Nantucket BioDiversity Initiative
Island Science

2015 Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative Spawns Research & Surprises

~ by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay, Director, University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station ~

This article will be my last one for Yesterday’s Island. My husband, Len Germinara, and I are moving off island this winter because I am joining the Executive team at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic Colorado ( We are excited about our new adventure although sad to leave such a magical place. I have really enjoyed writing these columns for the past eight years and I will be rechecking the facts and bundling them into a new book that should be ready by Daffodil weekend.

This past weekend gave me fodder for another 5-6 columns as Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative associated scientists gathered on island to tell the public about their research over the past few years. The UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station has housed many of these scientists and provided everything from lab space to waders to equipment and boats. Scientists from off-island have been invited to join our local experts to locate, identify and study Nantucket’s under-studied species of interest. Every other year, we feature a Nantucket Biodiversity Week in either the spring or fall in which scientists fan out over the island with citizen scientists and naturalists to count, record, photograph, measure, or observe a variety of life. We held our first Nantucket Biodiversity Week in May of 2004. The alternate years, we hold a conference for these researchers to present their findings.

Nantucket’s physical isolation from the mainland creates a relatively closed system for non-migratory species that allows us to investigate a wide range of habitat-based questions. Nantucket Island juts out a bit along the Atlantic seashore flyway and functions as a way station for many migratory species from birds to bats to butterflies. Through the exploration of the variability in biodiversity between the Cape and the Islands and the mainland, we can start to understand how island biogeography, climate change, and the sequestering of gene pools make our island, in effect, a living experiment. For the past eleven years, island conservation groups and scientists have banded together to conduct their own research and fund outside research groups investigating our plants, lichens, mushrooms, birds, snakes, ants, spiders, beetles, and everything in between. Some of this research builds upon decades of biological observations and research. We are also interested in recording any detectable biodiversity shifts following hundreds of years of land alterations. The isolation and geologic history of Nantucket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget Islands have created a cornucopia of distinctive flora and fauna that occupy niches near the geographical and climatological northern and southern limits of their ranges. Many of these species are rare regionally and even globally. In fact, there are more Massachusetts state-listed endangered species on Nantucket than in any other county in the state.

The purpose of the Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative is to achieve much more than each of the members organization could do on their own. By combining our resources and expertise we can entice a variety of scientists and naturalists to come out here and find out what exists on the island before it disappears. For field station directors around the country and land management trusts and conservation groups, biodiversity surveys are crucial in evaluating how to manage conservation land in order to protect essential habitat. Our sandplain grasslands, one of the most endangered habitats in the world, are an example of a very important and rare habitat that is vital to protect.

Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative members have selected 21 specific plots in 21 different habitats in order to coordinate the research conducted and assist scientists in the field that might not be familiar with Nantucket. These plots also allow us to record plant and animal life in the same area over time to document any changes. Each of these ten hectare (10,000 square meters or about 2.5 U.S. survey acres) plots is representative of a different habitat on Nantucket from salt marshes to sandplain grasslands to scrub oak forest and heathlands. We ask visiting scientists to perform as much of the research as possible within these plots so that we can maintain a long term database of biodiversity-related changes. The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative supports biodiversity related research on Nantucket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget Islands through our annual Small Grants program. This program awards grants of $1,500 or less to researchers from all areas of the sciences. Funding is available for the purchase of research equipment, travel to the Islands for research, field supplies, and sample processing. Additional information can be found on the web site ( and grant applications are typically due in February each year.

This year’s conference had a few shockers. Danielle O’Dell, a Research Technician/Field Supervisor with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and Maria Mitchell Association’s Director of Natural Science Program Andrew McKenna-Foster set up baited camera traps with their interns to see which animals feed on carrion left around the island. They used mice primarily as bait and instead of capturing on film a horde of cats, crows, or vultures they instead documented blue jays, catbirds, towhees, deer (?) and rats as the dominant visitors. Nantucket does not have larger carrion eaters like big cats or other mammals and the fate of burying beetles may depend on what type of competition they have for their food source. They did this work under a canopy of brush and in the open and on average the bait was removed completely in 3-4 days. Their experiments were primarily looking at the vertebrate grave robbers, not the insect kind.

