Six Reasons To Celebrate World Wetlands Day

Posted by KristenM on February 2nd, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

SERC scientist Lisa Schile in a marsh in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Lisa Schile.)

February 2 is most widely known as Groundhog Day, the day people all over the U.S. look to a rodent in Pennsylvania to predict the future. But it also marks a less famous holiday: World Wetlands Day, celebrated around the world since 1997, to mark the first international agreement to protect wetlands on Feb. 2, 1971. Curious why anyone would make a holiday for wetlands? Here are a few reasons to celebrate the unsung guardians along our shores.

wetland covered by grasses and yellow flowers

A wetland by the Kenai River in Alaska (Dennis Whigham)

  1. They protect our homes from storms and floods. Standing between us and the elements, wetlands soak up destructive energy from waves and storm surges. In an extreme example, it’s estimated during Hurricane Sandy wetlands along the East Coast prevented $625 million in property damage.
  2. They help keep pollution out of Chesapeake Bay and other waterways. Wetlands are sometimes called the “kidneys” of the Bay, because they’re able to filter out pollution from fertilizers, sewage, pesticides and harmful toxins before it streams into the water.
  3. red-winged blackbird among reeds.

    Red-winged blackbird. Wetlands provide a home or resting point for many birds on their migrations. (Kristen Minogue/SERC)

  4. They’re good for our drinking water. Most of the water we drink comes from groundwater beneath the surface. But wetlands can replenish it as some of their water seeps underground. And because of their filtering powers, the water is cleaner after passing through a wetland.
  5. Birds and fish love them. Herons, egrets, ducks and bald eagles all pass through Chesapeake wetlands as visitors or year-round residents. Striped bass and other popular fish rely on them for spawning ground or nurseries, as do crabs and shellfish.
  6. They store carbon. Plants soak up carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, making them critical players in fighting climate change. “Blue carbon” is the official name for carbon stored in wetlands and other coastal ecosystems. At the same time, wetland soils can also emit methane, another powerful greenhouse gas, making it tricky to know how much carbon wetlands store overall. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are helping devise better ways to calculate this. So far they’ve found wetlands with more saltwater generally emit less methane and store more carbon.
  7. They’re natural air conditioning. With their lush plants and high water levels, wetlands can radiate moist air, cooling down areas nearby. This makes planting wetlands especially valuable near cities in tropical or dry climates.

Learn more:

Wetlands Can Resist Rising Seas, If We Let Them

The Blue Carbon Market Is Open

Coffee, Carbon and Crime: 22 Reasons to Love Trees

 

Double Trouble? Tracking the Growth of Young Oysters Stressed by Acidity and Low Oxygen

Posted by KristenM on January 10th, 2018

by Cosette Larash

The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is one of the most important species in Chesapeake Bay. These shellfish filter the water, their reefs provide shelter for other marine species, and they’re an important seafood resource. But their numbers have hit a historical low due to overfishing, diseases like Dermo, and stressors such as hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen) and acidification (low pH).

Biologists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) want to find out whether the double stresses of low oxygen and acidification can stunt oyster growth. Studies have shown that juvenile oysters grown under low oxygen are generally smaller than oysters grown under normal oxygen conditions. However, scientists still don’t know how these oysters fare over the long term. The answers could help aquaculture and oyster restoration projects all over the Chesapeake adapt to the often extreme conditions beneath the surface. Click to continue »

 

The Ocean Is Losing Its Breath. Here’s the Global Scope.

Posted by KristenM on January 4th, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

Dead corals and crab shells

Low oxygen caused the death of these corals and others in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The dead crabs pictured also succumbed to the loss of dissolved oxygen.
(Credit: Arcadio Castillo/Smithsonian)

In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950. Scientists expect oxygen to continue dropping even outside these zones as Earth warms. To halt the decline, the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution, an international team of scientists asserted in a new paper published Jan. 4 in Science.

“Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” said Denise Breitburg, lead author and marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”

Click to continue »

 

In San Francisco, One Wet Winter Can Switch Up Bay’s Invasive Species

Posted by KristenM on December 7th, 2017

Winter rains make Bay less salty, knocking back some invaders

by Kristen Minogue

Man in sunglasses on rocky beach

Marine ecologist Andrew Chang tracks invasive species in California, and is discovering ways climate change and extreme weather can alter the playing field. (Credit: Julia Blum)

For many Californians, last year’s wet winter triggered a case of whiplash. After five years of drought, rain from October 2016 to February 2017 broke more than a century of records thanks to a series of “Pineapple Express” storms, referring to atmospheric rivers that ferry moisture from Hawaii to the Pacific Coast. In San Francisco Bay, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center biologists discovered a hidden side effect: All that freshwater rain can turn the tables on some of the bay’s invasive species.

“As you get wetter and wetter, there are fewer and fewer [marine] species that can tolerate those conditions,” said Andrew Chang, lead author of the new study published Dec. 7 in Global Change Biology.

Click to continue »

 

Bering Sea Days: Teaching Science
on the Last Frontier

Posted by KristenM on December 5th, 2017

by Linda McCann, SERC biologist

The teachers on Alaska’s Pribilof Islands have a tradition. Every year for the last decade, they have invited scientists, educators and innovators from across the U.S. to take over their school for a week. The festival is known as Bering Sea Days. This year, marine biologist Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center joined a team of 22 scientists and educators, leading games and activities to teach the community about the research being done on the unique animals and environment of the Bering Sea. Read the first-hand narrative below for a glimpse inside this remote Alaskan community.

