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In San Francisco, One Wet Winter Can Switch Up Bay’s Invasive Species

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Winter rains make Bay less salty, knocking back some invaders

by Kristen Minogue

Man in sunglasses on rocky beach

Marine ecologist Andrew Chang tracks invasive species in California, and is discovering ways climate change and extreme weather can alter the playing field. (Credit: Julia Blum)

For many Californians, last year’s wet winter triggered a case of whiplash. After five years of drought, rain from October 2016 to February 2017 broke more than a century of records thanks to a series of “Pineapple Express” storms, referring to atmospheric rivers that ferry moisture from Hawaii to the Pacific Coast. In San Francisco Bay, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center biologists discovered a hidden side effect: All that freshwater rain can turn the tables on some of the bay’s invasive species.

“As you get wetter and wetter, there are fewer and fewer [marine] species that can tolerate those conditions,” said Andrew Chang, lead author of the new study published Dec. 7 in Global Change Biology.

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Manmade Docks Offer Surprising Refuge for Endangered Fish

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Biologists discover endangered Isthmian goby and other elusive fish thriving around dock pilings

by Kristen Minogue

Isthmian goby and black grouper

Top: Endangered Isthmian goby (Gobiosoma spilotum) found beneath a dock of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Bottom: Threatened black grouper (Mycoptera bonaci) found beneath a Belize dock. Photos: Simon Brandl & Jordan Casey/Smithsonian

The Panama Canal is home to one of the rarest fish in the world: the Isthmian goby, an endangered, brown-speckled fish less than 3 centimeters long. For years scientists thought it remained only at the locks of the canal’s Caribbean entrance, until a team of Smithsonian biologists found one nearly 200 miles away in a place no one expected.

Isthmian gobies (Gobiosoma spilotum) thrive in shallow waters like tropical tidepools. The expansion of the Panama Canal, along with other coastal development, has eaten up much of their habitat. So scientists were shocked to find the goby circling another manmade structure, a dock off the Panamanian island of Bocas del Toro. The team, from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and the National Museum of Natural History, reported their discovery in a new study in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

“I didn’t even know what it was at first,” said Simon Brandl, the study’s lead author and SERC biologist. Though he knew it was a goby of some kind, he was unable to pinpoint the species. So Brandl sent the mystery photo to scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History. “They were like, holy cow, this is Gobiosoma spilotum.” Click to continue »

Following the Movement of Life: Tagging Sharks and Rays

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

by Cosette Larash and Claire Mueller

For the last three years, a team of biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has been tracking stingrays, sharks and other species along the East coast of the United States. Matt Ogburn and Charles Bangley are leading the project, in an effort to learn more about these charismatic yet often misunderstood animals. It’s part of the Movement of Life Initiative, a developing program in animal tracking research conducted by Smithsonian Institution researchers and their colleagues.

Ogburn and Bangley are focusing on five species: Cownose Rays and four major species of sharks (Bull Sharks, Blacktip Sharks, Dusky Sharks, and Smooth Dogfish). They began tagging cownose rays in 2014, and added on sharks in 2016. By understanding the movement patterns of these animals, the Smithsonian biologists and their colleagues hope to unlock some of the mystery that surrounds them. For example, scientists know Cownose Rays are born in the Chesapeake Bay and return when they’re about four years old, but no one knows where they go in the meantime. The sharks they are studying all occupy similar areas, but use underwater habitats differently. By learning how and where these organisms move, they can understand their environment as well.

In the future, the scientists hope to use the data to uncover when and why these species occupy different areas, and determine the potential impact of human activities such as fisheries and offshore wind farms. Check out the videos above and below to learn more about these projects.

Learn more about the Smithsonian’s Movement of Life Initiative

Learn more about Ogburn and Bangley’s Movement of Life work tracking aquatic migrations

Tsunami Enabled Hundreds of Species to Raft Across Pacific

Thursday, September 28th, 2017

Biologists Detect Longest Transoceanic Rafting Voyage for Coastal Species

by Kristen Minogue

Barnacle-coated boat with Japanese characters washed up on beach

A Japanese tsunami vessel washed ashore in Oregon, coated in gooseneck barnacles. In a new study, scientists detected 289 species that rafted from Japan to the U.S. on tsunami debris, and they suspect many more were undetected. (Credit: John Chapman)

The 2011 Japanese tsunami set the stage for something unprecedented. For the first time in recorded history, scientists have detected entire communities of coastal species crossing the ocean by floating on makeshift rafts. Nearly 300 species have appeared on the shores of Hawaii and the U.S. West Coast attached to tsunami debris, marine biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Williams College and other institutions reported in the journal Science on Thursday.

