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Marsh Rovers: Research at the SERC Marsh

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

If you take a stroll out along the green grated catwalk that lies several feet above the muddy marsh ground at SERC, the first thing you’ll notice is strange white structures dotting the lush landscape. No, the aliens haven’t landed. These white enclosures make up several experiments at SERC. The goal of each experiment is to determine how a changing climate will affect this valuable marsh habitat, which stores carbon, has high primary productivity, and provides homes for fish, crustaceans, insects,  and more.

The SERC marsh. Under each treatment, conditions are set to mimic the CO2 concentration expected in 2100. (Credit: Thomas Mozdzer)

The SERC marsh. Under each capsule, conditions are set to mimic the CO2 concentration expected in 2100.
( Thomas Mozdzer)

Carbon and Nitrogen: Elements of Growth

Since 1987, SERC scientists have been pumping CO2 into these plastic chambers to simulate the marsh a century from now—a marsh in the grip of climate change. Inside these miniature time capsules, marsh plants grow with 350 parts per million more CO2 than is in the atmosphere today, levels scientists expect to see by the year 2100.  As marsh plants grow, they take in CO2 from the air. This carbon can either end up sequestered in the soil or released back into the ecosystem through decomposition. The CO2 addition experiments conducted at SERC are the longest-running in the world.

Besides carbon, marshes also rely on nitrogen, an element necessary for the creation of proteins. Due to runoff from fertilizers, nitrogen levels are also increasing in estuaries like the Cheasapeake Bay. As the concentration of both CO2 and nitrogen increases, scientists at SERC are asking important questions about how the structure of the marsh will be affected, including how it will change the plant communities that will grow there.

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From the Field: Sleepless Nights and Road Trips

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

by Cora Johnston

When studying major ecological changes, like the movement of entire species or ecosystems, we often have to sample across large geographic areas. This means lots of road trips!

Taking a moment to reflect after a field day that started at midnight. (Cora Johnston)

Taking a moment to reflect after a field day that started at midnight. (Cora Johnston)

Starting nearly two months ago, I began my own road trips along the coast to survey the larval crabs that are washing ashore in swarms. Crabs typically recruit (leave the open ocean as larvae to join adult populations in coastal habitats) in a few brief but frenzied weeks in late spring and early fall. Therefore, I’ve been busy hopping between sites to gather as much data as I can while the crabs are abundant. Unfortunately, this means that my schedule, like the crabs’, depends on moonlight and tides. I’ll wake up around midnight, drive until the wee hours of the morning, and then sample the incoming tides by moonlight until wrapping up and moving to my next site as the sun rises. I then load up a kayak and spend the day paddling around collecting larger crabs (though still far too tiny to eat) from deep in each habitat to compare to the larvae I find riding the currents at night.

I head off on these adventures wielding stacks of audiobooks, a hefty thermos and lots of pre-labeled jars and data sheets that ease the demands on a weary mind. I munch trail mix to battle the exhaustion and swim to soothe the bug bites. After a few weeks on this schedule, even I find it hard to believe that I will get up at midnight the very next week to start all over again. Luckily, what keeps me coming back is what got me out of bed to do these studies in the first place.

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From the Field: Insects Behind the Mangrove Invasion

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

by Mayda Nathan

Many insects visit black mangrove flowers, including bumblebees (left) and Pseudomyrmex ants (right). But which pollinators are the most important? (Mayda Nathan)

Many insects visit black mangrove flowers, including bumblebees (left) and Pseudomyrmex ants (right). But which pollinators are the most important? (Mayda Nathan)

Introduced species have a bad—and sometimes well-earned—reputation. Brown tree snakes in Guam, mosquitoes in Hawaii, cheatgrass in the intermountain west, and many more invasive organisms have turned native ecosystems upside-down, changing fundamental ecosystem properties like species diversity, nutrient availability, and the size and shape of food webs. Biologists are hard at work learning how to tell when, where, and how a species becomes a successful invader and driver of ecosystem change. (See a recent post on how tricky this can be.)

But how can we make predictions about invaders that are…native?

In other words, what happens when an organism starts to spread out from its native range into adjacent territory—without hitchhiking along with humans? And why does this happen in the first place?

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Warm enough to snow? Climate Change and Blizzards

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

SERC pond on the morning of March 25. The short-lived spring snowstorm dumped up to 6 inches throughout Maryland, but most of it melted within 24 hours. (Kristen Minogue)

SERC pond on the morning of March 25. The short-lived spring snowstorm dumped up to 6 inches throughout Maryland, but most of it melted within 24 hours. (Kristen Minogue)

If the massive snowstorms that pummeled the northeast this winter—and at least one downpour in spring—seem out of place in a warming world, climate scientists have a message: Don’t fret, it’s just physics.

