How an invasive marsh plant could leave many fishes and invertebrates homeless, hungry and vulnerable to predators
Ecologist Heather Soulen (right) wades through a patch of Phragmites in Chesapeake Bay. (SERC)
by Heather Soulen, SERC marine ecology lab technician
It’s no surprise that invasive species can dramatically alter an ecosystem. Often, invasive species outcompete native species and disturb ecosystems that have not evolved to handle the new intruder(s). One such invader is the introduced common reed (Phragmites australis australis). Introduced Phragmites alters native plant communities that native animals use. Over the past several decades, native marshes containing plants such as marsh elder, saltmeadow hay, black needlerush, sea lavender, cordgrasses, threesquares and bulrushes have fallen to introduced Phragmites in the Chesapeake Bay and throughout the Atlantic coast, turning once diverse marshes into a thick monoculture forest.
Ally Bullock, a technician in SERC’s mercury lab, draws pore water samples from Berry’s Creek. (SERC)
It isn’t safe to eat the blue crabs from Berry’s Creek.American eels and white perch are also off-limits. White catfish are permissible, but only once a year, according to a New Jersey advisory for the Newark Bay Complex, where the creek is located. Crabbing in the 6.5-mile stream is illegal and can carry up to a $3000 fine. Waste from a now-defunct chemical processing plant, combined with more than a century of manufacturing, has made Berry’s Creek and its surrounding wetlands hot spots for mercury pollution.
The Environmental Protection Agency calls places like Berry’s Creek “Superfund sites”—a label for abandoned or neglected sites that became dumping grounds for hazardous waste. Some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in the U.S. exist in Superfund sites. Cynthia Gilmour knows this first-hand. As a microbial ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, she has worked in several. But short of digging up the polluted sediments and dumping them elsewhere (an expensive and ecologically risky proposition), not many methods exist to get rid of the problem.
“If we use the traditional technologies of removing that and putting it in a landfill, we don’t have a wetland anymore,” says Upal Ghosh, an environmental engineer from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who works with Gilmour.
This fall, Gilmour and Ghosh explored a new technique: using charcoal to trap it in the soil.
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.
The threat of disappearing coastlines has alerted many to the dangers of climate change. Wetlands in particular—with their ability to buffer coastal cities from floods and storms, and filter out pollution—offer protections that could be lost in the future. But, say co-authors Matt Kirwan and Patrick Megonigal, higher waters are not the key factor in wetland demise. Thanks to an intricate system of ecosystem feedbacks, wetlands are remarkably good at building up soil to outpace sea-level rise. But this ability has limits. The real issue, the scientists say, is that human structures such as dams and seawalls are disrupting the natural mechanisms that have allowed coastal marshes to survive rising seas since at least the end of the last ice age.
Mangroves in the desert of Baja California, Mexico. ( L. Simpson).
Researcher Mike Lehmann makes his way through dwarf-form mangroves in the Gulf of California. (C. Johnston)
As you approach stands of mangroves in Florida, you’re likely to notice a few things. They form expansive forests along protected seashore (usually in lagoons and estuaries) that often grow thick and tall overhead, providing welcome shade where the three species (black, white and red) intermingle. In the cool of their shade, they are clearly teeming with life; the constant pop of snapping shrimp ricochets around their oyster- and barnacle-encrusted roots while crabs and insects scurry along their branches.
These mangroves are different. There are no scurrying crabs or snapping shrimp or prominent rocks of oysters. Most of the insects have gone inside; their only traces are burrows and cocoons made in the safety of stems and rolled leaves. The blinding sun and gusty wind make it starkly obvious that the shady, protective canopy is only waist-high. The cactus on the rocky slope in the background gives it away: These mangroves are in Baja California, Mexico.
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.”
Before joining MarineGEO, Emmett Duffy did research in waters from Australia to Siberia. (Photo: College of William and Mary)
by Kristen Minogue
It’s “the largest, coolest marine biological project on Earth”, according to its new director, Emmett Duffy. On Sept. 16 Duffy came on board the Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, a.k.a. MarineGEO–the Smithsonian’s global network to monitor the oceans. So far it has five stations tracking the ocean’s chemistry and biology, from SERC in Maryland to STRI in Panama. They plan to add at least 10 more in the next decade. Now, after two months on the job, Duffy shares his vision in this edited Q&A.
What’s the main purpose of MarineGEO?
The overall goal really is a very ambitious one. In my mind, it’s to understand what’s at the heart of how marine ecosystems work…and that is biodiversity. The living web from microbes to large predators that are responsible for ecosystem processes like fish production and habitat creation. So basically what we want to do is map marine biodiversity and what it’s doing across the globe.
by Monaca Noble, Kristen Larson, Linda McCann and Ian Davidson
Video: Biologists place pennies underwater to test how well volunteers can spot small invaders
What is the Bioblitz, and why would researcher Linda McCann cash in her dollar bills for hundreds of pennies in preparation for it?
Bioblitzers braved the rain to search for invasive species. (Deborah Mercy)
A Bioblitz is an intensive survey in which trained volunteers head out en masse to catalog species in a specific area. On September 28, volunteers in Ketchikan, Alaska, joined staff from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), San Francisco State and the University of Alaska to search for invasive marine species along Ketchikan’s waterfront. The Marine Invasive Species Bioblitz in Ketchikan had three goals: to engage and teach the public about invasive species, detect newly arriving species that threaten Alaskan coastal waters, and recruit these enthusiastic volunteers for future monitoring efforts.
The goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia) blends in almost perfectly with the yellow chamomile flower. (Alvegaspar)
There’s a reason cobwebs make popular Halloween decorations. Spiders rival with snakes, birds and clowns for the most feared creatures in the animal kingdom. But some of nature’s creepiest arachnids don’t build webs at all. They ambush their prey in much more beguiling settings. Like flowers.
That’s a favorite haunt of the crab spider, one of several groups of webless spiders that hunt, instead of trap, their food. The name comes from their four long front legs, which stretch out like claws, and their crab-like method of walking—they’re better at moving sideways and backwards than forwards. But their strategy for capturing prey has earned them another common name: the ambush spiders.
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.
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.