by Katie SinclairKatrina Lohan and Kristy Hill have travelled thousands of miles down the Atlantic Coast, from the Chesapeake to the Caribbean. Their goal? Track the range and distribution of parasites in bivalve mollusks that could cause disease. Based on diversity patterns, Hill and Lohan suspect that there are many more protist species in the tropics than have previously been discovered. These parasites could be very similar to the parasites that have caused mass die-offs in Chesapeake oyster beds with diseases like Dermo and MSX. But there’s one catch: The protists that are parasitizing the bivalves are difficult to identify just by looking at them. Luckily for Lohan and Hill, advances in DNA sequencing can reveal secrets about little-studied and poorly understood organisms. Already famous for helping improve human health, DNA sequencing is proving equally adept at preserving the planet’s health. From the tropics of Panama to the forests of Maryland, the rise in DNA sequencing is opening new realms of possibility for ecologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and across the world.
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by Kristen MinogueIt’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.
By Katie Sinclair
Summer is almost over, which means intern season is coming to a close. Over 20 interns from universities across the United States have spent their summers here at SERC, studying everything from phytoplankton to Phragmites. Several interns chose to take on the challenge of climate change, exploring how trees will affect rising levels of greenhouse gases.
Although methane emissions worldwide are much lower than CO2 emissions, a little methane goes a long way: Methane is 25 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2. While we have an idea of what the sources of methane are, researchers face difficulties when trying to model methane emissions. The biggest discrepancy is between “top-down” and “bottom-up” models. Top-down approaches use satellite imagery to track the amount of methane in the atmosphere, while bottom-up methods look at the amount of methane emitted from the soil.
The Biogeochemistry Lab wants to see if methane is coming from sources other than the soil. Marsh grasses are known to emit methane, but no research has yet been done on trees. Figuring out if and how much methane is emitted can help determine whether methane projections are accurate. The Biogeochemistry Lab has set up two experimental sites to study methane, and is working on establishing a third.
Intern Kyle King worked on methane emissions this summer. He attached airtight chambers to trees, and measured the gas concentrations at different heights along the tree. He found that trees did emit methane, in some cases more than microbes in the soil. Methane emissions were highest near the roots and less at higher trunk heights. He also found that larger trees emitted much more methane than smaller ones.
The exact mechanism of how trees release methane is not yet understood. Two possibilities are methane diffusing out of the water that is taken in by the plants’ roots, or microbes inside the tree producing methane. But whatever the cause, understanding where methane comes from will be vital when trying to predict the impact of climate change.
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Republished with permission from the Blue Crab Blog. Check out the Blue Crab Blog for the latest news regarding Maryland’s favorite crustacean.
By Katie Sinclair, Guest Blogger and Intern at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
The blue crab may be the most well-known denizen of the Chesapeake Bay, with the blue crab fishery one of the most productive in the region. From the late 1990s to mid-2000s, the blue crab population was in decline, with a near record low population of blue crabs recorded in 2008. The cause of this decline is not fully known, but is most likely a combination of overfishing, habitat loss, poor recruitment, and poor water quality.
Since new regulations on crab harvesting, particularly those restricting the harvest of mature females, were put in place in 2008, the population of blue crabs has increased significantly. However, a low number of juveniles were caught in the winter dredge this year, leading to a gloomy forecast for the number of harvestable blue crabs for the 2013 season.
During my summer internship at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), I want to investigate if this forecast is coming true. The winter dredge survey, an extensive bottom trawl survey that catches blue crabs overwintering at the bottom of the bay, is impressive for its scale and precision. The survey takes into account 3 different regions of the bay, and 1500 sites are surveyed. The data are used to calculate crab density and from that project overall crab abundance. The 2013 winter dredge survey found markedly lower numbers of juvenile crabs (crabs smaller than 2.4 in) than in previous years. One of the key questions regarding the survey, however, is just how closely the observed winter population of juveniles correlates with the actual number of blue crabs that survive to the summer.
