Q&A: Kim La Pierre, Ecosystem Conservation Ecologist

Posted by KristenM on June 16th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Close-up of Kim La Pierre in prairie

Kim La Pierre in Konza Prairie, Kansas, home to one of the first Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) programs. (Credit: Arjun Potter)

Kim La Pierre does big-picture ecology. The newest senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, La Pierre is leading the center’s Ecosystem Conservation Lab. But while working on large-scale global experiments, she also delves into the microscopic world of bacteria. In this Q&A, discover how bacteria give certain plants an edge, and how she blends the very large and the very small.

This is the first of three profiles about the young scientists heading SERC’s newest labs. Edited for brevity and clarity.

You’ve done a great deal of work with legumes—plants in the bean and pea family. Can you talk about their weird relationship with rhizobial bacteria?

The [legume] plants and bacteria are in a mutualism where the plants fix carbon into sugar and give it to the bacteria, and the bacteria are able to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and give it to the plants. This is a source of nitrogen that no other plants have access to. Most plants have to take [nitrogen] up from the soil. Because of this mutualism, legumes can get nitrogen from another source, and that often makes them very successful in different, especially harsh environments….

It’s interesting to think about the different legume species, and how good they are at enforcing cooperation from the bacteria. Thinking about the bacteria as not only potentially being beneficial, but [also possibly] cheating the system—trying to take carbon from the plants and not give back as much nitrogen, especially under high soil nitrogen conditions. Click to continue »

 

Five Summer Activities That Can Spread Invasive Species

Posted by KristenM on June 15th, 2017
summerinvasives

Fishing, camping, and walking the dog can all have unintended consequences. (Credit: pixabay.com, 1,2,3. Used under Creative Commons CC0 license)

By Joe Dawson

Nothing seems to draw people outside like a beautiful summer weekend. A rain-free Saturday could mean taking the boat out on the water for some fishing or a family camping trip. Conservationists have found, however, that many summer activities carry the risk of spreading invasive species. A species gets the name “invasive” if it is not native to a location and causes environmental and economic damage. Here are five popular activities that can spread invaders–and tips for enjoying them safely: Click to continue »

 

Slime Nets and Other Invasive Parasites Unmasked, Thanks to DNA

Posted by KristenM on May 31st, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, lionfish in the Atlantic and pythons in the Everglades: Large creatures like these generally draw the spotlight when talking about ways to combat invasive species. But for every visible invader, there are hundreds more too minuscule to see with the naked eye. These species often slip in unnoticed—and unregulated—in the ballast water of large ships.

“There have been reports of parasites being transmitted in ballast water, but most of those have been things that we can easily see,” said Katrina Lohan, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “So, the parasites that are hanging off the outside of fish.”

Lohan has made it her mission to track the invisible invaders. Click to continue »

 

Alaskan Alders Shape Fates of Wetlands, Streams—And Salmon

Posted by KristenM on May 22nd, 2017

by Joe Dawson

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Dennis Whigham samples horsetail plants in an Alaskan headwater stream. Credit: Ryan King/Baylor University

In Alaska, fish mean serious money. For fishermen, landowners, and the government, learning all they can about the lives of salmon could pay off in future fish harvests. There’s a lot to learn, down to how a single type of tree impacts their habitat.

The story of those habitats and trees, the alders, has been explored by SERC senior scientist Dennis Whigham and colleagues in a new study published May in Science of the Total Environment. The researchers have been studying interactions between watersheds and headwater streams for almost two decades.

Alders are most recognizable for their egg-shaped, serrated leaves. Their bark is used for tanning leather, and their wood to smoke salmon and make Fender guitars. But alders also have an outsized effect on their natural environment, transforming the chemistry and structure of wetlands and streams nearby. Bacteria in alder roots make nitrogen, an important plant nutrient, available in places where it is otherwise scarce. This can send ripple effects through entire ecosystems. In another plot twist, scientists also expect alder trees to expand northward, stirred by warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide from climate change. Whigham’s findings highlight the interconnectedness of wetland ecosystems, waterways, and the valuable fish that call Alaska home. Click to continue »

 

Surprising Tree Emissions Show Forests Consume Less Methane Than Thought

Posted by KristenM on May 9th, 2017

by Ryan Greene

White chambers attached to tree trunks. Multi-colored tubes run from the chambers to a black box in the undergrowth.

