Ancient Native American Compost Still Enriching Forests

Posted by KristenM on April 30th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Photo: An open pit exposes a 3200-year-old shell midden. Native Americans used middens as trash piles for oyster shells, animal bones and pottery. (by Torben Rick/Smithsonian)

An open pit exposes a 3200-year-old shell midden. Native Americans used middens as trash piles for oyster shells, animal bones and pottery. (Torben Rick/Smithsonian)

More than 3,000 years ago, Native Americans dined on shellfish from the Chesapeake Bay, and the leftovers from those feasts are still benefiting modern-day forests.

Native Americans inhabited the Chesapeake Bay area more than 13,000 years before the first Europeans dropped anchor. During the Woodland period (3,200 to 400 years ago), they ate eastern oysters and threw the shells, along with animal bones, pottery and other shellfish remains, into trash piles called shell middens. Those piles enriched the soil with nutrients, promoting hot spots of native diversity along the Chesapeake shoreline.

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Nonnatives in Your Garden:
A Curse or a Blessing?

Posted by KristenM on April 29th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Three nonnative flowers in Maryland. Left to right: Queen Anne's Lace, Moth Mullein and Lesser Celandine. (Susan Cook Patton)

Three nonnative flowers in Maryland. Left to right: Queen Anne’s Lace, Moth Mullein and Lesser Celandine. (Susan Cook-Patton)

“I just want to plant something that will grow in my yard. If a nonnative species grows better than a native, why shouldn’t I plant it?”

It’s a valid question, one that SERC postdoc Susan Cook-Patton remembers hearing from her father while still in high school. In the quest to preserve native plants, it’s become almost taboo to talk about the benefits of nonnatives. But not all nonnative plants are rampant invaders, and sometimes they could be good for gardens as a whole. Cook-Patton broke down the pros and cons of gardening with nonnative species at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s first evening lecture on April 15. Here are a few to consider when deciding what to put in your garden:

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Before It Was Cool: The Father
of Marine Invasions

Posted by KristenM on April 24th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Photo: Jim Carlton tracked invasive species in the ocean for years when most scientists thought the sea was "invasion-proof." (Anna Sawin)

Jim Carlton tracked invasive species in the ocean for years when most scientists thought the sea was “invasion-proof.” (Anna Sawin)

There’s no official “father of marine invasions biology.” But if anyone could compete for the title, Jim Carlton, director of the Williams College – Mystic Seaport Program, would almost certainly top the list. More than 50 scientists from the U.S., Canada, Italy, Argentina and New Zealand voiced some version of that view, when they descended on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center for a three-day symposium in April informally dubbed “Jimfest.”

Like so much in science, his career began by sheer accident. In 1962, 14-year-old Carlton stepped on a strange worm while picnicking with his family in Lake Merritt, a small lagoon near San Francisco Bay. A few weeks later he discovered the same worm in an exhibit at a local nature center. The label identified it as a tubeworm from the South Seas. “This thing in my backyard as it were, not far from my house, in this estuarine lagoon, how could this thing be from the South Seas?” Carlton remembered thinking. “So I got fascinated by that concept.”

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Diversity Helps Forests Resist Deer

Posted by KristenM on April 8th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue and John Parker

White-tailed deer. (Photo courtesy of John Parker/SERC)

White-tailed deer. (John Parker/SERC)

In deer-populated forests, tastier plants can avoid being eaten if they are surrounded by less appealing plants. But with deer gone, diverse plots become weaker and plants are better off sticking to their own kind.

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From the Field: Two Weeks in Panama

Posted by KristenM on April 4th, 2014

Linda McCann is a marine biologist studying invasive species with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. This March she and three other researchers spent 17 days exploring marine life on both sides of Panama, at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI).

Sloth in Isla Galeta, near the Smithsonian's marine station on the Panama Canal. (Photo: Kristen Larson/SERC)

Sloth in Isla Galeta, near the Smithsonian’s marine station on the Panama Canal.
(Kristen Larson/SERC)


March 10
Got up at o-2:30 to catch a shuttle to the airport, after singing a concert the night before and not getting to bed until 12:30. Finally arrived at our lodging in Panama about 10:30 p.m., bleary-eyed but happy to be back in this special place!