One of the main issues with using the juvenile index from the winter dredge survey to predict future abundance of adult blue crabs is that it does not take into account survivorship of juvenile crabs, which can vary widely from year to year. Blue crabs are competitive and cannibalistic, and a large proportion of juvenile blue crab mortality can be attributed to predation by blue crabs themselves. Using the juvenile index to predict future adult abundances does not take into consideration interactions between adult and juvenile blue crabs—a low number of juveniles could in fact be the result of increased predation pressure from the adult population. Longer term research conducted at SERC has indeed shown that mortality of juveniles is related to the density of adult crabs.
Over this summer, research will be conducted to determine how adult and juvenile abundances from the winter dredge survey correlate with the actual numbers of blue crabs observed in the summer. Crabs will be collected by net tows and their abundance and size will be recorded. Similar research conducted last summer showed that the high numbers of juvenile blue crabs found by the 2012 winter dredge survey had vanished by the summer.
Hopefully for crab-lovers, the future low abundance of crabs projected by the low juvenile index of the winter dredge survey will be found to be too low. Recruitment rates for blue crab are known to fluctuate wildly, and survivorship of larvae to juveniles depends on multiple factors: salinity, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and predation. The winter dredge report did show an increase in mature females, which suggests that management strategies designed to protect fecund females are in fact working.
Research done at SERC comparing crab abundance and mortality brings to light interesting questions regarding the overall dynamics of the blue crab populations. The comparison of observed crab abundance in the summer to the juvenile index from the winter dredge report will help us determine how accurate the juvenile crab index is at predicting future crab abundances. Studying the population dynamics of blue crabs can help us understand and preserve this valuable natural resource.
by Nancy Shipley
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.
by Jake BodartIn 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.
by Kristen MinogueSome species can survive just about anywhere. Take blue mussels, a group of shellfish whose habitat stretches from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Over the last several decades, biologists have thrown all kinds of tests at them – heat, cold, saltwater, freshwater, low oxygen. They’ve even tried drying them out. Almost nothing fazes these animals. For invasion scientists trying to figure out how far they could spread, that’s a scary prospect.
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by Kristen Minogue
It’s a trick worthy of any spy thriller: to elude an enemy, hide among something it won’t notice. Or, to be extra safe, something it finds incredibly disgusting. It turns out the same strategy can work for plants that don’t want to get eaten. Sometimes.
For the last seven months, intern Marina LaForgia has kept tabs on tree saplings in more than a dozen different environments and watched the game of ecological survival play out. As she tracked their progress, she searched for an answer to a deceptively simple question: Is diversity good for plants? When it comes to the food chain, will hungry herbivores pass over tasty plants if they’re surrounded by less palatable ones?
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by Kristen Minogue
On a hot afternoon in July, a team of researchers sailing down Chesapeake Bay stumbled across a cluster of striped bass floating in the water. About a dozen of the iridescent black and silver fish bobbed at the surface near the ship’s bow. All of them were dead.
The fish kill came out of a low-oxygen zone near Annapolis, just one symptom of the Bay’s declining health. Overflows of nutrients from farms and cities have fueled massive growths of algae that cut off light and oxygen to the Bay’s lower levels.
“There was a very quiet moment between everybody on the boat,” recalled Vienna Saccomanno, one of the Smithsonian research interns aboard when it was discovered. “You kind of knew what everyone was thinking, feeling empowered to continue with this research and hopefully contribute to prevention of this in our water system.”
The scientists on board weren’t there simply to document the Bay’s many ailments, however. They had joined the 10-day cruise to pave the way for a much larger goal: a geostationary satellite that could provide constant, detailed coverage of coastal health.
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by Kristen Minogue
Tidal marshes have long been lauded as carbon sinks for their ability to pull CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in the soil, what scientists have taken to calling “blue carbon.” But wetlands are also notorious methane emitters. Now ecologists suspect that only a select few wetland types can reliably act as sinks, and that number may shrink as sea levels rise.
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