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From the Field: Finding Oysters in Panama

Friday, December 14th, 2012

by Katrina Lohan

Katrina Lohan, attempting to scrape oysters off a rock at Punta Culebra, Panama. (Kristy Hill)

I would love to be able to say that I am a world traveler with loads of experience visiting other countries, but that would be far from the truth. Unfortunately for me, my passport has only a few stamps. (Two to be precise, as it wasn’t stamped for walking across the border into Mexico or crossing the border to have dinner in Canada.) So traveling to Panama to collect oysters has expanded my horizons in more ways than one!

In Panama, Kristy and I are working with Mark Torchin and Carmen Schloeder, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Our first sampling site was about a five-minute drive from the Smithsonian’s Naos Laboratory, which sits just outside Panama City on the Pacific Ocean.

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From the Field: Arriving in Panama

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

by Kristy Hill

Panama skyline (Kristy Hill)

I arrived in Panama City at 10 p.m. Saturday night, and as the plane started its descent into the city, my eyes widened at the sight of the city lights. It looked as if Clark Griswold had bedecked the entire city with Christmas lights! Tall buildings flashed extravagant multicolored light shows. I started getting that flutter of excitement in my stomach. I was about to spend two amazing weeks in Panama doing the science that I love!

I got through immigration and customs without incident despite my inability to speak Spanish well (yo hablo muy poco español). At any rate, I found my shuttle driver holding a sign with my name on it, so I felt pretty special as we walked out into hot and humid Panama.

My driver, Victor, showed me wonderful Panamanian hospitality. Luckily he spoke English very well and gave me a tour of the city on our way to the hotel. He recommended some places for us to visit if we had free time, and we talked about his experiences scuba diving in the Caribbean.

I arrived safe and sound at the hotel, where I managed to wake Katrina, who was already fast asleep with visions of sugar plums dancing through her head as I fumbled with my suitcases. I climbed into bed as well shortly thereafter and dreamt of Panamanian oysters dancing in my head…

Buenas noches!

From the Field: Game Plan for Panama

Thursday, December 6th, 2012

by Kristy Hill, SERC marine invasions technician

Katrina Lohan packs rubber gloves, Ziploc bags and other field essentials for a science expedition. (Kristy Hill)

Katrina and I leave for Panama City in next week, so we’re gathering supplies and mapping out our game plan. We’re stoked to get this project rolling—beautiful surroundings and mandatory snorkeling in the tropics won’t be such bad work!

The critters we’re looking for grow on coral reefs, mangrove roots, sponges, pilings, sea walls and rocks. Our goal is to collect at least 50 to 60 oysters of three or four different species from three sites along the Caribbean coast. At each site, we’ll take water quality measurements such as salinity, temperature and oxygen content. We’ll take additional notes about the oysters’ habitats, such as their distance from the shore, the depth of the water, their proximity to ports or marinas, etc. We want to obtain as much data (or information) as possible so we can better understand the environment where the oysters and their potential parasites live.

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From the Field: Hunting for Parasites

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

by Katrina Lohan, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and National Zoo postdoc

Many people cringe when they hear the word “parasite”—not Katrina Lohan and Kristy Hill. Combined, the two of us have spent 12 years conducting research on parasites that infect bivalves (oysters, clams, mussels, etc.), crustaceans (crabs, shrimps, lobsters, etc.), and songbirds. We are both passionate about studying marine parasites and want to better understand how parasitism impacts marine animals. For the next few months, we’ll be searching for these parasites in waters all along the east coast of North America, from Maryland to Panama.

Katrina Lohan (right) and Kristy Hill are preparing to scour the coasts of North America for marine parasites infecting oysters and other shellfish. (Kim Holzer/SERC)

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Climate Change Stimulates Growth of Invasive “Super Weed”

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Tom Mozdzer explores a patch of invasive Phragmites in SERC's global change wetland.

Is it better to be a jack of all trades or a master of some? In the plant world, it’s possible to do both–and that could make a huge difference in deciding which plants dominate under climate change. This holds especially true for one: the invasive reed Phragmites australis. Its ability to alter its anatomy enables it to grow well in just about any environment, including one spiked with CO2 and nitrogen, SERC ecologists discovered in a study published Oct. 31.

Plants like this are called “jack-and-master” plants. Typically, the most competitive plants surpass their neighbors through one of two strategies. “Jack-of-all-trades” plants do moderately well under most scenarios. Their competitors will surpass them when conditions are good, but if the environment becomes stressful, the jack of all trades will grow better. “Master-of-some” plants do very well under only a few conditions, so if the environment shifts in their favor, they are certain to emerge victorious. But a few types—the jack-and-master plants—can use both tactics. And the invasive Phragmites is one of them.

