By Deborah McKew, BRI Communications Director

Newswise — Celebrating 25 Years of Innovative Wildlife Science

On the remote island of Rota, a tiny dot in the vastness of Oceania, a group of field biologists from distant places join forces each year to study threatened and endangered species of bats, indigenous crows, and other wildlife. In 2017, New Zealand native and bat specialist Josh Guilbert started full-time research on the “Friendly Island.” That first year, he met two seasonal volunteers who had previously worked at a wildlife research group in Maine—Biodiversity Research Institute. Josh made a mental note of this organization and over the next few years, BRI rose to his consciousness every so often. After five-years working on the tropical island, Josh knew he needed to do more to help curtail the environmental crisis. His search for a new position led him to the other side of the world, finding BRI just when he was needed. He relocated to Maine to steer the Institute’s mammal program, adding another critical thread to BRI’s story.

Creating a tapestry of interconnecting threads

The connection Josh made on that spit of land in the Northern Mariana Islands was no accident. Over the past 25 years, BRI’s reach has stretched across oceans and continents. This expansion is due in no small part because of David Evers, Ph.D., BRI’s founder, executive director, and chief scientist, whose special gifts include a compelling ability to bring people together to get the job done. Josh is one of many scientists eager to contribute to the research BRI is conducting around the world.

In essence, BRI began with the capture of a Common Loon at Seney National Wildlife Refuge in Michigan one summer night in 1989—Evers, then a graduate student, spent 12 fruitless nights canoeing on Seney’s remote waters. Wrapped in darkness, his crew trained a searchlight along the shoreline for hours each night, slowly scanning the water for loons. Swift and intelligent, these deep divers eluded them, until Evers spotted a female with its young. The fragile “peenting” cry of the chick triggered an idea—the young biologist began mimicking the sound. Immediately, the adult loon swam toward his voice, right up to the boat. The capture and sampling was quick and purposeful.

That singular event opened opportunities for wildlife biologists to conduct demographic, behavioral, and contaminant studies on the iconic bird Sigurd Olsen described as a “symbol of wildness.” Knowledge gained that summer served as the basis for BRI’s mission—to conduct scientific investigations to better understand ecological health through the lens of animals. If the air, water, and landscape are healthy, wildlife and humans share in that vitality.

Once the scientific community learned there was a reliable method for capturing loons, requests for blood samples began to arrive at Evers’ door. A veterinarian at Michigan State University taught the biologist how to draw blood from loons, which began the researcher’s studies on mercury contamination in loons. He spent most of the next decade capturing, sampling, and color-marking loons across North America, always with a high respect for the individual animal, teaching his methods to others along the way.

Loon capture not only provided a way to assess contaminant levels in lakes and waterways, it later served as a means to determine how mercury pollution affects behavior and reproduction. The Common Loon is now considered the flagship wildlife species for mercury monitoring and policymaking in the U.S. and Canada.

“Catching loons and studying mercury contamination were at the core of BRI’s early work,” says Evers. “The more we learned, the more I felt a responsibility to continue to expand this work to encompass other at-risk wildlife.”

BRI scientists soon realized that any wildlife feeding on the same lakes could be at risk for contamination. As these researchers found ways to expand the mercury work to include a variety of species, the research programs began to build. And as programs grew, Evers’ foundational mercury studies in North America led to an extraordinary moment for BRI when he stood at a critical intersection where science informs policy. In 2013, BRI was invited to participate and consult on the elements of the UN’s new international mercury treaty. That event was BRI’s gateway to the world, literally. Since then, the organization, now a technical advisor and executing agency for the United Nations Environment Programme, has conducted mercury studies in more than 100 countries, building ever deeper and broader connections in the urgent fight to combat mercury’s impact on wildlife, biological diversity, and ultimately human health through global climate change.

First and foremost — gathering information with integrity

Much of BRI’s research depends upon working hands-on with wildlife in the field. Research staff specialize in the live capture and sampling of a broad range of taxa including invertebrates, fish, birds, and mammals. Successful captures require ingenuity as well as skill. In the field, often in remote locations and under harsh conditions, BRI biologists rely on a broad range of traditional capture techniques, often developing new methods specific to the ecosystem or habitat of the study species. For most, their work is not a job, but a deliberate way of life.

The successful management of many species relies on a sound understanding of their local and/or annual movements, and the timing of those movements. When do they arrive? How long do they stay? What habitats are most important? Where do they feed? Where do they raise their young? When do they leave? Where do they go? Answering these types of questions can help define the potential exposure of a species to specific environmental stressors, identify ways to improve their reproductive success and survival, or indicate how best to monitor them.

Color marking allows field staff to identify individual animals from a distance, without the need to recapture them. Color marking is ideal for species such as loons, which are large, long-lived birds that use open habitats and return to similar breeding and wintering areas each year.

With advances in computer miniaturization, tracking wildlife has become considerably more high tech in recent years with radio transmitters, nanotags, geolocators, cellular tracking technologies, GPS tags, and satellite transmitters. Using a variety of survey and monitoring techniques, BRI researchers assess wildlife health issues, estimate population sizes or trends, describe distributions, and identify responses to climate change. “From decades of experience, we also know that the implementation of successful surveys and monitoring projects relies on clear research objectives, based on a thorough understanding of the issues and exactly how data will be used to inform decision making and ecosystem management,” says Evers.

