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From the Field: The Mysterious Mangroves
of Baja California

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

by Cora Ann Johnston

Mangroves in the desert of Baja California, Mexico. ( L. Simpson).

Mangroves in the desert of Baja California, Mexico. ( L. Simpson).

Get ready

Researcher Mike Lehmann makes his way through dwarf-form mangroves in the Gulf of California. (C. Johnston)

Researcher Mike Lehmann makes his way through dwarf-form mangroves in the Gulf of California. (C. Johnston)

As you approach stands of mangroves in Florida, you’re likely to notice a few things. They form expansive forests along protected seashore (usually in lagoons and estuaries) that often grow thick and tall overhead, providing welcome shade where the three species (black, white and red) intermingle. In the cool of their shade, they are clearly teeming with life; the constant pop of snapping shrimp ricochets around their oyster- and barnacle-encrusted roots while crabs and insects scurry along their branches.

These mangroves are different. There are no scurrying crabs or snapping shrimp or prominent rocks of oysters. Most of the insects have gone inside; their only traces are burrows and cocoons made in the safety of stems and rolled leaves. The blinding sun and gusty wind make it starkly obvious that the shady, protective canopy is only waist-high. The cactus on the rocky slope in the background gives it away: These mangroves are in Baja California, Mexico.

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Of Censusing Trees and Elephant Dung

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

Herve Memiaghe, front, in Gabon’s Rabi forest plot. The red line marks where they measure the tree’s diameter. (Smithsonian Institution)

Herve Memiaghe isn’t the average intern. Before coming to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, the 33-year-old Gabonese ecologist had already earned a master’s degree and spent four years working at IRET, the Institute for Research in Tropical Ecology in Gabon. Since 2012 he has also done field work in the Rabi plot as part of the Smithsonian’s global forest study.

The 25-hectare Rabi plot sits on the southwest coast of Gabon. Diversity spikes in the rainforests of Central Africa, where a single hectare can contain more than 400 different species. And that’s just the trees. The animals bring problems of their own. In Memiaghe’s experience, it’s not uncommon for hungry elephants to eat the tree tags along with the leaves.

“Sometimes we find the tag in the dung of elephants,” Memiaghe says. Usually the scientists can figure out where the tag came from, so it doesn’t throw off their research that much. “It just maybe can be a mess for the new people.”

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Mangrove Tracking VII: Just Another Day at the Office

Monday, July 16th, 2012

by Nancy Shipley

Technician Lorae Simpson and intern Jake Bodart deep in the mangroves, assessing vegetation cover and substrate color. (Mayda Nathan)


It sometimes seems crazy to be climbing through mangrove stands and wading through large ponds to collect our data, but the sites we explore are chosen for a reason. That reason is two-fold: One, to ground truth satellite imagery so we can map historic and current mangrove distributions. Two, to document the plant communities in places dominated by mangroves, in places where mangrove encroachment is occurring, and in places where mangroves have not yet arrived.

By using satellite imagery from years past, we hope to determine how far mangrove communities have spread in the last few decades. To do this we have to first understand what individual plant species comprise the large areas of vegetation that we can see from the satellites.

That is where we come in, climbing through mangroves.

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Mangrove Tracking VI: Attack of the Beetles

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

by Jake Bodart

Beetle tunnel. This Scolytid beetle has burrowed into a mangrove seedling and lain its larvae inside. (Jake Bodart)

In science not everything goes according to plan. For example, half of your project’s experimental units might die before you start.

In the back of the Smithsonian Research Station here in Ft. Pierce, the mangrove team has built an artificial pond (we call it Lake Simpson) to raise mangrove seedlings that will be used in experiments. However, when we arrived here last month, we noticed that about half of the red mangroves were turning black and dying. It was unclear at first whether these mangroves were dying directly as a result of the artificial habitat (was our pond too hot? Too salty? Not salty enough?), or if the pond was somehow making the mangroves more susceptible to pest insects. We know from other studies that predation by insects can cause a large amount of propagule and seedling mortality.

