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Top 12 Highlights of 2015: Arctic Sailing, Cownose Rays and an Orchid Showdown

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

It’s been another wild year at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. We sent a sailboat to the Arctic, pitted our orchids in a showdown against the Hope Diamond and discovered a couple new species. And somewhere along the way we celebrated the center’s 50th anniversary. Scroll below for the 2015 #YearInReview, a collection of the top 12 stories, journeys and biggest surprises of 2015.

Image: Cownose Rays (Credit: SERC/Laura Patrick)

Cownose Rays (SERC/Laura Patrick)

Exploring the Ocean

Totes Adorbs! Cownose Rays Take Internet
These marine heartthrobs have earned a top billing. Besides making a 900-mile migration every year, which SERC marine ecologists are tracking with acoustic tags, the kite-shaped rays (whose mouths are stretched so that they seem to be wearing a perpetual smile) also won a Twitter #CuteOff in September.

What Does Life in the Ocean Sound Like?
Postdoc Erica Staaterman listens to the ocean for a living. Often seen as a silent landscape broken only by whale or dolphin songs, Staaterman is helping uncover a wealth of noise from the ocean’s hidden creatures. She shared some of the recordings with us in this edited Q&A.

Cruising the Arctic’s Forgotten Fjords
Ocean acidification researcher Whitman Miller sent one of his CO2-monitoring devices on a 100-day journey to the Arctic. Its mission: Venture to some of Greenland’s never-before-seen fjords and discover how melting glaciers are changing the water. And do it all in a small, 42-foot sailboat. 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 »

Reading the Tea Leaves

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

The newest climate change research tool may be in your pantry

Lisa Schile in a marsh in San Francisco. (Courtesy of Lisa Schile.)

Lisa Schile in a marsh in San Francisco.
(Courtesy of Lisa Schile)

by Chris Patrick

Tea bags are no longer merely a means of brewing an aromatic beverage. They’ve now found purchase in environmental research, providing a more efficient way to measure how fast things decay—and how well wetlands store carbon.

Lisa Schile, a postdoc in the biogeochemistry lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), said she’s a “guinea pig” for tea bag research. Schile puts tea bags into wetlands not because she’s vying for the record of World’s Largest Cup of Tea, but because tea bags are essentially mini litter bags, buried mesh sacks of leaves and other plant parts that tell researchers how fast plants decompose in an area. Click to continue »

Frigid Days Equal Fewer Bluebird Eggs

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015
Male and female bluebirds at a nesting box.

Male and female bluebirds at a nest box. (Matt Storms)

by Chris Patrick

Eastern bluebirds resemble flying, fist-sized jewels. Males are sapphire colored—royal-blue heads, backs, and wings contrast with rust-colored chests. Females are more gray than blue, but their wings are subtly tinted the same sapphire hue.

Since 2008, citizen scientists have monitored bluebirds at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). The Bluebird Project is citizen science intern Caroline Kanaskie’s self-proclaimed “baby” this summer. She is uncovering why bluebird numbers at SERC have been lower than usual.  Click to continue »

“Science Ninjas” Capture Bugs at Camp Discovery

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

by Chris Patrick

7-year-old Vivian and 6-year-old Gordon kneel in the dirt looking for insects.

7-year-old Vivian and 6-year-old Gordon kneel in the dirt looking for insects.

“Camp Discovery!” shouts Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) education intern Josie Whelan.

“SCIENCE NINJAS!” a dozen 6- to 8-year-old campers respond as they strike ninja-esque poses. This is a callback, used by the three education interns—Henry Lawson, Addie Schlussel, and Whelan—to grab the attention of talkative future first- and second-graders at Camp Discovery. The education interns designed Camp Discovery this year, organizing a week of visits to SERC’s forests, fields, docks, and wetlands to foster understanding and respect for nature in campers. Click to continue »

Building Plastic Nests and Gutting Fish in the Room of DOOM

Friday, June 26th, 2015

by Chris Patrick

Martinez checks her bread crate naked goby nests.

Laurel Martinez checks her bread crate naked goby nests.

Plastic bread crates rest on the floor of the Rhode River, suspended by ropes from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s dock. Eight PVC pipes arranged in a starburst sit horizontally on the bottom of the bread crates. In each tube there is a rolled sheet of thin, clear plastic. These rolled sheets are goby egg nests.

