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Tree-Climbing Carnivores Called Fishers Are Back In Washington’s Forests

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Holding an antenna above his head, Jeff Lewis crept through an evergreen forest in the Cascade mountains, southeast of Seattle. As he navigated fallen fir logs and dripping ferns, he heard it: a faint “beep” from a radio transmitter implanted in an animal code-named F023.

F023 is a fisher (Pekania pennanti), an elusive member of the weasel family that Lewis fondly describes as a “tree wolverine.” Resembling a cross between a cat and an otter, these sleek carnivores hunt in forests in Canada and parts of the northern United States. But fur trapping and habitat loss had wiped out Washington’s population by the mid-1900s.

Back in 2017 when Lewis was keeping tabs on F023, he tracked her radio signal from a plane two or three times a month, along with dozens of other recently released fishers. Come spring, he noticed that F023’s behavior was different from the others.

Her locations had been clustered close together for a few weeks, a sign that she might be “busy with babies,” says Lewis, a conservation biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He and colleagues trekked into the woods to see if she had indeed given birth. If so, it would be the first wild-born fisher documented in the Cascades in at least half a century.

As the faint beeps grew louder, the biologists found a clump of fur snagged on a branch, scratch marks in the bark and — the best clue of all — fisher scat. The team rigged motion-detecting cameras to surrounding trees. A few days later, after sifting through hundreds of images of squirrels and deer, the team hit the jackpot: a grainy photo of F023 ferrying a kit down from her den high in a hemlock tree. The scientists were ecstatic.

“We’re all a bunch of little kids when it comes to getting photos like that,” Lewis says.

Chasing babies

This notable birth came during the second phase of a 14-year fisher reintroduction effort. After 90 fishers were released in Olympic National Park from 2008 to 2010, the project turned its focus east of Seattle, relocating 81 fishers in the South Cascades (home to Mount Rainier National Park) from 2015 to 2020, and then 89 fishers in the North Cascades from 2018 to 2020. The animals were brought in from British Columbia and Alberta. The project concluded last year, when researchers let loose the final batch of fishers.

Baby animals are the key measure of success for a wildlife reintroduction project. As part of Washington’s Fisher Recovery Plan, biologists set out to document newborn kits as an indicator of how fishers were faring in the three relocation regions.

Before F023’s kit was caught on camera in May 2017, biologists had already confirmed births by seven relocated females on the Olympic Peninsula, where the whole project began. Two of the seven females had four kits, “the largest litter size ever documented on the West Coast,” says Patti Happe, wildlife branch chief at Olympic National Park. Most females have one to three kits.

Lewis is often asked, why put all of this effort into restoring a critter many people have never heard of? His answer: A full array of carnivores makes the ecosystem more resilient.

Happe admits to another motive: “They’re freaking adorable — that’s partly why we’re saving them.”

a fisher sits on the forest floor
This agile member of the weasel family is a fearsome predator. Fishers are one of the few carnivores that can hunt and kill quill-covered porcupines.EMILY BROUWER/NPS (CC BY 2.0)

The missing piece

Contrary to their name, fishers don’t hunt fish, though they’ll happily munch on a dead one if it’s handy. They mainly prey on small mammals, but they also eat reptiles, amphibians, insects, fruit and carrion. About a meter long, males weigh up to six kilograms, about twice as much as females. Fun facts: Females raise young high above the forest floor in hollowed-out spaces in tree trunks. Fishers can travel face-first down tree trunks by turning their hind feet 180 degrees. They have wickedly sharp teeth and partially retractable claws. And they’re incredibly agile, leaping up to two meters between branches and traveling as much as 30 kilometers in a day.

Fishers’ stubby legs and unique climbing skills make them a threat to tree-climbing porcupines. It isn’t pretty: A fisher will force the quill-covered animal down a tree and attack its face until it dies from blood loss or shock. Then the fisher neatly skins the prickly prey, eating most everything except the quills and bones.

two camera trap photos showing female fisher F105 carrying one of her four kits down from her tree den to the ground
These camera trap photos, taken in April 2021, show female fisher F105 carrying one of her four kits down from her tree den near Lake Wenatchee in the North Cascades.NPS

But these fearsome predators were no match for humans. In the 1800s, trappers began targeting fishers for their fur. Soft and luxuriant, the glossy brown-gold pelts were coveted fashion accessories, selling for as much as $345 each in the 1920s. This demand meant fishers disappeared not only from Washington, but from more than a dozen states across the northern United States. Once fisher populations plummeted, porcupines ran rampant across the Great Lakes region and New England. This wreaked havoc on forests because the porcupines gobbled up tree seedlings.

