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Key to Oysters’ Future Lies in Past

Monday, May 23rd, 2016
Oyster midden

Typical American Indian oyster deposit, roughly 1,000 years old. (Torben Rick/Smithsonian)

by John Gibbons

Oysters have provided food for humans for millennia, and play an enormous role in sustaining estuaries around the world. Yet after more than a century of overfishing, pollution, disease and habitat degradation, oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere have suffered dramatic declines. But for thousands of years,American Indians in the region harvested the shellfish from the Bay sustainably—a discovery published Monday that could offer clues for future oyster restoration.

Little is known about oyster populations prior to the late 1800s. On May 23 a team of Smithsonian scientists and other researchers published the first bay-wide, millennial-scale study of oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using fossil, archaeological, and modern biological data, the team was able to reconstruct changes in oyster size from four timeframes: the Pleistocene (780,000-13,000 years ago), prehistoric American Indian occupation (3,200 – 400 years ago), historic (400 – 50 years ago) and modern times (2000 to 2014).

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Biodiversity Protects Fish From Climate Change

Monday, May 16th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Fish provide protein to billions of people and are an especially critical food source in the developing world. Today, marine biologists confirmed a key factor that could help them thrive through the coming decades: biodiversity. Communities with more fish species are more productive and more resilient to rising temperatures and temperature swings, according to a new study from the Smithsonian’s Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and other international institutions.

The accelerating loss and rearrangement of species all over the globe have troubled scientists and the public for decades. But the question of whether biodiversity offers practical value—for humans and ecosystems—remained controversial. The new study, published May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers the most thorough proof yet that preserving marine biodiversity can benefit people as much as it benefits the oceans.

“Biodiversity is more than a pretty face,” said lead author Emmett Duffy, director of the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “Preserving biodiversity is not just an aesthetic or spiritual issue—it’s critical to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the important services they provide to humans, like seafood.”

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Limericks, Lab Style

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue and Heather Soulen

May 12 is Limerick Day, which among science aficionados is a time to wax poetic about the joys of research. Or not. When you’re an ecologist, sometimes research is muddy, smelly, or just plain weird. Electric skillets and marbles can become safety features. But then, the thrill of climbing a 120-foot tour can remind you why it’s all worthwhile.

While some limericists adhere rigidly to the anapestic meter, the one thing all limericks have in common is the familiar A-A-B-B-A rhyme scheme. So enjoy a few snapshots in verse about the lesser-known side of environmental science:

Photo: Ally Soren

Ally Soren, Microbial Ecology Lab technician. (SERC)

The Sweet Smell of Science
Are those cow guts that make the lab stench?
Fatty acids make my stomach clench.
They smell like fish and feet
But the microbes must eat,
While my lab mates avoid my work bench.

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Acidification and Low Oxygen Put Fish in Double Jeopardy

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Inland silverside with reflection.

Inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) reflected in aquarium. When threatened with low oxygen, fish often swim to the surface, where oxygen is more abundant but predators can more easily spot them. (SERC)

Severe oxygen drops in the water can leave trails of fish kills in their wakes, but scientists thought adult fish would be more resilient to the second major threat in coastal waters: acidification. A new study published Tuesday from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) shows that is not entirely true—where fish are concerned, acidification can make low oxygen even more deadly.

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New Science Art Exhibit Examines People, Nature and Conservation

Friday, May 6th, 2016
Mirror mosaic mushroom science art along SERC's Java Trail.

“DNA” can be found along the Java Trail.

by Heather Soulen

This year’s theme for SERC’s annual Open House is “Ecosystem Conservation: Where do you fit in?” In the broadest sense, this question got me thinking about people, ecosystem research and conservation. How do we conserve ecosystems and make realistic and manageable policies? As a scientist, science writer/communicator and artist, I decided to explore these question through art, specifically mosaics.

Using art as a way to raise awareness, express one’s thoughts or as a way to create dialog is one of the most wonderful and powerful things about art. Humans have been creating art for some 40,000 to 60,000 years and this timeline could extend farther back as new techniques and technologies become available and new cave art discoveries are made. Over the past decade some field stations and laboratories have incorporated arts and humanities into their programs. Many see it as an opportunity to communicate an agency’s mission, the scientific process, science discoveries and complex scientific concepts or areas of study. A recent essay in the Ecological Society of America’s Ecosphere explores the convergence of science, art and humanities and why it could be important to sustainability, ecosystem stewardship, ecosystem services and conservation strategies in the future.

