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Urban kids, urban waterways: Citizen science improves lives and environment

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

Tony Thomas (left) supervises while Donovan Eason (center) and DaWayne Walker run a chemical test on a water sample.

Tony Thomas (left), education program coordinator at the Anacostia Community Museum, supervises while students Donovan Eason (center) and DaWayne Walker run a chemical test on a water sample.

“Is the net like a Spongebob jellyfish net?” student Cristal Sandoval asked.  Alison Cawood, citizen science coordinator at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), used another analogy to explain: “It’s like a bowl with holes in it for pasta.”  Light bulbs came on around the room and a knowing, “Oh,” escaped the lips of at least a dozen students.

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Nonnatives in Your Garden:
A Curse or a Blessing?

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Three nonnative flowers in Maryland. Left to right: Queen Anne's Lace, Moth Mullein and Lesser Celandine. (Susan Cook Patton)

Three nonnative flowers in Maryland. Left to right: Queen Anne’s Lace, Moth Mullein and Lesser Celandine. (Susan Cook-Patton)

“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:

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Before It Was Cool: The Father
of Marine Invasions

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Photo: Jim Carlton tracked invasive species in the ocean for years when most scientists thought the sea was "invasion-proof." (Anna Sawin)

Jim Carlton tracked invasive species in the ocean for years when most scientists thought the sea was “invasion-proof.” (Anna Sawin)

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.”

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Beauty and Beast: Reeling in the Mute Swan

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

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.

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SERC Homeschool: Turning Science Students into Filmmakers

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

by Karen McDonald

From left: SERC home-school students Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez and Anne Marie Nolan at the student documentary film screening. (SERC)

From left: SERC home-school students Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez and Anne Marie Nolan at the student documentary film screening. (SERC)

It began with a video series called Ecosystems on the Edge. Home-school students ages 11 to 16 came to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center every two weeks, from September 2013 to January 2014, to create short science documentaries. Their abilities ranged from knowing how to shoot film to knowing how to turn on a computer, but full-scale video production was new to all of them. The Ecosystems series–short videos of SERC scientists working to save the coast–provided a springboard of ideas. The rest of the creative process was up to the students.

They broke into teams, ranging from one student to three.  Instructor Karen McDonald walked them through the documentary-making process. Each team had to draft a proposal, draw a story board, create a shot list and script, interview SERC scientists on camera, film “B” roll (extra film) and find narrators, or read the narration themselves. Then came post-production, when the students spent weeks learning to use editing software.

By January, four teams overcame the environmental snags and technical difficulties and produced their own documentary shorts. From invasive earthworms to mute swans, here are their films:

Invisible Invasion: Joe Giardina, Molly Enriquez, Anne Marie Nolan. Using ideas from the video Earthworm Invaders, this group focused on the silent and invisible invasion of earthworms in forests and the effects of invasive worms on forest ecosystems.

Beauty and Beast: McKenna-Austin Ward, Lucy Paskoff, Max Gwinn. This documentary was inspired by the video Alien Invader, which looked at invasive barnacles in the Chesapeake Bay. For their video the students chose the invasive mute swan, and compared people’s perception of the bird as beautiful to its beastly effect on the flora and fauna of the Bay.

Behind-the-Scenes: Filming Mute Swans in the Wild >>

Invertebrates as Bioindicators: Xanthia Strohl. Inspired by the video Stream Health, Xanthia explored the idea of using blue crabs and crayfish as indicators of water quality and health in the Bay, and suggested ideas for helping reduce runoff.

Blue Crabs-The Soul of the Chesapeake Bay: Abbie and Katie Cannon. This team of sisters was moved by the Blue Crabs: Top Predator in Peril film. Their documentary is based on the plight of the blue crab in the Bay, and factors affecting its population and success.

New Path for Summer Education

Monday, September 16th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

7-year-old Cecilia Bowers collects frogs in the SERC forest. (SERC)

7-year-old Cecilia Bowers collects frogs in the SERC forest. (SERC)

It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In the forest beside SERC’s beaver pond, Dylan McDowell and Shelby Ortiz have just finished helping a dozen 7-to-9-year-old students search for frogs and toads. They’re headed to the stream when McDowell runs into a dilemma: Some of the children don’t want to release their frogs.

