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A Dark Gothic Secret: North American Orchids and Their Pollinators

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Have you ever been at a stop light and seen a butterfly sampling nectar from flowers in small container garden? Maybe you’ve seen bees darting flower to flower as you tend your garden. Or maybe, as you walk the city streets, you see other insects whizzing about the flowering weeds that struggle to survive in the cracks of our concrete jungle. Based on these experiences, you might think that flowers only get pollinated during the day. Here’s a secret, and it’s a dark, gothic secret: Pollination also occurs under the veil of night. Some plants, like orchids and their pollinators, live a life less ordinary.

The majority of North American orchids are pollinated during the daytime. But there are a few special orchids that are part of the pollination graveyard shift. In North America, the rare Ghost Orchid, Cranefly Orchid, Tall White Bog Orchid, Dingy Flowered Star Orchid and most of the orchids in the genus Platanthera are special orchids that are pollinated at night.

Orchids of the Goth World_credits

Created by Heather Soulen/SERC

Watch: First sighting of night-time pollination of the elusive Ghost Orchid

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Volunteer Spotlight: SERC Nest Box Monitors

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

A bluebird in a nest box.
(Matt Storms)

by Caroline Kanaskie

The Bluebird Project is one of my big focuses as the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) citizen science intern. While organizing and analyzing data collected by citizen scientists, I can’t help but imagine the countless hours spent walking the trail between nest boxes from March to September that created this robust data set.

I want to show my appreciation by highlighting three wonderful volunteers involved with the Bluebird Project: Annie Johnson, Judy Bissett, and Dave Gillum. Click to continue »

Tracking the Bay’s Cownose Rays

Friday, July 31st, 2015

by Chris Patrick

Rob Aguilar operates on a cownose ray. (SERC)

Rob Aguilar operates on a cownose ray. (SERC)

It’s 2 a.m. Rob Aguilar, biologist in the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab, meets a group of fishermen at a pound net in the Patuxent River. The net starts at the shore and juts far into the river. Fish traveling along the shore collide with the net and follow its length into a heart-shaped net at the end—the pound.

Today, the pound contains cownose rays. Not ideal for fishermen, but exactly what Aguilar wants. Last summer SERC researchers and collaborators surgically implanted acoustic tags in 31 rays to track their migration. This summer, they’re tagging 20 to 25 more rays from Maryland rivers.

Though native to the East and Gulf Coasts, much about cownose rays remains mysterious. Many fishermen and oyster growers consider rays a nuisance because they eat shellfish and travel in schools in the hundreds.

“The main conflict seems to be between guys who fish for oysters—especially aquaculture oysters because there’s a lot of money in that—and these rays they perceive as potentially eating up their profits,” says Matthew Ogburn, ecologist in the Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab. Click to continue »

Environmental “Forensics” Pieces Together Mysterious Phragmites Invasion

Monday, July 27th, 2015
Eric Hazelton in a Phragmites patch on the Nanjemoy River in Maryland. (Rebekah Downard of Utah State University)

Eric Hazelton in a Phragmites patch on the Nanjemoy River in Maryland. (Rebekah Downard of Utah State University)

by Chris Patrick

On crime scene investigation shows, DNA forensic scientists sit in a darkened room, wearing lab coats and clutching clear vials over dramatic music. In a matter of hours, they conjure perpetrators to the scene of a crime or prove relations between separated kin simply from remnants of genetic material.

Researchers in the Plant Ecology and Molecular Ecology Labs at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) published a paper in July in Wetlands that has more in common with a CSI episode than you’d expect—though in their case, the process took months instead of hours.

There’s a strain of Phragmites australis, the common reed, that’s native to North America. But the population of an invasive strain from Europe, introduced in the 1800s, suddenly boomed without warning in wetlands around the Chesapeake Bay in the 1980s. SERC scientists had some ideas about what might have caused the sudden explosion, so the team attempted to recreate the history of this sudden, aggressive invasion to test their theories. Click to continue »

Yet Another Reason Lionfish Make Such Good Invaders

Friday, July 24th, 2015

by Chris Patrick

Red Lionfish. (Jacek Madejski)

Red Lionfish. (Jacek Madejski)

The lionfish (Pterois volitans) resembles a psychedelic fish-shaped peppermint, striped in red and white and decked with feathery, fan-like fins. But its venomous spines and invasive-species status make it much less innocuous than candy.