Or they’re supposed to be. Laurel Martinez, intern in the marine ecology lab this summer, slides out a plastic sheet and exclaims, “The mud crabs took over!”

This isn’t the plan. She wants the sheets to house naked gobies, bottom-dwelling fish. Martinez needs naked goby eggs for her summer project. Female gobies, who usually lay their eggs inside dead oyster shells, are supposed to go into the tubes, lay eggs on the plastic sheet, and leave. A male will fertilize the eggs and stay with them, guarding and caring for them until they hatch. 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 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.

Click to continue »

Clever Steps Are What You Take – Walking
on the Marsh

Monday, April 27th, 2015

by Heather Soulen,
biological technician at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Image: Matt Kornis, during a day navigating a marsh (Credit: Matt Kornis)

Matt Kornis, during a day navigating a marsh

Imagine if you will, you arrive at a party and proudly parade your famous 7-layer dip over to the food table and with a satisfying smile, place your gastronomic masterpiece front and center as onlookers gaze through the glass at its layered awesomeness. You hardly finish removing the lid when suddenly someone swoops in with a tortilla chip, then another person, and then another and another. You back away from the table as you begin to feel a primeval and Velociraptor-like need to eviscerate these culinary offenders. Minutes later, the ravenous horde thins and the feeding frenzy slowly dissipates. You look back at the food table and what do you see? Nothing but a grotesque slurry of beige-brown with smeared, thin trails of sour cream, salsa and guacamole. It is a pale, unrecognizable shadow of its former layered glory.

Walking through a tidal marsh can figuratively and literally be like dragging a tortilla chip through a 7-layer dip. Unlike the dip, destroying the layers or landscape of a marsh can cause serious problems for scientists studying the ecology and biogeochemistry of marsh systems. Click to continue »

Beyond #ManicureMonday: Other Ways to Use Nail Polish in Science

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

by Heather Soulen, research technician

In mid-November of 2013, Seventeen Magazine’s #ManicureMonday was hijacked by Hope Jahren, an isotope geochemist and laboratory scientist studying photosynthesis at the University of Hawaii Manoa. She tweeted:

Hope Jahren-Take pic tweet

And then tweeted this picture of her well-groomed, unmanicured hands doing something #Science:

Jahren's nails are much  less adorned than the typical Seventeen Magazine #ManicureMonday nails. (Photo c/o Hope Jahren)

Jahren’s nails are much less adorned than the typical Seventeen Magazine #ManicureMonday nails. (Photo c/o Hope Jahren)

When following tweets asked “Why?” Jahren followed with:

Hope Jahren-Purpose tweet

Thus began an emotionally charged verbal tennis match about women in science, stereotypes, shaming, STEM and gender roles on Twitter and Reddit, as well as commentary featured in blogs like Slate Magazine, Scientific American and The Huffington Post.

While the #ManicureMonday #Science hijack seemed to begin with good intentions, it ultimately sparked controversy. But controversy is good–it makes us stop and think about our worldviews. It encouraged individuals to examine things like motivation, assumptions and perceptions of all kinds, including dichotomous thinking like “you can either be smart or manicured.”

There are plenty of scientists who enjoy adorning their fingers and toes with nail polish, but for many of us there is a practical reason we forego gilding. That is, doing some kinds of science simply destroys manicures and pedicures. Whether it’s from wearing nitrile (synthetic rubber) gloves all day, donning dive booties, deploying research gear (e.g. nets and samplers), scrambling around research boats, tromping around field sites (estuaries, streams, marshes and forests), or performing experiments in wet labs or outdoor mesocosms, hands and feet take a beating. Yet, we still use nail polish. We just use it in a different way.

Click to continue »

2014 in Review: The Good, the Scary and the Weird

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014
Photo: Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (Credit: SERC)

Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

We sprayed pig’s blood on baby trees, studied a strange ménage a trois in the orchid world and met the father of marine invasions science himself. It’s been an odd year at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. But we like living in interesting times. Here are 10 of our favorite stories from 2014. Here’s hoping 2015 is even stranger.

Click to continue »