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How Clay Caterpillars Help Unlock Biodiversity’s Secrets

Friday, July 22nd, 2016
Anna Nordseth surveys clay caterpillars for damage in BiodiversiTREE plot

Anna Nordseth surveys clay caterpillars for predation damage in BiodiversiTREE plot (Credit: Emily Li/SERC)

by Emily Li

Anna Nordseth, a summer intern for the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Terrestrial Ecology Lab, wasn’t surprised to be taking work home the first week and a half of her internship. What she wasn’t expecting was to be making nearly a thousand clay caterpillars.

Each caterpillar began life as a half gram of green clay, with a wire spine and ends rolled into a worm-like silhouette. By the time Nordseth had finished—several podcasts and three seasons of House of Cards later—she had 900 caterpillars and the hand cramps to prove it. But she was ready to begin her research.

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Climate Change Could Release Ancient Soil Carbon

Friday, July 1st, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Blanca with soil core

Blanca Bernal extracts a soil core from a SERC marsh. (Credit: SERC)

Just beneath our feet, there’s a slumbering pool of carbon that has largely been ignored.

Earth’s deep soils store vast reservoirs of carbon centuries to millennia old. Left undisturbed, they can store that carbon for thousands of years longer. But if triggered, those reservoirs could release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, a team of scientists discovered in a new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

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Cranking Up the Heat in the “Wetland of the Future”

Friday, June 24th, 2016

by Joe Dawson, SERC research aide

Last fall, while volunteering in a plant lab at George Washington University in D.C., I heard about an experiment that was starting up at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). The project, a global warming simulation in the wetlands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, was helmed by SERC research ecologist Roy Rich, an ecologist with an engineer’s mindset. I’ve been a wetlands enthusiast since I spotted my first blue Heron as a kid, and global climate change is, in my mind, the most pressing issue humans face today. I was ready to sign up. I met with Roy and asked the same questions I have since answered over and over again since joining the project in November:

Joe Dawson kneels by a control box on marsh

Joe Dawson checks a control box for the underground heating cables that help raise temperature in the marsh plots. (Kristen Minogue/SERC)

“You’re heating up a swamp?” Yes.

“And adding CO2?” Yes.

“In a greenhouse?” No.

“Out in the open?” Yes.

“Umm, how?” Well…

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Biodiversity Protects Fish From Climate Change

Monday, May 16th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Fish provide protein to billions of people and are an especially critical food source in the developing world. Today, marine biologists confirmed a key factor that could help them thrive through the coming decades: biodiversity. Communities with more fish species are more productive and more resilient to rising temperatures and temperature swings, according to a new study from the Smithsonian’s Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and other international institutions.

The accelerating loss and rearrangement of species all over the globe have troubled scientists and the public for decades. But the question of whether biodiversity offers practical value—for humans and ecosystems—remained controversial. The new study, published May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers the most thorough proof yet that preserving marine biodiversity can benefit people as much as it benefits the oceans.

“Biodiversity is more than a pretty face,” said lead author Emmett Duffy, director of the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “Preserving biodiversity is not just an aesthetic or spiritual issue—it’s critical to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the important services they provide to humans, like seafood.”

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Acidification and Low Oxygen Put Fish in Double Jeopardy

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Inland silverside with reflection.

Inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) reflected in aquarium. When threatened with low oxygen, fish often swim to the surface, where oxygen is more abundant but predators can more easily spot them. (SERC)

Severe oxygen drops in the water can leave trails of fish kills in their wakes, but scientists thought adult fish would be more resilient to the second major threat in coastal waters: acidification. A new study published Tuesday from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) shows that is not entirely true—where fish are concerned, acidification can make low oxygen even more deadly.

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Coffee, Carbon and Crime: 22 Reasons to Love Trees

Friday, April 22nd, 2016
Dawn Miller in forest

Ecologist Dawn Miller in SERC forest (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

Friday is Earth Day, and this year it’s all about the trees. The Earth Day Network is on a mission to plant 7.8 billion trees in five years. Trees have enormous power when it comes to protecting the Earth. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have spent decades uncovering the environmental benefits of forests. But trees offer some advantages that are less obvious. Like acting as painkillers. Or improving your morning coffee. Since the holiday falls on April 22, we picked our top 22 things trees do for humanity.  Click to continue »

Top 12 Highlights of 2015: Arctic Sailing, Cownose Rays and an Orchid Showdown

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

It’s been another wild year at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. We sent a sailboat to the Arctic, pitted our orchids in a showdown against the Hope Diamond and discovered a couple new species. And somewhere along the way we celebrated the center’s 50th anniversary. Scroll below for the 2015 #YearInReview, a collection of the top 12 stories, journeys and biggest surprises of 2015.