The tsunami formed March 11, 2011, triggered by an earthquake of 9.0 moment magnitude that struck Japan the same day. When it reached the shore, the tsunami towered 125 feet (38.38 meters) over Japan’s Tōhoku coast and swept millions of objects out to sea, from small pieces of plastic to fishing boats and docks. These kinds of objects, scientists said, helped the species attached to them complete the transoceanic journey.

“I didn’t think that most of these coastal organisms could survive at sea for long periods of time,” said Greg Ruiz, a co-author and marine biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “But in many ways they just haven’t had much opportunity in the past. Now, plastic can combine with tsunami and storm events to create that opportunity on a large scale.”

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Biodiversity just as powerful as climate change for healthy ecosystems

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

In the wild, diversity determines ecosystem production as much as climate and nutrients

by Kristen Minogue

Yellow fish swimming around coral reef

A school of grunts explores a shallow reef at Carrie Bow Cay, Belize, one of Smithsonian MarineGEO’s long-term research sites. Biodiversity not only can make sites beautiful, but also can help boost their biomass and make them more productive. (Credit: Ross Whippo/SERC).

Biodiversity is proving to be one of humanity’s best defenses against extreme weather and rising temperatures. In past experiments, diversity has fostered healthier, more productive ecosystems, like shoreline vegetation that guards against hurricanes. However, many experts doubted whether these experiments would hold up in the real world. A Smithsonian and University of Michigan study published in this week’s issue of Nature offers a decisive answer: Biodiversity’s power in the wild does not match that predicted by experiments—it surpasses it, in some cases topping even the effects of climate.

“Biodiversity is not just a pretty face,” said Emmett Duffy, lead author and marine ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Md. “Protecting it is important for keeping the ecosystems working for us, providing food, absorbing waste and protecting shorelines, which is important right now.”

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Want Biodiversity? Love Your Enemies…Sometimes

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Three separate images of leaf infected by anthracnose, acorn with an insect hole and emerald ash borer.

Signs of three temperate forest enemies, left to right: Anthracnose (SERC), insect hole in an acorn (Jonathan Myers), emerald ash borer (Leah Bauer, USDA Forest Service Northern Research Station, Bugwood.org)

Walk through a forest in Maryland or Missouri, and you’ll probably find yourself surrounded by dozens of different tree species. Walk through a tropical forest in Brazil or Malaysia, and you’ll be surrounded by hundreds—in some forests, over 1,000. What’s behind this colossal difference in diversity? Scientists with the Smithsonian-led ForestGEO network came up with one morbid possibility: It may come down to having the right kind of enemy.

Earlier this summer, in a study in Science, researchers from 24 plots in the forest network from five continents pooled their data and detected a strange pattern: There’s a force at work in the tropics helping rare species thrive, a force that is much weaker in the cooler temperate zone.

Call it a clustering effect. The scientific term is “conspecific negative density dependence,” but it boils down to this: If too many trees of the same species grow in the same spot, they become magnets for enemies that slash their populations. In tropical forests, enemies generally knock them down just enough for new species to fill the gaps, without completely wiping out the first species. The result is a kaleidoscope forest with hundreds of species, many quite rare.

It may seem like a counterintuitive idea, that a lethal enemy could help sustain biodiversity. It can work when this thinning process prevents any one species from dominating.

“Just when a population is ready to take over, it catches a cold,” explained Sean McMahon, a co-author and forest ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). “And so it gets knocked back.”

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Scientists Turn Up the Heat on Herbivores and Their Food

Friday, July 28th, 2017

By Joe Dawson

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Japanese beetles make a meal of evening primrose leaves (Credit: Dejeanne Doublet/SERC)

Plants can seem pretty boring. They just sit there, after all. Sure, they can be pretty; they can make us sneeze. But what else do they do? A lot, it turns out. They are able to shift their own water and energy resources from leaves to stems to roots and back, grow tall or stay low and bushy, defend themselves through biological warfare, or warn their neighbors of danger. When doors get blocked, plants have ingenious ways of sneaking out through windows.

What, then, will plants do when humans spread a carbon dioxide blanket over the planet, warming it by burning fossil fuels? Research scientist Nate Lemoine of Colorado State University, with John Parker of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and others, decided to investigate one such relationship with an experiment on the SERC campus in 2013 and 2014. Click to continue »

Time Travel, with Trees

Monday, July 10th, 2017

by Joe Dawson

Looking at the Kirkpatrick Marsh on the Rhode River, a time machine is not the first thing that comes to mind. Tall grasses dominate the landscape, with vertical PVC pipes popping up here and there and octagon-shaped chambers rising out of the wetland every ten paces or so. Take a step off the walkway, and you might lose a shoe. But 5 experiments on the marsh are designed to take sections of the marsh into the 22nd Century, and the marsh has been dubbed the Global Change Research Wetland, or GCReW. The expertise that GCReW scientists have in simulating the future brought National Museum of Natural History scientists here to mirror the past.