March 11
Our first day. Usually we start out a bit slowly, shopping for food, getting our IDs at Tupper, getting set up, but today we dive right in. We collect samples from the STRI dock in Naos and begin the process of reacquainting ourselves with the species in Panama. Warmer water means we are looking at a whole different suite of species than we see back in San Fran or Chesapeake. The lab is on an island situated just outside the canal on the Pacific side.

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Intern Logs: Mussels and the Melting Arctic

Posted by KristenM on 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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The Secret Formula to Feeding 900 Babies

Posted by KristenM on April 1st, 2014

Scientists uncover milk composition of naked mole-rat queens

by Micaela Jemison

Naked mole rats at the National Zoo (by Meghan Murphy)

Naked mole rats at the National Zoo (Meghan Murphy)

Parents normally feel the need to provide well for their kids. For humans, that number of offspring is usually in the single digits, but a naked mole-rat queen can have as many as 900 pups in a lifetime spanning up to 30 years.

Naked mole-rats live their lives entirely underground in Africa, digging tunnels in a perpetual search for plant tubers to eat. These bizarre creatures are unlike nearly every other mammal on earth in that the burdens of reproduction and milk feeding of young are placed solely on a single queen and are not shared among the females of the colony.

While this system may work well for insects like bees where the young are fed by a horde of workers and nurses, scientists were perplexed as to how this system works for a mammal where one mother must produce milk for her very large brood.

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Curiouser and Curiouser: A Motor at the Front?

Posted by KristenM on February 18th, 2014

by Heather Soulen

A Chesapeake Bay NOAA mullet skiff. Note the moter near the bow. (SERC)

A Chesapeake Bay NOAA mullet skiff. Note the motor near the bow. (SERC)

With its motor located near the bow (front) of the boat, the modern-day mullet skiff could have been a character in Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Similar to the unpunctual rabbit, vanishing cat and hookah smoking caterpillar, it seems illogical…or does it?

Commercial mullet fishing in 1955. (Monts de Oca, C. Morris courtesy of State Archives of Florida)

Commercial mullet fishing in 1955. (Monts de Oca, C. Morris courtesy of State Archives of Florida)

In the early 1900s, the mullet skiff was originally designed for use in the commercial mullet fishery of the south. Popular for its simple construction, flat-bottom dory style hull with vee entry, and rounded stern (back) design, the mullet skiff was ideal for operating in shallow waters while carrying heavy loads of fish. However, during Prohibition, entrepreneurs souped up their mullet skiffs with straight-8 engines (precursor V8s) to run rum from the Bahamas and Cuba to the states. Since then, many mullet skiffs have undergone less scandalous modifications and have evolved to have an outboard motor in a well near the bow.

Why place a motor here? For three important reasons: 1) It places the motor higher in the water for maneuvering in shallow water, 2) it leaves the stern (back) open to work a net, and 3) it eliminates the risk of net entanglement in the propeller. So, with “the wrong end in front,” the mullet skiff was the perfect choice for the near-shore predator study our field crew conducted this summer throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

Predators of the Not-So-Deep

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For Valentine’s Day, I Brought You Poison

Posted by KristenM on February 14th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Most animals are quite pragmatic in their gift-giving. When attracting mates, elaborate dance routines and ostentatious coloring certainly help. But when offering presents, males tend to give their significant others something they can actually use (unless they are sleazeballs—but more on that later).

Of course, what a female bush cricket finds enticing wouldn’t necessarily go over well for a chimpanzee, or an Arctic tern. What follows is a glimpse of romance in the rest of the animal kingdom. Below are four gifts animals can use to attract or care for their mates, and while they are usually thoughtful in context, we don’t recommend trying them at home.

Six-spot burnet moths mating (Rosenzweig)

Six-spot burnet moths mating (Rosenzweig)

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Beauty and Beast: Reeling in the Mute Swan

Posted by KristenM on January 30th, 2014

by Kristen Minogue

Eleven-year-old Lucy Paskoff knows something about the hazards of filming wildlife. She and fellow home-school student McKenna Austin-Ward spent weeks documenting one of Chesapeake Bay’s most destructive pests: the mute swan.

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