Q&A: Saving the City With Urban Ecology

Posted by KristenM on October 20th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Painting of adults and children on a brick wall in Baltimore.

Community mural in a Baltimore neighborhood. (BES-LTER)

Preserving the environment is often seen as a battle of development versus nature. But in America today, roughly three-fourths of us live in metropolitan areas. To preserve our health and the planet’s health, we need to create something new: A sustainable city.

Enter urban ecology. Plant ecologist Steward Pickett of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been exploring the ecology of cities—hot spots where society, culture, economics and the environment collide—for more than two decades. In 1997, he and a handful of colleagues started the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term project that now involves more than 100 people. Pickett talks about some of their surprising discoveries in this edited Q&A.  To learn more, you can meet him in person on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s keynote evening lecture.

*Note: Edited for brevity and clarity

Steward Pickett with camera

Steward Pickett (Xiaofang Hu)

How strange was the idea of “urban ecology” when you began?

It was sort of a marginal pursuit. Most ecologists in the United States preferred to think they were working in pristine areas, or at least in areas where the human hand was relatively light on the land… There was this deep, deep bias in ecology to not look at places where people were part of the system … Urban ecology is kind of a way to say, let’s recognize this and see what it’s doing.  Click to continue »


DNA Unlocks Dirty Secrets of Blue Catfish Diets

Posted by KristenM on October 12th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Large blue catfish held on boat by scientist.

Blue catfish SERC biologists dubbed “Megalodon,”  which they tracked moving almost 60 miles along the Patuxent River. (Brooke Weigel/SERC)

White perch, menhaden and darters: These are just a few favorite foods of Maryland’s invasive blue catfish, according to a new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). They’re also known to gorge themselves on larvae of channel catfish—and, occasionally, juveniles of their own kind.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, used DNA barcoding to get to the gut of what blue catfish prey on. Blue catfish arrived in Chesapeake Bay in the 1960s, brought by Virginia managers to establish a fishery. They quickly developed a reputation as voracious predators, threatening to devour many popular fisheries and edge out the Chesapeake’s native white catfish. However, to discover how much they could disrupt the ecosystem, marine biologists need to know exactly what they eat. The only way to do that is to look into their stomachs, where the majority of their prey has been reduced to almost-unrecognizable slop.

Rob Aguilar would know: A biologist with SERC’s Fish and Invertebrate Lab, he’s spent the last few years dissecting blue catfish stomachs and analyzing their insides. Click to continue »


When the Going Gets Tough, Baby Oysters Get Growing

Posted by KristenM on September 23rd, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Andrew Keppel

Andrew Keppel (Credit: Rebecca Burrell/SERC)

Baby oysters are a lot stronger than they look. Living mainly in shallow coastal waters, where oxygen plummets and acidity spikes on a nightly basis, building a decent shell should be a challenge. But after a couple of weeks, young oysters are often able to adjust to the harsh conditions—and, sometimes, even grow more quickly to make up for lost time.

The discovery came from a team of marine ecologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), who published the new study in the journal PLOS ONE.

“It’s really impressive what these oysters are able to do in terms of acclimating to potentially harmful conditions,” said lead author Andrew Keppel, who worked on the project as a graduate student and later technician in SERC’s Marine Ecology Lab, before becoming an oceanography lab manager at the U.S. Naval Academy. Click to continue »


Students ASSEMBLE! How comics can help with science learning

Posted by KristenM on September 14th, 2016
Student learning science from science comic

Student learning science with Balliett’s comic

by Heather Soulen

Middle school can be a tough and unforgiving rite of passage, filled with raging hormones, ill-fitting highwater pants, voices akin to trumpet-wielding geese, and a multitude of distractions. Trying to learn while being swept up in puberty’s turbulence can be challenging. Equally challenging is trying to teach science to often-distracted tweens and teens. Right now, as most U.S. schools begin a new school year, some science educators might be looking for ways to engage their middle-school students with science. One science educator suggests meeting them where their interests lie – comics.

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Unsolved Mysteries: Rising Temps, Falling Marshes?

Posted by KristenM on September 8th, 2016
Scientist holds fistful of soil

SERC biogeochemist Pat Megonigal holds up soil from a marsh in Costa Rica. Marsh soils store vast amounts of carbon, but as temperatures warm, microbes in the soil could release into the atmosphere. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

All over the world, marshes are hanging in a precarious balance. Rising temperatures from climate change could help them grow stronger and store more carbon—or cause them to flood and disappear, says a new article from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). To find answers, scientists need to look underground.

