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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 gases 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 »

Remembering Hurricane Katrina by Studying Marshes of the Future

Friday, August 28th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

The Need for Healthy Marshes

Ten years ago, on August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina nicked south Florida and entered the heat-charged waters of the Gulf of Mexico, transforming from a Category 1 hurricane into a super-charged Category 5. In the early morning hours of August 29, it ripped through Louisiana and Mississippi. Thousands died, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Today, much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and its people, are still recovering from the devastation.

When Katrina hit, some coastal marshes east of the Mississippi River lost approximately 25 percent of their area. In the decade that followed, salt marshes and wetlands in Louisiana have continued to disappear in some places, but not others. The scientific community soon zeroed in on keeping marshes healthy, since, as one scientist remarked “A healthy marsh is pretty resilient, A stressed marsh – storms will physically break the marsh down.” Marshes and wetlands are ecologically and economically important ecosystems. During storms they act like buffers, reducing storm surge and flood damage, but only if they’re healthy. The question is, what factors make a marsh strong or weak?
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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 »

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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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 »

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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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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