Methylmercury Microbes More Widespread Than Realized

Posted by KristenM on September 12th, 2013
New places scientists discovered can contain the microbes--Archaea and Bacteria--that create the dangerous neurotoxin methylmercury. (SERC & ORNL)

New places scientists discovered can contain the microbes–Archaea and Bacteria–that create the dangerous neurotoxin methylmercury. (SERC & ORNL)

Microbes that live in rice paddies, northern peat lands and beyond are among the several types of bacteria researchers at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have just learned can generate highly toxic methylmercury.

This finding, published Wednesday in Environmental Science & Technology, explains why methylated mercury, a neurotoxin, is produced in areas with no previously identified mercury-methylating bacteria. Methylmercury—the most dangerous form of mercury—damages the brain and immune system and is especially harmful for developing embryos. Certain bacteria transform inorganic mercury from pollution into toxic methylmercury.

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From the Field: Mangroves, Salt Marshes and Hungry Insects

Posted by KristenM on September 11th, 2013

by Lily Durkee

Spotted-winged grasshopper, one of two insect herbivores the team tested to see if they would eat mangrove leaves. (Alex Forde/UMD)

Spotted-winged grasshopper, one of two insect herbivores the team tested to see if they would eat mangrove leaves.
(Alex Forde/UMD)

After spending five weeks working indoors as a research intern at the University of Maryland in College Park, walking out into the salt marsh at the Guana Tolemato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve in Florida was a welcome change of scenery. The sky was a crystal clear blue, egrets and herons soared overhead, and crabs scuttled haphazardly on the sand as we waded into the cordgrass, ready for a hard week of field work.

My mentor, Alex Forde, and I were there conducting experiments for his dissertation and for my internship project. This whole summer we had been studying plant resistance to herbivores, so we were excited to document interactions between leaf-eating insects and black mangrove trees (Avicennia germinans) in Northern Florida salt marshes.

Over the past several decades, climate change has allowed black mangroves to move north along the Florida coastline. As a result, they are invading salt marshes and coming into contact with novel herbivores that are not common in mangrove forests further south. Depending on the behavior and food preferences of marsh herbivores, these species may affect how fast mangroves spread into salt marshes and where the trees are able to survive within marsh landscapes. Therefore, we wanted to test (1) whether salt marsh herbivores will eat mangrove leaves when marsh plants are also available, and (2) if salt marsh herbivores show a preference for leaves of different ages or for trees growing in different habitats.

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Smithsonian Plot Burns in Yosemite Fires

Posted by KristenM on September 4th, 2013

by Kristen Minogue

Intense fire burns near Crane Flat helibase, close to the Yosemite research plot. (Gus Smith/NPS)

Intense fire burns near Crane Flat helibase, close to the Yosemite research plot. (Gus Smith/NPS)

As the Rim Fire burns deeper into Yosemite, park managers are fighting fire with fire—and one of the Smithsonian’s ForestGEO plots was caught in the middle this weekend.

The Yosemite Forest Dynamics Plot sits just north of Yosemite Valley, and south of the wildfire that has already consumed more than 60,000 acres of the national park.  It is part of the Smithsonian’s Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO), a network of 48 plots around the globe that scientists are measuring to understand forest dynamics and climate change. Two of Yosemite’s giant sequoia groves and many large trees also sit near the plot, and managers didn’t want to see the entire forest go up in flames.

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Franken Phrag: Tales of a Super Invader

Posted by KristenM on August 29th, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

These chambers at Kirkpatrick marsh allow the amount of CO2 and nitrogen to be manipulated, allowing researchers to understand how climate change will affect the growth of Phragmites.

These chambers at Kirkpatrick Marsh allow the amount of CO2 and nitrogen to be manipulated, allowing researchers to understand how climate change will affect the growth of Phragmites.

An invasive reed from Europe is conquering marsh habitat throughout the Chesapeake, displacing native marsh grasses and drastically changing the face of the wetlands. Phragmites australis, a “jack and master” plant  grows to nearly 10 feet tall and is adept at extracting nutrients from the soil, outcompeting native Phragmites genotypes. Climate change could increase the spread of this invasive plant. But other human activities, such as development, shoreline hardening and agriculture, could also determine the spread and range of Phragmites.

Climate Change Spurs Phragmites Growth

Rachel Hager, who interned with the Biogeochemistry lab, wanted to see if human activities were giving Phragmites even more of a competitive edge. Excess nitrogen from agriculture and industry, as well as increased CO2 levels, could increase Phragmites growth. Working in the Global Change Research Wetland (GCReW), she tracked the growth of  Phragmites under conditions that had more CO2 added, more nitrogen added, and both CO2 and nitrogen added.  She found that CO2 and nitrogen led to increased Phragmites growth, and plots with both CO2 and nitrogen grew the most.

