OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

environment and natural resources

Tracking potato famine pathogen to its home may aid $6 billion global fight

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The cause of potato late blight and the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s has been tracked to a pretty, alpine valley in central Mexico, which is ringed by mountains and now known to be the ancestral home of one of the most costly and deadly plant diseases in human history.

Research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by researchers from Oregon State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and five other institutions, concludes that Phytophthora infestans originated in this valley and co-evolved with potatoes over hundreds or maybe a few thousand years, and later spread repeatedly to much of the world.

Knowing the origin of the pathogen does more than just fill in a few facts in agricultural history, the scientists say. It provides new avenues to discover resistance genes, and helps explain the mechanisms of repeated emergence of this disease, which to this day is still the most costly potato pathogen in the world.

Potato late blight continues to be a major threat to global food security and at least $6 billion a year is spent to combat it, mostly due to the cost of fungicides and substantial yield losses. But P. infestans is now one of the few plant pathogens in the world with a well-characterized center of origin.

“This is immensely important,” said Niklaus Grunwald, who is a courtesy professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University, a researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and lead author on the study.

“This is just a textbook example of a center of origin for a pathogen, and it’s a real treat,” Grunwald said. “I can’t think of another system so well understood. This should allow us to make significant headway in finding additional genes that provide resistance to P. infestans.”

Finding ways to genetically resist the potato late blight, scientists say, could help reduce the use of fungicides, and the expense and environmental concerns associated with them.

There had been competing theories about where P. infestans may have evolved, with the leading candidates being the Toluca Valley near Mexico City, or areas in South America where the potato itself actually evolved thousands of years ago.

Gene sequencing technology used by this research group helped pin down the Toluca Valley as the ancestral hot spot. The P. infestans pathogen co-evolved there hundreds of years ago with plants that were distant cousins of modern potatoes, which produced tubers but were more often thought of as a weed than a vegetable crop.

Today, the newly-confirmed home of this pathogen awaits researchers almost as a huge, natural laboratory, Grunwald said. Since different potato varieties, plants and pathogens have been co-evolving there for hundreds of years, it offers some of the best hope to discover genes that provide some type of resistance.

Along with other staple foods such as corn, rice and wheat, the potato forms a substantial portion of the modern human diet. A recent United Nations report indicated that every person on Earth eats, on average, more than 70 pounds of potatoes a year. Potatoes contain a range of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and – for hungry populations – needed calories.

It’s believed that the potato was first domesticated more than 7,000 years ago in parts of what are now Peru and Bolivia, and it was brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the late 1500s. A cheap and plentiful crop that can grow in many locations, the ability to increase food production with the potato eventually aided a European population boom in the 1800s.

But what the New World provided, it also took away - in the form of a potato late blight attack that originated from Mexico, caused multiple crop failures and led, among other things, to the Irish potato famine that began in 1845. Before it was over, 1 million people had died and another 1 million emigrated, many to the U.S.

That famine was exacerbated by lack of potato diversity, as some of the varieties most vulnerable to P. infestans were also the varieties most widely cultivated.

Collaborators on the research were from the University of Florida, the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, the University of the Andes in Colombia, Cornell University, and the International Potato Center in Beijing. It was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Scottish government.

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Niklaus Grunwald, 541-738-4049

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Study finds Oregon’s most common fish at least three distinct species

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found that the most common fish species in Oregon – the speckled dace – is actually at least three separate and distinct species.

The findings suggest that Oregon may have greater biological diversity in its native fish populations than previously recognized, said researchers at Oregon State University who led the study. The management implications for the discovery are not yet known.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

The speckled dace is a small minnow that appears in ponds, rivers, springs, lakes and other waterways from Canada to Mexico. It is the most common fish in Oregon, meaning that it appears in more bodies of water than any other fish, the researchers say, yet little is known about its genetic makeup.

“For some reason, the speckled dace has never been fully investigated,” said Kendra Hoekzema, a faculty research assistant in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead author on the study. “Yet it varies greatly in genetics and morphology and now we’re finding that more than one species is out there in a small corner of Oregon.

“Who knows how many other species there might be?” she added. “The Great Basin has a lot of springs.”

The study began as a review of the Foskett Spring speckled dace which, as a listed federally threatened subspecies, must be investigated every five years. This particular dace has only been found in a single spring within Warner Valley in southeast Oregon, and as part of her study, Hoekzema collected speckled dace from surrounding basins, including the Warner system, Goose Lake, Lake Abert, Silver Lake and the Malheur River system, as well as Stinking Lake Spring on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

DNA analysis led Hoekzema and co-author Brian Sidlauskas, an assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, to determine that there are three “highly divergent” evolutionary lineages of speckled dace that warrant species-level status – the Malheur stream dace, Stinking Lake Spring dace, and dace from the other four basins combined.

