Blog text by Petri Nummi, Eeva-Maria Suontakanen, Sari Holopainen and Veli-Matti Väänänen “Beavers facilitate Teals at different scales” is now available on the Ibis website.
A few decades ago the whoopers swan (Cygnus cygnus) was an endangered and rare species in Finland. It only bred in remote lakes and people rarely saw them. The population increase of whooper swans after protection is one of the success stories in Finnish nature conservation. Nowadays the swans can be heard gaggling all around Finland. The whooper swan is a large bird, and it thus consumes a lot of vegetation. Water horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile) is one of its favourites.
Certain other species also prefer water horsetails. For example, wigeon (Mareca penelope) broods forage within the horsetail growths searching for emerging invertebrates. A study published earlier this year showed that the water horsetail is disappearing from Finnish and Swedish lakes. The reasons for this pattern are unknown, but one possible explanation could be increased grazing pressure. Whooper swans effectively utilize horsetails, and swan grazing was therefore suspected to be influencing the disappearance of the horsetail. Wigeon populations have concurrently shown a worrying decrease.
A recently published study conducted of 60 Finnish and Swedish lakes utilized vegetation and waterbird data gathered in the early 1990s and in 2016. The study area widely covers the boreal, reaching from southern Sweden to Finnish Lapland. The whooper swan population increased strongly during the study period. Researchers studied whether whooper swans’ grazing on water horsetail is causing the negative trend in the wigeon population. Pair counts were used to indicate waterbird communities, and thus any changes caused during the brood time were not shown.
The study showed that whooper swans strongly preferred lakes with horsetails during the 1990s, but this connections is not seen anymore. While the number of swan-occupied lakes has increased, the number of horsetail lakes has decreased dramatically. However, it appears that swans and disappearing horsetails do not associate, because the horsetail has also been from lakes where swans don’t occur. The horsetail has increased in some swan-occupied lakes.
The number of lakes used by wigeon has decreased, but swans are apparently not causing this. Wigeon loss has not been stronger on lakes occupied by swans. Quite the opposite, as wigeons and swans appear to positively correlate. Even though wigeons prefer horsetail lakes, their disappearance is not associated with the horsetail loss occurring in the study lakes, which suggests that wigeons can also utilize other lake types. On the other hand, the researchers note that this study did not considered the critical brood time, when the foraging opportunities among the horsetail growths are especially important. Thus it may still be possible that wigeons are affected by horsetail loss, but this effect only appears during the brood time.
While scientist struggle with short-term funding periods, the curiosity for nature that the general public shows, can unearth mechanisms that can only be found with long-term datasets. The persistent and systematic observations made by nature enthusts enables research about climate change or life history traits over several generations. Both are issues that require long-term research – and a lot of time and effort. Below are some examples of remarkable work done by citizen scientists curious about nature.
16 000 ringed goldeneyes have passed through the hands of a Finnish fireman
Finnish fireman Pentti Runko has collected systematic data of goldeneyes for several scientific studies. After starting his work in 1984, by 2017 Runko has ringed an amazing 16 000 goldeneyes and checked several hundreds of nest boxes every year.
In a recently published study, the authors utilized data concerning 14 000 of these goldeneyes ringed by Runko between the years 1984-2014. Among these goldeneyes were 141 females that were ringed as ducklings and recaptured later in the area. Based on these data it was possible to follow the recruit females’ lives from hatching to breeding. Thus the early life circumstances of these females are known, and the circumstances can be used to study their effects later on in life. In some cases early life circumstances have severe results on subsequent life, for example on breeding performance (duckling video).
The study was able to show deviations between individuals during the first breeding years and how circumstances during early life affected the breeding statistics of these females. Most females began breeding at the age of 2, but 44% delayed the start of breeding. Winter severity of the first two years affected the timing of breeding, but did not affect which year the females began breeding. As a conclusion, it appears that certain traits buffer the effects that the severity of the first weeks have, so the breeding parameters of females are not affected. The research also showed that first-time breeders tend to begin breeding later than the yearly specific averages.
The authors of another study used a set of 405 females and their offspring’s ringed by Runko, and found that the females’ condition matters when it comes to breeding success. Older, early-nesting females with good body condition and larger broods were able to produce more female recruits for the local population. The later the females bred, the less recruits they produced. The study also showed that females tend to adjust their breeding according to the ice-out dates of lakes. However, differences were observed between the flexibility of the females. Because early-breeding goldeneyes succeed better, the authors conclude that selection favours early-breeding individuals.
