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DNA Barcodes Identify Chesapeake Species

Friday, July 19th, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

Researchers on a jon boat in the middle of the Patuxent River were very excited to find a rainwater killifish in their crab tow. While not the juvenile crabs that the scientists were looking for, the inch-long rainwater killifish was an intriguing find: It was yet another species that could be “barcoded.”

(stock photo)

(stock photo)

Barcoding is another technique to answer the age-old question of what exactly lives in the Chesapeake Bay. By using trawls, seines and a fish weir, researchers at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have a pretty good idea of what swims in our rivers and bays. But new DNA technology could give an even clearer picture on what species are present, as well as their role in the estuarine ecosystem.
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High CO2 Spurs Wetlands to Absorb More Carbon

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

"Marsh of the Future." Bert Drake built these chambers in 1987. Inside half of them, he raised CO2 to roughly 700 parts per million, a level we could reach before the end of the century. (SERC)

“Marsh of the Future.” Bert Drake built these chambers in 1987. Inside half of them, he raised CO2 to roughly 700 parts per million, a level we could reach before the end of the century. (Tom Mozdzer/SERC)

Under spiked carbon dioxide levels, wetland plants can absorb up to 32 percent more carbon than they do today, according to a 19-year study published in Global Change Biology from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. With atmospheric carbon dioxide passing 400 parts per million in May, there’s hope that wetlands could help soften the blow of climate change.

But that isn’t the shocking part for plant physiologist Bert Drake. The shocking part is that plants are absorbing the carbon in ways they didn’t expect.

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What’s eating the tropics?

Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

A mangrove tree crab eats a beetle larva. (Candy Feller / Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

A mangrove tree crab eats a beetle larva. (Candy Feller / Smithsonian Environmental Research Center)

As a general rule, the tropics have more of everything—more plants, more animals and more microbes. This also means they have more predators. For their prey, this is usually a bad thing. But for the rest of the ecosystem, a diverse army of predators can have some surprising perks.

It’s happening in the mangrove forests of Panama and Belize. With the vast array of plant-eaters in the canopy, biologists once thought the tropics would be a danger zone for mangroves. But SERC ecologist Candy Feller discovered something unexpected. After tracking mangroves in Panama, Belize and Florida in a study published this June, her team found that mangroves were actually safer from hungry herbivores in the tropics.

It turns out one species threatens mangroves more than any other: the mangrove tree crab, Aratus pisonii. And in the steamy Central American forests, something else seems to be eating them.

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Invaders’ “Away-Field Advantage” Not as Strong as Once Thought

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

Brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) caused the local extinction of more than half of Guam's native birds and lizards after it invaded the island in the 1940s. (National Park Service)

Brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) caused the local extinction of more than half of Guam’s native birds and lizards after they invaded the island in the 1940s. (National Park Service)

by Kristen Minogue

For decades, ecologists have assumed the worst invasive species—such as brown tree snakes and kudzu—have an “away-field advantage.” They succeed because they do better in their new territories than they do at home. A new study led by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center reveals that this fundamental assumption is not nearly as common as people might think.

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Weddell Seals Have Most Adult-Like Brains of any Mammal at Birth

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

by Kristen Minogue, Regina Eisert and Olav Oftedal

Because they must lean to navigate under sea ice in just over a month, baby Weddell seals are born with near adult-sized brains. (Samuel Blanc)

Because they must learn to navigate under sea ice in just over a month, baby Weddell seals are born with near adult-sized brains. (Samuel Blanc)

When it comes to brain size, Homo sapiens generally get the most credit. But to find the baby mammals with the proportionally largest brains on the planet, Smithsonian scientists had to search in Antarctica. In a study published online in April, they found Weddell seal pups have the most developed brains at birth recorded for any mammal so far.

By the time they are born, baby Weddell seal brains have already reached 70 percent of their adult size. (The brain of a human infant is a mere 25 percent of its adult size.) But the researchers found this rapid development carries a hefty price tag.