The article is part of a much larger report on the future of warming oceans, released Monday at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s annual conference. Tidal marshes sit right on the boundary of the land and the ocean. For humanity, marshes act as Mother Nature’s guardians. They provide habitat for fish and shellfish, filter out pollution in estuarine water, and help shield homes along the coast from flooding. They’re also hot spots of carbon storage, burying carbon 10 times faster than an equal area of forest. Yet much of their fate remains a mystery.  Click to continue »


Food for Thought: Cooking for Invasive Beetles

Posted by KristenM on August 12th, 2016

by Emily Li

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from hormone trap for his experiment

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from a hormone trap for his experiment (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) intern Cole Caceres has two passions: science and cooking. He enjoys doing research and adding to the larger body of knowledge, but he hasn’t given up on owning his own restaurant. When he’s not studying nitrogen filtration as a laboratory assistant at the University of California, Davis, he’s probably watching Food Network or frying chicken wings in a sweet soy sauce glaze.

But Caceres found the perfect mix of his interests as an intern with SERC’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab. There, he cooks for invasive Japanese beetles, hoping to help shed light on their dietary preferences so that plant conservation initiatives can be more fully informed—one beetle bite at a time.

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Sink or Swim? Divining the Fate of Life-Giving Wetlands

Posted by KristenM on August 12th, 2016

By Emily Li

You might have heard of The Giving Tree, a children’s picture book by Shel Silverstein about a boy and a tree. As the boy grew, he began to want more from the tree, and the tree happily gave and gave and gave: her apples, her branches, and even her trunk. While Silverstein’s heartbreaking story was a fiction, the plot is happening in wetlands around the world—and this time, it’s for real. Marshes improve water quality, mitigate hurricane damage, sequester atmospheric carbon, and serve as ideal habitats and nurseries for wildlife. In return, as sea levels rise, they’re in line to be the first casualties.

SERC intern Jefferson Riera shows off his sunburn.

SERC intern Jefferson Riera shows off his sunburn after a day in the field. (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

That said, marshes are hardly a serene paradise. To Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Jefferson Riera, wetlands are ruined shoes caked in mud. Wetlands are wasp stings on his lips. Wetlands are spider webs of scratches from marsh vegetation. Wetlands are sunburns so severe his skin doesn’t match itself anymore.

And yet, he knows that they’re worth protecting. That’s why he, and the rest of SERC’s Ecological Modeling Lab, are working to develop a baseline understanding of local marsh elevation to educate policymakers on the state of wetlands—before their fates are sealed by the sea.

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The Mystery of the Muddy Creek Restoration

Posted by KristenM on August 8th, 2016
SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading

SERC intern Lauren Mosesso takes a water quality reading (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

One year ago, a team of scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center set out to restore a stream running through its campus in Edgewater, Md. No one ever said it would be simple.

At first glance, the restoration of Muddy Creek seems to be a closed case. Before the project began, the creek’s severely eroded banks were disconnected from its floodplains, turning the stream into a raging river during storms that stripped nutrients from the system and dumped them in the Chesapeake Bay. Now, after a facelift in January, the creek is nearly unrecognizable. Its gentle banks cradle the wide, slow-moving stream littered with leaves, ferns, and an abundance of other plant life. Choruses of croaks fill the air, accompanied by the hum of insects, bird chatter, and the occasional splash of frogs retreating into the cloudy water.

But another layer of mystery is clouding the waters. A mat of red Leptothrix bacteria coats some sections of the site, leading SERC senior scientist Dr. Thomas Jordan and his colleagues to ask a host of new questions. Are the bacteria harmful to the ecosystem, or an important part of the food web? Are they a short-term phenomenon or a permanent fixture to the stream? Exactly how much area do they cover? One SERC intern is hoping to find out.

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Making Noise About Marine Sound Pollution

Posted by KristenM on August 4th, 2016
SERC intern Michelle Hauer sets up her soundscape ecology tank experiment

SERC intern Michelle Hauer sets up her soundscape ecology tank experiment (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

In high school, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Michelle Hauer fell in love with sound. She discovered the cello, which she insisted on bringing to her internship this summer despite having limited space and housing. But her affair with sound didn’t stop there, even as she was exploring her interest in science. While still in high school, she wrote a paper on the effects of naval sonar on marine mammals. Then, while attending DePaul University, Hauer came across the relatively new field of soundscape ecology through a Chicago-based organization called Chicago Wildsounds—and she hasn’t looked back. Now, as a summer intern in SERC’s Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab, Hauer is studying the darker side of sound by researching how noise pollution can affect marine wildlife in the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

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An Acid Test for the Coasts

Posted by KristenM on August 1st, 2016
Graham cleans her equipment of marine organisms

SERC intern Jasmin Graham cleans her equipment of marine organisms (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

Watching educational programs like Animal Planet or That’s My Baby—a series that documents pregnant animals—might evoke memories of flickering classroom projectors for most. But for Jasmin Graham, an intern with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), these shows were her childhood. Her love for marine science and wildlife followed her through high school science fairs and university research on shark genetics at the College of Charleston. Now, at an internship with SERC’s Ocean Acidification Lab, she studies acidification not in the open ocean, but in a far more dramatic arena, where the marine celebrities she grew up with may be at risk.

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