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DNA Offers New Hope for Saving Orchids

Thursday, March 24th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Melissa McCormick with cranefly orchid

Melissa McCormick kneels over a cranefly orchid. (Yini Ma)

The secret is in the soil. In one of the oddest couples in the natural world, orchids need fungi to grow. But finding those fungi can be tricky, until a new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) used DNA to find them in more places than anyone suspected.

There are 14 federally endangered or threatened orchids in the U.S. alone, and dozens more are endangered or threatened at the state level. Figuring out how to restore any single species is difficult, because there are so many different kinds.

“You’re talking about the largest plant family in the world,” said Melissa McCormick, lead author and SERC molecular ecologist. Orchids grow from islands off Antarctica to the Arctic Circle and just about everywhere in between. “They grow in darn near every environment on Earth.” But for all their diversity, the planet’s 26,000-plus known orchid species have one thing in common: None can germinate in the wild without a suitable fungus. Click to continue »

Say “I Love You” with Ecologically Punny Valentines’ Day Cards

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Enjoy these three groovy and very punny ecology-based Valentine’s Day Cards. To download and print full size cards, please select the pdf option.

 

Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) fry and copepods

Striped bass (Morone saxatilis) fry and copepods

Some fish like striped bass (Morone saxatilis) are born with a nutritive yolk sac. As striped bass develop, their yolk sacs shrink and their mouths develop. When fish are the stage where they are able to eat on their own they are called “fry.”

Download: Small Fry Valentines Card

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Hunt for a Missing Nutrient: Part III

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Tom Jordan beside a V-shaped weir that tracks nutrients in a SERC stream. (SERC)

Tom Jordan beside a V-shaped weir that tracks nutrients in a SERC stream. (SERC)

For years, a team of scientists has been trying to solve a mysterious disappearance at a drainage ditch on the Choptank River Basin, on Maryland’s eastern shore. Every year roughly 32,000 pounds of human-generated nitrogen enters the ditch’s watershed, from fertilizers, air pollution and other sources. But less than a third of that nitrogen typically flows out of the stream.

Tom Jordan has seen it before. A nutrient ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), Jordan has wrestled with the mystery of the missing nitrogen for more than twenty years.

“It feels like a sort of fatal attraction,” Jordan said. Two decades of trial and error and dead ends only fueled his determination to find answers. Now, according to a new January study, Jordan and his colleagues finally have some.

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Get Crafty During Winter Storm Jonas

Friday, January 22nd, 2016
IMG_3659

Jellyfish, cownose ray and blue crab snowflakes

by Heather Soulen

Winter storm Jonas is knocking on our doorsteps here on the East Coast, threatening blizzard conditions in some areas. Many of us will be hunkering down waiting for the storm to pass. We thought we’d create some fun Chesapeake Bay inspired snowflake designs for you and your family to create during the storm. Simply download the pdfs, print them out and follow the instructions at the bottom.

There are four designs to choose from, the easiest being the cownose ray and the most difficult being the blue crab. We’ve provided a blank template for you to create your own Chesapeake Bay or nature inspired design. Since this requires the use of scissors, parents please assist small children.

We’d love to see your snowflakes – be sure to post pictures of your snowflakes on our Facebook page or on Twitter!

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Phragmites vs. Climate Change: Invasive Reed Better at Taking Up Carbon

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Josh Caplan holds Phragmites. (Credit: Tom Mozdzer)

Ecologist and lead author Josh Caplan holds a Phragmites plant at the Global Change Research Marsh. Invasive Phragmites can grow up to 15 feet tall. (Thomas Mozdzer)

One of the Chesapeake’s least favorite invaders could end up being an unlikely savior. The invasive reed Phragmites australis, a plant that has exploded across Chesapeake wetlands in the last few decades, is also making those wetlands better at soaking up carbon, ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and Bryn Mawr College discovered in a new study.

The common reed, better known as Phragmites australis, grows in dense clusters up to 15 feet tall. North America has several native strains that have co-existed peacefully with many other native plants for at least 30,000 years. It is the invasive strain that arrived from Eurasia in the 1800s that has scientists and environmental managers worried. Eurasian Phragmites grows taller and denser than North American Phragmites, crowding out many smaller plants, and blocking access to light and nutrients. These changes in plant community have a ripple effect on animals that rely on wetlands for habitat.

“The fish communities, the insect communities, the soil and invertebrate communities, all these things change when Phragmites comes in,” says lead author Josh Caplan, a Bryn Mawr postdoc and visiting scientist at SERC. Often, those changes aren’t for the better. “Phragmites is doing a number to these ecosystems.” Click to continue »