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Sharing Your Workspace with the Eastern Rat Snake

Sunday, July 16th, 2017

by Sara Richmond

Man holding snake in marsh

Scientist Guy Thompson holds up an eastern rat snake found at GCREW. (Credit: Gary Peresta/SERC)

To some, snakes are difficult creatures to love. Despite their reputation, however, snakes play critical roles in their environments by keeping populations of their prey in check. That’s why many scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have grown to appreciate their presence, particularly the eastern rat snake.

Eastern rat snakes, also known as black rat snakes or Pantherophis alleghaniensis to herpetologists, are a common sighting near SERC’s Global Change Research Wetland (GCREW). The GCREW project sits in roughly 170 acres of brackish marsh and is home to several experiments investigating rising sea levels, invasive species, global temperatures, carbon dioxide and other major players in global change. Click to continue »

Tidings from the Sunset Coast

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

How California’s Record-Setting Rains Are Reshaping the Ecology of San Francisco Bay

By Ryan Greene

Clouds hang over the San Francisco skyline.

The San Francisco skyline as seen from San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) largest west coast outpost sits on San Francisco Bay in Tiburon, California. The Tiburon branch, affectionately known as SERC-West, serves as the nexus of SERC’s research activities on the western coast of North America. At a whopping 2,462 miles from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, SERC-West can feel a bit remote. In an attempt to bridge this distance, we’re launching Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer story series about all things SERC-West. The first snippet is a story about the wildly wet winter California experienced this year and what all this fresh water means for the marine life in San Francisco Bay. Enjoy!

A big band of clouds stretches from Hawaii to the western coast of North America.

Image from NASA’s VIIRS satellite show one of many “atmospheric rivers” which slammed the California coast this past winter. Credit: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

When it comes to rain in California, the last few years have been a feast-or-famine affair. After a bitter drought that sported some of the driest years on record, this past winter brought more precipitation than the northern parts of the state have ever documented. To put it lightly, the weather has been extreme. And while the wet winter has refilled reservoirs and beefed up the snowpack, leading Governor Jerry Brown to end the drought state of emergency in all but four counties, it has also wreaked its fair share of havoc.

Here at SERC-West, scientists have been following another part of this story: the bombardment of freshwater runoff that inundated San Francisco Bay this winter. All the fresh water from the rain drastically reduced the saltiness (a.k.a. salinity) of the Bay. For many plants and animals used to saltier water, this was simply too much to handle. The devastation has been widespread, and according to ecologist Andy Chang, who currently heads up SERC-West, in some areas, the changes to the ecosystem might be less than fleeting.

“We’re kind of expecting to see local extinctions of some species that were here before,” he says. Click to continue »

Time Travel, with Trees

Monday, July 10th, 2017

by Joe Dawson

Looking at the Kirkpatrick Marsh on the Rhode River, a time machine is not the first thing that comes to mind. Tall grasses dominate the landscape, with vertical PVC pipes popping up here and there and octagon-shaped chambers rising out of the wetland every ten paces or so. Take a step off the walkway, and you might lose a shoe. But 5 experiments on the marsh are designed to take sections of the marsh into the 22nd Century, and the marsh has been dubbed the Global Change Research Wetland, or GCReW. The expertise that GCReW scientists have in simulating the future brought National Museum of Natural History scientists here to mirror the past.

Rich Barclay and Scott Wing are paleobotanists at the National Museum of Natural History. Paleobotanists are the ones who stare at leaves in Jurassic Park and say, “Alan, these plants haven’t been seen since the Cretaceous Period,” as everyone else stares at brachiosauruses. Ancient plants are their bread and butter, and for Wing and Barclay, the bread is toasted and the butter melty. They study one of the warmest periods in the last 100 million years, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During this period, global temperatures skyrocketed, increasing by 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. By looking at plants that grew during this time, they hope to learn more about what Earth was like 55 million years ago.

chambersignk

Large growth chambers being built around newly-planted ginkgo trees on the SERC campus (Credit: Rich Barclay)

Barclay, Wing, and colleagues have started an experiment on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) campus that grows ginkgo trees in varying carbon dioxide levels. They hope to study these trees and compare them to fossil specimens to learn about the past. Click to continue »

Volunteer Spotlight: Dave Norman

Tuesday, April 11th, 2017

by Sara Richmond

SERC citizen scientist Dave Norman stands beside a collection of samples from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay. (Sara Richmond)

SERC citizen scientist Dave Norman stands beside a collection of sediment samples from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay. (Sara Richmond)

Dave Norman’s first visit to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) wasn’t to help with a field trip or assist researchers in the crab lab, as he has done for the past two years. In fact, he knew very little about SERC, but was competing in a triathlon on its campus. The experience stuck with him, and when he retired a year later, he contacted SERC to ask how he could get involved as a volunteer.