“It would be really hard to find frogs around where I live,” says Emma Guy, who doesn’t have any parks or forests near her home.

“Did you know a couple years ago, they found a brand new species of frog in New York City?” McDowell asks her. He’s referring to a new species of leopard frog confirmed in 2012, whose known range has Yankee Stadium almost dead center. Closer to home, SERC biologists discovered juvenile eastern spadefoot toads in one of its wetlands this summer—the toad’s first recorded appearance on the SERC landscape. McDowell’s point, at least for the afternoon lesson: Amphibians can appear almost anywhere if you know where to look.

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As Green Crabs Invade, Alaskans Launch Counteroffensive

Thursday, March 14th, 2013

by Monaca Noble and Linda McCann

European green crabs are eating and marching their way up the west coast.

One of nine marine invertebrates to make the list of the world’s 100 worst invasive species, they’ve had major economic impacts on shellfisheries in New England, including blue mussels, the Virginia oyster (Crassostrea virginica) and Bay scallops. Impacts are mounting on the west coast too, where losses to bivalve fisheries (Pacific littleneck, Japanese littleneck, softshell clams and blue mussels) are projected to reach $20,000-60,000 per year. Ecologically, their impact has been no less severe, as they prey on and compete with other crabs, bivalves, gastropods like snails and slugs, and many other invertebrates.

European Green  Crab Carcinus maenas. Green crabs have visited every continent but Antarctica. They've colonized parts of the Americas from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. (Arthro)

European Green Crab Carcinus maenas. Green crabs have visited every continent but Antarctica. They’ve colonized parts of the Americas from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina. (Arthro)

Green crabs are exceptional world travelers, making it from their native region along the European Coast to six major regions of the world, including the Northwest Atlantic (Maryland to Newfoundland), the Northeast Pacific (California to British Columbia), Patagonia, South Africa, Japan and Australia. Their mode of transport may vary, but evidence suggests they’ve been transported with the live-bait trade and in ships’ ballast water.

Green crabs have been on the East Coast of the US for about 200 years, according the NEMESIS database. They made their first appearance near New Jersey in 1817. From there they moved north, reaching the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia in 1953, the Gulf of St. Lawrence by 1994, and finally, Placentia Bay, Newfoundland in 2007. Their southward expansion stopped at the Chesapeake Bay; possibly they couldn’t compete with the blue crab (Callinectes sapidus).

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The Hidden Eyes of Blind Cats

Monday, April 9th, 2012

by Samantha Reed

Photo courtesy of Samantha Reed


Cats don’t need their eyes to see in the dark. It turns out they have something even better. This spring, 12-year-old SERC student Samantha Reed decided to find out if the same thing could help humans.
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How the West Was Won (Back)

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

by Monaca Noble

Over the last two years, more than 150 volunteers have been working to remove an invasive Asian kelp from marinas in San Francisco Bay.

Undaria_mature

Undaria pinnatifida, grown to maturity. (Credit: SERC)

Undaria pinnatifida, also known as Asian Kelp, Wakame or just Undaria, is a fast-growing kelp that fouls ship hulls, nets, fishing gear, moorings, ropes and other marine structures. As a fouling species, Undaria causes economic and ecological damage and competes for light and space with native organisms, altering their ecosystems. The kelp is native to the northwest Pacific – Korea, China, Hong Kong, and Japan – where it is cultivated for food. But starting in the 1980s, it appeared in France, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and California.
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Bricks, Bees and Blazes: New Life Comes to the Contee Farm

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

Photo of the ruins of two brick chimneys being supported by huge braces.

The Contee Mansion ruins, 2010. Photo: Tina Tennessen

The Contee Farm has attracted a motley crew in recent months. Architects, archaeologists, beekeepers, construction crews and trailblazers have all descended upon the grounds. Their interest in the property varies, but they share a common purpose: to prepare the farm for visitors. In the coming years the public will be able to use the site to explore the various ways humans impact the environment.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center acquired the 575-acre Contee Farm in 2008. The mansion dates back to 1747 and for many decades served as a hub for the surrounding tobacco plantation. In 1890 lightening struck the house and caused it to burn. Since then, it has been vacant and left to disintegrate brick-by-brick.
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