Ecology

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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)

Matt Kornis, during a day navigating a marsh

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 around a tidal marsh can have the same effect as dragging a tortilla chip through layered dip. Walking often destroys marsh layers or the physical landscape of a marsh, creating serious problems for scientists studying the ecology and biogeochemistry of marsh systems. Click to continue »

Two New Bryozoan Species Discovered Off Portugal

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: SERC research associate and Portuguese native João Canning-Clode. (Credit: Valentyna Chan)

SERC research associate and Portuguese native João Canning-Clode. (Valentyna Chan)

Since he began surveying the waters of Madeira two years ago, João Canning-Clode has discovered a new invasive species almost every month. The archipelago off the coast of Portugal is a hot spot for biodiversity, especially for bryozoans – “moss animals” that often cover rocks, piers and other artificial substrates. But he didn’t anticipate finding a completely new species, let alone two.

Bryozoans are easy to mistake for plants or corals from a distance. Some resemble moss as they form encrusting colonies on underwater rocks. Others form branching, bush-like colonies that look more like algae or corals. Up close, though, a single colony can contain millions of individual, tube-shaped zooids. The zooids support each other. But break a piece off, and a single zooid can start a new colony of its own.

The team named the new species Favosipora purpurea (for its pinkish-purple color) and Rhynchozoon papuliferum (for its special triangular-shaped zooids). In this Q&A, Canning-Clode, a research associate with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, details the dual discovery published this month.

FavasiporaPurpurea_PatricioRamalhosa

 Rhynchozoon_papuliferum_Web
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Not Your Everyday 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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