“The speckled dace has been on the books for decades as one species and yet when we look at one small corner of Oregon, we find three distinct species,” Sidlauskas said. “Typically, when we think about new species being discovered, we think about some isolated part of the tropics. This is in our own backyard.”

“It goes to show both how much diversity may exist,” he added, “and how little we know about it.”

Hoekzema said the Stinking Lake Spring dace appeared to have branched off genetically some 2.5 million years ago, while the Foskett Spring dace – and perhaps others – became isolated just 10,000 years ago.

The researchers also recommended that the Foskett Spring dace should be listed as an “Evolutionarily Significant Unit” (ESU) and not a subspecies, a technical status change that would not necessarily affect how it is protected.

Paul Scheerer, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been working at Foskett Spring since 2005 evaluating population status, trends and habitat conditions. He and his colleagues became concerned, Scheerer said, that the speckled daces’ population was declining and that their habitat was shifting from open water vegetated habitat to emergent marsh.

The Bureau of Land Management, ODFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted controlled burns of some of the vegetation in 2009 and then excavated new pools fed by the spring.

“Foskett speckled dace quickly expanded into the new pools,” Scheerer said, “and since then we’ve experienced a seven-fold increase in the speckled dace to about 13,000 fish. We also introduced dace into nearby, recently restored ponds to expand their abundance and reduce the risk of catastrophic loss.

“The OSU study results suggest there are more dace species out there than we previously knew,” he added. “It will allow us to adequately protect and enhance these unique fish into the future. The work by OSU is invaluable and will allow us to better understand the diversity of the fish fauna that has evolved in these isolated desert basins.”

The management implications on a broader scale are unclear, Sidlauskas said, because while the new species have been recognized as genetically distinct, their full geographic ranges are unknown. Nevertheless, the discovery of a distinct, unrecognized and possibly endemic species within the Malheur refuge underscores the importance of such areas, he added.

“This suggests that the refuge may harbor even more diversity than we knew and highlights the importance of preserving and valuing such wild places,” Sidlauskas said.

Although the minnows, which grow to a length of about three inches, don’t carry the iconic status of Northwest salmon or steelhead, they are important parts of the food web in many areas. Many species of fish-eating fish love them.

“Speckled dace are the bon-bons of the fish world for piscatorial fish,” Sidlauskas said, “and they are likely important prey for birds and other animals as well.”

The study was funded by the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, and the OSU Research Office.

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Kendra Hoekzema, 541-737-6035, Kendra.hoekzema@oregonstate.edu; Brian Sidlauskas, 541-737-6789, brian.sidlauskas@oregonstate.edu

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Study of marine life near Newport finds no red flags for toxicity

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University scientists have examined a variety of coastal marine species near Newport, Ore., for concentrations of heavy metals and organic pollutants and found only trace amounts with no bioaccumulation of significant concern.

Their report is being presented May 19 to the City of Newport, which commissioned the study. It is available online at: http://www.thecityofnewport.net/

Newport city officials were concerned that effluent from a Georgia-Pacific containerboard plant outfall pipe, located some 4,000 feet off Nye Beach, may be exposing some marine life to contaminants. A 2010 study by CH2M-Hill looked for heavy metals in the surrounding water and sediments and found little with which to be concerned. Their study did not investigate marine organisms, however.

“There was some concern that metals and organic pollutants may be bioaccumulating in nearby marine life,” said Sarah Henkel, a marine ecologist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and primary investigator on the study. “We tested for 137 different chemicals and only detected 38 of them – none at levels that remotely approach concern for humans.”

The City of Newport had asked the OSU researchers to look at a variety of species, including flatfish (speckled sand dab), crustaceans (Dungeness crab and Crangon shrimp), and mollusks (mussels and olive snails) because they could bioaccumulate metals and organic pollutants at different rates. The researchers collected a variety of samples in 2012 near the G-P outfall, as well as at sites north of Yaquina Head and south of Yaquina Bay. In fall of 2013, they also collected and analyzed rock scallops.

The organisms were analyzed for trace metals including copper and lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and congeners, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used in flame-retardant materials, and other potentially carcinogenic compounds. They also were analyzed for organic-based compounds, which are commonly derived from pesticides.

Not a single organism was found with a bioaccumulation of metals or organic pollutants that approached levels of concern for humans established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the researchers reported.

