Interviews

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How Clay Caterpillars Help Unlock Biodiversity’s Secrets

Friday, July 22nd, 2016
Anna Nordseth surveys clay caterpillars for damage in BiodiversiTREE plot

Anna Nordseth surveys clay caterpillars for predation damage in BiodiversiTREE plot (Credit: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

Anna Nordseth, a summer intern for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab, wasn’t surprised to be taking work home the first week and a half of her internship. What she wasn’t expecting was to be making nearly a thousand clay caterpillars.

Each caterpillar began life as a half gram of green clay, with a wire spine and ends rolled into a worm-like silhouette. By the time Nordseth had finished—several podcasts and three seasons of House of Cards later—she had 900 caterpillars and the hand cramps to prove it. But she was ready to begin her research.

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Q&A: Preparing a Safety Net for Native Plants

Monday, July 18th, 2016
Tony Dove in the garden pond in front of the SERC Administration Building

Tony Dove in the garden pond in front of the SERC Administration Building. (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

What do we do when native plants lose? About five years ago, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture joined forces to back up seed sources of native plant species, just in case something threatens to wipe them out—but for some species, it looks like we might need them sooner rather than later. Learn more about the partnership and the pros of gardening with natives in this edited Q&A with Smithsonian Environmental Research Center horticulturalist Tony Dove.

Can you tell me about the native sentinel plant species partnership between SERC and the Department of Agriculture?

The Department of Agriculture has a woody plant germplasm conservation center in Beltsville. And what they do is they go around to different locations throughout the country and they collect seeds of various native plants. They grow those native plants in a nursery with the expectation that they will then take those plants and put them out into landscapes in different areas, so that there will always be a seed source for those particular plants if something tragically happens in the area where those plants grew.

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Invasive Ascidians Are a (Potentially Delicious) Recipe for Disaster

Thursday, July 14th, 2016
Christina Simkanin prepares to dive into a marina to survey for ascidians

Christina Simkanin prepares to dive to survey ascidians. (Credit: Natalia Filip, University of Victoria, BC, Canada)

by Emily Li

Smithsonian biologists are on the trail of invasive ascidians. But with roughly 2300 species worldwide, describing these marine filter feeders (also known as “tunicates” or “sea squirts”) for a Most Wanted sign is tricky. Some ascidians are solitary; some are social. Some breed sexually, some asexually. Some, like Botrylloides magnicoecum, form large colonies of what look like octopus tentacles ringed in gold and highlighter blue. Others, like Rhopalaea crassa, resemble a cross between ghostly butterfly cocoons and pastel-colored pencil grips, while Polycarpa aurata is bulbous and mustard-yellow, with navy-blue veins that flare into trumpets.

When they invade new territory, ascidians can leave trails of damage in their wakes—but not always in ways scientists predict. In a new study published in the July issue of Marine Biology, a team of Smithsonian researchers, including marine ecologist Christina Simkanin of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), tracked their invasions across North America.

What they found seemed simple at first: North America’s 26 non-native ascidian species have spread so much they’re now established along nearly 3000 miles of its coastlines. But a few surprises were hiding in the details.

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All About That Base…Pairs: Using DNA Barcoding to Identify Fish Gut Contents

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Rob Aguilar takes photos of all DNA barcoding reference specimens collected in the Chesapeake Bay

Rob Aguilar takes photos of all DNA barcoding reference specimens they collect in the Chesapeake Bay

Rob Aguilar of SERC’s Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab co-authored a DNA barcoding paper this past September in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes. Rob spoke with us about his paper and the DNA barcoding work going on in the Fish and Invertebrate Lab. While the term DNA barcoding may seem difficult to understand, it’s easiest to think about it as a uniquely identifiable species level code.

Click the sound file below to listen to the interview.

Additional barcoding details are available in the full podcast transcript.

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What Does Life in the Ocean Sound Like?

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Erica Staaterman in the [X] with baby [X].

Erica Staaterman selfie with a baby larval snapper. (Erica Staaterman)

by Kristen Minogue

Dr. Erica Staaterman listens to the ocean for a living. Often seen as a silent landscape broken only by whale or dolphin songs, Staaterman is helping uncover a wealth of noise from the ocean’s hidden creatures, first in California and now in the Chesapeake as a postdoc for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Learn more in the edited Q&A below, and click the sound files to hear some of the secret sounds of the sea.

How did you get into acoustic ecology?

My first research job out of my undergrad was working for Sheila Patek at UC Berkeley….She had a bunch of recordings of these [California spiny] lobsters making sound, and nobody really understood why they make sound. So we did an experiment where we tried to understand the function of the sounds made by these lobsters. So anyway, that was sort of my first foray into acoustics, and from there I just thought it was really fascinating.

In California, you described researching a chorus of mantis shrimp. What did that sound like?

We called them rumble groups. Sometimes they would have two rumbles per group, sometimes three rumbles per group, sometimes four or five….At dawn and dusk you would hear so many different rumble groups occurring at the same time that they would all be sort of overlapping, and it seems to indicate that there are many individuals making sound at the same time, just the way birds all sing out at once in air.

Listen below: Mantis Shrimp “Rumble Groups” Click to continue »

Two New Bryozoan Species Discovered Off Portugal

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: SERC research associate and Portuguese native João Canning-Clode. (Credit: Valentyna Chan)

SERC research associate and Portuguese native João Canning-Clode. (Valentyna Chan)

Since he began surveying the waters of Madeira two years ago, João Canning-Clode has discovered a new invasive species almost every month. The archipelago off the coast of Portugal is a hot spot for biodiversity, especially for bryozoans – “moss animals” that often cover rocks, piers and other artificial substrates. But he didn’t anticipate finding a completely new species, let alone two.

