Invasive Species

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Citizen Science: How to Hunt for Crabs (And Their Parasites)

Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

by Maria Sharova
SERC citizen science program assistant

Two SERC staff on docks

Maria Sharova (right) sifts through oyster shells in search of tiny mud crabs with intern  Caroline Kanaskie. (Monaca Noble/SERC)

I started working at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) one year ago this month. It had only been two weeks since I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Like any recent grad, I was excited and nervous to start my first real job—and, frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

During my first week of work, I was involved with the Chesapeake Bay Parasite Project (a.k.a. the Mud Crab Project), a project that looks at the impact of an invasive, parasitic barnacle called Loxothylacus panopaei (“Loxo” for short) on native white-fingered mud crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. Like most of our volunteers, I’d never heard of either of these organisms, I had no idea why the project mattered, and I’d never been involved in any kind of ecology research before. I had no idea Loxo was able hijack a mud crab’s reproductive system, forcing them to nurse parasite larvae instead of crab larvae. Nor had I ever searched through crates of oyster shells looking for mud crabs the size of a quarter or smaller, as our volunteers were about to do. But in no time at all, I’d become an experienced mud crab finder!

Maria’s Pro Tips for Citizen Scientists

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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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All About That Base…Pairs: Using DNA Barcoding to Identify Fish Gut Contents

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Rob Aguilar takes photos of all DNA barcoding reference specimens collected in the Chesapeake Bay

Rob Aguilar takes photos of all DNA barcoding reference specimens they collect in the Chesapeake Bay

Rob Aguilar of SERC’s Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab co-authored a DNA barcoding paper this past September in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes. Rob spoke with us about his paper and the DNA barcoding work going on in the Fish and Invertebrate Lab. While the term DNA barcoding may seem difficult to understand, it’s easiest to think about it as a uniquely identifiable species level code.

Click the sound file below to listen to the interview.

Additional barcoding details are available in the full podcast transcript.

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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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Bucket Buffets Divulge Deer Preferences

Friday, August 21st, 2015
Lisa Koetke prepares a motion-activated camera for another trial. (Lisa Koetke)

Lisa Koetke prepares a motion-activated camera. (Courtesy of Lisa Koetke)

by Chris Patrick

Imagine a swimming creature. It holds an antlered head above the water as its skinny, hooved legs tread underneath. A black stripe runs from its head to its tail, outlining a waggling white rump, revealing it to be a sika deer.

In 1916, a man named Clemment Henry released between four and six sika (the number isn’t certain) for hunting on James Island, off Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But it turns out sika are great swimmers—by 1962 they migrated to the Delmarva Peninsula and they now occupy every county of the lower Eastern Shore. Click to continue »

Smashing Logs to Uncover a Body-Snatcher’s Secrets

Friday, August 14th, 2015
IMG_1880

Darin Rummel smashes a stick against the dock. (SERC)

by Chris Patrick

Darin Rummel, intern in the marine invasions lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), raises a piece of wood twice the length of his arm and slams it onto a dock in the Patuxent River at Greenwell State Park in Hollywood, Md.

The soggy stick crumbles and a white-fingered mud crab scurries from the wreckage. Rummel adds the crab to a modest collection in a Tupperware container and raises the stick above his head again. Connor Hinton, another marine invasions lab intern, wades into a cove of muddy water in search of more crab-concealing wood. Click to continue »

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 »

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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