“The system is pretty darn clean,” said Scott Heppell, a biologist with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and co-primary investigator on the study.  “I was certainly interested personally going into the study because my family goes crabbing in some of the places we sampled. If we had found anything, we would have had to come up with a new place. But we found nothing approaching the level of intervention for humans and that’s reassuring.”

The OSU researchers did find one area of potential future concern – trace levels of arsenic in mussels at sites both north and south of Yaquina Bay. The arsenic levels were still below the FDA level of concern for human consumption (86 parts per million), Heppell said, but in some cases exceeded the established level of concern for impacts to the mussels themselves, which is 3.6 ppm. Some of the samples analyzed by the researchers reached 5.0 ppm.

“It is still 15 times lower than the threshold for human concern, but there is potential for damage to the mussels themselves,” Heppell said. “It is also worth noting because the arsenic was in virtually all of the mussel samples we collected on beaches from Seal Rock to north of Yaquina Head. There is no way to draw a link to the G-P outfall.

“But because it was so common, it may be a good idea to study mussel populations up and down the entire coast to see what arsenic levels are at beyond our study area.”

Arsenic is often used in pressure-treated lumber and wood preservatives, the researchers noted.

Among other findings:

  • The researchers found three derivatives of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, a pesticide that has been banned for 40 years. Although it was detected at very small amounts, “the fact that it is still present in organisms four decades later shows why it was banned,” Henkel said.
  • No significant bioaccumulation could be attributed to the G-P outfall. In fact, fish, crabs and shrimp collected from subtidal sites away from the outfall often had higher concentrations of metals than those adjacent to the pipe, though still at levels safe for human consumption.
  • Two DDT derivatives (2,4’-DDE and 4,4’-DDD) were found in a single crab sample. Another, hexochloro-benzene, was detected in just two crab samples – at concentrations some 10,000 times less than the toxicity level listed as potentially affecting the crabs themselves.

“It is worth noting that the instrumentation today is so sensitive it can detect trace amounts of compounds at concentrations not possible just a few years ago,” Heppell said.

The OSU researchers praised the City of Newport for seeking data that potentially could have been damaging, yet was important to know.

“This is one of those reports that, thankfully, turns out to be rather boring,” Henkel said.

Other researchers on the project included Selina Heppell, a biologist with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; and OSU faculty research assistants Kristin Politano and Vincent Politano.

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Sarah Henkel, 541-867-0316, sarah.henkel@oregonstate.edu; Scott Heppell, 541-737-1086, scott.heppell@oregonstate.edu

OSU scientists part of national APLU report outlining research challenges

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The national Association of Public and Land-grant Universities released a report today outlining six “grand challenges” facing the United States over the next decade in the areas of sustainability water, climate change, agriculture, energy and education.

The APLU project was co-chaired by W. Daniel Edge, head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. The report is available online at: http://bit.ly/1ksH2ud

The “Science, Education, and Outreach Roadmap for Natural Resources” is the first comprehensive, nationwide report on research, education and outreach needs for natural resources the country’s university community has ever attempted, Edge said.

“The report identifies critical natural resources issues that interdisciplinary research programs need to focus on over the next 5-10 years in order to address emerging challenges,” Edge noted. “We hope that policy-makers and federal agencies will adopt recommendations in the roadmap when developing near-term research priorities and strategies.”

The six grand challenges addressed in the report are: 

  • Sustainability: The need to conserve and manage natural landscapes and maintain environmental quality while optimizing renewable resource productivity to meet increasing human demands for natural resources, particularly with respect to increasing water, food, and energy demands.
  • Water: The need to restore, protect and conserve watersheds for biodiversity, water resources, pollution reduction and water security.
  • Climate Change: The need to understand the impacts of climate change on our environment, including such aspects as disease transmission, air quality, water supply, ecosystems, fire, species survival, and pest risk. Further, a comprehensive strategy is needed for managing natural resources to adapt to climate change.
  • Agriculture: The need to develop a sustainable, profitable, and environmentally responsible agriculture industry.
  • Energy: The need to identify new and alternative renewable energy sources and improve the efficiency of existing renewable resource-based energy to meet increasing energy demands while reducing the ecological footprint of energy production and consumption.
  • Education: The need to maintain and strengthen natural resources education at our schools at all levels in order to have the informed citizenry, civic leaders, and practicing professionals needed to sustain the natural resources of the United States.

