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Ten Reasons We’re Earth Optimists After 2016

Friday, January 13th, 2017
Dawn Miller in forest

Ecologist Dawn Miller surveys trees in a SERC forest. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

The Smithsonian has a new resolution for 2017: Earth Optimism. This is the year the Smithsonian is celebrating environmental success stories, and shifting the focus to how we can fight battles to save species and preserve our planet—and win. Despite breaking a wide swath of climate records, 2016 gave us reasons for optimism as well. In our 2016 Year in Review, we’ve pulled out the most encouraging stories and discoveries at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center from the previous year. Here are the top 10 that make us hopeful about the planet’s future:

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Dormant Orchids Need Fungi to Rise Again

Friday, January 6th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Green small whorled pogonia plant with flower

Small-whorled pogonia orchid, Isotria medeoloides.
(Melissa McCormick/SERC)

If you are a plant, when life aboveground turns harsh, you have few options. Some orchids respond by going dormant, spending years to decades underground before reemerging aboveground. But an army of the right fungi may help jolt them out of dormancy, ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) discovered in a new study published in the American Journal of Botany Friday.

Smithsonian scientists have been working to understand the ecology of one particular orchid – including why it enters and exits dormancy. The small-whorled pogonia is widely regarded as the rarest orchid east of the Mississippi. Federally listed as threatened, the orchid has vanished from Maryland and is endangered in 16 other states.

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Jekyll or Hyde? The Many Faces of Phragmites

Friday, December 16th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Scientist beside a Phragmites experiment on the water.

Pat Megonigal studies the invasive reed Phragmites australis on the Smithsonian’s Global Change Research Wetland.
(Tom Mozdzer)

It’s easy to dislike Phragmites. The invasive brown reed can grow over 15 feet tall and tends to crowd out anything in its shadow. But in the story of global change, Phragmites is a gray character, like Mad Men’s Don Draper, or the enigmatic Professor Snape. Beneath the surface, Phragmites australis—a European reed sweeping over East Coast wetlands—can empower wetlands to grow higher soils and possibly survive rising seas. Biogeochemist Pat Megonigal of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) prefers an analogy from classic literature: Jekyll and Hyde.

“The Jekyll part is that Phragmites helps marshes maintain elevation and keep pace with sea level rise,” he said. “The Hyde part is that they are poor habitat for native plants and animals.”

The latest discovery in Megonigal’s lab could tip things in favor of Mr. Hyde. Phragmites’ deep-growing roots were once thought an advantage that helps wetlands build soil. But those same roots could be disturbing ancient soils deep underground—triggering them to release planet-warming carbon dioxide (CO2).

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A Diverse Portfolio is Good for Oysters Too

Friday, December 2nd, 2016
Olympia oysters underwater

Olympia oysters (Matthew Gray/Oregon State University)

by Kristen Minogue

Act local. Diversity pays. Those two phrases could hold the key to saving young Olympia oysters, the only native oysters on the West Coast of North America. What they need are large networks of adult oyster beds to settle on—and a diverse “environmental portfolio,” finds a new study in Ecology.

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River Herring Have Better Shot at Comeback, Thanks to Underwater Sound

Wednesday, November 30th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

For decades, efforts to conserve Chesapeake river herring have run into a black hole of uncertainty. Managers knew populations had plummeted, but no one knew how many remained. A team of biologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center has found a way forward, recording the first complete spawning run of river herring in the Choptank River since the 1970s.

Their findings, published Tuesday in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, give conservationists and managers a starting point: 1.3 million adult river herring migrating up the Choptank in one season.

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Q&A: Saving the City With Urban Ecology

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Painting of adults and children on a brick wall in Baltimore.

Community mural in a Baltimore neighborhood. (BES-LTER)

Preserving the environment is often seen as a battle of development versus nature. But in America today, roughly three-fourths of us live in metropolitan areas. To preserve our health and the planet’s health, we need to create something new: A sustainable city.

Enter urban ecology. Plant ecologist Steward Pickett of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies has been exploring the ecology of cities—hot spots where society, culture, economics and the environment collide—for more than two decades. In 1997, he and a handful of colleagues started the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, a long-term project that now involves more than 100 people. Pickett talks about some of their surprising discoveries in this edited Q&A.  To learn more, you can meet him in person on Tuesday, Nov. 15, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s keynote evening lecture.

