Citizen scientist Linda Perkins helps excavate a soil plot in front of the Contee mansion ruins. (Photo: SERC)
People don’t usually think of archaeologists as dumpster divers. Then again, sifting through trash for hidden treasures is exactly what the volunteer citizen scientists of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) Archaeology Lab do every Wednesday. But they don’t scavenge anything for themselves. (The market for millenia-old oyster shells is very unpredictable, and any food they find is always up to three centuries past its expiration date.) Instead, they take away new skills and a chance to put together a historical puzzle larger than themselves.
“We look back thousands of years,” said Jim Gibb, the lead volunteer and coordinator of the lab. “I always tell people—we’re the time lords.” Click to continue »
Margot Hessing-Lewis and the Nearshore Tech Team of the Hakai Institute, British Columbia, one of the newest MarineGEO sites on the Pacific. (Photo: Margot Hessing-Lewis, Hakai Insititute)
Imagine gazing into the ocean off Maryland knowing what life is under the waves, what’s driving the food web, and how healthy the water is. Then, imagine being able to discover the same thing for another coast halfway around the world. That vision—of a network vast enough to take the pulse of coastal waters worldwide—began becoming a reality at the Smithsonian in 2012. It’s called the Marine Global Earth Observatory, or MarineGEO.
Community mural in a Baltimore neighborhood. (BES-LTER)
Preserving the environment is often seen as a battle of development versus nature. But in America today, roughly three-fourths of us live in metropolitan areas. To preserve our health and the planet’s health, we need to create something new: A sustainable city.
Enter urban ecology. Plant ecologist Steward Pickett of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been exploring the ecology of cities—hot spots where society, culture, economics and the environment collide—for more than two decades. In 1997, he and a handful of colleagues started the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term project that now involves more than 100 people. Pickett talks about some of their surprising discoveries in this edited Q&A. To learn more, you can meet him in person on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s keynote evening lecture.
*Note: Edited for brevity and clarity
Steward Pickett (Xiaofang Hu)
How strange was the idea of “urban ecology” when you began?
It was sort of a marginal pursuit. Most ecologists in the United States preferred to think they were working in pristine areas, or at least in areas where the human hand was relatively light on the land… There was this deep, deep bias in ecology to not look at places where people were part of the system … Urban ecology is kind of a way to say, let’s recognize this and see what it’s doing. Click to continue »
Volunteers come in a great variety of ages, gender, talents and reasons for volunteering. Here’s my short story.
Growing up in Nature
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and am of a generation that was lucky enough to be able to leave the house after school or on Saturday mornings to play outside for hours with the other neighborhood kids. We made hiding places in scotch broom thickets, climbed on fallen logs, wandered in the woods, had bracken fern spear fights and in the short, sweet summers spent time at a local beach on Puget Sound. It was idyllic, but at the time I took it all for granted.
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 Sandovalasked. 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.
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:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.