SERC Sites and Scenes

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Nightly Oxygen Drops Deadly
for Chesapeake Oysters

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Slide of an oyster completely infected with Dermo.


Oysters in Chesapeake Bay face more dangers than overfishing and habitat loss. Over the last few decades they’ve also had to contend with crippling disease outbreaks. And according to marine ecologist Denise Breitburg, the wild day-night fluctuations in Bay waters aren’t helping.

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Land Hurricanes: The Science Behind the Derecho

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Derecho storm front over Nebraska in August 2007. (MONGO)

To say the tempests of June 29 took the U.S. by surprise would be an understatement. Near Annapolis, the storms jumped from a mild 10 miles per hour to 54 miles per hour in just five minutes. In other places 70- and 80-mile per hour winds tore through hulking trees and power lines. And yet the most violent part of the storm lasted less than half an hour.

“It all happened in a matter of minutes….I’ve never seen anything like it,” said ecologist Pat Neale, who tracked the wind speeds on SERC’s meteorological tower.

How could something so quick cause so much damage? And how would a storm like that form in the first place?

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The Hidden Eyes of Blind Cats

Monday, April 9th, 2012

by Samantha Reed

Photo courtesy of Samantha Reed


Cats don’t need their eyes to see in the dark. It turns out they have something even better. This spring, 12-year-old SERC student Samantha Reed decided to find out if the same thing could help humans.
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Grimy field work? Give it to the tourists.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Ali Kishwar, a volunteer tourist from Pakistan, navigates the muddy terrain across from SERC's beaver pond with caution. (Credit: SERC)

For most people, summer vacation means stretching out on a beach in the South Pacific, touring the ruins of ancient Greece, or (for the more outdoors-inclined) hiking the Inca Trail in Peru. It does not usually entail wading through ankle-deep mud to measure the diameters of trees.

Paul Smith, a 63-year-old retired engineer, travelled to SERC all the way from the United Kingdom to do it. So did Ali Kishwar, a Pakistani doctorate student who took a break from studying medicinal plants at the University of Reading in Berkshire, also in the U.K. Smith and Kishwar joined a motley group of seven citizen scientists who paid to spend a week at SERC doing field work.
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The Making of a Green Science Lab

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Architect's image of new Mathias Lab, complete with rain cistern on porch and wetlands to the left. (Credit: EwingCole)

Sustainable houses and office buildings have seen their popularity surge in recent years. But creating a more sustainable laboratory, especially one with chemistry research, where fume hoods can consume up to three times as much energy as an average home, is a bit more of a challenge.

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Bricks, Bees and Blazes: New Life Comes to the Contee Farm

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Photo of the ruins of two brick chimneys being supported by huge braces.

The Contee Mansion ruins, 2010. Photo: Tina Tennessen

The Contee Farm has attracted a motley crew in recent months. Architects, archaeologists, beekeepers, construction crews and trailblazers have all descended upon the grounds. Their interest in the property varies, but they share a common purpose: to prepare the farm for visitors. In the coming years the public will be able to use the site to explore the various ways humans impact the environment.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center acquired the 575-acre Contee Farm in 2008. The mansion dates back to 1747 and for many decades served as a hub for the surrounding tobacco plantation. In 1890 lightening struck the house and caused it to burn. Since then, it has been vacant and left to disintegrate brick-by-brick.
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Day at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian Marsh

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

Four people sitting on a boardwalk in a marsh, measuring plants.

Seal collects data with other interns for Smithsonian scientists who are investigating the impact of global change on tidal marshes.

I know the title sounds like another great Ben Stiller Night at the Museum movie. However, in this real story of life at the Smithsonian, you will get a first-hand look at what really goes on behind the scenes at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Although the movies show the Smithsonian as talking exhibits, in reality the Smithsonian is a multitude of museums and scientific research centers where students of all ages and specialties do research. The two movies did a very good job of characterizing some of the more popular characters in history such as Theodore Roosevelt, but in reality the most interesting people at the Smithsonian are the researchers.
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Three questions for a novice, but well-informed beekeeper

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s outreach coordinator, Karen McDonald, has assumed a second title: beekeeper. This spring she and Elio Cruz, from the National Museum of Natural History, set up three hives in a remote field on SERC’s campus. The bees feast on the nectar and pollen of tulip poplars, walnut trees, clover and other nearby plants. With help from NMNH’s Insect Zoo, McDonald is doing her part to help the struggling bees.

Have scientists figured out what’s causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)?
No. They’ve been studying the large-scale losses of hives since American beekeepers began reporting the phenomenon in 2006. Scientists think a combination of factors—not just one—is leading to CCD. They’re currently exploring the role of pesticides, parasites, pathogens and overall stress on the bees.

They produce honey, they sting…what else do bees do?
Humans, not to mention, alfalfa, apples and almonds owe a great deal of gratitude to the honey bee. In its quest for nectar and pollen, one bee can visit several thousand flowers in a single day. In the United States, more than 3.5 million acres of crops rely on bees for pollination, which helps the plant’s flowers turn into fruits and nuts. That figure doesn’t include all the wild plants that need bees as well.

What do you find most interesting about the insect?
It’s amazing to me that they live—and work—mostly in the dark. The bees seal the hives with propolis, a sticky resin collected from plants. This helps them regulate the temperature of the hive. The dark also helps them secrete more wax for the comb. Without light, bees communicate by touch, smell and taste. The queen produces chemical pheromones that tell the worker bees that everything in the hive is okay. And after collecting nectar and pollen, workers return to the hive and perform waggle dances to communicate where they gathered the food. Again it’s all in the dark, so the others line up behind the returning bee as it dances and tap it with their antennae to figure out where the nectar and pollen are. Bees can even distinguish intruder bees from other hives simply by their smell; it’s a remarkable set of adaptations.

Close encounters with science: SERC’s annual open house

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

Photo of two volunteers wearing homemade crab-hats

Volunteers Richard Hohn and Carla Downes mug for the camera and show off their crab crowns. Photo: Karen McDonald

Face-painted kids and smiling parents fanned out across the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center this past Saturday for the annual open house. They learned about horseshoe crabs, underwater research robots, toe-biting bugs and the rich history of the land. The official count is not yet in, but ask SERC’s outreach coordinator Karen McDonald if she was happy with the turnout and the answer is: yes. Ask her if she’s still recovering from organizing the day’s activities and the answer is also yes.

Thank you to our volunteers, partner organizations, board members and staff for making the day a success. A special thanks to The Chaney Foundation for sponsoring the event and to Peter G. Cane for photographing the day.

Mark your calendars for next year’s open house: Saturday, May 14, 2011.

A virtual visit

Friday, March 5th, 2010

For those of you wondering just what the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is, what it looks like and what our scientists do, we offer up a slideshow tour. This was created with interns and research fellows in mind. It doesn’t capture all of SERC, but it does include shots of scientists, worms and blue crabs.

Interested in applying for an internship? The summer deadline has passed, but fall applications should be postmarked by June 1, 2010.

Find out more about SERC’s research and training opportunities on SERC’s Web site.