Lionfish are native to the Indo-Pacific. They’re popular aquarium fish—it’s likely ex-aquarium-owners introduced them into the Atlantic. They spread rapidly along the southeastern coast of the United States, into the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

Lionfish flourish in their introduced range, where they have no predators. They breed quickly—a female can produce up to two million eggs per year. They live a long time, sometimes more than 15 years. And they’ll eat basically anything that fits into their mouths, decimating populations of native marine animals with their voracious, indiscriminate appetites. When they arrive at a reef, they can reduce the number of native fish by 80 percent.

But lionfish may also be harmful to the native fish they can’t eat. A recently published PLOS ONE study reports that invasive lionfish are parasitized less than native fish. Click to continue »

Fish Don’t Fear Selfie Sticks

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

by Chris Patrick

Lovers of both the Smithsonian and the selfie stick, rejoice! Though the infamous monopods are banned in Smithsonian museums and galleries, they’ve found a new arena of use: labs.

Well, in one lab at least. Researchers in the marine ecology lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) are using selfie sticks to record fish behavior without scaring them. SERC’s marine ecology team wants to see if fish raised in low-oxygen conditions acclimate to breathing less oxygen. “I have never heard of someone else using the selfie stick for science,” said Seth Miller, a postdoctoral fellow in the marine ecology lab and collaborator on the project. “Although it probably occurs. Ecologists are pretty resourceful.”

Ashley Collier records a fish without scaring it by using a selfie stick. (SERC)

Ashley Collier records a fish without scaring it by using a selfie stick. (Chris Patrick)

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Interns Compete in Oyster Olympics

Monday, July 13th, 2015
Interns Julianne Rolf and Emily Bulger. (Chris Patrick)

Interns Julianne Rolf and Emily Bulger. (Chris Patrick)

by Chris Patrick

When 11 Smithsonian Environmental Research Center interns piled into a van headed for the Oyster Olympics, they had no idea what was in store. For the next three hours, they shoveled, scooped, scraped, sweated, poured, piled, folded, clamped, ran, and acquired minor injuries competing against interns from other environmental organizations in the area. Though the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) holds the Oyster Olympics annually at its Discovery Village in Shady Side, Md., this was the first year SERC interns vied for the golden oysters (think of gold-painted shells hanging from rope). From the get-go, it was clear SERC interns were the underdogs. Click to continue »

Pollution Makes Mangroves Weaker Against Hurricanes

Friday, June 5th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Candy Feller inspects a white mangrove stand. (Credit: Anne Chamberlain)

Candy Feller inspects a white mangrove stand in Florida. (Anne Chamberlain)

Mangroves—those tangled trees with strange roots common along tropical coastlines—are masters at protecting their territory from hurricanes. So, logically, tall mangroves should be stronger than short ones.

Except when they’re not. Sometimes tall mangroves are weaker, something Smithsonian ecologist Candy Feller discovered after two hurricanes tore through her experiments in Florida. Click to continue »

The Scavenger Bug That Fights Climate Change

Friday, May 29th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Common pillbug Armadillidium vulgare (Walter Siegmund)

Common pillbug Armadillidium vulgare
(Walter Siegmund)

In the battle to hold back climate change, Mother Nature has supplied several allies, from the rainforest to bacteria. Now we can add one more to the list: Woodlice, tiny scavenger bugs that feed off rotting plants.

More than 3,000 species of woodlice are known to man, and they go by many names. If you’re American, chances are you know them as pillbugs or roly-polies. They’ve inherited stranger-sounding titles in other parts of the world, from monkeypigs and carpetmonsters to granfy croogers. (For a list of 40-some-odd British variations, see here.) But they all point to the same thing: a 14-legged, millipede-like crustacean roughly half the size of a dime.

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DNA Detects Two Hidden Oysters in Panama

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

by Monaca Noble and Katrina Lohan

Image: Oysters and other life grow on dock pilings at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Credit: Kristina Hill-Spanik)

Oysters and other life grow on dock pilings at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama
(Kristina Hill-Spanik)

A robin is a robin. It isn’t often confused with other birds. But some marine organisms are very difficult to identify because they look similar, too similar even for taxonomists trained to detect differences. Oysters are like this.

Oyster shells come in all shapes and sizes. As oysters fight for space and battle to survive in tough environments, their shells can change appearance based on conditions where they live. This makes it very hard to distinguish similar-looking species. Using DNA, we can identify these difficult species and provide new insights into their distribution, ecology, and ranges—insights not possible using shell morphology alone. In Panama, this DNA detective work led to two surprising discoveries.

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