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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.

Click to continue »

Get Crafty During Winter Storm Jonas

Friday, January 22nd, 2016
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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!

Click to continue »

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 »

A Crossword Puzzle with Ecology Flair

Monday, December 21st, 2015

Enjoy our Smithsonian science-based crossword puzzle in celebration of Crossword Day. Words for this puzzle were derived from our blog posts in 2015. Stumped? Search our blog posts for additional clues or click the Reveal Letter button for help. Good luck and may the force be with you!

Online version: http://crossword.info/Soulenfish/Ecology_Flair_Final

Ecology Crossword FINAL #3

 

 

 

 

Restrictions in Seaweed Agar-vate Scientists

Thursday, December 17th, 2015
Bivalves from Panama for Dermo disease study

Bivalves from Panama for Dermo disease study

by Heather Soulen

Last week Nature magazine published a news piece about how supplies of agar, a research staple in labs around the world, are dwindling. Agar is a gelatinous material from red seaweed of the genus Gelidium, and is referred to as ‘red gold’ by those within the industry. Insiders suggest that the tightening of seaweed supply is related to overharvesting, causing agar processing facilities to reduce production. Most of the world’s ‘red gold’ comes from Morocco. In the 2000s, the nation harvested 14,000 tons per year. Today, harvest limits are set at 6,000 tons per year, with only 1,200 tons available for foreign export outside the country. In typical supply and demand fashion, distributor prices are expected to skyrocket. As a result, things could get tough for scientists who use agar and agar-based materials in their research.

Agar is a scientist’s Jell-O. Just like grandma used to make Jell-O desserts with fruit artfully arranged on top or floating in suspended animation within a mold, scientists use agar the same way. Bacteria and fungi can be cultured on top of nutrient-enriched agar, tissues of organisms can be suspended within an agar-based medium and chunks of DNA can move through an agarose gel, a carbohydrate material that comes from agar. Agar and agar products are the Leathermans of the science world.

Click to continue »

The Blue Carbon Market is Open

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

New report enables creation of carbon credits for restored wetlands

by Kristen Minogue

SERC's Global Change Research Wetland (SERC)

SERC’s Global Change Research Wetland (Credit: SERC)

How much is a wetland worth?

It’s a question that has plagued policymakers, scientists and other leaders looking to protect their communities and slow down the pace of climate change. For the first time, thanks to a new report released Tuesday, scientists have a method to calculate how much greenhouses gas emissions a restored wetland can offset that can be used anywhere in the world–which will allow the creation of carbon credits. Click to continue »

Resurrecting the Floodplain

Monday, November 23rd, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: SERC Intern Julianne Rolf stands in the streambed of Muddy Creek. Erosion has caused it to drop 10 feet below its floodplain. (Credit: SERC)

SERC Intern Julianne Rolf stands in the streambed of Muddy Creek. Erosion has caused it to drop 10 feet below its floodplain. (SERC)

In the forests of Edgewater, Md., a stream called Muddy Creek is sinking. By itself this is hardly news. The Chesapeake’s ailing streams span thousands of miles, and the watershed’s states have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars towards trying to restore them. It’s part of a gargantuan effort to clean up the Chesapeake. Sick streams create a sick bay, and environmental managers are anxious to stem the nutrient and sediment overload from streams. But for all the zeal surrounding stream restorations, their success rate hasn’t always lived up to the hype. How effective can they be—and what do they need to succeed?

Fortunately, this stream happens to be under the watch of scientists. And the restoration of Muddy Creek may yield some answers. Click to continue »

Methane Packs More Punch Than We Thought. But So Does Getting Rid of It.

Monday, November 16th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Frozen methane bubbles in an Alaska lake. When icy permafrost thaws, microbes are able to consume the carbon stored there and turn it into methane gas. (Credit: Miriam Jones/USGS)

Frozen methane bubbles in an Alaska lake. When icy permafrost thaws, microbes are able to consume the carbon stored there and turn it into methane gas. (Miriam Jones/USGS)

We’ve underestimated greenhouse gases. Not carbon dioxide, arguably the most famous greenhouse gas except water. But others, like methane, are less abundant but more powerful in terms of trapping heat. And our figures about that have probably skewed low.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) comprises a staggering three-fourths of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a major driving force behind climate change. But methane (CH4), long locked in Arctic permafrost, is escaping as ice thaws. Methane also enters the atmosphere via natural gas, livestock, coal mining, oil and even wetlands.

For years scientists and policymakers have reported that methane is roughly 30 times more powerful than CO2 over a century. This fall, two biogeochemists tested a more accurate model and discovered the true figure is far higher – more like 45 times more powerful than CO2.

The good news? Taking methane out of the atmosphere makes an even bigger difference than putting it in. Click to continue »