by Michelle Marraffini, SERC marine biologistThe sun shimmers on the still waters of Monterey Bay, Calif., this beautiful October morning as we prepare for our dive survey. As we stand on the shore unloading our sampling gear, we can see the tops of giant kelp break the surface and an otter munching on a freshly caught crab. We’re about to dive into the Pacific Ocean in search of nonnative species on the outer coast.
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By Sarah Hansen
Invasive plants are rampant throughout the United States. Some have been here for tens or even hundreds of years, while others are relative newcomers. They compete with native plants for resources, and more often than not they win the fight.
David Gorchov, visiting scientist from Miami University of Ohio, is leading a project to map five invasive plant species in upland forests at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). In particular, he’s interested in how gaps in the forest canopy, usually created by a tree falling, affect the abundance of these invasives. One of his graduate students, Lauren Emsweller, is here working on the project for her master’s thesis. Julia Mudd, a SERC intern from Florida State University, is getting college credit to help them out.
“There are a few studies that have looked at the importance of gaps, but there’s none that have done complete maps like this that I’m aware of,” said Gorchov.
Citizen scientists brave dense swamps to find truth behind Phrag
By Sarah Hansen
Sea-level rise triggered by climate change affects coastal ecosystems first. Marshes and wetlands along the shoreline creep inland, infringing on forest habitats. Scientists have strong evidence that too much water will gradually drown the trees. But an invasive reedy plant, known as “Phrag” from its scientific name, Phragmites australis, might be the forests’ unlikely protector, delaying drowning by about a decade.
Invasive Phrag (there is a native subspecies, as well) first came to the U.S. from Europe over 200 years ago. The native variety coexists peacefully with other plants, but the invader takes over a habitat, choking off other flora. Only recently, however, has its population growth exploded. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are trying to find out whether large Phrag populations in wetlands help or hurt tree growth. It might seem counterintuitive, but scientists hypothesize that the Phrag is actually helping trees survive as sea level rises. By removing some of the water, Phrag may prevent trees from drowning. Click to continue »
by Kristen Minogue
For the first time in roughly 2 million years, melting Arctic sea ice is connecting the north Pacific and north Atlantic oceans. The new sea routes leave both coasts and Arctic waters vulnerable to a large wave of invasive species—a problem the Arctic has largely avoided until now.
by Kristen Minogue
“I just want to plant something that will grow in my yard. If a nonnative species grows better than a native, why shouldn’t I plant it?”
It’s a valid question, one that SERC postdoc Susan Cook-Patton remembers hearing from her father while still in high school. In the quest to preserve native plants, it’s become almost taboo to talk about the benefits of nonnatives. But not all nonnative plants are rampant invaders, and sometimes they could be good for gardens as a whole. Cook-Patton broke down the pros and cons of gardening with nonnative species at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s first evening lecture on April 15. Here are a few to consider when deciding what to put in your garden:
by Kristen Minogue
There’s no official “father of marine invasions biology.” But if anyone could compete for the title, Jim Carlton, director of the Williams College – Mystic Seaport Program, would almost certainly top the list. More than 50 scientists from the U.S., Canada, Italy, Argentina and New Zealand voiced some version of that view, when they descended on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center for a three-day symposium in April informally dubbed “Jimfest.”
Like so much in science, his career began by sheer accident. In 1962, 14-year-old Carlton stepped on a strange worm while picnicking with his family in Lake Merritt, a small lagoon near San Francisco Bay. A few weeks later he discovered the same worm in an exhibit at a local nature center. The label identified it as a tubeworm from the South Seas. “This thing in my backyard as it were, not far from my house, in this estuarine lagoon, how could this thing be from the South Seas?” Carlton remembered thinking. “So I got fascinated by that concept.”
Linda McCann is a marine biologist studying invasive species with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. This March she and three other researchers spent 17 days exploring marine life on both sides of Panama, at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).
Got up at o-2:30 to catch a shuttle to the airport, after singing a concert the night before and not getting to bed until 12:30. Finally arrived at our lodging in Panama about 10:30 p.m., bleary-eyed but happy to be back in this special place!
Our first day. Usually we start out a bit slowly, shopping for food, getting our IDs at Tupper, getting set up, but today we dive right in. We collect samples from the STRI dock in Naos and begin the process of reacquainting ourselves with the species in Panama. Warmer water means we are looking at a whole different suite of species than we see back in San Fran or Chesapeake. The lab is on an island situated just outside the canal on the Pacific side.
by Amanda Guthrie, Marine Invasions Lab Intern
Imagine after settling down on a place to stay, your home picks up speed and moves without any forewarning, bringing you along with it to a new place. You get off to explore. It seems livable and similar to home, but a few adjustments will be necessary.
This story would be possible — if you were a mussel, a barnacle, or a myriad of other intertidal organisms. Once there, these new arrivals are sometimes able to escape their predators at home and thrive—often at the expense of native species, or the ecosystem as a whole.
Such is the dilemma of Mytilus galloprovincialis, a mussel from the Mediterranean. Mytilus galloprovincialis is native to southern Europe but has branched out to numerous non-native regions around the globe. It is the most prevalent non-native marine species in South Africa. There, it not only competitively displaced native species but also catalyzed the decline of swimming crabs and the increase of whelks.
by Heather Soulen
With its motor located near the bow (front) of the boat, the modern-day mullet skiff could have been a character in Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Similar to the unpunctual rabbit, vanishing cat and hookah smoking caterpillar, it seems illogical…or does it?
In the early 1900s, the mullet skiff was originally designed for use in the commercial mullet fishery of the south. Popular for its simple construction, flat-bottom dory style hull with vee entry, and rounded stern (back) design, the mullet skiff was ideal for operating in shallow waters while carrying heavy loads of fish. However, during Prohibition, entrepreneurs souped up their mullet skiffs with straight-8 engines (precursor V8s) to run rum from the Bahamas and Cuba to the states. Since then, many mullet skiffs have undergone less scandalous modifications and have evolved to have an outboard motor in a well near the bow.
Why place a motor here? For three important reasons: 1) It places the motor higher in the water for maneuvering in shallow water, 2) it leaves the stern (back) open to work a net, and 3) it eliminates the risk of net entanglement in the propeller. So, with “the wrong end in front,” the mullet skiff was the perfect choice for the near-shore predator study our field crew conducted this summer throughout the Chesapeake Bay.
Predators of the Not-So-Deep
by Kristen Minogue
Eleven-year-old Lucy Paskoff knows something about the hazards of filming wildlife. She and fellow home-school student McKenna Austin-Ward spent weeks documenting one of Chesapeake Bay’s most destructive pests: the mute swan.