understand why the saltmarsh sparrow is dangerously close to extinction, students will need to identify where these birds make their nests and why nests need to be built at the highest part of the estuary away from the ocean and more inland.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which is dedicated to conserving, improving and protecting Connecticut's air, water and other natural resources and the environment, have taken many steps to preserve and protect the state’s plant and animal populations to avoid extinction. In 1989, The Connecticut Endangered Species Act was passed with the goal to conserve, protect, restore and enhance any threatened or endangered species and their habitat. Every 5 years, species are reviewed and can have their status changed. The three categories where species at risk can identify as are species of special concern, threatened species and endangered species.
Below are a few species we will focus on in this unit.
- Saltmarsh Sharp-Tailed Sparrow: The Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow spends most of its time hidden in the tall grass along the salt water marshes in Connecticut where they collect and eat insects. They build their nests above the typical high tide level on the highest part of the marsh platform, inland from where the marsh turns into ocean. They build a cup-shaped nest when brown- flecked eggs will appear. The endangered Salt Sharp-tailed Sparrows of Connecticut are most often referenced and related to the Polar Bear of the Artic. This is because they are at extreme risk due to the ongoing sea level rise due to climate change in Connecticut. Since these sparrows only build nests in saltmarshes, the increasing risk of flooding in the area are causing the number of surviving saltwater sharp-tailed sparrows to decrease. According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, the population of species has declined 90% each year, which is a rapid rate for any species. It is projected that the species may be extinct within the next forty years.
- Piping Plover: The Piping Plovers are small birds about six to seven inches, weighing between 1.5 to 2.5 ounces. They have white bellies and a creamy, brown, sand color above. They also have a single black neck band and a black bar on their white forehead. Their feathers are mostly dark brown. The piping plover can be found from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. In Connecticut, this bird arrives along the coastal beaches to nest in late March. Their shallow nests are made in in the sand where they lay eggs. Both climate change, especially sea level rise, and humans have invaded their nesting habitat causing them to be put on Connecticut’s Endangered Species Act Protection in 1992. The rise in sea level are drowning out the nests. In addition, since these tiny chicks cannot fly until they are about 28 days old, they need a safe environment that is regulated for them to safely walk and run. Every spring, the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) allocates areas of shorebird nesting habitats along the coastline by using stakes and twine fencing and signs to protect the bird species. In addition, on some beaches, DEEP installs welded wire fencing to create enclosures around piping plover nests to protect them from being washed away from the waters, destroyed by predators or stepped on by humans. In 1984, there were only 30 piping plover nests reported in Connecticut. With the help of the DEEP actions to protect and monitor nesting sites, the number of piping plovers nests are increasing. In 2019, 57 nests hatched 98 piping plover chicks.
- Marbled Salamander: Unlike other species who are being threatened by climate change, the marbled salamander (Ambystoma opacum) is thriving and multiplying. Marbled salamanders are found commonly in deciduous woodlands where water or moist areas are found close by. Although they prefer dry, sandy-soiled habitats, they also thrive in wet, swampy soils. Due to the rising temperatures and climate in Connecticut, salamanders are reproducing at a rapid rate, they are now responsible for altering pond biodiversity. Since they lay their eggs in ponds in the fall and hatch during the harsh winter months. The ones that survive are able to grow before the warming spring allowing them to be the perfect predator for the ponds. Since marbled salamanders eat everything, like worms, slugs, snails, spiders, crickets, beetles, ants and other invertebrates and breed before other pond species, they are referred to as the wolves of the water. This is especially true now that winter months are not experiencing the same freezing temperatures keeping ponds frozen like they have in the past. When the ponds are froze over, predators like the marbled salamander were able to be kept in check to not overpopulate an area. Now, with less harsh winters, there are more ponds the marbled salamanders are able to survive and reproduce in. This is hurtful to ecosystems because now the predator is taking over the ecosystem and making it unbalanced. For example, Mark Urban, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, found that when he looked under a pond that had a sheet of ice on top he noticed that the water was extremely green with lots of overgrown algae. He could tell immediately that the ecosystem was disturbed and the cause was from the marbled salamander. Since the over population of marbled salamanders has been an ongoing investigation, it was clear that the salamanders were in the pond and ate the animals that graze on the algae. This disruption of the ecosystem is eye-opening because with the over stimulation of one species is inhibiting an entire ecosystem from thriving and surviving. Mark Urban mentioned that when he first started studying marbled salamanders in Connecticut only about one third of the ponds had them. When he returned back to the same area a few years later he found that this predator was in almost every pond and stated that it was one of the biggest changes he had ever witnessed. As climate change continues, the salamanders are able to enter more ponds and habitats and bring unbalance to them.
