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Q&A: Saving the City With Urban Ecology

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Painting of adults and children on a brick wall in Baltimore.

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 with camera

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 »

Students ASSEMBLE! How comics can help with science learning

Wednesday, September 14th, 2016
Student learning science from science comic

Student learning science with Balliett’s comic

by Heather Soulen

Middle school can be a tough and unforgiving rite of passage, filled with raging hormones, ill-fitting highwater pants, voices akin to trumpet-wielding geese, and a multitude of distractions. Trying to learn while being swept up in puberty’s turbulence can be challenging. Equally challenging is trying to teach science to often-distracted tweens and teens. Right now, as most U.S. schools begin a new school year, some science educators might be looking for ways to engage their middle-school students with science. One science educator suggests meeting them where their interests lie – comics.

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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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The Dark Side of Taxonomy: Part Two

Friday, October 30th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Darker Still

Delving deeper into the dark side of taxonomy, we forge forth into the ether to uncover obscure and wickedly inspired scientific names. What’s in a scientific name? As described in The Dark Side of Taxonomy: Part One, some scientific names for organisms have dark and twisted origins. In part two of this three-part series, we peek behind the thin gauze-like veil, fearlessly sifting through time and lore to deliver a new collection of gruesome scientific names. Here we share ancient tales of Greek mythology, an Italian literary genius from the Middle Ages and the unforgiving Underworld.

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Extravaganza Eleganza: Orchids on the Fashion Runway

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Last year, Pantone chose Radiant Orchid as their 2014 color of the year. Pantone is the authority on color. Their color choice affects a variety of industries from fashion and make-up to home interiors (e.g. paint, upholstery, etc.). Once again orchids have sashayed their way into our everyday lives and in very big ways. Journey with us as we explore just a few fabulously fierce fashion pop-cultural orchid moments.

Christian Dior’s to Die for Couture:Paris Haute Couture Autumn/Winter

Belgian designer Raf Simons joined fashion power house Christian Dior in 2012. Just two years later at the 2014 Paris Haute Couture fashion show, he wowed the audience with walls dripping with 150,000 live orchids and an equally jaw-dropping runway collection of embroidered blooms and floral-inspired silhouettes. The Fashion Channel said the show felt “divine and ethereal, with models resembling graceful nymphs walking elegantly in an antiseptic white circular Olympus with silver walls adorned with pristine white orchids.” C’est bon! We don’t think we could have said it any better!

Watch: 2014 Christian Dior Paris Haute Couture Show

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Bubblegum Pop to Punk and Heavy Metal: Orchids’ Mark on Music

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Image: Jack White (Bill Ebbessen)

Jack White performing on Orange Stage in Denmark 
(Bill Ebbessen)

Research shows that music affects our brains and our bodies. It can make us laugh, cry, give us chills, empathize and remember events or single seemingly fleeting moments that we’ve long forgotten. When it hits the right cords, music can increase heart rate, dilate pupils, increase body temperature and release the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical which plays an important role in our brains, particularly the reward centers of the brain. The same has been said about orchids, the hunt for orchids and in Victorian era, the eroticism surrounding orchids.

Since the 1960s, there have been several musical groups, albums and songs with orchid-centric names or themes. Journey with us as we explore how orchids have conquered music pop-culture.

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Sexy, Scandalous and Dangerous: Orchids in Pop-Culture Literature

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Photo by Kristen Minogue

Photo by Kristen Minogue

“Orchids aren’t just pretty. And a lot of them aren’t even pretty at all. But they are sexy, and that’s really one of the things that makes them unusual among flowers. It was believed that orchids sprang up wherever animals had been mating. And in Victorian England, women weren’t allowed to have orchids because the form of them was thought to be too erotic and too sexual, and it would be too much for a woman to bear, having a flower that sexual in her possession.”
-Susan Orlean, transcripts from NOVA’s
“Orchid Hunter”

There’s no denying, orchids are pretty darn sexy plants. And it because of their sex appeal, they’ve sashayed their way into just about every aspect of pop-culture. They’ve glammed their way into movies, TV, music, fashion and literature, and we didn’t even realize the spell they cast until it was too late. Bewitched, bothered and bewildered, we didn’t even realize how inescapable they are in our world. Here we explore a few examples of how orchids deftly made their way into pop-culture literature.

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Orchids: Lullabies and Limericks

Monday, August 10th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Orchids are cunning little creatures. They create elaborate ruses to puzzle insects, fungi and even (or especially) biologists. Here are a few poems we composed to honor the smartest plants on Earth.

Image: Dragon's Mouth Orchids, Arethusa bulbosa (Credit: Gary Van Velsir)

Dragon’s Mouth Orchids , Arethusa bulbosa (Gary Van Velsir)

Twinkle Orchid

Twinkle, twinkle, little orchid

Let’s get mycorrhiza sorted

Roots with fungus help supply

Sugar and nutrients to make you spry

Twinkle, twinkle, little orchid

Let’s get mycorrhiza sorted


A mycorrhiza is a kind of fungus that grows on orchid roots. In this relationship, the orchid receives water, sugar and nutrients from fungus, and the fungus receives nearly nothing in return. Check out this orchid life cycle poster for more details: Click to continue »

A Dark Gothic Secret: North American Orchids and Their Pollinators

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

Have you ever been at a stop light and seen a butterfly sampling nectar from flowers in small container garden? Maybe you’ve seen bees darting flower to flower as you tend your garden. Or maybe, as you walk the city streets, you see other insects whizzing about the flowering weeds that struggle to survive in the cracks of our concrete jungle. Based on these experiences, you might think that flowers only get pollinated during the day. Here’s a secret, and it’s a dark, gothic secret: Pollination also occurs under the veil of night. Some plants, like orchids and their pollinators, live a life less ordinary.

The majority of North American orchids are pollinated during the daytime. But there are a few special orchids that are part of the pollination graveyard shift. In North America, the rare Ghost Orchid, Cranefly Orchid, Tall White Bog Orchid, Dingy Flowered Star Orchid and most of the orchids in the genus Platanthera are special orchids that are pollinated at night.

Orchids of the Goth World_credits

Created by Heather Soulen/SERC

Watch: First sighting of night-time pollination of the elusive Ghost Orchid

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Frigid Days Equal Fewer Bluebird Eggs

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015
Male and female bluebirds at a nesting box.

Male and female bluebirds at a nest box. (Matt Storms)

by Chris Patrick

Eastern bluebirds resemble flying, fist-sized jewels. Males are sapphire colored—royal-blue heads, backs, and wings contrast with rust-colored chests. Females are more gray than blue, but their wings are subtly tinted the same sapphire hue.

Since 2008, citizen scientists have monitored bluebirds at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). The Bluebird Project is citizen science intern Caroline Kanaskie’s self-proclaimed “baby” this summer. She is uncovering why bluebird numbers at SERC have been lower than usual.  Click to continue »