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Saving the River Herring: Don’t Let the Good Die Young

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Alewives, a species of River Herring. (Credit: Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor)

Alewives, one of two species of River Herring in Chesapeake Bay. (Geoffrey Gilmour-Taylor)

It’s no secret that River Herring are in trouble. There was a time, back in the 1950s, when Maryland fishermen regularly pulled in 4 million pounds or more a year of the silver fish. Then something mysterious happened. Herring harvests generally fluctuate from year to year. But in the 1970s, they fell and never came back up. For the last four decades, commercial fishermen in Maryland have been lucky to catch a few hundred thousand a year. Now they catch none.

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Virtual crabs could help real recovery

Friday, August 8th, 2014

by Sarah Hansen

Image: Julie Sepanik holds up a large male blue crab caught in the Rhode River. (Credit: SERC)

Julie Sepanik holds up a large male blue crab caught in the Rhode River. (SERC)

No one disputes that blue crab numbers in Chesapeake Bay are low.  There is much discussion, however, about what to do to fix the problem.  Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Julie Sepanik is working with SERC postdoctoral fellow Matt Ogburn to develop a computer model that will help improve our understanding of blue crab population dynamics in the Bay. The model works to identify where female crabs mature in the Bay and track their migration to lower Bay spawning areas. Ultimately, they hope the model will help inform decisions about preserving habitat and restoring the population.

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Intern Logs: A Summer Quest
to Understand Winter

Monday, July 21st, 2014

by Dejeanne Doublet

Photo: SERC intern Dejeanne Doublet heads out to sample marsh elder, a plant that in some zones coped surprisingly well with the harsh winter. (Credit Megan Palmer)

SERC intern Dejeanne Doublet heads out to sample marsh elder.
(Megan Palmer)

As we’re knee-deep in the marsh surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, working under the relentless sun during 90-degree weather with 90 percent humidity, sweat dripping down our faces, waving off the summer bugs and trying to collect as much field data as possible, the idea of winter becomes abstract and far-fetched. It’s hard to believe we are out here in the blazing heat of summer studying the effects of this past winter— one of harshest winters this area has endured in many years.

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Using Computer Models to Help Rescue Bay’s Underwater Flora

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

SERC intern Bridget Smith, immersed in a sea of environmental data.

SERC intern Bridget Smith, immersed in a sea of environmental data. (SERC)

Underwater plants like sea grasses provide habitat and feeding areas for a wide range of aquatic life.  They also help filter the water and put the brakes on erosion.   But in Chesapeake Bay, the coverage of underwater plants, or submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), has been low for decades, and restoration attempts have had mixed results.  That’s why this summer, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center intern Bridget Smith is grappling with 28 years of data to explore which of a host of factors affects SAV in the Bay and how.

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Orchid, Fungi and Bacteria Relationships:
“It’s Complicated”

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

A cluster of the orchid species SERC intern Christopher Robinson is studying this summer.

A cluster of downy rattlesnake plantain, the orchid species SERC intern Christopher Robinson is studying this summer. (Wikimedia Commons user Cdc25A)

Orchids are beautiful plants to be treasured, and fungi are gross moldy blobs to avoid at any cost.  At least, that’s what some people may think.  But it turns out that no orchid can germinate and grow without a fungal partner.  Smithsonian Environmental Research Center scientist Melissa McCormick has been learning about the relationship between orchids and fungi for 15 years.  This summer, though, intern Christopher Robinson is helping put a new twist on the research. Click to continue »

Getting to the core of carbon in forest soils

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

James Biddle, SERC intern, twists a soil augur into the ground to collect a 50 to 100 cm deep soil core.

James Biddle, SERC intern, twists a soil augur into the ground to collect a 50- to 100-centimeter deep soil core.

It’s well-known that carbon dioxide levels are rising in Earth’s atmosphere and that extra CO2 contributes to climate change.  You might also have learned that trees are “carbon sinks” – they take carbon out of the air and store it in their trunks, roots and leaves.  But what about carbon in forest soil?

If you’re not sure, you’re in good company.  “We’re just learning how carbon moves through the forest at the surface, and that’s the most accessible part of the forest,” said Sean McMahon, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).  “Below ground is much more of a mystery.” Click to continue »

Do forest canopy gaps help invasive plants thrive?

Friday, June 20th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

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An upland forest plot at SERC. Lauren Emsweller, David Gorchov, and Julia Mudd (left to right) search for five invasive plant species.

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.

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Intern Logs: A Bloody Welcome

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

by Dejeanne Doublet

Photo: Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (Credit: SERC)

Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (SERC)

Ecological research usually doesn’t evoke thoughts of Stephen King horror movie scenes. Working with plants and animals in the open air shouldn’t provoke nightmares of being drenched in blood. Green is a very different color from red.

However, fellow intern Megan Palmer and I learned on our first week that sometimes, just sometimes, Stephen King references are the best way to describe a day’s work in the field. During our first days at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Palmer and I were asked to do something that made my non-red-meat-eating stomach turn.

“Go spray pig’s blood on all our trees,” Dr. John Parker, the lead terrestrial ecology scientist and our boss told us during one of our first meetings with him. He was referring to the 24,000 tree saplings planted last summer as part of a 100-year experiment on biodiversity, fittingly called BiodiversiTree.

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Seeking Life in the Mud

Friday, June 13th, 2014

By Sarah Hansen

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Dean Janiak (left) and Ben Rubinoff collect a sample from the Rhode River.

Most of us think of the Chesapeake Bay as a single entity – one big body of water.  But Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) ecologist Dean Janiak and his intern, Ben Rubinoff, have a more nuanced perspective.  They’ve collected more than 150 samples from eight different habitats within the Bay and along its shoreline that contain mud, sand and lots of tiny animals.

Their ultimate goal: Discover how differences in habitats in the Rhode River (a sub-estuary of the Chesapeake Bay) can change biodiversity among creatures at the bottom of the river, and how those patterns change over time.  If it turns out that some habitats host more diverse animal communities than others, land managers can focus conservation efforts on those areas. Click to continue »

Intern Logs: Mussels and the Melting Arctic

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

by Amanda Guthrie, Marine Invasions Lab Intern

Mytilus mussels in Point Judith Marina, Rhode Island. (Photo by Kim Holzer)

Mytilus mussels in Point Judith Marina, Rhode Island. (Kim Holzer)


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.

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