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Earthworms jeopardize orchid growth

Friday, March 29th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

Lumbricus rubellus, a European earthworm that is now one of the most common in the eastern U.S.  More than 10,000 years ago, Pleistocene glaciers wiped out native earthworms. Today virtually all earthworms in the U.S. north of Pennsylvania are invasive. (Holger Casselmann)

Lumbricus rubellus, a European earthworm that is now one of the most common in the eastern U.S. More than 10,000 years ago, Pleistocene glaciers wiped out native earthworms. Today virtually all earthworms in the U.S. north of Pennsylvania are invasive. (Holger Casselmann)

Most gardeners consider the sight of an earthworm writhing in the dirt a good omen. The slimy invertebrates chew up and churn up the soil, making it easier for vegetables and flowers to access nutrients.

But for wild orchids, they’re more of a menace. Earthworms could prevent roughly half a forest’s orchid seeds from even germinating, ecologists from Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Johns Hopkins University discovered in a study published online this March in Annals of Botany Plants.

The small size of orchid seeds (they are barely the size of dust grains) makes them particularly vulnerable. As earthworms chew up forest litter, they ingest orchid seeds as well. When that happens, two things can keep the seeds from germinating: One, the process of passing through an earthworm’s gut can render them unviable. Or two, if the seeds survive ingestion, they can end up buried so deep that they can’t access the fungi they need to germinate and grow. As a general rule, deeper soils are much less likely to have those fungi.

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Milk before dinosaurs? The evolution of a household beverage

Monday, November 26th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Artist's depiction of the prehistoric synapsid Varanodon agilis (left) under attack from an ancient amphibian. (Wikimedia Commons/Smokeybjb)

Milk—the white, calcium-rich liquid common to mammals and refrigerators across the globe—may have evolved long before the mammals that secrete it. It may have evolved even before dinosaurs. It’s an idea SERC lactation expert Olav Oftedal proposed a decade ago and is now gaining momentum among biologists who study the evolution of what we drink.

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Climate Change Stimulates Growth of Invasive “Super Weed”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Tom Mozdzer explores a patch of invasive Phragmites in SERC's global change wetland.

Is it better to be a jack of all trades or a master of some? In the plant world, it’s possible to do both–and that could make a huge difference in deciding which plants dominate under climate change. This holds especially true for one: the invasive reed Phragmites australis. Its ability to alter its anatomy enables it to grow well in just about any environment, including one spiked with CO2 and nitrogen, SERC ecologists discovered in a study published Oct. 31.

Plants like this are called “jack-and-master” plants. Typically, the most competitive plants surpass their neighbors through one of two strategies. “Jack-of-all-trades” plants do moderately well under most scenarios. Their competitors will surpass them when conditions are good, but if the environment becomes stressful, the jack of all trades will grow better. “Master-of-some” plants do very well under only a few conditions, so if the environment shifts in their favor, they are certain to emerge victorious. But a few types—the jack-and-master plants—can use both tactics. And the invasive Phragmites is one of them.

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Invaders escape persecution from parasites

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

by Monaca Noble

Invasion was a godsend for the rough periwinkle snail, which managed to escape its flatworm parasites. (World Register of Marine Species)

Most organisms have several types of parasites associated with them. However, when species are introduced, they may lose some of their natural parasites through the invasion process. Or sometimes, parasites that survive the journey don’t do very well in the new environment. In essence invasion acts as a filter limiting the number of parasites that are transported and introduced. In science this process is called the parasite escape hypothesis.

Take the common cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii. T. gondii‘s complex two-host life cycle makes it difficult for it to adapt to new places. The parasite has two phases, a sexual phase and an asexual phase. The sexual phase can only take place in the cat (primary host), but the asexual phase can occur in several mammal species (secondary host) including cats, mice, humans, and birds. Because the parasite must infect a cat to reproduce and survive, its preferred secondary host is a mouse. If a mouse infected with T. gondii were introduced into an area with no cats, the parasite would not be able to survive.
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Toughest Shellfish in the Sea?

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Blue mussels (Credit: Meriseal)

Some species can survive just about anywhere. Take blue mussels, a group of shellfish whose habitat stretches from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Over the last several decades, biologists have thrown all kinds of tests at them – heat, cold, saltwater, freshwater, low oxygen. They’ve even tried drying them out. Almost nothing fazes these animals. For invasion scientists trying to figure out how far they could spread, that’s a scary prospect.
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