The Scavenger Bug That Fights Climate Change

Posted by KristenM on May 29th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Common pillbug Armadillidium vulgare (Walter Siegmund)

Common pillbug Armadillidium vulgare
(Walter Siegmund)

In the battle to hold back climate change, Mother Nature has supplied several allies, from the rainforest to bacteria. Now we can add one more to the list: Woodlice, tiny scavenger bugs that feed off rotting plants.

More than 3,000 species of woodlice are known to man, and they go by many names. If you’re American, chances are you know them as pillbugs or roly-polies. They’ve inherited stranger-sounding titles in other parts of the world, from monkeypigs to granfy croogers. (For a list of 40-some-odd British variations, see here.) But they all point to the same thing: a 14-legged, millipede-like crustacean roughly half the size of a dime.

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DNA Detects Two Hidden Oysters in Panama

Posted by KristenM on May 21st, 2015

by Monaca Noble and Katrina Lohan

Image: Oysters and other life grow on dock pilings at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Credit: Kristina Hill-Spanik)

Oysters and other life grow on dock pilings at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama
(Kristina Hill-Spanik)

A robin is a robin. It isn’t often confused with other birds. But some marine organisms are very difficult to identify because they look similar, too similar even for taxonomists trained to detect differences. Oysters are like this.

Oyster shells come in all shapes and sizes. As oysters fight for space and battle to survive in tough environments, their shells can change appearance based on conditions where they live. This makes it very hard to distinguish similar-looking species. Using DNA, we can identify these difficult species and provide new insights into their distribution, ecology, and ranges—insights not possible using shell morphology alone. In Panama, this DNA detective work led to two surprising discoveries.

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Mangrove Trees Divided on Journey North

Posted by KristenM on April 30th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: John Parker samples a red mangrove tree in Florida. (Credit: SERC)

John Parker samples a red mangrove tree in Florida. (SERC

Deep in the Florida swamps, black, white and red mangrove trees have lived together for thousands of years. But warmer winters are pulling the ecological fellowship apart, creating a new landscape in the north.

The story begins decades ago. Once, when Florida winters were chillier, mangroves remained trapped in the subtropics. As the climate warmed, Smithsonian ecologists discovered that fewer cold snaps were empowering mangroves to push north. But the trees aren’t moving in sync. Black mangroves have outstripped their cousins, passing St. Augustine, while white mangroves are lagging almost 30 miles behind. Until now, there weren’t any hard data explaining why.

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Clever Steps Are What You Take – Walking
on the Marsh

Posted by KristenM on April 27th, 2015

by Heather Soulen,
biological technician at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Image: Matt Kornis, during a day navigating a marsh (Credit: Matt Kornis)Imagine if you will, you arrive at a party and proudly parade your famous 7-layer dip over to the food table and with a satisfying smile, place your gastronomic masterpiece front and center as onlookers gaze through the glass at its layered awesomeness. You hardly finish removing the lid when suddenly someone swoops in with a tortilla chip, then another person, and then another and another. You back away from the table as you begin to feel a primeval and Velociraptor-like need to eviscerate these culinary offenders. Minutes later, the ravenous horde thins and the feeding frenzy slowly dissipates. You look back at the food table and what do you see? Nothing but a grotesque slurry of beige-brown with smeared, thin trails of sour cream, salsa and guacamole. It is a pale, unrecognizable shadow of its former layered glory.

Walking through a tidal marsh can figuratively and literally be like dragging a tortilla chip through a 7-layer dip. Unlike the dip, destroying the layers or landscape of a marsh can cause serious problems for scientists studying the ecology and biogeochemistry of marsh systems. Click to continue »

 

Two New Bryozoan Species Discovered Off Portugal

Posted by KristenM on March 10th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: SERC research associate and Portuguese native João Canning-Clode. (Credit: Valentyna Chan)

SERC research associate and Portuguese native João Canning-Clode. (Valentyna Chan)

Since he began surveying the waters of Madeira two years ago, João Canning-Clode has discovered a new invasive species almost every month. The archipelago off the coast of Portugal is a hot spot for biodiversity, especially for bryozoans – “moss animals” that often cover rocks, piers and other artificial substrates. But he didn’t anticipate finding a completely new species, let alone two.

Bryozoans are easy to mistake for plants or corals from a distance. Some resemble moss as they form encrusting colonies on underwater rocks. Others form branching, bush-like colonies that look more like algae or corals. Up close, though, a single colony can contain millions of individual, tube-shaped zooids. The zooids support each other. But break a piece off, and a single zooid can start a new colony of its own.

The team named the new species Favosipora purpurea (for its pinkish-purple color) and Rhynchozoon papuliferum (for its special triangular-shaped zooids). In this Q&A, Canning-Clode, a research associate with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, details the dual discovery published this month.

