Environment: The fight is on to save the last of the puritan tiger beetles

  • Rodger Gwiazdowski holds a micro-pitfall trap, which catch prey that the puritan tiger beetles would eat on on Rainbow Beach. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Rodger Gwiazdowski, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, points out Rainbow Beach, on a recent morning. The beach is one of the few spots left where puritan tiger beetles live. Gwiazdowski is part of a team of scientists involved in the Puritan Tiger Beetle Recovery Project, an effort to help boost the numbers for the endangered species. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Neil Kapitulik, a contractor with the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, scans Rainbow Beach for puritan tiger beetles to determine an estimate of how many live on the beach. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • In the photo at left, Chris Davis, left, and Neil Kapitulik, contractors with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, scan Rainbow Beach for puritan tiger beetles to get an estimate of how many live on the beach. In the right photo, Kapitulik, Davis and Rodger Gwiazdowski scan the beach. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Chris Davis and Neil Kapitulik, contractors with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, scan Rainbow Beach for puritan tiger beetles to determine an estimate of how many live on the beach. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A puritan tiger beetle found on Rainbow Beach. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A puritan tiger beetle found on Rainbow Beach. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Chris Davis, a contractor with the U.S. Fish And Wildlife Service, scans Rainbow beach for puritan tiger beetles as part of the research they are doing on the insect. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Neil Kapitulik, Chris Davis, and Rodget Gwiazdowski, contractors with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, scan Rainbow Beach for puritan tiger beetles as part of the research they are doing on the insect. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Left, Neil Kapitulik and Chris Davis, contractors with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, scan Rainbow Beach for puritan tiger beetles as part of the research they are doing on the insect. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A micro-pitfall trap placed on Rainbow Beach by Rodger Gwiazdowski used to catch prey that the puritan tiger beetles would eat on Rainbow Beach. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A micro-pitfall trap placed on Rainbow Beach by Rodger Gwiazdowski is used to catch prey that the puritan tiger beetles would eat. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A puritan tiger beetle found on Rainbow Beach. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gwiazdowski places micro-pitfall traps, which catch prey that the puritan tiger beetles would feed on at Rainbow Beach. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2019 3:49:04 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Shoeless and armed with binoculars, Chris Davis and Neil Kapitulik look serious scanning every inch of Rainbow Beach on a recent morning.

They aren’t looking for lost treasures, as they maneuver around people lounging in chairs and kids playing in the sand on the strip of land owned by the city of Northampton on the Connecticut River.

Davis and Kapitulik, contractors for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were surveying the beach for puritan tiger beetles, an endangered species that lives in only a handful of places in the world, one of which is Rainbow Beach. Scientists have recently planted more there in an effort to boost their numbers.

The beetles, about the size of a thumbnail, can only be found in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and in two areas along the Connecticut River — Rainbow Beach and in Cromwell, Connecticut. Researchers keep the specific locations of the Cromwell sites a secret because they worry that if publicized, serious bug collectors will deplete the population. Collectors already know the insects exist on Rainbow Beach. Historically, the bugs could be found in many places along the Connecticut River, from Vermont and New Hampshire down to Connecticut, but now they live in just these two locations.

Why Rainbow Beach?

“This is it,” Rodger Gwiazdowski, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said earlier while sitting on a boat with Davis and Kapitulik zooming on the river toward the beach, which is accessible to the public by boat. “The problem is, there’s no habitat left,” Gwiazdowski said.

It remains somewhat of a mystery why the puritan tiger beetles are endangered and why, of all places on the Connecticut River, they make Rainbow Beach one of their few homes.

Gwiazdowski is trying to answer some of those questions. He has been working for the past three years to restore the New England population and better understand the species as the principal investigator of the Puritan Tiger Beetle Recovery Project, funded mostly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge.

Gwiazdowski has written papers on the research, and he and his team are working on a longer-term puritan tiger beetle restoration plan that they hope to finish in the fall.

Over the past few years, his team — which includes U.S. Fish and Wildlife contractors, UMass students and some volunteers — reared beetle larvae in a lab and then put them on the beach in the fall with the hope that they would boost the population. They planted them in burrows on the beach like the ones the larvae naturally live in.

In 2016, the team reintroduced about 90 larvae. At that point, the project was, as Gwiazdowski put it, “tied together with hope and bubble gum.” After receiving more funding, in the fall of 2017 they planted 726 larvae at the Northampton beach and in 2018, 516 split between there and the sites in Cromwell.