 

Three other OSU researchers were co-authors on the report, including Hal Salwasser, a professor and former dean of the College of Forestry; JunJie Wu, the Emery N. Castle Endowed Chair in Resource and Rural Economics; and George Boehlert, former director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Wu played a key role in the climate change chapter in identifying the need to better understand the tradeoffs between investing now in climate change adaptation measures versus the long-term risk of not adopting new policies.

Edge and Boehlert contributed to the energy chapter, which focuses primarily on renewable energy.

“The natural resources issues with traditional sources of energy already are well-understood,” Boehlert said, “with the possible exception of fracking. As the country moves more into renewable energy areas, there are many more uncertainties with respect to natural resources that need to be understood and addressed. There are no energy sources that do not have some environmental issues.”

Salwasser was an author on the sustainability chapter that identifies many issues associated with natural resource use, including rangelands, forestry, fisheries and wildlife and biodiversity. The authors contend the challenge is to use these resources in a sustainable manner meeting both human and ecosystem needs.

The project was sponsored by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Oregon State University, which partnered with APLU and authors from numerous institutions.

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Dan Edge, 541-737-2810; Daniel.edge@oregonstate.edu

Scientists successfully use krypton to accurately date ancient Antarctic ice

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists has successfully identified the age of 120,000-year-old Antarctic ice using radiometric krypton dating – a new technique that may allow them to locate and date ice that is more than a million years old.

The ability to discover ancient ice is critical, the researchers say, because it will allow them to reconstruct the climate much farther back into Earth’s history and potentially understand the mechanisms that have triggered the planet to shift into and out of ice ages.

Results of the discovery are being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The oldest ice found in drilled cores is around 800,000 years old and with this new technique we think we can look in other regions and successfully date polar ice back as far as 1.5 million years,” said Christo Buizert, a postdoctoral researcher at Oregon State University and lead author on the PNAS article. “That is very exciting because a lot of interesting things happened with the Earth’s climate prior to 800,000 years ago that we currently cannot study in the ice core record.”

Krypton dating is much like the more-heralded carbon-14 dating technique that measures the decay of a radioactive isotope – which has constant and well-known decay rates – and compares it to a stable isotope. Unlike carbon-14, however, krypton is a noble gas that does not interact chemically and is much more stable with a half-life of around 230,000 years. Carbon dating doesn’t work well on ice because carbon-14 is produced in the ice itself by cosmic rays and only goes back some 50,000 years.

Krypton is produced by cosmic rays bombarding the Earth and then stored in air bubbles trapped within Antarctic ice. It has a radioactive isotope (krypton-81) that decays very slowly, and a stable isotope (krypton-83) that does not decay. Comparing the proportion of stable-to-radioactive isotopes provides the age of the ice.

Though scientists have been interested in radiokrypton dating for more than four decades, krypton-81 atoms are so limited and difficult to count that it wasn’t until a 2011 breakthrough in detector technology that krypton-81 dating became feasible for this kind of research. The new atom counter, named Atom Trap Trace Analysis, or ATTA, was developed by a team of nuclear physicists led by Zheng-Tian Lu at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago.

In their experiment at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, the researchers put several 300-kilogram (about 660 pounds) chunks of ice into a container and melted it to release the air from the bubbles, which was then stored in flasks. The krypton was isolated from the air at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and sent to Argonne for krypton-81 counting.

“The atom trap is so sensitive that it can capture and count individual atoms,” said Buizert, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “The only problem is that there isn’t a lot of krypton in the air, and thus there isn’t much in the ice, either. That’s why we need such large samples to melt down.”

The group at Argonne is continually improving the ATTA detector, researchers there say, and they aim to perform analysis on an ice sample as small as 20 kilograms in the near future.

The researchers determined from the isotope ratio that the Taylor Glacier samples were 120,000 years old, and validated the estimate by comparing the results to well-dated ice core measurements of atmospheric methane and oxygen from that same period.

Now the challenge is to locate some of the oldest ice in Antarctica, which may not be as easy as it sounds.

“Most people assume that it’s a question of just drilling deeper for ice cores, but it’s not that simple,” said Edward Brook, an Oregon State University geologist and co-author on the study. “Very old ice probably exists in small isolated patches at the base of the ice sheet that have not yet been identified, but in many places it has probably melted and flowed out into the ocean.”

There also are special regions where old ice is exposed at the edges of an ice field, Brook pointed out.

“The international scientific community is really interested in exploring for old ice in both types of places and this new dating will really help,” Brook said. “There are places where meteorites originating from Mars have been pushed out by glaciers and collect at the margins. Some have been on Earth for a million years or more, so the ice in these spots may be that old as well.”