Climate change effects can also be observed from goldeneye phenology. Runko showed that during the last 30 years goldeneyes have advanced their egg-laying dates by 12 days.
45 years of starling surveys in a farmer’s backyard reveal climate warming
The Danish Ornithological Society Journal recently published a study that utilized data gathered by a Danish farmer, who ringed starlings for 45 years. Dairy farmer Peder V. Thellesen ringed ca. 12 000 starlings nesting in 27 nest boxes, and measured their phenology systematically. The data showed that during the study period starlings advanced their egg-laying dates by more than 9 days. This advance was observed in both first and second clutches. The result reflects the increase in April temperatures. Another important observation was that while no change was observed in clutch size and hatching rate, nest box occupancy has fallen dramatically in recent years. Starlings used to be common in Europe, but now they have decreased widely in Europe, also in Denmark. Changes in agricultural land use, especially decreased cattle grazing, are suspected as one example affecting starling populations. Loss of cattle-grazed land means less insect-rich foraging lands for the birds.
Pöysä, H., Clark, R. G., Paasivaara, A. and Runko, P. 2017. Do environmental conditions experienced in early life affect recruitment age and performance at first breeding in common goldeneye females? Journal of Avian Biology.
Clark, R. G., Pöysä, H., Runko, P. and Paasivaara, A. 2014. Spring phenology and timing of breeding in short-distance migrant birds: phenotypic responses and offspring recruitment patterns in common goldeneyes. Journal of Avian Biology.
Over 20 years ago Finnish and Swedish duck researchers began the “Northern Project” and conducted vegetation measurements on 60 Finnish and Swedish lakes while also counting their duck populations. The study lakes were located from southern Sweden and Finland to Lapland in both countries. Researchers found that the water horsetail (Equisetum fluviatile) grew abundantly on many of the study lakes. Breeding Eurasian wigeons (Anas penelope) were also abundant according to the study.
The water horsetail prefers eutrophic lakes and wetlands. Horsetails are an ancient plant group that has existed for over 100 million years. They are thus living fossils.
Wigeons also utilize eutrophic lakes during the breeding season. Adults are vegetarians, but wigeon ducklings also consume invertebrates, a common trait in young birds.
The vegetation mappings and duck surveys connected to the Northern Project were repeated in 2013–2014. The researchers wished to find reasons for the deep decline in breeding wigeon numbers. They observed that wigeons had disappeared from several lakes where they were found on 20 years ago. When the habitat use of wigeon pairs was studied, the pairs were observed to particularly prefer lakes with water horsetails. In Evo, southern Finland, the feeding habitats of wigeon broods were followed over a period of 20 years. Broods were found to forage significantly more often within water horsetails than in other vegetation.
Wigeons therefore prefer lakes with water horsetail present throughout their breeding season. However, the long-term research by the Northern Project has shown that water horsetail has declined and even disappeared from many lakes in Sweden and Finland: this is a large-scale phenomenon. The wigeon is suspected to suffer due to vanishing water horsetail populations. Also, Finnish pair surveys in addition to reproduction monitoring show negative trends for the wigeon.
The reasons behind diminishing water horsetail numbers are not known. Impact from alien species can be suspected locally. Glyceria maxima, an alien species in Finland, appears to be growing in areas were water horsetail has traditionally grown. Grazing by the muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) could also be a reason, but the species does not occur in southern Sweden. The whooper swan (Cygnus cygnus) could be another potential grazer, and the species’ populations have rapidly increased during the last decades. But these species can only have local effects, which do no not apply to the whole study area. Researchers cannot exclude other possible explanations, for example diseases or changes in water ecosystems. Despite water horsetail having commonly existed in boreal lakes, their influence in the water ecosystem is poorly understood. This study suggests that the water horsetail has an important role, and its disappearance will be reflected in the food web.
Read more: Pöysä, H., Elmberg, J., Gunnarsson, G., Holopainen, S., Nummi, P. & Sjöberg, K. Habitat associations and habitat change: seeking explanation for population decline in breeding wigeon Anas penelope. Hydrobiologia.