Hoping to keep porcupine populations in check, private timber companies partnered with state agencies to bring fishers back to several states in the 1950s and 1960s. Thanks to these efforts and stricter trapping regulations, fishers are once again abundant in Michigan, Wisconsin, New York and Massachusetts.

But in Washington, like most of the West, fisher numbers were still slim. By the turn of the 21st century, no fisher had been sighted in the state for over three decades.

As in the Midwest and New England, private timber companies in Washington supported bringing back fishers. Although porcupines are uncommon in Washington, mountain beavers — a large, primitive rodent endemic to the Pacific Northwest — fill a similar role in Washington’s evergreen forests: They eat tree seedlings. And fishers eat them.

By 2006, the state hatched a plan to bring the animals in from Canada. “It was a big opportunity to restore a species,” Lewis says. “We can fix this.”

This 2009 camera trap vídeo from Olympic Peninsula shows fisher F007 scaling a cedar tree and carrying her four kits to the forest floor, one at a time

A new home

Like the other Canadian fishers moved to Washington, F023’s relocation story began when she walked into a box trap in British Columbia, lured by a tasty morsel of meat. The bait had been set by local trappers hired by Conservation Northwest, a nonprofit that is one of the recovery project’s three main partners, along with Washington Fish and Wildlife and the National Park Service. After veterinarians checked her health and administered vaccines and antiparasitics to help her survive in her new home, F023 received a surgically implanted radio transmitter and was driven across the border.

She was met by members of the fisher recovery team, who released her just south of Mount Rainier National Park. The forest’s towering Douglas fir, western red cedar and western hemlock trees were full of cubby holes and cavities to hide in, and the undergrowth held plenty of small mammals to eat. At the release, upward of 150 people gathered around F023’s box, part of the team’s effort to engage the public in championing fisher recovery. Everyone cheered as a child opened the door and the furry female bounded into the snowy woods, out of sight in a flash.

The team monitored each relocated fisher for up to two years to see if the project met key benchmarks of success in each of the three regions: more than 50 percent of the fishers surviving their first year, at least half establishing a home range near the release site, and a confirmed kit born to at least one female.

“We met those marks,” says Dave Werntz, science and conservation director at Conservation Northwest.

The effort may have been aided by a series of bypasses built over and under a roughly 25-kilometer stretch of Interstate 90 east of Seattle. One of these structures is the largest wildlife bridge in North America, an overpass “paved” with forest. In 2020, a remote camera caught an image of what looks like a fisher moving through one of the underpasses.

aerial photo of an highway overpass with trees and plants to help animals cross
Speeding vehicles on busy highways pose a threat to fishers and other migrating wildlife. This new bridge east of Seattle is “paved” with trees and plants to let animals safely cross I-90 to find habitat, food or mates on the other side.WASHINGTON STATE DEPT. OF TRANSPORTATION

“Male fishers go on these huge walkabouts to find females,” Werntz says. While biologists assumed fishers would cross the freeway to search for mates, having photographic proof “is pretty wonderful,” he says.

Happe and others hope to also see wildlife crossings along Interstate 5 one day. The freeway, which runs north-south near the coast, is the main obstacle keeping the Olympic and Cascade populations apart, she says. “We’re all working on wildlife travel corridors and connectivity in hopes the two populations hook up.”

Learning curve

The majority of the initial 90 fishers relocated to the Olympic Peninsula settled nicely into their new homes, according to radio tracking. In the year following release in that location, the fisher survival rate averaged 73 percent, but varied based on the year and season they were released, as well as sex and age of the fishers.

Males fared better than females: Seventy-four percent of recorded deaths were of females, partly because they are smaller and more vulnerable to predators, such as bobcats and coyotes. Of 24 recovered carcasses where cause of death could be determined, 14 were killed by predators, seven were struck by vehicles, two drowned and one died in a leg-hold trap, Lewis, Happe and colleagues reported in the April 2022 Journal of Wildlife Management.