Buizert said reconstructing the Earth’s climate back to 1.5 million years is important because a shift in the frequency of ice ages took place in what is known as the Middle Pleistocene transition. The Earth is thought to have shifted in and out of ice ages every 100,000 years or so during the past 800,000 years, but there is evidence that such a shift took place every 40,000 years prior to that time.

“Why was there a transition from a 40,000-year cycle to a 100,000-year cycle?” Buizert said. “Some people believe a change in the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide may have played a role. That is one reason we are so anxious to find ice that will take us back further in time so we can further extend data on past carbon dioxide levels and test this hypothesis.”

In addition to Buizert and Brook, the research team included Daniel Baggenstos and Jeffrey Severinghaus of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Zheng-Tian Lu, Wei Jiang and Peter Müller, Argonne National Laboratory; Roland Purtschert, University of Bern; Vasilii Petrenko, University of Rochester; Tanner Kuhl, University of Wisconsin; James Lee, Oregon State University.

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Christo Buizert, 541-737-1209; buizertc@science.oregonstate.edu; Ed Brook, 541-737-8197, brooke@geo.oregonstate.edu

OSU names Lubchenco adviser for marine sciences

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco is back on the faculty of Oregon State University where she has a new role – adviser to the university on marine studies issues.

OSU has named Lubchenco Distinguished University Professor and Adviser in Marine Studies – a position that will help coordinate and expand Oregon State’s international prominence in marine-related studies, which are spread across several disciplines and account for nearly $100 million annually in research funding.

“After four years at the helm of the nation’s premier agency for the ocean and atmosphere, I’m delighted to be back at OSU, and even more pleased to see the new energy focused on marine science, education, policy and outreach,” Lubchenco said. “From my time at NOAA, I know both the high caliber of marine sciences at OSU and the strong potential for a more robust, visible and effective marine studies program that can provide much-needed global leadership by our faculty and students.

“I’m energized by OSU’s commitment to elevate ocean stewardship and to expand the range and quality of opportunities available to students,” she added.

Oregon State’s growth in the marine sciences in recent years has been significant and Lubchenco has played a key role with her seminal research in marine ecology. OSU boasts one of the strongest marine ecology and biology programs in the nation in the College of Science; a formidable oceanography program in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; and one of the most highly regarded marine research and education facilities in the country in the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The university’s strength in marine studies is broad and deep, according to Rick Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research, who pointed out that Oregon State’s national leadership in wave energy research and tsunami studies are based in OSU’s College of Engineering. The College of Agricultural Sciences has one of the nation’s top fisheries programs as well as a leading oyster breeding research program. OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant is an acclaimed research, education and outreach program tied to Extension, and Lubchenco’s own faculty appointment is in Integrative Biology, which is in OSU’s College of Science.

Other OSU colleges, including Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacy, Education, Liberal Arts, and Public Health and Human Sciences, also have ties to marine research and education.

“A primary goal for Dr. Lubchenco in her new position will be to engage the entire university in OSU’s expanding marine studies mission, and advise university leadership on marine studies matters,” Spinrad said. “We are delighted to welcome Jane back and look forward to her strategic contributions in building OSU’s global marine studies program.”

Last year, OSU President Ray announced the launch of an initiative to create a marine studies campus at OSU, including developments at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport that would eventually host as many as 500 students. Planning is under way for how such a campus might be developed, according to Sabah Randhawa, OSU provost and executive vice president. “Jane Lubchenco’s insights into the national and international needs for marine science education will be invaluable as we go forward with our plans,” Randhawa said.

OSU also provides leadership on a number of other marine studies initiatives, including:

  • The Ocean Observatories Initiative, a $386 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to monitor changes in the world’s oceans – led by a handful of universities, including Oregon State University;
  • An initiative to design and oversee construction of as many as three new coastal research vessels to bolster the United States research fleet. OSU was chosen as lead institution for the NSF-funded project, which could total $290 million over 10 years;
  • The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a multi-institutional research consortium established 15 years ago and led by OSU, with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation totaling more than $56 million.

 

Lubchenco said she looks forward to working with OSU faculty, staff and students across the university on marine studies issues.

“I’m immensely proud of what we were able to accomplish during the four years I was at NOAA,” she said. “I return to OSU with new insights, contacts and energy to help strengthen our ability to be positioned for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Under Lubchenco’s leadership, NOAA focused on restoring sustainability and economic viability to fisheries, restoring oceans and coasts to a healthy state, protecting marine mammals and endangered species, conducting and disseminating information on climate science, providing timely weather forecasts and warnings, and maintaining the nation’s weather and environmental satellites.