The use of lead shot and sinks is a global phenomenon. Only the past decades has
increased our understanding of the negative effects that toxic lead shot inflicts on ecosystems. As an example, birds die of lead poisoning after eating lead shot. They mistake the ammunition for sand or grit, which they use to aid their digestion. The birds’ gizzards and stomach acids dissolve the shot, causing lead to accumulate in their bones. As little as two lead shots is enough to directly cause the death of a mallard-sized animal.
During the 1980s, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) conducted a study on the effects of lead exposure on water birds such as waterfowl. Diving ducks were found to be most susceptible, but lead shot was also commonly found in dabbling ducks, geese, and swans. Long-term monitoring by the USFWS also uncovered negative effects on bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) populations, and since then, several studies have found harmful effects to numerous animal groups around the world, e.g. bears, deer, predatory birds, doves, loons, and frogs. International studies also associate lead shot with increased lead concentrations in people who regularly consume game.
A federal ban on using lead shot for waterfowl hunting was issued in 1991 in the US. Since then, 34 states have decreed tighter state-wide bans, e.g. California completely banned the use of lead shots in the home ranges of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), and by July 2019 California will completely ban lead shot in all forms of hunting, the first state to do so.
But what is the European Union’s game plan concerning lead shot? A total ban has been proposed, but the motion is currently only a thought, and we are still miles away from actual progress. Several countries in the EU have issued various types of bans, e.g. the lead shot has been prohibited in wildfowl hunting in Finland since 1996. The US also seems far from a federal ban.
So what’s the big deal, why are we not stepping up and pushing forward?
Not everyone has been satisfied with the disappearance of affordable, high quality, and gun-safe lead shot. The lead shot ban has caused a great deal of debate and criticism over the years. Many are hoping to weaken the ban in waterfowl hunting to only concern certain shallow wetlands or very important rest areas along migration routes. Those opposing the ban have based their arguments on several propositions formed in the 1990s, which have since been scientifically proven incorrect:
Claim 1: Lead shot is not dangerous, because it is believed to rapidly sink to the bottom of wetlands, where waterfowl cannot reach it.
After initiating the partial lead shot ban in 1991, the USFWS began long-term monitoring of its affects. Lead shot –induced mortality in mallards dropped by 64% in the six years following the ban. And this is a dabbling duck species, which according to studies should not even suffer the most from lead poisoning. The impacts that the ban has had on diving duck populations, which find their nutrition from the bottom mud layer of wetlands, or on small duck species are probably even more pronounced. Lead poisoning additionally causes e.g. reproductive problems, which can lead to long-term population declines even without directly killing all individuals. For example, a French research group found that female teals carry shot in their gizzards more frequently than males do, wherefore females had worse survival rates than males. A study in the US relates 17–46% of the mortality of loons directly to lead shot, while the same estimates for swans and bald eagles are 31% and 12%, respectively. The lead shot ban is estimated to annually save 1.4 million waterfowl in the States alone. In Canada, the lead concentrations found in the bones of water birds lessened by 50–70% following a ban. An although loons are not hunted as game, their population declines due to lead shot and sinks should be taken in to consideration when considering the fate of toxic lead shot.
Claim 2: Alternative shot types (mainly steel, vismuth, and zinc) are inefficient and expensive.
A 2015 study in the US compared the effectiveness of lead shot and two types of steel shot in the hunting of mourning doves (Zenaida macroura). No differences were found in aim, the number of injured escapees, hunter satisfaction, or realized quarry numbers. Necropsies of shot doves revealed no differences in the numbers of through-body shots or average strike depths. Steel shot was therefore found to be accurate enough for dove hunting. A poll study found nearly 80% of US hunters to prefer steel to lead shot, or at least consider the two equally effective. Initially the steel shot sold in several countries tried to mimic the qualities of lead shot. The resulting low muzzle velocities and large ammunition size led to poor hunting success. Higher quality steel shot is currently widely available, but the damage caused by poor shot quality was immediate, and is the only reason why steel shot still carries a bad reputation. Many people tested steel shot once or twice, and returned to illegally using lead shot despite the bans.
Steel shot was additionally about four times as expensive as lead shot when the ban was issued in the US, but rising demand has caused their prices to drop significantly. The same would probably occur in many European countries, where demand to increase.
Claim 3: Hunting with alternative ammunition increases the numbers of wounded animals. This has been suggested to happen because of the ineffectiveness of non-lead shot and hunters being unaccustomed to lighter weight ammunition.