Because the first fishers relocated to the Olympic Peninsula were released in several locations, the animals had trouble finding mates. As a result, only a few parents sired the subsequent generations.

The researchers became concerned when they looked at the genetic diversity of fishers on the Olympic Peninsula six years post-relocation. Happe and colleagues set up 788 remote cameras and hair-snare stations: triangular cubbies open on either end with a chicken leg as bait in the middle and wire brushes protruding from either side to grab strands of fur. DNA analysis of the fur raised red flags about inbreeding, Happe and Lewis say.

“Models showed we were going to lose up to 50 percent of genetic diversity, and the population would wink out in something like 100 years,” Happe says. To expand the gene pool, the team brought 20 more fishers to the Olympic Peninsula in 2021. These animals came from Alberta whereas the founding population had hailed from British Columbia.

Two fishers from Canada are released from wooden crates, quickly disappearing into Olympic National Park in November 2021. Both wear radio tracking devices so that researchers can monitor their well-being.

As the reintroduction effort moved into the Cascades, the team adapted, based on lessons learned from the Olympic Peninsula. For instance, to increase the likelihood of fishers finding each other more quickly, the animals were released at fewer sites that were closer together. The team also released the animals before January, giving females ample time to settle into a home range before the spring mating and birthing season.

Finding their food

As the experiment went on, more unanticipated findings popped up. Fishers released in the southern part of the Cascades were more likely to survive the first year (76 percent) than those relocated north of I-90 (40 percent), according to the final project report, released in June. Remote-camera data suggest that’s because there are less prey and slightly more predators in the North Cascades, says Tanner Humphries, community wildlife monitoring program lead for Conservation Northwest.

And in both the Cascades and the Olympic Peninsula, fishers are using different types of habitat than biologists had predicted, Happe says. The mammals — once assumed to be old-growth specialists — are using a mosaic of young and old forests. Fishers require large, old trees with cavities for denning and resting. But in younger managed forests where trees are thinned or cut, prey may be easier to come by.

Live traps in the South Cascades support that idea. Fishers’ preferred prey — snowshoe hares and mountain beavers — were most abundant in young regenerating forests. In older forests, traps detected mainly mice, voles and chipmunks, which are not substantial meals for fishers, Mitchell Parsons, a wildlife ecologist at Utah State University in Logan, reported with Lewis, Werntz and others in 2020 in Forest Ecology and Management.

photo of two fishers perched on a log
North America’s fisher populations are blossoming, helping to rebalance forest ecosystems.Emily Brouwer/NPS (CC BY 2.0)

The future is re-wild

After F023’s baby was caught on camera five years ago, the mother’s tracking chip degraded as designed — the hardware lasts less than two years. Since then, many more fisher kits have been born in Washington.

In fact, these furry carnivores are one of the most successfully translocated mammals in North America. According to Lewis, 41 different translocation efforts across the continent have helped fisher populations blossom. The animals now occupy 68 percent of their historical range, up from 43 percent in the mid-1900s.

With the last batch of fishers delivered to Washington in 2021, the relocation phase of the project has ended. Lewis, Happe and their partners plan to continue monitoring how these sleek tree-climbing carnivores are faring — and how the ecosystem is responding. For instance, fishers are indeed feasting on seedling-eating mountain beavers, according to research reported by Happe, Lewis and others in 2021 in Northwestern Naturalist.

Given climate change, species loss and ecosystem degradation, animals worldwide face difficult challenges. The fact that fishers are thriving once again in Washington offers hope, Lewis says.

“It’s a hard time, it’s a hard world, and this feels like something we’re doing right,” he says. “Instead of losing something, we’re getting it back.”

Animals

Insect Swarms Might Generate As Much Electric Charge As Storm Clouds

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You might feel a spark when you talk to your crush, but living things don’t require romance to make electricity. A study published October 24 in iScience suggests that the electricity naturally produced by swarming insects like honeybees and locusts is an unappreciated contributor to the overall electric charge of the atmosphere.