Hiking through grassland

Students and educators hike through the rugged landscape of Alaska’s St. Paul Island. (Credit: Linda McCann)

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Volunteer Spotlight: Steve Myers

Posted by KristenM on October 24th, 2017
Man sitting on bench on beach

SERC volunteer Steve Myers sits at the SERC seining beach, where students from all over the Chesapeake wade into the water to search for fish. (Credit: Sara Richmond)

by Sara Richmond

After Steve Myers retired from a nearly 40-year career in information technology, he decided to try something different. Over the last two years, that “something different” has included teaching students how to use seining nets and paddle canoes, measuring trees at a stream restoration site, banding ospreys, and monitoring mangroves as a citizen science and education volunteer at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).

With SERC’s education program, Steve leads field trips with visiting students. “One of my favorite parts of volunteering is seeing the reaction on the kids’ faces when they experience something they’ve never done before, especially kids who have grown up in the city,” he says. “Seeing them hold a fish or a crab for a first time—that’s kind of neat.” Occasionally, the students also spot water snakes passing by the seining beach. Steve says some of the kids are tentative about being in the water when snakes are around, but they quickly learn that the snakes won’t bother them. Last year, students named one of the frequently visiting snakes “Bob.” Click to continue »

 

Manmade Docks Offer Surprising Refuge for Endangered Fish

Posted by KristenM on October 20th, 2017

Biologists discover endangered Isthmian goby and other elusive fish thriving around dock pilings

by Kristen Minogue

Isthmian goby and black grouper

Top: Endangered Isthmian goby (Gobiosoma spilotum) found beneath a dock of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Bottom: Threatened black grouper (Mycoptera bonaci) found beneath a Belize dock. Photos: Simon Brandl & Jordan Casey/Smithsonian

The Panama Canal is home to one of the rarest fish in the world: the Isthmian goby, an endangered, brown-speckled fish less than 3 centimeters long. For years scientists thought it remained only at the locks of the canal’s Caribbean entrance, until a team of Smithsonian biologists found one nearly 200 miles away in a place no one expected.

Isthmian gobies (Gobiosoma spilotum) thrive in shallow waters like tropical tidepools. The expansion of the Panama Canal, along with other coastal development, has eaten up much of their habitat. So scientists were shocked to find the goby circling another manmade structure, a dock off the Panamanian island of Bocas del Toro. The team, from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and the National Museum of Natural History, reported their discovery in a new study in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

“I didn’t even know what it was at first,” said Simon Brandl, the study’s lead author and SERC biologist. Though he knew it was a goby of some kind, he was unable to pinpoint the species. So Brandl sent the mystery photo to scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. “They were like, holy cow, this is Gobiosoma spilotum.” Click to continue »

 

Following the Movement of Life: Tagging Sharks and Rays

Posted by KristenM on October 12th, 2017

by Cosette Larash and Claire Mueller

For the last three years, a team of biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has been tracking stingrays, sharks and other species along the East coast of the United States. Matt Ogburn and Charles Bangley are leading the project, in an effort to learn more about these charismatic yet often misunderstood animals. It’s part of the Movement of Life Initiative, a developing program in animal tracking research conducted by Smithsonian Institution researchers and their colleagues.

Ogburn and Bangley are focusing on five species: Cownose Rays and four major species of sharks (Bull Sharks, Blacktip Sharks, Dusky Sharks, and Smooth Dogfish). They began tagging cownose rays in 2014, and added on sharks in 2016. By understanding the movement patterns of these animals, the Smithsonian biologists and their colleagues hope to unlock some of the mystery that surrounds them. For example, scientists know Cownose Rays are born in the Chesapeake Bay and return when they’re about four years old, but no one knows where they go in the meantime. The sharks they are studying all occupy similar areas, but use underwater habitats differently. By learning how and where these organisms move, they can understand their environment as well.

In the future, the scientists hope to use the data to uncover when and why these species occupy different areas, and determine the potential impact of human activities such as fisheries and offshore wind farms. Check out the videos above and below to learn more about these projects.

Learn more about the Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative

Learn more about Ogburn and Bangley’s Movement of Life work tracking aquatic migrations

 

Tsunami Enabled Hundreds of Species to Raft Across Pacific

Posted by KristenM on September 28th, 2017

Biologists Detect Longest Transoceanic Rafting Voyage for Coastal Species

by Kristen Minogue

Barnacle-coated boat with Japanese characters washed up on beach

A Japanese tsunami vessel washed ashore in Oregon, coated in gooseneck barnacles. In a new study, scientists detected 289 species that rafted from Japan to the U.S. on tsunami debris, and they suspect many more were undetected. (Credit: John Chapman)

The 2011 Japanese tsunami set the stage for something unprecedented. For the first time in recorded history, scientists have detected entire communities of coastal species crossing the ocean by floating on makeshift rafts. Nearly 300 species have appeared on the shores of Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast attached to tsunami debris, marine biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Williams College and other institutions reported in the journal Science on Thursday.

The tsunami formed March 11, 2011, triggered by an earthquake of 9.0 moment magnitude that struck Japan the same day. When it reached the shore, the tsunami towered 125 feet (38.38 meters) over Japan’s Tōhoku coast and swept millions of objects out to sea, from small pieces of plastic to fishing boats and docks. These kinds of objects, scientists said, helped the species attached to them complete the transoceanic journey.

“I didn’t think that most of these coastal organisms could survive at sea for long periods of time,” said Greg Ruiz, a co-author and marine biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “But in many ways they just haven’t had much opportunity in the past. Now, plastic can combine with tsunami and storm events to create that opportunity on a large scale.”

Click to continue »

 

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 »