Q&A: Sherman’s Lagoon Cartoonist Jim Toomey on Ocean Conservation with Comics

Posted by KristenM on September 12th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Artist with cartoon shark and cartoon sea turtle looking over his shoulder

Cartoonist Jim Toomey with two of his characters, Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle. (Image courtesy of Jim Toomey)

Since 1997, a great white shark named Sherman has put a wacky spin on life underwater in the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon. Jim Toomey, the comic’s creator and conservationist, uses Sherman and his (usually more intelligent) friends to reveal real issues facing the ocean. In this Q&A, Toomey describes adding humor to environmentalism, and what happens when Sherman’s Lagoon meets Chesapeake Bay. Edited for brevity and clarity.

Want to dive deeper? Watch Jim Toomey’s TED Talk online. You can also meet Toomey at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center October 17 at 7pm, for his free evening lecture, “Drawing Inspiration from the Sea.” Details here.

What first sparked your interest in the sea?

I was a little boy, maybe six, seven, eight years old….Some of the TV shows I used to watch, the Jacques Cousteau specials and things were somewhat unique. And it just fascinated me. It really captured my imagination to see this team of scientists explore this completely alien world. Click to continue »

 

Biodiversity just as powerful as climate change for healthy ecosystems

Posted by KristenM on September 6th, 2017

In the wild, diversity determines ecosystem production as much as climate and nutrients

by Kristen Minogue

Yellow fish swimming around coral reef

A school of grunts explores a shallow reef at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize, one of Smithsonian MarineGEO’s long-term research sites. Biodiversity not only can make sites beautiful, but also can help boost their biomass and make them more productive. (Credit: Ross Whippo/SERC).

Biodiversity is proving to be one of humanity’s best defenses against extreme weather and rising temperatures. In past experiments, diversity has fostered healthier, more productive ecosystems, like shoreline vegetation that guards against hurricanes. However, many experts doubted whether these experiments would hold up in the real world. A Smithsonian and University of Michigan study published in this week’s issue of Nature offers a decisive answer: Biodiversity’s power in the wild does not match that predicted by experiments—it surpasses it, in some cases topping even the effects of climate.

“Biodiversity is not just a pretty face,” said Emmett Duffy, lead author and marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md. “Protecting it is important for keeping the ecosystems working for us, providing food, absorbing waste and protecting shorelines, which is important right now.”

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What Changes When You Warm the Antarctic Ocean Just One Degree? Lots.

Posted by KristenM on August 31st, 2017

Morning commute in Antarctica. (Photo: Lloyd Peck)

Morning commute in Antarctica. (Photo: Lloyd Peck)

After warming a natural seabed in the Antarctic Ocean by just 1° or 2° Celsius, researchers observed massive impacts on a marine assemblage, as growth rates nearly doubled. The findings of what the researchers call the “most realistic ocean warming experiment to date” reported in Current Biology on August 31 show that the effects of future warming may far exceed expectations.

“I was quite surprised,” says Gail Ashton of the British Antarctic Survey and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “I wasn’t expecting a significant observable difference in communities warmed by just 1°C in the Antarctic. I have spent most of my career working in temperate climates where communities experience much greater temperature fluctuations and wasn’t expecting such a response to just 1°C of change.”

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Q&A Interview With Artist Tanja Geis

Posted by KristenM on August 11th, 2017

by Ryan Greene

Two women stand in front of a painting on white wall.

SERC ecologist Chela Zabin (left) with artist Tanja Geis (right) at Geis’ exhibit at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco on July 17, 2017. They are standing in front of Geis’ piece “Layer Cake,” a drawing of an experimental native oyster restoration reef painted using pigment from the mud in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

This summer, Oakland-based artist Tanja Geis teamed up with Smithsonian researchers for her multimedia exhibition, Lurid Ecologies: Ways of Seeing the Bay at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco. Born out of a collaboration with scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Tiburon laboratory, Lurid Ecologies’ explores efforts to restore the Bay’s only native oyster, Ostrea lurida. Geis works at the intersection of visual art and ecology. Her exhibit at the Embark Gallery includes oneiric drawings made with pigment from the Bay’s mud, a 3-channel video installation, and assemblages of tools used to study marine life. This exhibit will be free and open to the public until August 19 at the Embark Gallery in Fort Mason’s Center for Arts & Culture.

To learn more about Geis and her exhibit, check out this interview (edited for clarity and brevity).

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When did you start making art, and why?