- New England Lobsters: Lobsters used to thrive in New England, especially in the 1990s. Since then, the lobster population has drastically decreased especially in Connecticut and Rhode Island. The loss of supply is impacting economic sales, especially in restaurant and supermarkets. It is also negatively impacting tourism in the summertime. This significant change is a result from climate change and warmer waters, which is changing the habitats where animals are living and relocating. In 1997, twenty two million pounds of adult lobsters were reported in Cape Code, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This was the greatest number of lobster reported in the New England area. Robert Bradfield, a former Rhode Island fisherman, reported that in the 1990s, his lobster traps were catching up to 2,000 ponds of lobster a day. Nearly ten years later, he had to quit catching lobster and change his career because he was catching less than one hundred pounds per day. As time moved on and temperatures increased from climate change, the number of lobsters reported in this areas started to dramatically decrease. For instance, sixteen years later, in 2013, the number of lobster reported dropped to 3.3 million from 22 million in 1997. The average temperature of the water was recorded by a power plant in the Long Island Sound, and no averages 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Lobster thrive in cooler temperatures between 61 and 64 degrees Fahrenheit. These lobsters have migrated to northern New England, in the Gulf of Maine, where the water flows from Canada, Maine, New Hampshire and the northern shore of Massachusetts. Fisherman have reported they have record high number and have seen the lobster population nearly double to two hundred and fifty million. As water temperatures rise, lobsters will be migrating towards the poles where the water is cooler. This is very concerning because as William Adler, a Massachusetts lobsterman and member of the commission’s lobster management board stated, “We can’t control the water temperature.” To sum it up, the lobsters are now thriving in Northern New England, but it is not certain how long this will continue and what the future will hold for New England.
- Maple Syrup: In 2015, the northeast region of the United States, was thriving with the production of maple syrup reaching one hundred twenty five million dollars in sales. However, in recent years, the Acer Climate and Socio-Ecological Research Network, better known as ACERnet, have found that tapping season is very reliant on weather conditions and temperatures. Climate change is impacting maple trees and syrup production due to warming temperatures and changes in precipitation. Furthermore, the impacts are affecting tree health and growth, shortening tapping seasons and a decreasing sap quality and quantity. This in turn, results in lower rates of syrup production in the United States. Paleoecologists, who study the vegetation of the past by looking at pollen deposited in lakes, have seen that tree species has changed as climate changed over the past thousands of years. The USDA Forest Service maintains a “Climate Change Atlas” that shows the habitat of 134 tree species in the eastern United States is predicted to change due to climate change. Unlike animals, individual trees cannot migrate to a new area to get the nutrients it needs to thrive and survive. These maps show a decline in sugar maple in most of it U.S range by 2100. This means that the trees will most likely still be in the areas come 2100, however, the habitat will not be suitable for the production of maple sap for syrup. In addition, tree health is extremely important for the production of sugar maple sap. Two effects of climate change that could affect sugar maple health are warmer winters and more frequent frost in the springtime. The warmer winter temperatures cause the budding of trees to happen earlier. Having a bud break two to three weeks earlier than normal can cause leaf- dieback from the frequent frost occurring in the spring. This in turn impacts the growth of mature trees since the weather is causing a shorter growing season. Since temperatures are increasing at a faster rate, tapping season is getting earlier and earlier every year. As climate change continues, tapping season is projected to begin fifteen to thirty days early by 2100. ACERnet is working to understand and improve these affects by teaming up with universities, specifically the University of Massachusetts Amherst, University of Virginia, Dartmouth College, and Montana State University and stake holders like, State Maple Syrup Association, North American Maple Syrup Council, International Maple Syrup Institute and Land Managers. Their goal is to help the maple industry to adapt and thrive in the future with these new conditions. They also plan on improving the tapping industry with resources, improving tapping conditions, and making decisions on how to best maintain and grow syrup production with the effects of climate change occurring.