Larvae, which look more like caterpillars than beetles, stay beneath the sand for almost two years growing and hibernating during the winters before they emerge from their burrows as adults in June and die in August. That means that this summer, larvae Gwiazdowski put there almost two years ago are, theoretically, now beetles scampering around the beach.

Davis and Kapitulik searched for those critters on Rainbow Beach, and they will come back several times this summer to do so again. Davis has conducted surveys for the beetles at Rainbow Beach for 23 years and Kapitulik for the better part of 14. The data they collect goes to federal and state authorities, and it helps Gwiazdowski with his project.

Less than 1,000

There’s estimated to be less than a thousand of the insects in all of New England. Last year, Davis and Kapitulik estimated there were 175 adult beetles on the Northampton beach, and in some previous years, they have counted as few as two.

“Size of this beach, we should have thousands of adults here,” Davis said, while taking a break from searching for beetles and standing on the sunny beach.

“There’s a lot of head-scratching as to why,” Gwiazdowski said of the fluctuating and low numbers at Rainbow Beach. “Mostly it’s human impact — river flow and direct use of the area by people — that’s probably contributed to it.”

Putting up dams, changing river flow and development on the river’s shores may be factors.

Davis also pointed to climate change. “With climate change,” he said, “there’s been more significant water events ... that affects the beach and can affect the beetles.”

Why the bugs like Rainbow Beach is one question the project is examining. And more generally, one of the project’s central questions is, Gwiazdowski explained, “What makes good habitat good?”

“That’s the deal with life on earth — everything wants something specific,” Gwiazdowski said. If they can pinpoint the species’ habitat preferences, the conclusions could be used to determine where else scientists could successfully reintroduce the beetle, or how to create habitat.

Gwiazdowski said that so far, the team has come up with a “surprisingly short, short-list” of sandy spots along the Connecticut River where the puritan tiger beetle could thrive.

It may be that the beetles are particular about what kind of sediment they lay eggs in, Gwiazdowski said. This week, he’s studying where and when the beetles lay their eggs in Cromwell to shed more light on the hypothesis.

Figuring out exactly what they eat on the beach is also critical to understanding the beetle’s habitat.

To do that, Gwiazdowski carried a yellow box on the beach. Inside were what look like plastic test tubes with a brown collar on top, a device the team calls “micro-pitfall traps.”

“We developed them specially for the project,” Gwiazdowski said.

One by one, he planted them in the ground just deep enough so the open top met the sand. Critters that walk over the area fall into the trap and the team comes to collect it a few days later to see what the beetles might be eating.

“You get a cross-section of what’s running around,” Gwiazdowski explained. They are then taken to the lab and the creatures inside are analyzed.

Holding one puritan tiger beetle on his finger, Gwiazdowski said, “We think they’re cute, but they are super vicious.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes puritan tiger beetles as “voracious predators,” and says their ferociousness is how they got their name. In feeding, the beetle runs at its prey and uses its serrated jaw to pulverize it.

“They just rip things up with their jaws and slurp the juice,” Gwiazdowski said.

Despite its aggressive hunting style, the puritan tiger beetle has been federally listed at threatened since 1990.

Still, “there could be something more imperiled on this beach than the puritan tiger beetle, but we’re ignorant about it,” Gwiazdowski said.

To be considered endangered, Gwiazdowski said, typically naturalists have to be paying attention to the species and then inform U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that there’s an issue.

Why is the puritan tiger beetle important?

“The straightforward answer I give people,” Gwiazdowski said, “is they are part of the healthy river, which is wholly true and satisfying to people.”

It’s also a philosophical question to Gwiazdowski. In response to questions about the beetle’s importance, he asks, “Why are you important?”

There are also some more concrete reasons why. The species are predators, Davis said. Removing a predator from an ecosystem can have ripple effects down the food chain.

Still, Gwiazdowski said the question is flawed. “I think it’s an important question,” he said, “but it’s the wrong question. I think it’s important because people are showing curiosity, which is great … I think it is the wrong question because it presupposes we know the answer.”

“The natural world is largely unknown,” he continued. As an example, he pointed to an increase over the last 10 years in understanding the human microbiome, the microorganisms that live inside and on our bodies, and its effects on health.

If the puritan tiger beetle goes extinct, there may be no observable effect, Gwiazdowski said. “But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter in a way we don’t understand.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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