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Remembering Hurricane Katrina by Studying Marshes of the Future

Friday, August 28th, 2015

by Heather Soulen

The Need for Healthy Marshes

Ten years ago, on August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina nicked south Florida and entered the heat-charged waters of the Gulf of Mexico, transforming from a Category 1 hurricane into a super-charged Category 5. In the early morning hours of August 29, it ripped through Louisiana and Mississippi. Thousands died, and hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Today, much of the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, and its people, are still recovering from the devastation.

When Katrina hit, some coastal marshes east of the Mississippi River lost approximately 25 percent of their area. In the decade that followed, salt marshes and wetlands in Louisiana have continued to disappear in some places, but not others. The scientific community soon zeroed in on keeping marshes healthy, since, as one scientist remarked “A healthy marsh is pretty resilient, A stressed marsh – storms will physically break the marsh down.” Marshes and wetlands are ecologically and economically important ecosystems. During storms they act like buffers, reducing storm surge and flood damage, but only if they’re healthy. The question is, what factors make a marsh strong or weak?
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One species, 20 genotypes, 3,808 plants and a plague of voles: Study reveals new benefits of genetic diversity

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

If you’re designing an ambitious field experiment that involves more than 3,800 plants and 240 deer cages, ecologist John Parker has some words of wisdom for you: beware of the unexpected. Beware of meadow voles. Parker is a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, in Edgewater, Maryland. He studies the relationship between plants and the herbivores that eat them.

John Parker tends to one of his plants in the field.

Ecologist John Parker examines one of his plants in the field. Photo: Alex Smith

In a recent paper published in Ecology Letters, Parker chronicles the ups, downs and findings of a study investigating the links between genetic diversity in plants and herbivory. “Most people think about biodiversity in terms of species diversity, where you have a rich variety of plants and animals living in an ecosystem,” explains Parker. “I’m interested in exploring the importance of genetic diversity within a species.” Scientists have recently discovered that plants can benefit from growing in genetically-rich polycultures, where neighboring plants of the same species have different genotypes. Parker’s new research shows that these benefits include better protection against hungry herbivores like deer and voles.
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