Increased growth is only part of the story, however. Rachel wanted to see if taller Phragmites would inhibit other plants’ access to light. She analyzed leaf length, number, thickness and canopy cover to see if Phragmites exposed to additional CO2 and nitrogen were better at blocking light from their competitors. She found that Phragmites exposed to more CO2 and nitrogen had more, thicker and longer leaves, but their canopy cover was the same as control Phragmites plots. Thicker, longer leaves could lead to a longer leaf lifespan and more leaf litter, however, which could still block other plant’s access to light. Rachel hopes to see further research done on the amount of light that makes it through a Phragmites canopy.
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There’s No “I” in Bryozoan

Posted by KristenM on August 23rd, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

An illustration depicting bryozoans from Ernst Haekel's The Art of Nature (photocredit: wikipedia)

An illustration depicting bryozoans from Ernst Haekel’s The Art of Nature (photocredit: wikipedia)

All for one and one for all is a motto that bryozoans would take close to heart, if they had hearts, that is. This phylum is made up of 4,000 or so species, almost all of which are colonial. Individuals, called zooids, can’t survive on their own and depend on their fellow colony members to help gather nutrients, get rid of waste, and reproduce. Though sedentary as adults (a few species are able to creep slowly), bryozoans are able to spread through the dispersal of larvae in the water column. If a piece of the colony is broken off, it can survive and form a new colony. Known commonly as “moss animals” most bryozoans live up to the name, resembling robust pond scum. Some species, such as those in the Watersipora genus, form leaf-like, calcareous colonies that can serve as habitat for other animals. Click to continue »


Parasites and Suicidal Shrimp

Posted by KristenM on August 21st, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

A grass shrimp infected with a trematode parasite (photo: Sara Gonzales)

A grass shrimp infected with a trematode parasite (photo: Sara Gonzalez)

While the idea of playing host to something out of the movie Alien is decidedly unpleasant, it’s hard not to marvel at theexquisite grossness of microscopic parasites. Parasites take advantage of their hosts for resources and shelter, but research on parasites suggests that they also can manipulate their hosts’ behavior: Crickets will drown themselves, snails position themselves to be eaten by birds, and some theories suggest that cat-lovers infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii become self-destructively reckless.  More than half the known species in the world are parasites—making parasitism the most popular lifestyle on Earth.

At the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), the Marine Invasions Lab has been tracking parasites in grass shrimp, an incredibly common near shore species. Rates of parasitism are extremely high in grass shrimp, with some years 90 percent of the shrimp caught displaying parasite infection. The most common parasite is a trematode that forms cysts in the tail of the shrimp. Sara Gonzalez, who interned with SERC this summer, wanted to see if parasitized shrimp displayed different predator avoidance behaviors than unparasitized shrimp. Because the trematode only reproduces in birds and mammals, the parasite must find a way to make its way up the food chain. Sara suspected that infected shrimp will change their behavior  in a way that makes them more vulnerable to predators like mummichogs. The parasite does not infect the mummichogs directly, but mummichogs are prey for mammals and birds. If a mummichog that has ingested an infected shrimp gets eaten by a bird or mammal, then the parasite will be able to reproduce.
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Are You Smarter Than a SERC Visitor?

Posted by KristenM on August 21st, 2013

By Katie Sinclair


Boats, beavers. . .and bear poop? If you want to see what our campers learned this summer, take this quiz below and see how you measure up!

Are You Smarter Than a SERC Visitor? Quiz

As store aisles quickly fill up with back to school supplies, SERC’s summer education programs are coming to a close. SERC’s Education Team took a slightly different approach to summer programming this year. Instead of hosting summer camps, they sponsored three “activity weeks” throughout the summer. Each activity week had a specific theme, and was tailored to different age groups. The first of SERC’s activity weeks was “Changing Environments,” designed for students aged 13-15. The week focused on certain case studies that highlighted environmental changes. The students also visited SERC’s weather tower, and went on expeditions in the SERC forest to catch insects and frogs. “Kids Unplugged”, the next week, was made up of students aged 7 to 9. One of the more memorable lessons was when the kids made “scat” out of play-doh in order to better understand the types of birds and mammals that live in the SERC forest.  The last activity week, “Junior SERC Scientists” introduced 10-12 years olds to problem solving and the scientific method. They used  forensic clues to discover who “killed” a beaver. The kids put their sleuthing skills to the test and found that the murderer was none other than Education Intern Shelby Ortiz!