My mom is a fashion designer and she went to art school, and so she’s always encouraged me to make art. So, in a sense, I’ve always been making art. But I think maybe the more relevant answer is that I started taking art really seriously about five years ago. It was at that point that I realized that it was pretty much the only thing that was going to check all the boxes for me.

For the past couple months, you’ve been working alongside SERC ecologists in San Francisco Bay. Can you talk a bit about your interest in ecology and how your collaboration with SERC scientists has shaped your recent exhibit?

I’ve always been interested in the nonhuman living world ever since I’ve been a kid. I guess I’m always curious about how these little behavioral differences come together and create a functional ecology. And I’ve always had this parallel interest in biology….I’m very interested in how we conceptualize all these complex interactions that we’re calling ecology….

What surprised me most was how often things don’t go as planned. There are many dead-end experiments, and it really requires this kind of dogged will and tenacity to discover new things, new patterns, new behaviors. I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t get to see. 

We have this idea of scientists in white lab coats with shiny new equipment working under fluorescent lights constantly having these new discoveries. And that’s really not the case. Ecological research is messy, it’s muddy, it’s full of things you can’t control.

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Tidings from the Sunset Coast (4)

Posted by KristenM on August 8th, 2017

An Ecological History of SERC-West’s California Home

By Ryan Greene

An aerial view of a cove with many buildings and a number of moored ships.

A naval net depot was one of the many institutions to occupy the site on the San Francisco Bay where the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies now operates. Photo courtesy of the Tiburon Landmarks Society and Romberg Tiburon Center. [Cropped]

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) main West Coast outpost, SERC-West, is located in Tiburon, California, on San Francisco Bay. The entire stretch of North America separates SERC-West from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. To bridge this distance, we’ve launched “Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer series about all things SERC-West. Our last post explored SERC’s research on invasive green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon. Our next post dives into the history of the site that SERC-West calls home. This blog post is nowhere close to comprehensive. Rather, we hope it can serve as something of a “highlight reel.”

The Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (or Romberg Center for short) sits on a 36-acre parcel of waterfront land whose history is rather kaleidoscopic. Depending on when you were here, you could have found a cod packing plant, cables destined for the Golden Gate Bridge, or multi-mile antisubmarine nets. And this is just a smattering.

The Romberg Center is a research and teaching facility run by San Francisco State University. Nearly two decades ago, in 2000, SERC ecologist Greg Ruiz stationed part of his Marine Invasions Lab here. Since then, this outpost has become the hub of SERC’s West Coast ecological research. In addition to Smithsonian and San Francisco State biologists, the Romberg Center is also home to members of NOAA’s San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Together, these institutions use the historic site as a base for exploring the Bay’s ecology. This, though, is only the most recent in a long line of land uses. And looking more closely at what people have done here in the past can provide a glimpse into a host of ecological issues still shaping San Francisco today. Click to continue »

 

Underwater Sound Reveals Hidden Creatures
on Reefs

Posted by KristenM on August 4th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Fish swimming through a coral reef

A wrasse fish (Halichoeres bivitattus, striped) wanders through a coral reef in Panama. (Credit: Erica Staaterman/SERC)

Coral reefs are home to some of the most colorful, diverse life on the planet. And yet, for all their fame as biodiversity hotspots, it’s estimated that divers see less than half of the fish species that live there (and that’s not counting all the invertebrates like shrimp and crabs). The invisible or “hidden half” consists of fish that aren’t active until nightfall, or conceal themselves in the reefs’ many nooks and crevices.

“Even when you are in the water looking at an animal or a habitat, there’s a lot that you can miss because it’s cryptic or hiding,” said Erica Staaterman, a marine biologist and former postdoc with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Click to continue »

 

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (3)

Posted by KristenM on August 3rd, 2017

Countin’ Crabs at Seadrift Lagoon

by Ryan Greene

Green crabs piled on top of one another.

European green crabs (Carcinus maenas) caught in Seadrift Lagoon (Stinson Beach, CA). Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) largest west coast outpost, SERC-West, sits on San Francisco Bay in Tiburon, California. SERC’s main campus is 2,000+ miles away on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In an attempt to bridge this distance, we’ve launched Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer series highlighting the work at SERC-West. Our most recent story was a spotlight of our summer interns. This post is about the invasive European green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon, just north of San Francisco. Enjoy!

How many crabs are in the lagoon? This question may sound like the middle-school carnival contest of how many jelly beans are in the jar. But for ecologists at SERC-West, it’s no guessing game—the health of an ecosystem hinges on the answer.

A view across water with houses, a mountain, and hanging mist.