“Particles in the atmosphere easily charge up,” says Joseph Dwyer, a physicist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham who was not involved with the study. “Insects are little particles moving around the atmosphere.” Despite this, the potential that insect-induced static electricity plays a role in the atmosphere’s electric field, which influences how water droplets form, dust particles move and lightning strikes brew, hasn’t been considered before, he says.

Scientists have known about the minuscule electric charge carried by living things, such as insects, for a long time. However, the idea that an electric bug-aloo could alter the charge in the air on a large scale came to researchers through sheer chance.

“We were actually interested in understanding how atmospheric electricity influences biology,” says Ellard Hunting, a biologist at the University of Bristol in England. But when a swarm of honeybees passed over a sensor meant to pick up background atmospheric electricity at the team’s field station, the scientists began to suspect that the influence could flow the other way too. 

Hunting and colleagues, including biologists and physicists, measured the change in the strength of electric charge when other honeybee swarms passed over the sensor, revealing an average voltage increase of 100 volts per meter. The denser the insect swarm, the greater the charge produced.

This inspired the team to think about even larger insect swarms, like the biblical hordes of locusts that plagued Egypt in antiquity (and, in 2021, Las Vegas (SN: 3/30/21)). Flying objects, from animals to airplanes, build up static electricity as they move through the air. The team measured the charges of individual desert locusts (Schistocerca gregaria) as they flew in a wind tunnel powered by a computer fan. Taking data on locust density from other studies, the team then used a computer simulation based on the honeybee swarm data to scale up these single locust measurements into electric charge estimates for an entire locust swarm. Clouds of locusts could produce electricity on a per-meter basis on par with that in storm clouds, the scientists report.

Hunting says the results highlight the need to explore the unknown lives of airborne animals, which can sometimes reach much greater heights than honeybees or locusts. Spiders, for example, can soar kilometers above Earth when “ballooning” on silk threads to reach new habitats (SN: 7/5/18). “There’s a lot of biology in the sky,” he says, from insects and birds to microorganisms. “Everything adds up.”

Though some insect swarms can be immense, Dwyer says that electrically charged flying animals are unlikely to ever reach the density required to produce lightning like storm clouds do. But their presence could interfere with our efforts to watch for looming strikes that could hurt people or damage property.

 “If you have something messing up our electric field measurements, that could cause a false alarm,” he says, “or it could make you miss something that’s actually important.” While the full effect that insects and other animals have on atmospheric electricity remains to be deduced, Dwyer says these results are “an interesting first look” into the phenomenon.

Hunting says this initial step into an exciting new area of research shows that working with scientists from different fields can spark shocking findings. “Being really interdisciplinary,” he says, “allows for these kinds of serendipitous moments.”

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Honeybees Order Numbers From Left To Right, A Study Claims

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Like many humans, honeybees seem to prefer their numbers ordered from left to right.

Honeybees trained to recognize a specific number tend to fly left when given two side-by-side options of a smaller number and right when the options represent a larger number, a new study claims. The finding suggests that honeybees have a “mental number line” and that this association has biological roots, researchers report October 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

While some scientists agree that the study makes a compelling case for a mental number line in honeybees, others argue that the new work is an oversimplification of complex human behavior.

Many humans have a mental number line that often puts smaller numbers on the left and bigger numbers on the right — if asked to organize several bunches of grapes by size, you’d likely line them up by increasing number of grapes from left to right. Whether this association is present at birth or learned later in life has long been a subject of debate.

Previous work has shown that honeybees can count, and that they even understand the concept of zero (SN: 6/7/18). “When you realize all these facts, an obvious question [is whether honeybees have] the so-called mental number line,” says Martin Giurfa, a biologist at the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France. Working from home during COVID-19 lockdowns, Giurfa tested 134 honeybees (Apis mellifera) on their number-ordering abilities using a design developed with researchers who had done similar experiments with chicks and human babies (SN: 1/29/15).

First, Giurfa had to teach his bee pupils to recognize numbers. Using sugar water, he lured honeybees into a testing chamber built from a repurposed wine box. For each bee, he hung a panel on the back of the box with a certain number of symbols on it — one, three or five — and fed them the sugar water so they’d learn to associate the number with food. By varying what the symbols looked like between visits, he ensured the bees were learning the number itself and not certain shapes or arrangements.