Rich Barclay and Scott Wing are paleobotanists at the National Museum of Natural History. Paleobotanists are the ones who stare at leaves in Jurassic Park and say, “Alan, these plants haven’t been seen since the Cretaceous Period,” as everyone else stares at brachiosauruses. Ancient plants are their bread and butter, and for Wing and Barclay, the bread is toasted and the butter melty. They study one of the warmest periods in the last 100 million years, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM). During this period, global temperatures skyrocketed, increasing by 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. By looking at plants that grew during this time, they hope to learn more about what Earth was like 55 million years ago.

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Large growth chambers being built around newly-planted ginkgo trees on the SERC campus (Credit: Rich Barclay)

Barclay, Wing, and colleagues have started an experiment on the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) campus that grows ginkgo trees in varying carbon dioxide levels. They hope to study these trees and compare them to fossil specimens to learn about the past. Click to continue »

The Tiny Fish Awards!

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

by Joe Dawson

Goatley&Brandl_Fig1.7

A sample of the diversity present within the cryptobenthic reef fishes. Figure from Goatley and Brandl 2017.

Go snorkeling on a coral reef, and you’ll have a hard time not being impressed by the abundance and variety of the fish there. But the fish most divers see make up less than half of the number (and less than half the species) of fish on the reef. Cryptobenthic reef fishes comprise the other half. These fish are small, usually less than 2 inches in length, and hide in coral habitats, either by appearance or by their behavior. Even scientists have been slow to start searching for them, but cryptobenthics are turning up in about every reef habitat where scientists have bothered to look! In the June 5 issue of Current Biology, SERC Scientist Simon Brandl and colleague Christopher Goatley of the University of New England published a quick guide to cryptobenthic reef fishes. Brandl thinks that these little fishes deserve more recognition, and we agree! Therefore, we’re happy to present these honorees with the following awards.

Coolest Camo

Runners Up: Frogfishes (Family Antennariidae), Scorpionfishes (Family Scorpaenidae)

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The painted frogfish, Antennarius pictus (Credit: John E. Randall/Hawaii Biological Survey, used under CC BY-NC 3.0)

Weird and tricky, frogfishes have plump, short bodies. They’re often covered in spines or even hair-like appendages and prefer to stay still, waiting and blending in, for prey to swim close enough that they can gulp them. The deep-sea dwelling anglerfish is one famous member of this group.

Scorpionfish are also sit-and-wait predators, using their feathery scales or skin flaps to look like rocks or coral, then pouncing on nearby prey. The most renowned member of this group is the lionfish. Click to continue »

The Environmental Cost of Shoreline Hardening

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

New study shows hardened shorelines may mean fewer fish and crustaceans. 

by Ryan Greene

A split image with a wooden bulkhead on the left and a rocky riprap revetment on the right.

A new SERC study shows that both bulkheads (left) and riprap revetment (right) are associated with lower abundance of several species of fish and crustaceans in the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Coastal Bays. Credit: SERC

For decades, ecologists have suspected that hardened shorelines may impact the abundance fish, crabs, and other aquatic life. But now they have evidence that local effects of shoreline hardening add up to affect entire ecosystems. A new study by scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) shows that more shoreline hardening means fewer fish and crustaceans in our waters.

Given the predictions for the coming years (i.e. rising seas and more of us living on the coast), this finding is a cause for concern. Many people will likely try to protect their land from flooding and erosion by armoring their shorelines with vertical retaining walls (bulkheads) or large rocks (riprap revetment). But as SERC researchers found in their new paper, published in Estuaries and Coasts, the impact of these hardened shorelines adds up.

Lead author and former SERC postdoc Matt Kornis likens shoreline hardening to littering. While each individual bit of trash isn’t a huge problem, the combined effect can be enormous. Kornis, now a biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, says the same is true of shoreline hardening. Each individual bulkhead or riprap revetment may not be catastrophic, but cumulatively they can contribute to shrunken populations of ecologically—and economically—important species like the blue crab.

“Shoreline hardening can cause loss of habitats important for young fish, like wetlands and submerged vegetation,” Kornis says. “That may be one reason we observed low abundance of many species in estuaries with a high proportion of hardened shoreline.” Click to continue »