Ecology

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Double Trouble? Tracking the Growth of Young Oysters Stressed by Acidity and Low Oxygen

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

by Cosette Larash

The eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) is one of the most important species in Chesapeake Bay. These shellfish filter the water, their reefs provide shelter for other marine species, and they’re an important seafood resource. But their numbers have hit a historical low due to overfishing, diseases like Dermo, and stressors such as hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen) and acidification (low pH).

Biologists with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) want to find out whether the double stresses of low oxygen and acidification can stunt oyster growth. Studies have shown that juvenile oysters grown under low oxygen are generally smaller than oysters grown under normal oxygen conditions. However, scientists still don’t know how these oysters fare over the long term. The answers could help aquaculture and oyster restoration projects all over the Chesapeake adapt to the often extreme conditions beneath the surface. Click to continue »

The Ocean Is Losing Its Breath. Here’s the Global Scope.

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

Dead corals and crab shells

Low oxygen caused the death of these corals and others in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The dead crabs pictured also succumbed to the loss of dissolved oxygen.
(Credit: Arcadio Castillo/Smithsonian)

In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950. Scientists expect oxygen to continue dropping even outside these zones as Earth warms. To halt the decline, the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution, an international team of scientists asserted in a new paper published Jan. 4 in Science.

“Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” said Denise Breitburg, lead author and marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”

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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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Bering Sea Days: Teaching Science
on the Last Frontier

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

by Linda McCann, SERC biologist

The teachers on Alaska’s Pribilof Islands have a tradition. Every year for the last decade, they have invited scientists, educators and innovators from across the U.S. to take over their school for a week. The festival is known as Bering Sea Days. This year, marine biologist Linda McCann of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center joined a team of 22 scientists and educators, leading games and activities to teach the community about the research being done on the unique animals and environment of the Bering Sea. Read the first-hand narrative below for a glimpse inside this remote Alaskan community.

Hiking through grassland

Students and educators hike through the rugged landscape of Alaska’s St. Paul Island. (Credit: Linda McCann)

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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 »

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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Q&A: Sherman’s Lagoon Cartoonist Jim Toomey on Ocean Conservation with Comics

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Artist with cartoon shark and cartoon sea turtle looking over his shoulder

Cartoonist Jim Toomey with two of his characters, Sherman the shark and Fillmore the sea turtle. (Image courtesy of Jim Toomey)

Since 1997, a great white shark named Sherman has put a wacky spin on life underwater in the comic strip Sherman’s Lagoon. Jim Toomey, the comic’s creator and conservationist, uses Sherman and his (usually more intelligent) friends to reveal real issues facing the ocean. In this Q&A, Toomey describes adding humor to environmentalism, and what happens when Sherman’s Lagoon meets Chesapeake Bay. Edited for brevity and clarity.

Want to dive deeper? Watch Jim Toomey’s TED Talk online. You can also meet Toomey at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center October 17 at 7pm, for his free evening lecture, “Drawing Inspiration from the Sea.” Details here.

What first sparked your interest in the sea?

I was a little boy, maybe six, seven, eight years old….Some of the TV shows I used to watch, the Jacques Cousteau specials and things were somewhat unique. And it just fascinated me. It really captured my imagination to see this team of scientists explore this completely alien world. Click to continue »

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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Q&A Interview With Artist Tanja Geis

Friday, August 11th, 2017

by Ryan Greene

Two women stand in front of a painting on white wall.

SERC ecologist Chela Zabin (left) with artist Tanja Geis (right) at Geis’ exhibit at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco on July 17, 2017. They are standing in front of Geis’ piece “Layer Cake,” a drawing of an experimental native oyster restoration reef painted using pigment from the mud in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

This summer, Oakland-based artist Tanja Geis teamed up with Smithsonian researchers for her multimedia exhibition, Lurid Ecologies: Ways of Seeing the Bay at the Embark Gallery in San Francisco. Born out of a collaboration with scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s Tiburon laboratory, Lurid Ecologies’ explores efforts to restore the Bay’s only native oyster, Ostrea lurida. Geis works at the intersection of visual art and ecology. Her exhibit at the Embark Gallery includes oneiric drawings made with pigment from the Bay’s mud, a 3-channel video installation, and assemblages of tools used to study marine life. This exhibit will be free and open to the public until August 19 at the Embark Gallery in Fort Mason’s Center for Arts & Culture.

To learn more about Geis and her exhibit, check out this interview (edited for clarity and brevity).

***

When did you start making art, and why?

My mom is a fashion designer and she went to art school, and so she’s always encouraged me to make art. So, in a sense, I’ve always been making art. But I think maybe the more relevant answer is that I started taking art really seriously about five years ago. It was at that point that I realized that it was pretty much the only thing that was going to check all the boxes for me.

For the past couple months, you’ve been working alongside SERC ecologists in San Francisco Bay. Can you talk a bit about your interest in ecology and how your collaboration with SERC scientists has shaped your recent exhibit?

I’ve always been interested in the nonhuman living world ever since I’ve been a kid. I guess I’m always curious about how these little behavioral differences come together and create a functional ecology. And I’ve always had this parallel interest in biology….I’m very interested in how we conceptualize all these complex interactions that we’re calling ecology….

What surprised me most was how often things don’t go as planned. There are many dead-end experiments, and it really requires this kind of dogged will and tenacity to discover new things, new patterns, new behaviors. I think that’s something that a lot of people don’t get to see. 

We have this idea of scientists in white lab coats with shiny new equipment working under fluorescent lights constantly having these new discoveries. And that’s really not the case. Ecological research is messy, it’s muddy, it’s full of things you can’t control.

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Tidings from the Sunset Coast (4)

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

An Ecological History of SERC-West’s California Home

By Ryan Greene

An aerial view of a cove with many buildings and a number of moored ships.

A naval net depot was one of the many institutions to occupy the site on the San Francisco Bay where the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies now operates. Photo courtesy of the Tiburon Landmarks Society and Romberg Tiburon Center. [Cropped]

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) main West Coast outpost, SERC-West, is located in Tiburon, California, on San Francisco Bay. The entire stretch of North America separates SERC-West from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. To bridge this distance, we’ve launched “Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer series about all things SERC-West. Our last post explored SERC’s research on invasive green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon. Our next post dives into the history of the site that SERC-West calls home. This blog post is nowhere close to comprehensive. Rather, we hope it can serve as something of a “highlight reel.”

The Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (or Romberg Center for short) sits on a 36-acre parcel of waterfront land whose history is rather kaleidoscopic. Depending on when you were here, you could have found a cod packing plant, cables destined for the Golden Gate Bridge, or multi-mile antisubmarine nets. And this is just a smattering.

The Romberg Center is a research and teaching facility run by San Francisco State University. Nearly two decades ago, in 2000, SERC ecologist Greg Ruiz stationed part of his Marine Invasions Lab here. Since then, this outpost has become the hub of SERC’s West Coast ecological research. In addition to Smithsonian and San Francisco State biologists, the Romberg Center is also home to members of NOAA’s San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Together, these institutions use the historic site as a base for exploring the Bay’s ecology. This, though, is only the most recent in a long line of land uses. And looking more closely at what people have done here in the past can provide a glimpse into a host of ecological issues still shaping San Francisco today. Click to continue »