Sonar Reveals Underwater World

Posted by KristenM on August 16th, 2013

By Katie Sinclair

A short DIDSON clip of a cownose ray swimming near the SERC dock

One of the biggest challenges of studying life in the Chesapeake Bay is poor visibility. In the water, you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face. So how do you see what’s going on under the water? Sampling with nets can give us a pretty good picture, but if you want to observe what’s happening at a specific moment you need to use another approach.

The Fish and Invertebrate Ecology Lab is using Dual-frequency Identification Sonar (DIDSON) to see what their eyes can’t. The DIDSON uses sound to sketch a picture of the environment much like a fish-finder or depth-finder on a boat. When sound hits an object in the water or the bottom, it bounces back. The result is video footage that can be downloaded and later analyzed. The resolution of the image is pretty impressive, considering it’s the product of sound waves. Many species can be identified by their distinct shapes and movement patterns, and their sizes can be estimated. DIDSON was first developed for the military to locate enemy swimmers , but is now being used as a handy tool by anyone who needs to see in murky waters.

River Herring

A still of a river herring (center) swimming past DIDSON

A still of a river herring (center) swimming past DIDSON

The Fish and Invertebrate Lab started using DIDSON with the goal of better understanding the size of river herring populations in Chesapeake Bay. Funded jointly by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution, the project aims to generate accurate population counts of river herring in the Choptank and Nanticoke Rivers. Once a species that supported a major fishery on the Atlantic coast, river herring (actually two species known as alewife and blueback herring) have declined dramatically over the past 10 years. In order to figure out the best way to conserve and manage these populations, the first step is to figure out how many herring are out there. The murky waters and large run sizes make it nearly impossible to get an accurate visual count. Other methods, such as electrofishing and looking at icthyoplankton (fish eggs and larvae) can potentially work as counting methods, but first it must be established how accurate they really are. By deploying the DIDSON during the spring herring runs, footage of the runs can be recorded and the number of fish counted. DIDSON also allows fish to be recorded for several months straight without requiring someone to be out in the field sampling all day and night.
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Trees, Poison Ivy and Climate Change

Posted by KristenM on August 12th, 2013

By Katie Sinclair


Intern Hope Zabronsky measures the diameter of a tree to see how logging affects biomass regeneration

Summer is almost over, which means intern season is coming to a close. Over 20 interns from universities across the United States have spent their summers here at SERC, studying everything from phytoplankton to Phragmites. Several interns chose to take on the challenge of climate change, exploring how trees will affect rising levels of greenhouse gases.

Mysterious Methane

Although methane emissions worldwide are much lower than CO2 emissions, a little methane goes a long way: Methane is 25 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2. While we have an idea of what the sources of methane are, researchers face difficulties when trying to model methane emissions. The biggest discrepancy is between “top-down” and “bottom-up” models. Top-down approaches use satellite imagery to track the amount of methane in the atmosphere, while bottom-up methods look at the amount of methane emitted from the soil.
The Biogeochemistry Lab wants to see if methane is coming from sources other than the soil. Marsh grasses are known to emit methane, but no research has yet been done on trees. Figuring out if and how much methane is emitted can help determine whether methane projections are accurate. The Biogeochemistry Lab has set up two experimental sites to study methane, and is working on establishing a third.

Intern Kyle King worked on methane emissions this summer. He attached airtight chambers to trees, and measured the gas concentrations at different heights along the tree. He found that trees did emit methane, in some cases more than microbes in the soil. Methane emissions were highest near the roots and less at higher trunk heights. He also found that larger trees emitted much more methane than smaller ones.

The exact mechanism of how trees release methane is not yet understood. Two possibilities are methane diffusing out of the water that is taken in by the plants’ roots, or microbes inside the tree producing methane. But whatever the cause, understanding where methane comes from will be vital when trying to predict the impact of climate change.
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From the Field: Lizards, Spiders and Mangroves

Posted by KristenM on August 6th, 2013

by Micah Miles, SERC intern and UMD undergraduate

If you have ever visited coastal Florida, you have probably run across some lizards. Lots of them.

Green anole seen near the Smithsonian Marine Station. Scientists aren't sure whether anoles are helping or hurting mangroves in Florida. (Micah Miles)

Green anole seen near the Smithsonian Marine Station. Scientists aren’t sure whether anoles are helping or hurting mangroves in Florida. (Micah Miles)

From the moment I arrived at the Smithsonian Marine Station, I quickly became fascinated by the hundreds of anoles I had seen sunning themselves on both the brick walls of the more developed areas and mangrove trees of the state parks. As an intern, I spend five to six days a week meandering through mangrove stands and gazing at black mangrove flowers to document pollinators and other floral visitors. But after seeing over six anoles on just my first day in the field (and after several failed attempts to catch one and observe it up close) I decided to find out what role these lizards could be playing in the mangrove ecosystem.

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