Methane flux chambers keep track of how much methane a tree trunk releases or consumes. Credit: Pat Megonigal/SERC

Rainbow-colored tubes snake through the undergrowth. White acrylic chambers sit mounted to tree trunks like giant bleached snails. At first glance, it’s not quite clear what the heck is going on. Cryptic as it may seem, these tubes and chambers are the key to a recent study showing that trees in upland forests are capable of emitting the planet-warming greenhouse gas, methane.

Scientists have long considered upland forests to be methane sinks due to the presence of methane-hungry microbes called methanotrophs in their soils. But new research by Pat Megonigal, an ecosystem ecologist who heads up the Biogeochemistry Lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), and Scott Pitz, a graduate student from Johns Hopkins, has shown that when it comes to upland forest methane cycling, soil isn’t the only game in town. Trees and their emissions are part of the equation too.

In a recently published study in New Phytologist, Megonigal and Pitz found that trees in upland forests are actually capable of emitting methane through their trunks. This means that some of the methane absorbed by methanotrophs in the forest soils may be offset by tree emissions.

Why, though, does any of this even matter?

When researchers think about global climate change, they need to think about heat-trapping greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Specifically, they’ve got to track these gases to see where they’re coming from (their sources) and where they’re getting stored (their sinks). Carbon dioxide receives much of the spotlight (and rightfully so, given its enormous impact on the global climate), but it’s also critical to keep an eye on methane. Although methane stays in the atmosphere for far less time than carbon dioxide, it’s capable of trapping up to 45 times more heat. In other words, methane is a big deal. If temperate forests are consuming less of it than we thought, as Megonigal and Pitz’s research suggests, that could be a big deal too. Click to continue »

 

Volunteer Spotlight: Dave Norman

Posted by KristenM on April 11th, 2017

by Sara Richmond

SERC citizen scientist Dave Norman stands beside a collection of samples from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay. (Sara Richmond)

SERC citizen scientist Dave Norman stands beside a collection of sediment samples from the bottom of Chesapeake Bay. (Sara Richmond)

Dave Norman’s first visit to the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) wasn’t to help with a field trip or assist researchers in the crab lab, as he has done for the past two years. In fact, he knew very little about SERC, but was competing in a triathlon on its campus. The experience stuck with him, and when he retired a year later, he contacted SERC to ask how he could get involved as a volunteer.

The volunteer program offered a mix of science and education opportunities that turned out to be a perfect fit for Dave. He says he was part of the “Jacques Cousteau generation,” who grew up with the explorer’s books and movies, and eventually started college with plans to become a marine biologist. Those plans changed—he would practice law for 30 years before becoming a seventh-grade math teacher—but when he retired, his love of the water brought him back to the field.  Click to continue »

 

Ships Struggle To Battle Invasive Species As Global Trade Surges

Posted by KristenM on March 20th, 2017

Strategy To Flush Invaders From Ballast Water Coming Up Short

by Kristen Minogue

Woman descends gangway of large cargo ship.

SERC marine biologist Jenny Carney descends the gangway of a giant bulker ship in Virginia. When ships export coal and other goods, they return loaded with ballast water from foreign ports—and often inadvertently bring invasive species with them. (Credit: Kim Holzer/SERC)

In the battle against invasive species, giant commercial ships are fighting on the front lines. But even when they follow the rules, one of their best weapons is coming up short, marine biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) discovered in a new study published in PLOS ONE Monday.