Lubchenco is one of the most highly cited ecologists in the world and is past-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Ecological Society of America, and the International Council for Science; she is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and was a National Science Board member for 10 years; she served on numerous international commissions; and she is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius award.”

Prior to her NOAA appointment, Lubchenco and her husband, Bruce Menge, shared the Wayne and Gladys Valley Chair in Marine Biology. Menge, who also has the title of Distinguished Professor of Integrative Biology, will continue as the Valley Chair, teaching marine biology and ecology, and leading interdisciplinary research teams focused on ocean acidification and coastal ocean dynamics.

Sastry Pantula, dean of OSU’s College of Science, said Lubchenco’s return to campus will benefit students interested in marine studies.

“Jane’s wealth of international experience and the College of Science’s strong foundation in marine science research and education will be key for OSU as a global leader in marine studies,” Pantula said.  “I am thrilled to see Jane in this role helping to build future leaders and policy makers in marine studies. It is a win-win for our students and for the university."

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Rick Spinrad, 541-737-0662; rick.spinrad@oregonstate.edu; Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-2111; Sabah.randhawa@oregonstate.edu; Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337; lubchenco@oregonstate.edu

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Researchers find evidence of bighorn sheep on island – now what?

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A research team has found evidence that bighorn sheep inhabited Tiburón Island in the Gulf of California some 1,500 years ago – a surprising find that calls into question just how to manage the population of bighorns that were introduced to the island in 1975.

The experimental introduction almost 40 years ago of what was thought to be a non-native species was intended to create a large breeding population of bighorn sheep at a site safe from predators that could be used to restock bighorn populations on the mainland. The discovery that bighorn sheep previously had lived on the island raises philosophical questions, the researchers say.

They report on the dilemma, which they call “unintentional rewilding,” this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

“This is a microcosm for situations in which animals regarded as non-natives are introduced into an area where they actually lived in the past,” said Clinton Epps, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State University and co-author on the PLOS ONE article. “There are some interesting implications.

“If, for example, one goal was to restore native habitat and it looked like the introduced animals were having an impact on the flora, the solution might be to remove the animals,” Epps pointed out. “But now you’d have to say, ‘not so fast.’ What is the right thing to do? Does it matter if the animals lived there 10, a hundred, or a thousand years ago?”

The development first began to unfold with the incidental discovery by lead author Ben Wilder of the University of California, Riverside, of a dung mat on the floor of a small cave in the Sierra Kumkaak, a rugged mountain range on the east side of Tiburón Island. Samples of the sheep pellets were sent for DNA sequencing to Oregon State.

“The first thing we had to do was eliminate the possibility that the material had come from deer, mountain goats, domestic sheep or cows, or some other animals,” said Rachel Crowhurst, a faculty research assistant in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “It closely matched bighorn sheep. Then we used a second genetic marker to compare it to the modern population of bighorns on the island – and it was completely different.”

The OSU researchers determined that the sequences from the bighorn sheep that lived on the island some 1,500 years ago exactly matched sequences from desert bighorn sheep living today in Arizona.

In 1975, 16 female and four male bighorn sheep were introduced to Tiburón Island, which is a large, mostly uninhabited island just off the coast of Sonora Mexico. On the mainland, historical land use had decimated populations of wild bighorn sheep. By the mid-1990s, the Tiburon herd had grown to some 500 animals and was considered one of the most successful large mammal introductions in the world.

As it turns out, this supposed introduction was actually an “unintentional rewilding” – a phrase coined by the authors and a concept that has implications for future research, according to Julio Betancourt, a paleo-ecologist with the United State Geological Survey and co-author on the paper.

“Molecular studies will become more than an afterthought in paleo-ecological studies to address previously unanswerable questions about evolutionary responses to climate change,” Betancourt said.

The research by Epps and Crowhurst was supported by Oregon State University.

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Clint Epps, 541-737-2478; Clinton.Epps@oregonstate.edu

Study confirms link between salmon migration and magnetic field

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists last year presented evidence of a correlation between the migration patterns of ocean salmon and the Earth’s magnetic field, suggesting it may help explain how the fish can navigate across thousands of miles of water to find their river of origin.

This week, scientists confirmed the connection between salmon and the magnetic field following a series of experiments at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center in the Alsea River basin. Researchers exposed hundreds of juvenile Chinook salmon to different magnetic fields that exist at the latitudinal extremes of their oceanic range. Fish responded to these “simulated magnetic displacements” by swimming in the direction that would bring that toward the center of their marine feeding grounds.

