Ecology

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Not Your Everday Martha Stewart Glue Sticks

Friday, December 19th, 2014

by Heather Soulen, research technician

When I mention that we use “glue sticks” at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to help answer research questions about wetland ecology, I get looks of confusion and amusement. People often think I am using:

Glue Sticks (Credit: Heather Soulen/SERC) or GlueGun (Credit: Heather Soulen/SERC)

But, what I really mean is that I use these:

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From the Field: Diving Into the Kelp Forest

Monday, December 15th, 2014

by Michelle Marraffini, SERC marine biologist

Image: SERC diver Lina Ceballos carries sampling equipment down to depth to survey species underwater. (by Michelle Marraffini/SERC)

SERC diver Lina Ceballos carries sampling equipment down to depth to survey species underwater.
(Michelle Marraffini/SERC)

The sun shimmers on the still waters of Monterey Bay, Calif., this beautiful October morning as we prepare for our dive survey. As we stand on the shore unloading our sampling gear, we can see the tops of giant kelp break the surface and an otter munching on a freshly caught crab. We’re about to dive into the Pacific Ocean in search of nonnative species on the outer coast.

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Saving the River Herring: Don’t Let the Good Die Young

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Alewives, a species of River Herring. (Credit: Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor)

Alewives, one of two species of River Herring in Chesapeake Bay. (Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor)

It’s no secret that River Herring are in trouble. There was a time, back in the 1950s, when Maryland fishermen regularly pulled in 4 million pounds or more a year of the silver fish. Then something mysterious happened. Herring harvests generally fluctuate from year to year. But in the 1970s, they fell and never came back up. For the last four decades, commercial fishermen in Maryland have been lucky to catch a few hundred thousand a year. Now they catch none.

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Feeding the World in the Age of Humans

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Image: Bread, flour, cornmeal, rice and pasta. (Credit: Scott Bauer/USDA)

Bread, flour, cornmeal, rice and pasta. (Scott Bauer/USDA)

by Kristen Minogue

Food doesn’t typically get the spotlight in talks on climate change. Even when human health enters the picture, heat waves and category 5 hurricanes often dominate coverage. But as the Earth changes, so does agriculture. That raised just one of several questions scientists wrestled with at the Smithsonian’s second climate change symposium, titled “Living in the Anthropocene”: What will the world’s 7 billion people eat?

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Oysters and the Chesapeake’s Jellyfish Wars

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Image: Jellyfish Chrysaora quinquecirrha (Credit: Lori Davias)

Jellyfish Chrysaora quinquecirrha (Lori Davias)

by Kristen Minogue

Every summer, the food web in Chesapeake Bay gets jostled around as two plankton-eating predators jockey for power: comb jellies and jellyfish. Most smaller species don’t have a stake in the battle—both predators eat zooplankton and fish eggs, after all. But for young oyster larvae, the victor could make the difference between being protected civilians or collateral damage.

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Urban kids, urban waterways: Citizen science improves lives and environment

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

Tony Thomas (left) supervises while Donovan Eason (center) and DaWayne Walker run a chemical test on a water sample.

Tony Thomas (left), education program coordinator at the Anacostia Community Museum, supervises while students Donovan Eason (center) and DaWayne Walker run a chemical test on a water sample.

“Is the net like a Spongebob jellyfish net?” student Cristal Sandoval asked.  Alison Cawood, citizen science coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), used another analogy to explain: “It’s like a bowl with holes in it for pasta.”  Light bulbs came on around the room and a knowing, “Oh,” escaped the lips of at least a dozen students.

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Marshes: Pollution Sponges of the Future

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

by Melissa Pastore, biology graduate student at Villanova University

Image: Melissa Pastore in a marsh near Delaware Bay. (Credit: Lori Sutter)

Melissa Pastore in a marsh near Delaware Bay.
(Lori Sutter)

What if we could create a giant sponge capable of soaking up nitrogen pollution? It turns out that the Chesapeake Bay, which has experienced a rapid increase in nitrogen pollution from municipal and agricultural sources over the last few decades, already contains a natural version of this sponge: marshes fringing the Bay. But global change—and the nitrogen pollution itself—could change how this natural sponge operates.

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Banishing the Ghosts on the Bay Floor

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Image: A ghost pot pulled out of Chesapeake Bay. (Credit: Michael Reid/Southern Maryland Newspapers)

A ghost pot pulled out of Chesapeake Bay. (Michael Reid/Southern Maryland Newspapers)


Every year, thousands of crab pots disappear, their lines snapped by violent storms or severed by the propellers of passing boats. Cut off from the buoys that once marked their presence, they become “ghost pots,” lost at the bottom of the Chesapeake.

But ghost pots aren’t dead pots. They’re still quite capable of trapping crabs, including mature females undergoing their spawning migration. And with no one to retrieve them, crabs too large to escape are condemned to a slow death by starvation. This often has the eerie effect of luring even more animals to their demise, says Laura Patrick, aquatic ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).

“The crabs are just going in and they’re dying,” Patrick says. “And one of the problems is that the dead animals that are in there can be bait for new crabs to come in. So it’s kind of a self-baiting pot.”

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Virtual crabs could help real recovery

Friday, August 8th, 2014

by Sarah Hansen

Image: Julie Sepanik holds up a large male blue crab caught in the Rhode River. (Credit: SERC)

Julie Sepanik holds up a large male blue crab caught in the Rhode River. (SERC)

No one disputes that blue crab numbers in Chesapeake Bay are low.  There is much discussion, however, about what to do to fix the problem.  Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Julie Sepanik is working with SERC postdoctoral fellow Matt Ogburn to develop a computer model that will help improve our understanding of blue crab population dynamics in the Bay. The model works to identify where female crabs mature in the Bay and track their migration to lower Bay spawning areas. Ultimately, they hope the model will help inform decisions about preserving habitat and restoring the population.

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Summer “Marshfest” gets all hands on deck

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

Experimental chambers and blowers give the marsh a spooky feel on this cloudy morning.

Experimental chambers and blowers give the marsh a spooky feel on this cloudy morning at SERC.

At first encounter, the marsh looks as if it came out of a Heinlein novel. Boxy white robots dot the wetland, igloo-shaped encampments litter the landscape, and thick black tubes snake across the mud—wait, did that one just move? On closer inspection, clusters of human beings appear crouched in the sedge, carefully taking measurements for the annual Global Change Research Wetland (GCREW) Summer Marshfest.

“These two weeks are the most important two weeks of the year for us,” said Smithsonian Environmental Research Center biogeochemist Patrick Megonigal. During Marshfest, senior scientists, postdocs, volunteer citizen scientists, interns, lab techs and visiting students all join forces to collect data for three experiments focused on climate change and nutrient cycling, all managed by Megonigal. Click to continue »