If you think that sounds fun, Allison Black (Central Connecticut State University) and Dick Veit (CSI/CUNY, Staten Island, NY) banded 300 Great Black Backed (GBBG) and Herring Gull (HERG) chicks and got to sort through their regurgitated lunches to determine their diets. These species will throw up if approached by something that may be a predator like a human in the hopes that the predator will go for the free pre-moistened meal instead of a fluffy chick (for a human both sound pretty gross). For years, people thought the GBBG ate herring chicks but not a single semi-digested chick was seen in the samples. Instead, lots of the extremely abundant squid (Loligo pealei) and sand lance and even blueberries (HERG) were found as expelled offerings. What food is available depends of what type of fish may be driven to the surface by nets, large fish, or seals as both species of gulls are not diving champs like other aquatic birds. Both species of gulls have declined significantly over the past few decades. According to their abstract “Part of the precipitous decline of gulls, perhaps most of it, reflects changes in garbage dumping procedures and decline of New England fisheries.”

Throughout the day, revelations and explanations started to fill in the holes of knowledge. WE have Northern Long eared bats here along with many other migratory bat species (more than ever recorded). UMass Boston graduate student Marc Hensel, who has been doing research at the field station all summer, has been learning a lot about our crab species and how the cordgrass is affected by changes in the invertebrate and fish populations. Our marshes are extremely diverse when compared to other marshes nearby and the number and variety of bird species shows that for egrets and herons, Folger’s marsh is a banquet. Graduate students from UMass Boston in Dr. Rob Stevenson’s lab investigated ants and used genetic sequencing to see if Muskeget’s voles are a truly different species. Although Microtus breweri (Muskeget beach vole) looks different, it seems that genetically they are not distinct from Microtus pennsylvanicus and is likely a subspecies. And remember my article about the cyanobacteria that we thought might be Lyngbya spp. ( Well, apparently most filamentous cyanobacteria look alike! UMass Dartmouth Professor Pia Moisander after several exhaustive genetics studies determined that it is more likely that the nasty “algae” (actually cyanobacteria) growing epiphytically on the eelgrass is likely Hydrocoleum sp. and is a nitrogen fixer (which means it sequesters nitrogen from the air and does not use much of the excess nitrate in the water column) and is not a toxin producer and may be from Spain! Who knew?

Charley Eiseman ( ) presented year five of his explorations of the gall and leaf miners of Nantucket. Every time Charley has explored various plants on island he has found a new species tunneling through a leaf or creating an alien-esque gall that looks more like a ”tumor” than a comfy home for an insect. The day was filled with great talks that detailed all the hard work scientists are doing at our various organization. I highly recommend checking out the NBI web site and reading the abstracts. We will be putting all the data and presentations online at I believe the video links for the talks will be provided by NCTV 18. Or you can borrow the 14 pages of notes I took as I only skimmed the surface in this article.

Peter Brace, island author, naturalist, and owner of Nantucket Walkabout ( led an enthralled group of scientists and lay people on a walk Sunday morning in the Shawkemo Hills part of the island, expertly detailing how glaciers created the island along the trek. I travel that area all the time and know a lot about it and still learned new things while seeing the islands lesser known vistas.

The Nantucket Biodiversity Initiative wants to thank ReMain Nantucket for their support of this event. With their help we are able to hold the conference at the Nantucket Hotel which has plenty of room for our growing audience. The Hyline, Nantucket Atheneum, Brotherhood of Thieves, Simply with Style (catering), Nantucket Community School, Nantucket Walkabout, and Annye’s Whole Foods also contributed to the weekend’s events. Members of the NBI include: the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, Maria Mitchell Association, Massachusetts Audubon Society, Nantucket Conservation Foundation, Nantucket Garden Club, Nantucket Islands Land Bank Commission, Nantucket Memorial Airport, Nantucket Land Council, Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program of Massachusetts Division of Fisheries & Wildlife, Science Department of Nantucket High School, The Trustees of Reservations, the Tuckernuck Land Trust, the University of Massachusetts Boston Nantucket Field Station and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. These groups do a tremendous service for our community by banding together and providing opportunities for citizen scientists, naturalists, educators, the public and scientists to work together.

Last but not least, I hope the spirit of island science and conservation continues to thrive. This is a great place to do science and learn about the natural world. Thanks for reading my columns and keep an eye out for a collection of these essays. I want to thank Suzanne Daub for encouraging me to write these articles and my husband Len for putting up with me early morning writing sessions.

Previous articles describing the search for biodiversity:

Articles by Date from 2012