*Note: Edited for brevity and clarity

Steward Pickett with camera

Steward Pickett (Xiaofang Hu)

How strange was the idea of “urban ecology” when you began?

It was sort of a marginal pursuit. Most ecologists in the United States preferred to think they were working in pristine areas, or at least in areas where the human hand was relatively light on the land… There was this deep, deep bias in ecology to not look at places where people were part of the system … Urban ecology is kind of a way to say, let’s recognize this and see what it’s doing.  Click to continue »

DNA Unlocks Dirty Secrets of Blue Catfish Diets

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Large blue catfish held on boat by scientist.

Blue catfish SERC biologists dubbed “Megalodon,”  which they tracked moving almost 60 miles along the Patuxent River. (Brooke Weigel/SERC)

White perch, menhaden and darters: These are just a few favorite foods of Maryland’s invasive blue catfish, according to a new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). They’re also known to gorge themselves on larvae of channel catfish—and, occasionally, juveniles of their own kind.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes, used DNA barcoding to get to the gut of what blue catfish prey on. Blue catfish arrived in Chesapeake Bay in the 1960s, brought by Virginia managers to establish a fishery. They quickly developed a reputation as voracious predators, threatening to devour many popular fisheries and edge out the Chesapeake’s native white catfish. However, to discover how much they could disrupt the ecosystem, marine biologists need to know exactly what they eat. The only way to do that is to look into their stomachs, where the majority of their prey has been reduced to almost-unrecognizable slop.

Rob Aguilar would know: A biologist with SERC’s Fish and Invertebrate Lab, he’s spent the last few years dissecting blue catfish stomachs and analyzing their insides. Click to continue »

When the Going Gets Tough, Baby Oysters Get Growing

Friday, September 23rd, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Andrew Keppel

Andrew Keppel (Credit: Rebecca Burrell/SERC)

Baby oysters are a lot stronger than they look. Living mainly in shallow coastal waters, where oxygen plummets and acidity spikes on a nightly basis, building a decent shell should be a challenge. But after a couple of weeks, young oysters are often able to adjust to the harsh conditions—and, sometimes, even grow more quickly to make up for lost time.

The discovery came from a team of marine ecologists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), who published the new study in the journal PLOS ONE.

“It’s really impressive what these oysters are able to do in terms of acclimating to potentially harmful conditions,” said lead author Andrew Keppel, who worked on the project as a graduate student and later technician in SERC’s Marine Ecology Lab, before becoming an oceanography lab manager at the U.S. Naval Academy. Click to continue »

Unsolved Mysteries: Rising Temps, Falling Marshes?

Thursday, September 8th, 2016
Scientist holds fistful of soil

SERC biogeochemist Pat Megonigal holds up soil from a marsh in Costa Rica. Marsh soils store vast amounts of carbon, but as temperatures warm, microbes in the soil could release into the atmosphere. (SERC)

by Kristen Minogue

All over the world, marshes are hanging in a precarious balance. Rising temperatures from climate change could help them grow stronger and store more carbon—or cause them to flood and disappear, says a new article from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). To find answers, scientists need to look underground.

The article is part of a much larger report on the future of warming oceans, released Monday at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s annual conference. Tidal marshes sit right on the boundary of the land and the ocean. For humanity, marshes act as Mother Nature’s guardians. They provide habitat for fish and shellfish, filter out pollution in estuarine water, and help shield homes along the coast from flooding. They’re also hot spots of carbon storage, burying carbon 10 times faster than an equal area of forest. Yet much of their fate remains a mystery.  Click to continue »

Climate Change Could Release Ancient Soil Carbon

Friday, July 1st, 2016

by Kristen Minogue

Blanca with soil core

Blanca Bernal extracts a soil core from a SERC marsh. (Credit: SERC)

Just beneath our feet, there’s a slumbering pool of carbon that has largely been ignored.

Earth’s deep soils store vast reservoirs of carbon centuries to millennia old. Left undisturbed, they can store that carbon for thousands of years longer. But if triggered, those reservoirs could release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, a team of scientists discovered in a new study from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

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