After 30 trips to the box, it was time for a test: Giurfa removed the training panel and set up two, mirror-image panels, one on the left wall of the box and one on the right. These new panels either had the same number of symbols as the training panel, fewer symbols or more.

Which panel did the bees fly to — left or right? “It depends on your reference number,” Giurfa says. Of the bees trained on “one,” 72 percent flew to the “three” panel to the right, but of the bees trained on “five,” 73 percent went to the “three” panel to the left. “That’s exactly the concept of the mental number line,” Giurfa says. “You align numbers based on your reference.” If the test number was the same as the training number, the bees showed no preference for left or right.

These experiments “make a very compelling case” for a mental number line in honeybees, says Felicity Muth, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved with the study. “They have a number of controls that really rule out any of the alternative explanations I can think of.”

Giurfa believes these results show that mental number lines, or at least some component of them, are present across the animal kingdom. However, not everyone is convinced.

“The oversimplification of complex human concepts, such as that of ‘number line,’ must be avoided, since they severely distort the reality of the phenomena that make them possible,” says Rafael Núñez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego.

Núñez, who coauthored an article critical of the earlier chick study, thinks animal research should address why bees and chicks would have inborn mental number lines while some human groups, like those he’s studied in Papua New Guinea, don’t. Giurfa acknowledges that culture plays a role in explaining why not every adult naturally orders numbers from left to right, but feels that the proof is there for a biological underpinning (SN: 8/23/21).  

This study stops short of explaining why the brains of bees, chicks and babies have all converged on the same left-to-right number ordering but does offer a possible answer — their asymmetrical brains. All three have brains that process information differently on the left and right sides. “It might be an inherent property to these lateralized brain systems,” Giurfa says.

A shared system for organizing numbers, if truly widespread, would highlight how surprisingly similar animal minds can be to our own. Though some cognitive powers seem to be uniquely human, Giurfa thinks there is danger in dismissing the abilities of animals. “We are different from animals in some aspects,” he says, “but we are very similar in others. Denying this similarity is not what will help us understand what we are.”

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Some Seabirds Survive Typhoons By Flying Into Them

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Some seabirds don’t just survive storms. They ride them.

Streaked shearwaters nesting on islands off Japan sometimes head straight toward passing typhoons, where they fly near the eye of the storm for hours at a time, researchers report in the Oct. 11 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This strange behavior — not reported in any other bird species — might help streaked shearwaters (Calonectris leucomelas) survive strong storms.

Birds and other animals living in areas with hurricanes and typhoons have adopted strategies to weather these deadly storms (SN: 10/2/15).  In recent years, a few studies using GPS trackers have revealed that some ocean-dwelling birds — such as the frigatebird (Fregata minor) — will take massive detours to avoid cyclones.

This is an understandable strategy for birds that spend most of their time at sea where “there is literally nowhere to hide,” says Emily Shepard, a behavior ecologist at Swansea University in Wales. To find out whether shearwaters also avoid storms, she and her colleagues used 11 years of tracking data from GPS locators attached to the wings of 75 birds nesting on Awashima Island in Japan.

By combining this information with data on wind speeds during typhoons, the researchers discovered that shearwaters that were caught out in the open ocean when a storm blew in would ride tailwinds around the edges of the storm. However, others that found themselves sandwiched between land and the eye of a strong cyclone would sometimes veer off their usual flight patterns and head toward the center of the storm.

Of the 75 monitored shearwaters, 13 flew to within 60 kilometers of the eye — an area Shepherd calls the “eye socket,” where the winds were strongest — for up to eight hours, tracking the cyclone as it headed northward. “It was one of those moments where we couldn’t believe what we were seeing,” Shepard says. “We had a few predictions for how they might behave, but this was not one of them.”

The shearwaters were more likely to head for the eye during stronger storms, soaring on winds as swift as 75 kilometers per hour. This suggest that the birds might be following the eye to avoid being blown inland, where they risk crashing onto land or being hit by flying debris, Shepard says.

While this is the first time this behavior has been spotted in any bird species, flying with the winds could be a common tactic for preserving energy during cyclones, says Andrew Farnsworth, an ornithologist at Cornell University who was not involved in the study. “It might seem counterintuitive,” he says. “But from the perspective of bird behavior, it makes a lot of sense.”

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