Image: Cownose Rays (Credit: SERC/Laura Patrick)

Cownose Rays (SERC/Laura Patrick)

Exploring the Ocean

Totes Adorbs! Cownose Rays Take Internet
These marine heartthrobs have earned a top billing. Besides making a 900-mile migration every year, which SERC marine ecologists are tracking with acoustic tags, the kite-shaped rays (whose mouths are stretched so that they seem to be wearing a perpetual smile) also won a Twitter #CuteOff in September.

What Does Life in the Ocean Sound Like?
Postdoc Erica Staaterman listens to the ocean for a living. Often seen as a silent landscape broken only by whale or dolphin songs, Staaterman is helping uncover a wealth of noise from the ocean’s hidden creatures. She shared some of the recordings with us in this edited Q&A.

Cruising the Arctic’s Forgotten Fjords
Ocean acidification researcher Whitman Miller sent one of his CO2-monitoring devices on a 100-day journey to the Arctic. Its mission: Venture to some of Greenland’s never-before-seen fjords and discover how melting glaciers are changing the water. And do it all in a small, 42-foot sailboat. Click to continue »

Phragmites vs. Climate Change: Invasive Reed Better at Taking Up Carbon

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Josh Caplan holds Phragmites. (Credit: Tom Mozdzer)

Ecologist and lead author Josh Caplan holds a Phragmites plant at the Global Change Research Marsh. Invasive Phragmites can grow up to 15 feet tall. (Thomas Mozdzer)

One of the Chesapeake’s least favorite invaders could end up being an unlikely savior. The invasive reed Phragmites australis, a plant that has exploded across Chesapeake wetlands in the last few decades, is also making those wetlands better at soaking up carbon, ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and Bryn Mawr College discovered in a new study.

The common reed, better known as Phragmites australis, grows in dense clusters up to 15 feet tall. North America has several native strains that have co-existed peacefully with many other native plants for at least 30,000 years. It is the invasive strain that arrived from Eurasia in the 1800s that has scientists and environmental managers worried. Eurasian Phragmites grows taller and denser than North American Phragmites, crowding out many smaller plants, and blocking access to light and nutrients. These changes in plant community have a ripple effect on animals that rely on wetlands for habitat.

“The fish communities, the insect communities, the soil and invertebrate communities, all these things change when Phragmites comes in,” says lead author Josh Caplan, a Bryn Mawr postdoc and visiting scientist at SERC. Often, those changes aren’t for the better. “Phragmites is doing a number to these ecosystems.” Click to continue »

Restrictions in Seaweed Agar-vate Scientists

Thursday, December 17th, 2015
Bivalves from Panama for Dermo disease study

Bivalves from Panama for Dermo disease study

by Heather Soulen

Last week Nature magazine published a news piece about how supplies of agar, a research staple in labs around the world, are dwindling. Agar is a gelatinous material from red seaweed of the genus Gelidium, and is referred to as ‘red gold’ by those within the industry. Insiders suggest that the tightening of seaweed supply is related to overharvesting, causing agar processing facilities to reduce production. Most of the world’s ‘red gold’ comes from Morocco. In the 2000s, the nation harvested 14,000 tons per year. Today, harvest limits are set at 6,000 tons per year, with only 1,200 tons available for foreign export outside the country. In typical supply and demand fashion, distributor prices are expected to skyrocket. As a result, things could get tough for scientists who use agar and agar-based materials in their research.

Agar is a scientist’s Jell-O. Just like grandma used to make Jell-O desserts with fruit artfully arranged on top or floating in suspended animation within a mold, scientists use agar the same way. Bacteria and fungi can be cultured on top of nutrient-enriched agar, tissues of organisms can be suspended within an agar-based medium and chunks of DNA can move through an agarose gel, a carbohydrate material that comes from agar. Agar and agar products are the Leathermans of the science world.

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The Blue Carbon Market is Open

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

New report enables creation of carbon credits for restored wetlands

by Kristen Minogue

SERC's Global Change Research Wetland (SERC)

SERC’s Global Change Research Wetland (Credit: SERC)

How much is a wetland worth?

It’s a question that has plagued policymakers, scientists and other leaders looking to protect their communities and slow down the pace of climate change. For the first time, thanks to a new report released Tuesday, scientists have a method to calculate how much greenhouses gas emissions a restored wetland can offset that can be used anywhere in the world–which will allow the creation of carbon credits. Click to continue »