The study, which was funded by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, will be published this month in the forthcoming issue of Current Biology.

“What is particularly exciting about these experiments is that the fish we tested had never left the hatchery and thus we know that their responses were not learned or based on experience, but rather they were inherited,” said Nathan Putman, a postdoctoral researcher in Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead author on the study.

“These fish are programmed to know what to do before they ever reach the ocean,” he added.

To test the hypothesis, the researchers constructed a large platform with copper wires running horizontally and vertically around the perimeter. By running electrical current through the wires, the scientists could create a magnetic field and control both the intensity and inclination angle of the field. They then placed 2-inch juvenile salmon called “parr” in 5-gallon buckets and, after an acclimation period, monitored and photographed the direction in which they were swimming.

Fish presented with a magnetic field characteristic of the northern limits of the oceanic range of Chinook salmon were more likely to swim in a southerly direction, while fish encountering a far southern field tended to swim north. In essence, fish possess a “map sense” determining where they are and which way to swim based on the magnetic fields they encounter.

“The evidence is irrefutable,” said co-author David Noakes of OSU, senior scientist at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center and the 2012 recipient of the American Fisheries Society’s Award of Excellence. “I tell people: The fish can detect and respond to the Earth’s magnetic field. There can be no doubt of that.”

Not all of the more than 1,000 fish swam in the same direction, Putman said. But there was a clear preference by the fish for swimming in the direction away from the magnetic field that was “wrong” for them. Fish that remained in the magnetic field of the testing site – near Alsea, Ore. – were randomly oriented, indicating that orientation of fish subjected to magnetic displacements could only be attributable to change in the magnetic field.

“What is really surprising is that these fish were only exposed to the magnetic field we created for about eight minutes,” Putman pointed out. “And the field was not even strong enough to deflect a compass needle.”

Putman said that salmon must be particularly sensitive because the Earth’s magnetic field is relatively weak. Because of that, it may not take much to interfere with their navigational abilities. Many structures contain electrical wires or reinforcing iron that could potentially affect the orientation of fish early in their life cycle, the researchers say.

“Fish are raised in hatcheries where there are electrical and magnetic influences,” Noakes said, “and some will encounter electrical fields while passing through power dams. When they reach the ocean, they may swim by structures or cables that could interfere with navigation. Do these have an impact? We don’t yet know.”

Putman said natural disruptions could include chunks of iron in the Earth’s crust, though “salmon have been dealing with that for thousands of years.”

“Juvenile salmon face their highest mortality during the period when the first enter the ocean,” Putman said, “because they have to adapt to a saltwater environment, find food, avoid predation, and begin their journey. Anything that makes them navigate less efficiently is a concern because if they take a wrong turn and end up in a barren part of the ocean, they are going to starve.”

The magnetic field is likely not the only tool salmon use to navigate, however, Putman noted.

“They likely have a whole suite of navigational aids that help them get where they are going, perhaps including orientation to the sun, sense of smell and others,” Putman said.

The Oregon Hatchery Research Center is funded by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and jointly run by ODFW and Oregon State University.

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Nathan Putman, 205-218-5276; Nathan.putman@oregonstate.edu

David Noakes, 541-737-1953; david.noakes@oregonstate.edu

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War on lionfish shows first promise of success

 

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1f9fqbg

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – It may take a legion of scuba divers armed with nets and spears, but a new study confirms for the first time that controlling lionfish populations in the western Atlantic Ocean can pave the way for a recovery of native fish.

Even if it’s one speared fish at a time, it finally appears that there’s a way to fight back.

Scientists at Oregon State University, Simon Fraser University and other institutions have shown in both computer models and 18 months of field tests on reefs that reducing lionfish numbers by specified amounts – at the sites they studied, between 75-95 percent – will allow a rapid recovery of native fish biomass in the treatment area, and to some extent may aid larger ecosystem recovery as well.

It’s some of the first good news in a struggle that has at times appeared almost hopeless, as this voracious, invasive species has wiped out 95 percent of native fish in some Atlantic locations.

“This is excellent news,” said Stephanie Green, a marine ecologist in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and lead author on the report just published in Ecological Applications. “It shows that by creating safe havens, small pockets of reef where lionfish numbers are kept low, we can help native species recover.

“And we don’t have to catch every lionfish to do it.”

That’s good, researchers say, because the rapid spread of lionfish in the Atlantic makes eradication virtually impossible. They’ve also been found thriving in deep water locations which are difficult to access.