In addition to gathering data in the field, BRI operates three research laboratories in its Maine headquarters including:

  • The toxicology lab is used to analyze tissue samples (feather, fur, blood, muscle, liver, talon tips, fish, and eggs) for total mercury and lead. BRI is also instrumental in helping establish regional hubs around the globe to better facilitate the study of this toxin in sensitive areas. The first of these opened in the Caribbean, in Antiqua and Barbuda, in 2021. A second regional hub will begin operation in west-central Africa in Gabon in 2023.
  • The wildlife health and pathology lab includes a necropsy facility for post-mortem examination of wildlife and enables in-house processing of samples for routine health evaluation such as hematology and parasite examination.
  • A new wildlife forensics lab provides swift and reliable identification of dead and injured birds and bats and reflects BRI’s extensive specimen reference collection.

Gaining insight into ecological processes

Ecosystems, the foundations upon which life is structured and interconnected, are complex and ever-changing. To synthesize the vast amount of information that is available through its field and lab research, BRI developed the quantitative wildlife ecology research lab (QWERL) using sophisticated analytical methods such as statistical data integration, species distribution models, and movement modeling to answer critical ecological questions. Insight gained is communicated to appropriate audiences using a variety of visual and descriptive tools (e.g., maps, graphs, tables).

A critical mission—assessing emerging threats

Over the years, BRI’s research capabilities have grown in response to pressing ecological issues, from the ability to study the natural history of loons to the development of new technologies that enable researchers to predict risks due to climate change and human development. The Institute has evolved into four distinct Centers of Study that currently oversee 15 programs across taxa, ecosystems, and ecological issues: 1) Mercury Studies and Policy (2009); 2) Waterbird Studies (2011); 3) Research on Offshore Wind and the Environment (2021); and 4) Climate Change and Conservation (2022).

“The biggest threat to humankind is climate change,” says Evers. “I am always asking the question: How can we, as an organization, help mitigate climate change? Answering that question naturally leads our teams to each next step.”

BRI’s commitment to provide clear and accurate scientific information to help inform decision makers is demonstrated by their work related to the renewable energy industry. Since 1994, BRI biologists began and continue to conduct studies to help power companies meet the environmental requirements of regional agencies and states as overseen by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). BRI now manages breeding Common Loon populations on 10 reservoirs and has been monitoring reproductive success using rafts and color-marked individuals for more than 25 years.

In 2011, BRI initiated its wildlife and renewable energy program in response to rapid advances in renewable energy development. Ecological assessments are critical for identifying sensitive habitats, the presence of and use by rare, threatened, and endangered species, and concentrations of migrants. The program grew to encompass three major energy sectors—hydropower, wind power, and solar energy.

BRI’s mid-Atlantic baseline study (2012-14) positioned the Institute as a leader in assessing the use of offshore areas by wildlife. The results of that study informed the siting and permitting of offshore wind power facilities, both in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Great Lakes.

As renewable energy sectors in the United States continue to grow, the demand for natural resources consulting services remains high. “BRI has long prioritized the need to advance emerging natural resource sciences and we are now pairing that with practical applications. We have initiated a new permitting and compliance program specifically to increase our capacity to meet local, regional, and continental demands for renewable energy development services,” says Evers.

Collective research empowers deeper understanding

The environmental challenges we face today require more and better science to identify and assess emerging threats, and innovative technology to identify and recommend solutions. BRI recognizes the need to provide results of their scientific research to a wide audience. They provide unbiased scientific information to policymakers and resource managers that helps inform critical decisions regarding environmental health and integrity.

“BRI is a conservation organization that has been working for nearly three decades to reduce contaminants in the environment and has now expanded efforts to focus on broader issues like climate change,” as stated by Tim Tear, Ph.D., director of BRI’s Center for Conservation and Climate Change. This new Center encompasses climate change research that combines the resources of BRI’s other programs to conduct studies that cross geographic boundaries and integrate taxonomic groups. The strength of this collective work contributes to the ongoing dialogue about climate change and informs the actions needed to address it. For example, BRI is forging new ground in developing new carbon projects in grasslands and savannahs across parts of eastern Africa. The goal is to generate soil carbon credits that can be used for offsetting the use of fossil fuels. It is our mission that these projects set high standards for improving indigenous community sustainability while enhancing biological diversity.

Sharing knowledge to further conservation

The plant life, wildlife, and human life that live on this planet are intricately connected in the ecosystems in which they exist. No one species is more or less important as each are individual threads in the tapestry of life.

The long-term, meaningful connections Evers makes with other leading scientists, regional, national, and international government agencies, nonprofits, and universities help us understand environmental effects on a global scale. Josh Guilbert, Tim Tear, and other BRI scientists bring specialized expertise that contribute to the bank of knowledge we collect as an organization.

“Our philosophy of hope,” says Evers, “is that this knowledge provides small but important steps toward the ultimate goal of a sustainable world, one that retains intact ecosystems with their inherent biological diversity.”

BRI biologists maintain strong adherence to protocols that ensure the welfare of the animals they study, and obtain appropriate permits.


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