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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

Intern Megan Palmer adds water to pig blood powder. (Dejeanne Doublet/SERC)

Intern Megan Palmer adds water to pig blood powder. (Dejeanne Doublet/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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Intern Logs: Acoustic Telemetry
and Catfish Surgery

Friday, December 6th, 2013

by Brooke Weigel

Brooke Weigel displays a recently-caught blue catfish in SERC's Fish & Invertebrate Lab. (Katie Sinclair)

Brooke Weigel displays a recently-caught blue catfish in SERC’s Fish & Invertebrate Lab. (Katie Sinclair)

Have you ever wondered how far a fish can swim in one day? Acoustic telemetry enables researchers to track the movement, migration and behavior of fish. Beginning this past summer, the Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab started using acoustic telemetry to study the movement patterns of invasive blue catfish in the Patuxent River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay.

Native to the Mississippi River, blue catfish were introduced for sport fishing in Virginia in the 1970s. Since introduction, these non-native top predators have expanded their range into many of Maryland’s tributaries. Their voracious appetites affect native fish populations and disrupt the food webs in these rivers. Blue catfish are the largest and most migratory species of catfish in North America. In their native waters, blue catfish have been known to migrate up to 200 km between different habitats used for spawning, feeding and overwintering. But little is known about their movement patterns within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which is our motivation for using acoustic telemetry to track the movements of individual blue catfish.

Similar to radio tracking used to locate animals over vast distances, acoustic telemetry is a two-part system: Each fish has a transmitting tag, which emits a unique series of underwater sounds or “pings” at a random interval every one to three minutes. Stationary receivers then detect and decode these pings whenever a fish swims within range of the receiver. These detection data are converted to digital data and stored until researchers download the data onto a computer.

Interning at SERC for the past six months has given me the opportunity to be involved in every step of the process—some of which were messier than others.

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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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Decoding Nature: How DNA Can Save Species

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

by Katie Sinclair

Katrina Lohan and Kristy Hill collect oysters on rocks near Punta Chame, Panama. (Carmen Schloeder)

Katrina Lohan and Kristy Hill collect oysters on rocks near Punta Chame, Panama. (Carmen Schloeder)

Katrina 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.

Close-up of a trematode oyster parasite. These parasites form cysts, and could be similar to the parasites that caused mass die-offs in the Chesapeake.

Close-up of a trematode oyster parasite. These parasites form cysts, and could be similar to the parasites that caused mass die-offs in the Chesapeake.

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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New Path for Summer Education

Monday, September 16th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

7-year-old Cecilia Bowers collects frogs in the SERC forest. (SERC)

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.

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