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Why volunteer: Shaping the Future as an Environmental Educator

Thursday, April 21st, 2016

by Jan Payne Wilson

Volunteers come in a great variety of ages, gender, talents and reasons for volunteering. Here’s my short story.

Growing up in Nature

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and am of a generation that was lucky enough to be able to leave the house after school or on Saturday mornings to play outside for hours with the other neighborhood kids. We made hiding places in scotch broom thickets, climbed on fallen logs, wandered in the woods, had bracken fern spear fights and in the short, sweet summers spent time at a local beach on Puget Sound. It was idyllic, but at the time I took it all for granted.

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Amphibian Congregation: Sonic Songs of Spring

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

by Heather Soulen

Sonic Cacophonies

American Toad (Photo: Tyler Bell)

American Toad (Photo: Tyler Bell)

It’s that time of year when much of the mid-Atlantic is waking up from a long winter’s slumber. Flowers are blooming, trees are budding, ospreys and eagles are nesting, and frogs are calling. Right now, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) is alive with the sonic cacophony of a two amphibians. Spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and American toads (Anaxyrus americanus, formerly Bufo americanus) are shouting mating anthems from every available pocket of water. If you live east of the Mississippi River from Canada to Florida, you’ve likely heard their calls. But which is which? We’ve collected a few sound bites around SERC to help identify each amphibian’s call.

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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 »

The Everyday Naturalist: Fishing Spiders

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

by Jan Payne Wilson, SERC Volunteer

Six-spotted fishing spider (Dolomedes triton). Credit: Derek Ramsey

Six-spotted fishing spider, Dolomedes triton. Credit: Derek Ramsey

My dad was uncomfortable around spiders. Today we’d probably say he had a phobia. To deal with it, he found a spider-like creature, the Daddy Long Legs, and learned how benign and beneficial it was. From then on, he could focus on a “good spider” rather than his fear. As a child, I was indoctrinated with the knowledge that a Daddy Long Legs 1) could not bite you and 2) performed good deeds by eating “bad” spiders and other biting, child-frightening insects. Furthermore, they needed our help because they had delicate legs that easily broke off, so we moved them out of dangerous areas and avoided stepping on them. When I was older my father revealed that Daddy Long Legs weren’t actually spiders. Unlike true spiders, they can’t make silk and have neither fangs nor venom. From my father I learned that understanding a creature often changes fear into appreciation and, sometimes, amazement.

On the docks of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), I use my dad’s strategy to help students who either fear spiders or believe the only good spider is a dead spider.  With Daddy Long Legs it’s easy.  But we also have large spiders we don’t see as frequently: fishing spiders.  When you see your first fishing spider, it’s a hard sell to believe she’s got redeeming characteristics. Click to continue »

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 »