For several years, scientists have anticipated a future of “less snow, more blizzards” in the winters ahead. The message may sound like a paradox. But for the planet, it boils down to one simple truth: Warm air holds more moisture than cold air.

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From the Field: Farewell, Panama

Friday, December 28th, 2012

by Kristy Hill

The oyster Isognomon sp. in the crevices of a rocky reef at Fort Sherman on the Atlantic coast of Panama. (Kristy Hill)

Yesterday we ventured to the Caribbean coast of Panama, where we had beautiful weather for sampling. Our first stop was near Fort Sherman, a former United States Army base, where we found lots of Isognomon oysters on the subtidal rocks. These oysters are unusual because instead of cementing their shell to a hard surface, they attach themselves to rocks and mangroves with a threadlike structure. We also were able to collect a Crassostrea sp. and a few Ostrea sp. as well.

We then headed to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) Marine Laboratory in Galeta. We braved the somewhat turbulent waters and snorkeled to collect from the mangroves, despite reports of crocodiles that frequent the area. Oh, the lengths we’ll go to in the name of science.

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From the Field: Punta Chame–Oysters Galore

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

by Katrina Lohan

Katrina Lohan and Kristina Hill sample oysters off the rocks near Punta Chame, on the Pacific side of Panama. (Carmen Schloeder)

Some sampling sites are glamorous. Others are not. Our site near Punta Chame was literally off the side of the road. There were lots of rocks just off the road, and then a sandy bank that led to a stream, which led to the ocean. The rocks were covered in oysters, so it was very easy to get all the oyster samples we needed. We found three different species at that site and were able to collect all the oysters and water samples in about an hour.

Interestingly, there were two locations available for water sampling. One spot was an isolated pond influenced by run-off from the road, where the salinity was only 18 ppt. (The average salinity of the ocean is 35 ppt or parts per thousand). The other spot was more of a stream running from the land into the ocean only a few miles away, and the stream’s salinity was 30 ppt. As the salinity of the water can directly impact the parasites, some of which can only survive in high salinity, I opted to take water samples from both bodies of water so I could compare the differences. I’m hoping to get some really interesting results!

From the Field: Worth the Drive

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

by Katrina Lohan

View from Rio Mar on the Pacific side of Panama at high tide (Carmen Schloeder)

On Friday, we ventured to a new location on the Pacific coast to hunt for oysters. Rio Mar is a beach site, so it is unlike our other locations, which thus far have been located in more enclosed estuaries. We headed out to Rio Mar in the hopes of finding some larger oysters in the tidal pools. Fortunately and unfortunately for us, by the time we made it out there, it was high tide. The view of the beach and surrounding area was spectacular, but we weren’t able to sample any oysters. I can’t say I regret going out there, though–what a beautiful beach!

From the Field: Hanging onto Mangroves

Monday, December 17th, 2012

by Katrina Lohan

First of all, our stuff arrived! After a few more phone calls to the customs office, everything went smoothly and all of our gear was delivered on Tuesday—not too shabby, really!

STRI biologist Mark Torchin attempts to climb a stream bank after obtaining oysters from the mangrove roots. (Katrina Lohan)

The next site on our list was called Bique, an intertidal area that has some freshwater input. Many sites on the Pacific side of Panama have large stretches of beach that are uncovered at low tide but completely underwater at high tide. So we are sampling at low tide, when the oysters on the rocks are exposed and much more easily accessible.

At this site, we decided to check out the mangroves first to see if there were any oysters attached to their roots that we could sample. While we found some, they were pretty difficult to get off. Our collaborator, Mark Torchin, thought it safest to strap himself to a mangrove, as the banks were made of soft mud and it is all too easy to fall into the stream. Additional acrobatics, such as scaling mangroves, navigating through root mazes, and climbing back up off the muddy banks, were required to get these oysters, but we prevailed and were able to walk away with about 30 individual oysters.

We then headed back out to scrape oysters off the rocks and found two different species, Saccostrea palmula and a species of Crassostrea, in the rocky intertidal zone. As our supplies had arrived, I now had the equipment necessary to obtain and filter water samples as well, so I walked out along the rocks to get a liter of surface water from the incoming tide. Part of my fellowship research involves comparing the different kinds of parasites in the water column to what is infecting and being filtered by the oysters. Water sampling is just one way of obtaining a more complete picture of parasite diversity in the different sites that we are sampling.

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!