The volunteer program offered a mix of science and education opportunities that turned out to be a perfect fit for Dave. He says he was part of the “Jacques Cousteau generation,” who grew up with the explorer’s books and movies, and eventually started college with plans to become a marine biologist. Those plans changed—he would practice law for 30 years before becoming a seventh-grade math teacher—but when he retired, his love of the water brought him back to the field.  Click to continue »

Once-Threatened Trumpeter Swans Spotted on SERC Campus

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017

by Sara Richmond

Not long ago, a trumpeter swan sighting was nearly unheard of in the Chesapeake Bay region—or many places in the United States, for that matter. After being hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s, the birds, who can boast an 8-foot wingspan and are the largest waterfowl in the world, struggled to recover. Now the swans are starting to reappear, including two spotted recently at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).

close-up of trumpeter swan head and beak

Unlike tundra swans, the other native swans in the Chesapeake, trumpeter swans have a small triangle of feathers above their beak. (Tyler Bell)

Click to continue »

Volunteer Spotlight: Lenore Naranjo

Thursday, January 26th, 2017
Lenore and Dan in the SERC education center.

Lenore Naranjo celebrates 10 years of volunteer, with SERC volunteer coordinator Dan Gustafson. (SERC)

by Sara Richmond, communications volunteer

In 2016, nearly 5,000 students and other visitors learned about the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem firsthand through education programs at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). They ventured on hikes and canoe trips, hauled in fish and invertebrates with seining nets, and studied the anatomy of blue crabs. SERC’s education programs are possible through the help of dozens of volunteers who lead field trips and assist behind the scenes. In the coming months, we’ll highlight the work of some of these volunteers in the SERC newsletter and on our blog.

Lenore Naranjo has been volunteering with SERC for over 13 years. After starting as a volunteer in SERC’s canopy labs, she began working with the education program, leading field study groups that give children a hands-on approach to a variety of marine habitats.

“We set up baskets with oysters, and they stay sitting on the bottom of the river through spring, summer, and fall, where they act as a habitat for fish and small critters,” she explains. During field trips, she pulls the baskets from the river bed and sets them in a tray of water so children can explore the baskets’ contents. “Some kids are very hesitant and don’t want to put their hands in something unfamiliar. But then they watch their friends who aren’t hesitant, and the next thing you know, they’re in there too, pulling out fish and crabs.”

Click to continue »

Ten Reasons We’re Earth Optimists After 2016

Friday, January 13th, 2017
Dawn Miller in forest

Ecologist Dawn Miller surveys trees in a SERC forest. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

The Smithsonian has a new resolution for 2017: Earth Optimism. This is the year the Smithsonian is celebrating environmental success stories, and shifting the focus to how we can fight battles to save species and preserve our planet—and win. Despite breaking a wide swath of climate records, 2016 gave us reasons for optimism as well. In our 2016 Year in Review, we’ve pulled out the most encouraging stories and discoveries at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center from the previous year. Here are the top 10 that make us hopeful about the planet’s future:

Click to continue »

Time Lords and Ladies of History’s Trash

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2016

by Emily Li

Digging through soil plot

Citizen scientist Linda Perkins helps excavate a soil plot in front of the Contee mansion ruins. (Photo: SERC)

People don’t usually think of archaeologists as dumpster divers. Then again, sifting through trash for hidden treasures is exactly what the volunteer citizen scientists of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) Archaeology Lab do every Wednesday. But they don’t scavenge anything for themselves. (The market for millenia-old oyster shells is very unpredictable, and any food they find is always up to three centuries past its expiration date.) Instead, they take away new skills and a chance to put together a historical puzzle larger than themselves.

“We look back thousands of years,” said Jim Gibb, the lead volunteer and coordinator of the lab. “I always tell people—we’re the time lords.”  Click to continue »

Unsolved Mysteries: Rising Temps, Falling Marshes?

Thursday, September 8th, 2016
Scientist holds fistful of soil

SERC biogeochemist Pat Megonigal holds up soil from a marsh in Costa Rica. Marsh soils store vast amounts of carbon, but as temperatures warm, microbes in the soil could release into the atmosphere. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

All over the world, marshes are hanging in a precarious balance. Rising temperatures from climate change could help them grow stronger and store more carbon—or cause them to flood and disappear, says a new article from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). To find answers, scientists need to look underground.

The article is part of a much larger report on the future of warming oceans, released Monday at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s annual conference. Tidal marshes sit right on the boundary of the land and the ocean. For humanity, marshes act as Mother Nature’s guardians. They provide habitat for fish and shellfish, filter out pollution in estuarine water, and help shield homes along the coast from flooding. They’re also hot spots of carbon storage, burying carbon 10 times faster than an equal area of forest. Yet much of their fate remains a mystery.  Click to continue »

Food for Thought: Cooking for Invasive Beetles

Friday, August 12th, 2016

by Emily Li

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from hormone trap for his experiment

SERC intern Cole Caceres collects Japanese invasive beetles from a hormone trap for his experiment (Photo: Emily Li/SERC)

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) intern Cole Caceres has two passions: science and cooking. He enjoys doing research and adding to the larger body of knowledge, but he hasn’t given up on owning his own restaurant. When he’s not studying nitrogen filtration as a laboratory assistant at the University of California, Davis, he’s probably watching Food Network or frying chicken wings in a sweet soy sauce glaze.

But Caceres found the perfect mix of his interests as an intern with SERC’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab. There, he cooks for invasive Japanese beetles, hoping to help shed light on their dietary preferences so that plant conservation initiatives can be more fully informed—one beetle bite at a time.

Click to continue »