Ecology

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Cruising the Arctic’s Forgotten Fjords

Monday, July 20th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

How exactly does one prepare for a 100-day voyage to the Arctic?

Image: Matt Rutherford (courtesy of Nicole Trenholm)

Matt Rutherford on a pollution survey across the Pacific (courtesy Nicole Trenholm)

“Chaotically,” says Matt Rutherford, head of the nonprofit Ocean Research Project. He’s sitting in the cabin of the Ault, a 42-foot-long sailboat in Annapolis that will embark the next day on a research cruise to Greenland. Rutherford and his partner, Nicole Trenholm, will navigate unexplored fjords collecting data for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and NASA. The 8,000-mile round-trip journey will take them to some of the few uncharted spots left on the map. But first they have to finish packing.

Nicole Trenholm (courtesy of Matt Rutherford)

Nicole Trenholm tracks data on a Rappahannock River survey (courtesy Matt Rutherford)

“You’re always paying attention to how much water you have, how much power you have, how much fuel you have,” says Trenholm, a marine scientist who joined Rutherford in 2013. “It’s kind of a game.”

To conserve water, they’re running the sinks and showers with saltwater. The cabinets in the Ault’s galley are stuffed with trail mix, spices, Swiss Mix cocoa and freeze-dried food.

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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 »

Under the Apron, into the Genome

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

by Chris Patrick

Tepolt holding a Humboldt squid at Hopkins Marine Station, where she did her doctorate research. (Tom Hata)

Tepolt holding a Humboldt squid at Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. (Tom Hata)

Before I was the science writing intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), I volunteered in SERC’s marine invasions lab sorting white-fingered mud crabs with Monaca Noble, researcher and public relations coordinator. The mud crabs are tiny, ranging from the size of a tick to the size of a quarter. They reek of preservative alcohol, and milky mittens glove their pincers. While sorting, I met Carolyn Tepolt, a postdoctoral fellow at SERC.

34-year-old Tepolt (which sounds like a fusion of “teapot” and “catapult”) offered me homemade lemon bars the day we met. Working together, we discovered we were both undergraduates at the College of William and Mary—we lived on the same floor of the same freshman hall 14 years apart. Tepolt visited the lab to learn the crab-sorting process because this summer she will use genetics to study how mud crabs are adapting to their parasite, Loxothylacus panopaei, or Loxo. 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 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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Mangrove Trees Divided on Journey North

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: John Parker samples a red mangrove tree in Florida. (Credit: SERC)

John Parker samples a red mangrove tree in Florida. (SERC

Deep in the Florida swamps, black, white and red mangrove trees have lived together for thousands of years. But warmer winters are pulling the ecological fellowship apart, creating a new landscape in the north.

The story begins decades ago. Once, when Florida winters were chillier, mangroves remained trapped in the subtropics. As the climate warmed, Smithsonian ecologists discovered that fewer cold snaps were empowering mangroves to push north. But the trees aren’t moving in sync. Black mangroves have outstripped their cousins, passing St. Augustine, while white mangroves are lagging almost 30 miles behind. Until now, there weren’t any hard data explaining why.

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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)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 »