FavasiporaPurpurea_PatricioRamalhosa

 Rhynchozoon_papuliferum_Web
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Beyond #ManicureMonday: Other Ways to Use Nail Polish in Science

Posted by KristenM on February 23rd, 2015

by Heather Soulen, research technician

In mid-November of 2013, Seventeen Magazine’s #ManicureMonday was hijacked by Hope Jahren, an isotope geochemist and laboratory scientist studying photosynthesis at the University of Hawaii Manoa. She tweeted:

Hope Jahren-Take pic tweet

And then tweeted this picture of her well-groomed, unmanicured hands doing something #Science:

Jahren's nails are much  less adorned than the typical Seventeen Magazine #ManicureMonday nails. (Photo c/o Hope Jahren)

Jahren’s nails are much less adorned than the typical Seventeen Magazine #ManicureMonday nails. (Photo c/o Hope Jahren)

When following tweets asked “Why?” Jahren followed with:

Hope Jahren-Purpose tweet

Thus began an emotionally charged verbal tennis match about women in science, stereotypes, shaming, STEM and gender roles on Twitter and Reddit, as well as commentary featured in blogs like Slate Magazine, Scientific American and The Huffington Post.

While the #ManicureMonday #Science hijack seemed to begin with good intentions, it ultimately sparked controversy. But controversy is good–it makes us stop and think about our worldviews. It encouraged individuals to examine things like motivation, assumptions and perceptions of all kinds, including dichotomous thinking like “you can either be smart or manicured.”

There are plenty of scientists who enjoy adorning their fingers and toes with nail polish, but for many of us there is a practical reason we forego gilding. That is, doing some kinds of science simply destroys manicures and pedicures. Whether it’s from wearing nitrile (synthetic rubber) gloves all day, donning dive booties, deploying research gear (e.g. nets and samplers), scrambling around research boats, tromping around field sites (estuaries, streams, marshes and forests), or performing experiments in wet labs or outdoor mesocosms, hands and feet take a beating. Yet, we still use nail polish. We just use it in a different way.

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Oyster Disease Thrives in Nightly Dead Zones

Posted by KristenM on February 11th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: Slides of oysters suffering different Dermo intensities as the parasite multiplies, from healthy (left) to severely infected (right). (Credit: SERC Marine Ecology Lab)

Slides of oysters suffering different Dermo intensities as the parasite multiplies, from healthy (left) to severely infected (right). (SERC Marine Ecology Lab)

In shallow waters around the world, where nutrient pollution runs high, oxygen levels can plummet to nearly zero at night. Oysters living in these zones are far more likely to pick up the lethal Dermo disease, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center discovered in a new study published Wednesday.

Oxygen loss in the shallows is a global phenomenon, but it is not nearly as well known as the dead zones of the deep. Unlike deep-water dead zones, which can persist for months, oxygen in shallow waters swings in day-night cycles, called diel-cycling hypoxia. In nature it works like this: When algae photosynthesize during the day, they release oxygen into the water. But at night, when photosynthesis stops, plants and animals continue to respire and take oxygen from the water, causing dissolved oxygen to drop. Nutrient pollution, because it fuels massive algal blooms, can make the cycle even more drastic. The resulting lack of oxygen can cripple the oysters’ ability to fight off the parasite Perkinsus marinus that causes Dermo and slowly takes over their bodies.

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Four Invaders That Seduced Us (And One
That Could)

Posted by KristenM on January 29th, 2015

by Kristen Minogue

Image: School of blue-green damselfish (Chromis viridis) in the Coral Sea (Credit: Richard Ling)

School of blue-green damselfish, Chromis viridis, in the Coral Sea (Richard Ling)

You could be forgiven if, on the long list of environmental threats, the site of an empty aquarium doesn’t fill you with dread.

Most invasive species cross our borders by accident, stuffed into crates with packing material, or clinging to the hulls or floating in the ballast of cargo ships. Often we don’t even realize they’re here until years after they arrive. But there are a few that we welcome into our homes (or fish tanks) with open arms, because they are beautiful and exotic and, well, we’re human. Sometimes they’re harmless, and sometimes our infatuation has deadly consequences.

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2014 in Review: The Good, the Scary and the Weird

Posted by KristenM on December 31st, 2014
Photo: Dejeanne Doublet inspects a red oak in BiodiversiTree. (Credit: SERC)

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

by Kristen Minogue

We sprayed pig’s blood on baby trees, studied a strange ménage a trois in the orchid world and met the father of marine invasions science himself. It’s been an odd year at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. But we like living in interesting times. Here are 10 of our favorite stories from 2014. Here’s hoping 2015 is even stranger.

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Not Your Everyday Martha Stewart Glue Sticks

Posted by KristenM on December 19th, 2014

by Heather Soulen, research technician

When I mention that we use “glue sticks” at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to help answer research questions about wetland ecology, I get looks of confusion and amusement. People often think I am using:

Glue Sticks (Credit: Heather Soulen/SERC) or GlueGun (Credit: Heather Soulen/SERC)

But, what I really mean is that I use these:

+ +

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