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Mangrove Tracking IX: To Catch a Tree Crab

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

by Megan Riley

A large adult male Aratus eating a juvenile of its species. (Megan Riley)


As adults, mangrove tree crabs (Aratus pisonii) tend to forage on fresh mangrove leaves in the canopy. As omnivores, they will also prey on nitrogen-rich insects, larvae, and even juveniles of their own species. However, it’s unclear how these organisms balance their nitrogen requirements and other nutritional demands. This summer I have focused my research on addressing this question. Specifically, I am investigating how their diet choices affect their overall health and ability to reproduce.

In order to perform this research, I first have to catch the Aratus! Despite the abundance of these animals in mangrove stands on the Indian River Lagoon, tree crab hunting is a tricky business. Over the course of the summer, I’ve learned a number of tips for trapping the elusive crustacean…

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Mangrove Tracking VIII: Beneath the Waves

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

by Cora Johnston

The waters beneath mangroves are teeming with marine life, in part due to the refuge provided by the tangled complexity of their underwater roots. (Cora Johnston)


From salty branches to mucky roots, mangroves are teeming with life. Although many people recognize mangroves as spindly trees emerging right out of the water, it is under the water’s surface that mangroves really come alive for a marine ecologist like me. (That is also where you start to appreciate red mangroves’ apt name.)

Mangrove roots, both dangling from above (prop roots) and growing up from the sand (pneumatophores), not only mine for nutrients and allow for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange for the plant; they also provide apparently crucial food and refuge for a stunning array of marine species. Fish, worms, crabs, shrimp, barnacles, and many other organisms take shelter among the roots – gluing right to the wood, hiding in crevices, and peering out through the maze. In such harsh intertidal conditions, where waves break, salt builds up, and the sun beats down, the shade and nooks formed by mangroves may be the key to survival for juvenile fish and crustaceans that will someday populate coral reefs and fishing hotspots farther offshore.

Over the coming months, I will be investigating how and why young fish and crustaceans use mangroves and marshes. By understanding the refuge provided by these very different coastal plants, I hope to better understand how the northward march of mangroves will influence the survival, abundance, and composition of marine species utilizing these now changing coastal nurseries.

Juvenile fish and crustaceans find safety in red mangrove roots during the early, vulnerable stages of their life. This young barracuda may be looking for a snack while hiding from larger predators. (Cora Johnston)

Even mangrove tree crabs that spend most of their time foraging in the canopy climb down to the safety of the mangrove roots to shed their old exoskeletons and harden their new ones. (Cora Johnston)

-Cora Johnston is a PhD student at the University of Maryland. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1065098. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


More stories from the mangroves >>

Mangrove Tracking VII: Just Another Day at the Office

Monday, July 16th, 2012

by Nancy Shipley

Technician Lorae Simpson and intern Jake Bodart deep in the mangroves, assessing vegetation cover and substrate color. (Mayda Nathan)


It sometimes seems crazy to be climbing through mangrove stands and wading through large ponds to collect our data, but the sites we explore are chosen for a reason. That reason is two-fold: One, to ground truth satellite imagery so we can map historic and current mangrove distributions. Two, to document the plant communities in places dominated by mangroves, in places where mangrove encroachment is occurring, and in places where mangroves have not yet arrived.

By using satellite imagery from years past, we hope to determine how far mangrove communities have spread in the last few decades. To do this we have to first understand what individual plant species comprise the large areas of vegetation that we can see from the satellites.

That is where we come in, climbing through mangroves.

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Mangrove Tracking VI: Attack of the Beetles

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

by Jake Bodart

Beetle tunnel. This Scolytid beetle has burrowed into a mangrove seedling and lain its larvae inside. (Jake Bodart)

In science not everything goes according to plan. For example, half of your project’s experimental units might die before you start.

In the back of the Smithsonian Research Station here in Ft. Pierce, the mangrove team has built an artificial pond (we call it Lake Simpson) to raise mangrove seedlings that will be used in experiments. However, when we arrived here last month, we noticed that about half of the red mangroves were turning black and dying. It was unclear at first whether these mangroves were dying directly as a result of the artificial habitat (was our pond too hot? Too salty? Not salty enough?), or if the pond was somehow making the mangroves more susceptible to pest insects. We know from other studies that predation by insects can cause a large amount of propagule and seedling mortality.

Upon closer inspection, we decided insects were the culprit. The evidence of insect predation: small bore holes and little piles of frass (chewed up/excreted parts of the plant, a.k.a. insect poop). We decided to sacrifice the seedlings that were clearly infested, and dissect them to see if there were any insects inside.

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Land Hurricanes: The Science Behind the Derecho

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

by Kristen Minogue

Derecho storm front over Nebraska in August 2007. (MONGO)

To say the tempests of June 29 took the U.S. by surprise would be an understatement. Near Annapolis, the storms jumped from a mild 10 miles per hour to 54 miles per hour in just five minutes. In other places 70- and 80-mile per hour winds tore through hulking trees and power lines. And yet the most violent part of the storm lasted less than half an hour.

“It all happened in a matter of minutes….I’ve never seen anything like it,” said ecologist Pat Neale, who tracked the wind speeds on SERC’s meteorological tower.

How could something so quick cause so much damage? And how would a storm like that form in the first place?

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