The latest research used ecological modeling to determine what percentage of lionfish would have to be removed at a given location to allow for native fish recovery. At 24 coral reefs near Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, researchers then removed the necessary amount of lionfish to reach this threshold, and monitored recovery of the ecosystem.

On reefs where lionfish were kept below threshold densities, native prey fish increased by 50-70 percent. It’s one of the first studies of its type to demonstrate that reduction of an invasive species below an environmentally damaging threshold, rather than outright eradication, can have comparable benefits.

Some of the fish that recovered, such as Nassau grouper and yellowtail snapper, are critically important to local economies. And larger adults can then spread throughout the reef system – although the amount of system recovery that would take place outside of treated areas is a subject that needs additional research, they said.

Where no intervention was made, native species continued to decline and disappear.

The lionfish invasion in the Atlantic, believed to have begun in the 1980s, now covers an area larger than the entirety of the United States. With venomous spines, no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, and aggressive behavior, the lionfish have been shown to eat almost anything smaller than they are – fish, shrimp, crabs and octopus. Lionfish can also withstand starvation for protracted periods – many of their prey species will disappear before they do.

Governments, industry and conservation groups across this region are already trying to cull lionfish from their waters, and encourage their use as a food fish. Some removal efforts have concentrated on popular dive sites.

The scientists said in their report that the model used in this research should work equally well in various types of marine habitat, including mangroves, temperate hard-bottom systems, estuaries and seagrass beds.

A major issue to be considered, however, is where to allocate future removal efforts. Marine reserves, which often allow “no take” of any marine life in an effort to recover fish populations, may need to be the focus of lionfish removal. The traditional, hands-off concept in such areas may succeed only in wiping out native species while allowing the invasive species to grow unchecked.

Keeping lionfish numbers low in areas that are hot spots for juvenile fish, like mangroves and shallow reefs, is also crucial, the report said.

This research was done in collaboration with scientists at Simon Fraser University, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and the Cape Eleuthera Institute. It has been supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Boston Foundation and a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship.

“Many invasions such as lionfish are occurring at a speed and magnitude that outstrips the resources available to contain and eliminate them,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “Our study is the first to demonstrate that for such invasions, complete extirpation is not necessary to minimize negative ecological changes within priority habitats.”

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Stephanie Green, 541-908-3839

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Amber fossil reveals ancient reproduction in flowering plants

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A 100-million-year old piece of amber has been discovered which reveals the oldest evidence of sexual reproduction in a flowering plant – a cluster of 18 tiny flowers from the Cretaceous Period – with one of them in the process of making some new seeds for the next generation.

The perfectly-preserved scene, in a plant now extinct, is part of a portrait created in the mid-Cretaceous when flowering plants were changing the face of the Earth forever, adding beauty, biodiversity and food. It appears identical to the reproduction process that “angiosperms,” or flowering plants still use today.

Researchers from Oregon State University and Germany published their findings on the fossils in the Journal of the Botanical Institute of Texas.

The flowers themselves are in remarkable condition, as are many such plants and insects preserved for all time in amber. The flowing tree sap covered the specimens and then began the long process of turning into a fossilized, semi-precious gem. The flower cluster is one of the most complete ever found in amber and appeared at a time when many of the flowering plants were still quite small.

Even more remarkable is the microscopic image of pollen tubes growing out of two grains of pollen and penetrating the flower’s stigma, the receptive part of the female reproductive system. This sets the stage for fertilization of the egg and would begin the process of seed formation – had the reproductive act been completed.

“In Cretaceous flowers we’ve never before seen a fossil that shows the pollen tube actually entering the stigma,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the OSU College of Science. “This is the beauty of amber fossils. They are preserved so rapidly after entering the resin that structures such as pollen grains and tubes can be detected with a microscope.”

The pollen of these flowers appeared to be sticky, Poinar said, suggesting it was carried by a pollinating insect, and adding further insights into the biodiversity and biology of life in this distant era. At that time much of the plant life was composed of conifers, ferns, mosses, and cycads.  During the Cretaceous, new lineages of mammals and birds were beginning to appear, along with the flowering plants. But dinosaurs still dominated the Earth.

“The evolution of flowering plants caused an enormous change in the biodiversity of life on Earth, especially in the tropics and subtropics,” Poinar said.

“New associations between these small flowering plants and various types of insects and other animal life resulted in the successful distribution and evolution of these plants through most of the world today,” he said. “It’s interesting that the mechanisms for reproduction that are still with us today had already been established some 100 million years ago.”

The fossils were discovered from amber mines in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. The newly-described genus and species of flower was named Micropetasos burmensis.

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George Poinar, 541-752-0917

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