As ships move goods around the world, they often inadvertently ferry invasive species as well. These new species can come over in the ships’ ballast water—the water ships pump on board for stability, to keep them from becoming top-heavy. But when the ships arrive to port, they often discharge their ballast water from distant global regions, along with the unseen, unwanted hitchhikers.

Shipping companies and biologists have known about this problem for decades and are still struggling to combat it. Currently, their main strategy is called “open-ocean exchange.” The idea is to flush out ballast water from their original port in the open ocean, to remove most coastal organisms, and replace it with water more than 200 nautical miles from shore. When they arrive at their destinations and discharge their new ballast water, any open-ocean organisms they picked up are unlikely to survive in ports and coastal waters.

“Ballast-water exchange provides a stop-gap measure until new technologies can be implemented to further reduce species transfers,” said Greg Ruiz, SERC senior marine biologist and a co-author of the new study. Since 2004, the U.S. Coast Guard has required most commercial ships entering the U.S. from overseas to do open-ocean exchange before discharging ballast in ports. However, this strategy has some serious limitations and may not be as effective as scientists and policymakers once hoped. Click to continue »

 

Once-Threatened Trumpeter Swans Spotted on SERC Campus

Posted by KristenM on February 15th, 2017

by Sara Richmond

Not long ago, a trumpeter swan sighting was nearly unheard of in the Chesapeake Bay region—or many places in the United States, for that matter. After being hunted to near-extinction in the early 1900s, the birds, who can boast an 8-foot wingspan and are the largest waterfowl in the world, struggled to recover. Now the swans are starting to reappear, including two spotted recently at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC).

close-up of trumpeter swan head and beak

Unlike tundra swans, the other native swans in the Chesapeake, trumpeter swans have a small triangle of feathers above their beak. (Tyler Bell)

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Volunteer Spotlight: Lenore Naranjo

Posted by KristenM on January 26th, 2017
Lenore and Dan in the SERC education center.

Lenore Naranjo celebrates 10 years of volunteer, with SERC volunteer coordinator Dan Gustafson. (SERC)

by Sara Richmond, communications volunteer

In 2016, nearly 5,000 students and other visitors learned about the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem firsthand through education programs at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). They ventured on hikes and canoe trips, hauled in fish and invertebrates with seining nets, and studied the anatomy of blue crabs. SERC’s education programs are possible through the help of dozens of volunteers who lead field trips and assist behind the scenes. In the coming months, we’ll highlight the work of some of these volunteers in the SERC newsletter and on our blog.

Lenore Naranjo has been volunteering with SERC for over 13 years. After starting as a volunteer in SERC’s canopy labs, she began working with the education program, leading field study groups that give children a hands-on approach to a variety of marine habitats.

“We set up baskets with oysters, and they stay sitting on the bottom of the river through spring, summer, and fall, where they act as a habitat for fish and small critters,” she explains. During field trips, she pulls the baskets from the river bed and sets them in a tray of water so children can explore the baskets’ contents. “Some kids are very hesitant and don’t want to put their hands in something unfamiliar. But then they watch their friends who aren’t hesitant, and the next thing you know, they’re in there too, pulling out fish and crabs.”

Click to continue »

 

Natural Gas Trade Opens Door for Invasive Species

Posted by KristenM on January 20th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Two scientists look at water sample on ship.

Marine biologists Kim Holzer (right) and Jenny Carney sample ballast water from a cargo ship in Virginia’s James River.
(Kim Holzer)

The U.S. is on the brink of a natural gas boom—but that could expose its shores to more invasive species, Smithsonian marine biologists report in a new study published this winter.

Over the last decade, U.S. natural gas imports have dropped as the country tapped into its own resources. Now, thanks to new technology that makes it easier to extract and store natural gas, it’s poised to be the world’s third largest exporter of liquefied natural gas by 2020.

“We’ve hit an inflection point,” said Kim Holzer, lead author and biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). Exports haven’t yet reached historical import highs, but they are climbing.

Click to continue »