The USFWS annually conducts a poll inventorying e.g. the numbers of total hunted quarry and injured escapees. During the 1950s and ‘60s, the number of injured escapees was about 20%, but initially grew to about 24% after the partial led shot ban. However, a few years later numbers dropped down to initial levels, as hunters became used to the new shot. During the last years the level has dropped to 14%. The study conducted on mourning dove hunting success also did not reveal any differences in the numbers of injured escapees. So if European hunters are still performing worse after lead shot bans in their countries, they should perhaps consider looking in the mirror and wondering what’s wrong with their aim.
Claim 4: The lead shot ban has decreased realized duck quarries, e.g. because hunting and hunting success have lessened.
To date, there is no scientific proof to back either of these claims. But on the contrary, waterfowl populations have decreased markedly during this same time period due to disagreeable habitat change. Could this, by any chance, be the actual reason for diminishing quarry sizes? Especially as assessments and research show that hunters have in fact not obeyed the lead shot ban very widely. For example, 90% of Finnish hunters are still estimated to use lead shot in waterfowl hunting. About 70% of the ducks shot in Britain carry lead shot in their bodies. This means that the use of steel shot cannot have decreased duck quarries, because steel shot simply isn’t being used.
However, one actual problem is that steel shot cannot be used in certain older shotguns. This has probably slightly lessened the duck hunting enthusiasm of some elderly hunters.
Unfortunately, the European Commission wants to focus on only lessening the amounts of lead found in wetlands. The EU has ratified the UN’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, so we should be rid of lead shots within three years. Therefore it is fairly questionable that a total ban is currently not being discussed in more detail. A few EU nations, e.g. Denmark and Holland, have executed a total ban, thus preventing the use of lead shot in any forms of hunting. Nothing appears to be happening in the US either. Despite the encouraging results on the number of lead poisoning incidents dropping dramatically, the effectiveness of partial bans is just too weak. An overview from 2015 by the University of Oxford estimates that 50 000 to 100 000 birds die annually from lead poisoning in Britain alone. According to the Finnish Food Safety Authority and the Finnish Museum of Natural History, every third white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) death is directly related to lead poisoning. Partial bans are ineffective and their execution cannot be properly monitored. A total ban would also create pressure to develop shot that would work well with older shotguns. Now is the time to finally completely ban lead shots.
on lead poisoning occurring in several bird species
on the mourning dove study
on the effects of lead on teals
Almost all of Finland’s migrant fish are threatened. At the moment the endangered fish species of Finland have no protection; they are like outlaws. For example the Finnish landlocked salmon (Salmon’s subspieces Salmo salar m. sebago only lives in inland waters) is more endangered than the Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis). A study shows that only 0.04 % of the smolts survive and reach sexual maturity. This means that only one individual in 2500 smolts will spawn.
Additionally, the sea trout parr (Salmo trutta trutta) is critically endangered in Finland. Hydro-electric power plants previously destroyed the robust populations of the sea trout, but nowadays the main problem is fishing nets. Finland is probably the only civilised state where anybody can fish using nets. In other parts of the world fishing with nets is strongly regulated or banned completely. All the endangered species living in the inland waters of Finland, even the Saimaa ringed seal, face the same threat: fishing nets (both professional and free-time fishermen). The main problem with fishing nets is that they catch almost all the smolts, leaving no fish to spawn.
Finland is also the only nation in the world that allows fishermen to fish using massive trawls in inland waters. Finnish researchers are unanimous: our fishing policy is unsustainable. Policymakers don’t listen. Rather, they are against every positive development. In today’s world with the EU and other institutions, how is it possible that no one outside Finland is not reacting. If Finnish policymakers are this blind or spineless, maybe the EU could invoke for example the Habitats Directive (more formally known as Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora), and force Finland to alter its fishing policy. We have some successful example (the Przewalski’s horse returning to Mongolia, deforestation in Madagascar) of how pressure / help from the outside world has contributed to the preservation of species or ecosystems in developing countries. At least the EU should wake up now and prevent the local extinction of several fish species.
Salmi P, Auvinen H, Jurvelius J, Sipponen M (2000) Finnish lake fisheries and conservation of biodiversity: coexistence or conflict? Fisheries Management & Ecology 7: 127–138. DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2400.2000.00183.x
Auvinen H, Jurvelius J, Koskela J, Sipilä T (2005) Comparative use of vendace by humans and Saimaa ringed seal in Lake Pihlajavesi, Finland. Biological Conservation 125(3): 381–389. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2005.04.008