Bryozoans are easy to mistake for plants or corals from a distance. Some resemble moss as they form encrusting colonies on underwater rocks. Others form branching, bush-like colonies that look more like algae or corals. Up close, though, a single colony can contain millions of individual, tube-shaped zooids. The zooids support each other. But break a piece off, and a single zooid can start a new colony of its own.

The team named the new species Favosipora purpurea (for its pinkish-purple color) and Rhynchozoon papuliferum (for its special triangular-shaped zooids). In this Q&A, Canning-Clode, a research associate with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, details the dual discovery published this month.

FavasiporaPurpurea_PatricioRamalhosa

 Rhynchozoon_papuliferum_Web
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Q&A: The Heart of the Ocean

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013
Before joining MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy did research in waters from Australia to Siberia. (Photo: College of William and Mary)

Before joining MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy did research in waters from Australia to Siberia. (Photo: College of William & Mary)

by Kristen Minogue

It’s “the largest, coolest marine biological project on Earth,” according to its new director, Emmett Duffy. On Sept. 16 Duffy came on board the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, a.k.a. MarineGEO–the Smithsonian’s global network to monitor the oceans. So far it has five stations tracking the ocean’s chemistry and biology, from SERC in Maryland to STRI in Panama. They plan to add at least 10 more in the next decade. Now, after two months on the job, Duffy shares his vision in this edited Q&A.

What’s the main purpose of MarineGEO?

The overall goal really is a very ambitious one. In my mind, it’s to understand what’s at the heart of how marine ecosystems work…and that is biodiversity. The living web from microbes to large predators that are responsible for ecosystem processes like fish production and habitat creation. So basically what we want to do is map marine biodiversity and what it’s doing across the globe.

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Once an invasive, always an invasive?

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

by Monaca Noble and Paul Fofonoff

The European green crab has been on the east coast of the U.S. since 1817. (SERC)

The European green crab has been on the east coast of the U.S. since 1817. (SERC)

The title question was raised by one of the readers of last month’s feature story on green crabs (Carcinus maenas). The reader asked, “If the green crab was first seen here [the East Coast of the US] in 1817, is it still considered an invasive species 200 years later? How far back do you go to claim something is invasive vs. native?” Several groups of people have drawn their own lines in the sand, but we wanted to examine current thoughts and perceptions. The following article is based on views expressed in a recent listserve discussion.

The term invasive was used in the green crab article because the crab is on the list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species. But it is also commonly used as a synonym of introduced. Which brings us to the importance of terms and definitions.

As one respondent pointed out, there are different interpretations of the term “invasive.” Some people define invasive in terms of a species’ ecological impact or behavior, while others use it to refer to a species’ origin, and sometimes both are part of the definition. If a species’ characterization as invasive is based only on its ecological behavior, then it is possible for a species to be both native and invasive. But if the species’ origin is part of the definition, then only nonnative species can be invasive. Others add another dimension to the word by making the mode of introduction important. Species can be spread naturally through dispersal and/or through human-mediated transport. Some people use invasive in reference to human-mediated introductions of nonnative species. Unfortunately, when we hear the word “invasive” we rarely know the definition behind it.

But whether something is considered invasive appears to be largely a matter of perception rather than just definition, and there are many contributing factors that muddy the water. Most responses from the discussion fell into three perception categories represented by these questions:

1) Do we benefit from the species, or is it harmful?

2) Is the species part of what we consider the natural landscape?

3) Is the species native?

Maybe our problem is that we view nature in the time frame of a biologist’s career-span.”

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Intern Logs: A Soldier and a Scientist

Friday, August 19th, 2011

This summer the SERC interns had a unique addition to their ranks – Iraq veteran Kiel Edson, a former Marine finishing his last year of undergrad at California State University, Sacramento. In this edited Q&A, the 28-year-old shares thoughts on Iraq, SERC and the transition from soldier to researcher.

Edson1

After five years working as a Russian linguist for the Marines, 28-year-old Kiel Edson started college and discovered his passion for conservation biology. (Credit: Michael Tobias.)

What kind of work did you do for the Marines in Iraq?

E: I was part of a group of what’s called Signal Support Team. We basically go out onto missions off the base, closer to the main cities, and we collect intelligence on what’s happening within the city. And then anything relevant that we find, we basically just write-up in situation reports or intelligence reports and send them off to the commanders who are making decisions as to how to handle the situations in that city. We just tell them, hey, they know that you’re going to ambush, or they know about the convoy going through on Thursday, so that they can change the way that they operate to avoid taking casualties, or they know going in there’s going to be a firefight, so everybody’s prepared for it. It’s not a surprise.
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Five Minutes for Mangroves

Monday, July 26th, 2010

Hallmark may not have a card for it, but today is International Mangrove Action Day.

Photo of a creek surrounded by a mangrove forest

Photo: Ilka C. Feller/Smithsonian Institution

The occasion is a small but vibrant tradition that has been observed annually on July 26th for nearly a decade in countries around the globe, including the U.S., India, Ecuador, Micronesia and many others. To celebrate, some communities organize protests or restoration projects. Some convene discussions or offer educational lectures about mangrove ecology. Others simply take a moment to appreciate the importance of mangrove forests.
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