by Maria Sharova SERC citizen science program assistant
Maria Sharova (right) sifts through oyster shells in search of tiny mud crabs with intern Caroline Kanaskie. (Monaca Noble/SERC)
I started working at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) one year ago this month. It had only been two weeks since I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Like any recent grad, I was excited and nervous to start my first real job—and, frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
During my first week of work, I was involved with the Chesapeake Bay Parasite Project (a.k.a. the Mud Crab Project), a project that looks at the impact of an invasive, parasitic barnacle called Loxothylacus panopaei (“Loxo” for short) on native white-fingered mud crabs in the Chesapeake Bay. Like most of our volunteers, I’d never heard of either of these organisms, I had no idea why the project mattered, and I’d never been involved in any kind of ecology research before. I had no idea Loxo was able hijack a mud crab’s reproductive system, forcing them to nurse parasite larvae instead of crab larvae. Nor had I ever searched through crates of oyster shells looking for mud crabs the size of a quarter or smaller, as our volunteers were about to do. But in no time at all, I’d become an experienced mud crab finder!
Typical American Indian oyster deposit, roughly 1,000 years old. (Torben Rick/Smithsonian)
by John Gibbons
Oysters have provided food for humans for millennia, and play an enormous role in sustaining estuaries around the world. Yet after more than a century of overfishing, pollution, disease and habitat degradation, oyster populations in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere have suffered dramatic declines. But for thousands of years,American Indians in the region harvested the shellfish from the Bay sustainably—a discovery published Monday that could offer clues for future oyster restoration.
Little is known about oyster populations prior to the late 1800s. On May 23 a team of Smithsonian scientists and other researchers published the first bay-wide, millennial-scale study of oyster harvesting in the Chesapeake in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Using fossil, archaeological, and modern biological data, the team was able to reconstruct changes in oyster size from four timeframes: the Pleistocene (780,000-13,000 years ago), prehistoric American Indian occupation (3,200 – 400 years ago), historic (400 – 50 years ago) and modern times (2000 to 2014).
Fish provide protein to billions of people and are an especially critical food source in the developing world. Today, marine biologists confirmed a key factor that could help them thrive through the coming decades: biodiversity. Communities with more fish species are more productive and more resilient to rising temperatures and temperature swings, according to a new study from the Smithsonian’s Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and other international institutions.
The accelerating loss and rearrangement of species all over the globe have troubled scientists and the public for decades. But the question of whether biodiversity offers practical value—for humans and ecosystems—remained controversial. The new study, published May 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offers the most thorough proof yet that preserving marine biodiversity can benefit people as much as it benefits the oceans.
“Biodiversity is more than a pretty face,” said lead author Emmett Duffy, director of the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network and senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “Preserving biodiversity is not just an aesthetic or spiritual issue—it’s critical to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and the important services they provide to humans, like seafood.”
May 12 is Limerick Day, which among science aficionados is a time to wax poetic about the joys of research. Or not. When you’re an ecologist, sometimes research is muddy, smelly, or just plain weird. Electric skillets and marbles can become safety features. But then, the thrill of climbing a 120-foot tour can remind you why it’s all worthwhile.
While some limericists adhere rigidly to the anapestic meter, the one thing all limericks have in common is the familiar A-A-B-B-A rhyme scheme. So enjoy a few snapshots in verse about the lesser-known side of environmental science:
The Sweet Smell of Science Are those cow guts that make the lab stench?
Fatty acids make my stomach clench.
They smell like fish and feet
But the microbes must eat,
While my lab mates avoid my work bench.
Inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) reflected in aquarium. When threatened with low oxygen, fish often swim to the surface, where oxygen is more abundant but predators can more easily spot them. (SERC)
Severe oxygen drops in the water can leave trails of fish kills in their wakes, but scientists thought adult fish would be more resilient to the second major threat in coastal waters: acidification. A new study published Tuesday from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) shows that is not entirely true—where fish are concerned, acidification can make low oxygen even more deadly.
This year’s theme for SERC’s annual Open House is “Ecosystem Conservation: Where do you fit in?” In the broadest sense, this question got me thinking about people, ecosystem research and conservation. How do we conserve ecosystems and make realistic and manageable policies? As a scientist, science writer/communicator and artist, I decided to explore these question through art, specifically mosaics.
Using art as a way to raise awareness, express one’s thoughts or as a way to create dialog is one of the most wonderful and powerful things about art. Humans have been creating art for some 40,000 to 60,000 years and this timeline could extend farther back as new techniques and technologies become available and new cave art discoveries are made. Over the past decade some field stations and laboratories have incorporated arts and humanities into their programs. Many see it as an opportunity to communicate an agency’s mission, the scientific process, science discoveries and complex scientific concepts or areas of study. A recent essay in the Ecological Society of America’s Ecosphere explores the convergence of science, art and humanities and why it could be important to sustainability, ecosystem stewardship, ecosystem services and conservation strategies in the future.
Friday is Earth Day, and this year it’s all about the trees. The Earth Day Network is on a mission to plant 7.8 billion trees in five years. Trees have enormous power when it comes to protecting the Earth. Scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have spent decades uncovering the environmental benefits of forests. But trees offer some advantages that are less obvious. Like acting as painkillers. Or improving your morning coffee. Since the holiday falls on April 22, we picked our top 22 things trees do for humanity. Click to continue »
Volunteers come in a great variety of ages, gender, talents and reasons for volunteering. Here’s my short story.
Growing up in Nature
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and am of a generation that was lucky enough to be able to leave the house after school or on Saturday mornings to play outside for hours with the other neighborhood kids. We made hiding places in scotch broom thickets, climbed on fallen logs, wandered in the woods, had bracken fern spear fights and in the short, sweet summers spent time at a local beach on Puget Sound. It was idyllic, but at the time I took it all for granted.
It’s that time of year when much of the mid-Atlantic is waking up from a long winter’s slumber. Flowers are blooming, trees are budding, ospreys and eagles are nesting, and frogs are calling. Right now, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) is alive with the sonic cacophony of a two amphibians. Spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and American toads (Anaxyrus americanus, formerly Bufo americanus) are shouting mating anthems from every available pocket of water. If you live east of the Mississippi River from Canada to Florida, you’ve likely heard their calls. But which is which? We’ve collected a few sound bites around SERC to help identify each amphibian’s call.
Melissa McCormick kneels over a cranefly orchid. (Yini Ma)
The secret is in the soil. In one of the oddest couples in the natural world, orchids need fungi to grow. But finding those fungi can be tricky, until a new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) used DNA to find them in more places than anyone suspected.
There are 14 federally endangered or threatened orchids in the U.S. alone, and dozens more are endangered or threatened at the state level. Figuring out how to restore any single species is difficult, because there are so many different kinds.
“You’re talking about the largest plant family in the world,” said Melissa McCormick, lead author and SERC molecular ecologist. Orchids grow from islands off Antarctica to the Arctic Circle and just about everywhere in between. “They grow in darn near every environment on Earth.” But for all their diversity, the planet’s 26,000-plus known orchid species have one thing in common: None can germinate in the wild without a suitable fungus. Click to continue »