Upon closer inspection, we decided insects were the culprit. The evidence of insect predation: small bore holes and little piles of frass (chewed up/excreted parts of the plant, a.k.a. insect poop). We decided to sacrifice the seedlings that were clearly infested, and dissect them to see if there were any insects inside.

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Mangrove Tracking V: A Maverick Crab

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

Mayda Nathan/University of Maryland

Today we spotted a mangrove tree crab (Aratus pisonii) enjoying nectar from a black mangrove flower. It was surprising enough to find Aratus all over these black mangroves, at the very northern edge of the mangrove range in Florida; it was even more astonishing to see this one’s very un-crablike behavior! Aratus are known omnivores – consumers of mangrove leaves, propagules, insects, even other Aratus – but we’ve never thought of them as floral visitors. They are normally extremely shy, but this particular Aratus was so blissed out by its sugary meal that it didn’t mind (or notice) as we snapped pictures and gawked.

-Mayda Nathan, graduate student (University of Maryland)

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1065098. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Mangrove Tracking III: The Glories of Field Work

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Mangrove research is not glamorous work.

Researchers Lorae Simpson, Jake Bodart, Nancy Shipley and Mayda Nathan ford across a mangrove-surrounded pool. (Brian Thompson)


Don’t let the tropical locales and boat-to-work daily routine fool you; research in mangroves requires high tolerance for heat, biting bugs, dirt and wet. But the impenetrability of mangroves means that scientific understanding of this ecosystem has lagged somewhat behind other terrestrial environments. And this lack of information is like a magnet for ecologists.

Our team has descended on the Florida mangroves this summer to study the insects that live in and on them, the fish that find shelter among their submerged roots, the dietary choices of the crabs that live in their branches, their reproductive biology, and the interactions between the three mangrove species found here and their marsh plant neighbors. Taken together, our efforts will contribute to a better understanding of the communities that assemble as mangroves spread north into the northern Florida saltmarshes.

This means we spend some days struggling through thickets of mangroves, waist-high patches of pickleweed, and neck-deep pools of brackish water. In building up a research program, we’re building a lot of character, too.

More stories from the mangroves >>

-Mayda Nathan, graduate student (University of Maryland)

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 1065098. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Mangrove Tracking II: Invasive Lionfish

Monday, June 18th, 2012

by Cora Johnston

Red Lionfish. Photo: Jacek Madejski

This just in: Invasive and venomous lionfish (Pterois volitans) have just been spotted in mangroves along Florida’s Atlantic coast! We encountered two individuals of this invasive species (they’re native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans) while conducting snorkeling fish surveys along the Indian River Lagoon.

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As the Mangroves March North…

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Aerial view of Mangal Cay in the western Caribbean - just one of many mangrove havens Ilka Feller has explored.

As global temperatures rise, mangrove forests from the southeastern US are pushing farther north. Scientists don’t know how long, how fast, or what the exact consequences will be, but images from NASA satellites – and $1.3 million – will help them find out.

Ilka Feller, senior ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, will lead the effort to track more than 100 miles of Florida mangrove forests encroaching on their northern neighbors, the salt marshes. Feller has been studying mangroves for almost 20 years, keeping tabs on their progress in Florida, Panama, Belize and Australia. The new grant is one of 15 NASA-sponsored projects that will combine satellite data with field work to give scientists a bird’s-eye view of climate change.

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NOAA Grant Funds Hypoxia and Acidification Research in the Chesapeake Bay

Monday, August 9th, 2010
Denise Breitburg holding net and standing in water surveying animals.

SERC senior scientist Denise Breitburg will lead the NOAA-funded study of hypoxia and acidification in the Chesapeake Bay.

Marine ecologist Denise Breitburg and her colleagues have thought up many novel ways to investigate the impacts of dead zones and acidification on Chesapeake Bay fish and invertebrates. Among their ideas: attaching tiny transmitters to fish and monitoring their movement in relation to oxygen and pH levels. A new $1.4 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will enable them to pursue this experiment and a host of others.
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