Ecology

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Bucket Buffets Divulge Deer Preferences

Friday, August 21st, 2015
Lisa Koetke prepares a motion-activated camera for another trial. (Lisa Koetke)

Lisa Koetke prepares a motion-activated camera. (Courtesy of Lisa Koetke)

by Chris Patrick

Imagine a swimming creature. It holds an antlered head above the water as its skinny, hooved legs tread underneath. A black stripe runs from its head to its tail, outlining a waggling white rump, revealing it to be a sika deer.

In 1916, a man named Clemment Henry released between four and six sika (the number isn’t certain) for hunting on James Island, off Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But it turns out sika are great swimmers—by 1962 they migrated to the Delmarva Peninsula and they now occupy every county of the lower Eastern Shore. 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 »

Smashing Logs to Uncover a Body-Snatcher’s Secrets

Friday, August 14th, 2015
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Darin Rummel smashes a stick against the dock. (SERC)

by Chris Patrick

Darin Rummel, intern in the marine invasions lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), raises a piece of wood twice the length of his arm and slams it onto a dock in the Patuxent River at Greenwell State Park in Hollywood, Md.

The soggy stick crumbles and a white-fingered mud crab scurries from the wreckage. Rummel adds the crab to a modest collection in a Tupperware container and raises the stick above his head again. Connor Hinton, another marine invasions lab intern, wades into a cove of muddy water in search of more crab-concealing wood. Click to continue »

Orchids: Lullabies and Limericks

Monday, August 10th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Orchids are cunning little creatures. They create elaborate ruses to puzzle insects, fungi and even (or especially) biologists. Here are a few poems we composed to honor the smartest plants on Earth.

Image: Dragon's Mouth Orchids, Arethusa bulbosa (Credit: Gary Van Velsir)

Dragon’s Mouth Orchids , Arethusa bulbosa (Gary Van Velsir)

Twinkle Orchid

Twinkle, twinkle, little orchid

Let’s get mycorrhiza sorted

Roots with fungus help supply

Sugar and nutrients to make you spry

Twinkle, twinkle, little orchid

Let’s get mycorrhiza sorted

Backstory:

A mycorrhiza is a kind of fungus that grows on orchid roots. In this relationship, the orchid receives water, sugar and nutrients from fungus, and the fungus receives nearly nothing in return. Check out this orchid life cycle poster for more details: Click to continue »

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.

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 »

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 »