Seadrift Lagoon is about 20 miles north of San Francisco Bay, and it’s said to have the highest density of European green crabs on the West Coast. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

Since 2009, Smithsonian scientists have partnered with the University of California, Davis, and Portland State University to tackle a two-clawed problem in Seadrift Lagoon: Carcinus maenas, the invasive European green crab. Seadrift is a small subdivision surrounding an artificial lagoon that sits smack between the Pacific Ocean and Bolinas Lagoon at the northern tip of California’s Stinson Beach. In the early 1990s, green crabs began to take up residence here, and since then they’ve done their fair share of damage.

The primary problems with green crabs in Seadrift are that they’re hungry and there are scads of them. This lagoon houses the highest density of green crabs documented on the West Coast, and they eat a whole lot. In nearby sites, like Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay, green crabs have caused native bivalve populations to plummet, and in some cases they have edged out other native crabs. In Seadrift, the sheer number of green crabs suggests that the impact on the ecosystem may be similarly drastic. That’s why in 2009, scientists at SERC-West, UC Davis, and Portland State started working with community members and citizen science volunteers to remove the crabs from the lagoon. Click to continue »

 

Want Biodiversity? Love Your Enemies…Sometimes

Posted by KristenM on August 1st, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Three separate images of leaf infected by anthracnose, acorn with an insect hole and emerald ash borer.

Signs of three temperate forest enemies, left to right: Anthracnose (SERC), insect hole in an acorn (Jonathan Myers), emerald ash borer (Leah Bauer, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Bugwood.org)

Walk through a forest in Maryland or Missouri, and you’ll probably find yourself surrounded by dozens of different tree species. Walk through a tropical forest in Brazil or Malaysia, and you’ll be surrounded by hundreds—in some forests, over 1,000. What’s behind this colossal difference in diversity? Scientists with the Smithsonian-led ForestGEO network came up with one morbid possibility: It may come down to having the right kind of enemy.

Earlier this summer, in a study in Science, researchers from 24 plots in the forest network from five continents pooled their data and detected a strange pattern: There’s a force at work in the tropics helping rare species thrive, a force that is much weaker in the cooler temperate zone.

Call it a clustering effect. The scientific term is “conspecific negative density dependence,” but it boils down to this: If too many trees of the same species grow in the same spot, they become magnets for enemies that slash their populations. In tropical forests, enemies generally knock them down just enough for new species to fill the gaps, without completely wiping out the first species. The result is a kaleidoscope forest with hundreds of species, many quite rare.

It may seem like a counterintuitive idea, that a lethal enemy could help sustain biodiversity. It can work when this thinning process prevents any one species from dominating.

“Just when a population is ready to take over, it catches a cold,” explained Sean McMahon, a co-author and forest ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). “And so it gets knocked back.”

Click to continue »

 

Scientists Turn Up the Heat on Herbivores and Their Food

Posted by KristenM on July 28th, 2017

By Joe Dawson

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Japanese beetles make a meal of evening primrose leaves (Credit: Dejeanne Doublet/SERC)

Plants can seem pretty boring. They just sit there, after all. Sure, they can be pretty; they can make us sneeze. But what else do they do? A lot, it turns out. They are able to shift their own water and energy resources from leaves to stems to roots and back, grow tall or stay low and bushy, defend themselves through biological warfare, or warn their neighbors of danger. When doors get blocked, plants have ingenious ways of sneaking out through windows.

What, then, will plants do when humans spread a carbon dioxide blanket over the planet, warming it by burning fossil fuels? Research scientist Nate Lemoine of Colorado State University, with John Parker of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and others, decided to investigate one such relationship with an experiment on the SERC campus in 2013 and 2014. Click to continue »

 

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (2)

Posted by KristenM on July 25th, 2017

SERC-West Summer Intern Spotlights

by Ryan Greene

An intern in orange waders sprays a net hanging off the back of a boat.

Intern Elena Huynh helps clean a net during SERC’s annual zooplankton survey in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) main campus is on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. SERC’s largest West Coast outpost, SERC-West, sits on the San Francisco Bay in California. To highlight SERC’s work out west, we’ve started Tidings from the Sunset Coast, a summer series about the life and times of SERC-West. Our first post explored California’s wet winter. This post features the stellar interns who are spending their summer at SERC-West.

Interns at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have the chance to work on independent projects while receiving personalized mentorship in a multidisciplinary atmosphere. Some people conduct experiments, others develop educational programs, and others (like me) write about the happenings at SERC. Simply put, SERC internships let you grow in whatever ways you want to be growing!

Check out the spotlights below to see what the interns at SERC-West are up to this summer. Click to continue »