Tidings from the Sunset Coast (4)

Posted by KristenM on 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 »

 

Underwater Sound Reveals Hidden Creatures
on Reefs

Posted by KristenM on August 4th, 2017

by Kristen Minogue

Fish swimming through a coral reef

A wrasse fish (Halichoeres bivitattus, striped) wanders through a coral reef in Panama. (Credit: Erica Staaterman/SERC)

Coral reefs are home to some of the most colorful, diverse life on the planet. And yet, for all their fame as biodiversity hotspots, it’s estimated that divers see less than half of the fish species that live there (and that’s not counting all the invertebrates like shrimp and crabs). The invisible or “hidden half” consists of fish that aren’t active until nightfall, or conceal themselves in the reefs’ many nooks and crevices.

“Even when you are in the water looking at an animal or a habitat, there’s a lot that you can miss because it’s cryptic or hiding,” said Erica Staaterman, a marine biologist and former postdoc with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Click to continue »

 

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (3)

Posted by KristenM on August 3rd, 2017

Countin’ Crabs at Seadrift Lagoon

by Ryan Greene

Green crabs piled on top of one another.

European green crabs (Carcinus maenas) caught in Seadrift Lagoon (Stinson Beach, Calif.). Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) largest west coast outpost, SERC-West, sits on San Francisco Bay in Tiburon, California. SERC’s main campus is 2,000+ miles away on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In an attempt to bridge this distance, we’ve launched Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer series highlighting the work at SERC-West. Our most recent story was a spotlight of our summer interns. This post is about the invasive European green crabs in Seadrift Lagoon, just north of San Francisco. Enjoy!

How many crabs are in the lagoon? This question may sound like the middle-school carnival contest of how many jelly beans are in the jar. But for ecologists at SERC-West, it’s no guessing game—the health of an ecosystem hinges on the answer.

A view across water with houses, a mountain, and hanging mist.

Seadrift Lagoon is about 20 miles north of San Francisco Bay, and it’s said to have the highest density of European green crabs on the West Coast. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

Since 2009, Smithsonian scientists have partnered with the University of California, Davis, and Portland State University to tackle a two-clawed problem in Seadrift Lagoon: Carcinus maenas, the invasive European green crab. Seadrift is a small subdivision surrounding an artificial lagoon that sits smack between the Pacific Ocean and Bolinas Lagoon at the northern tip of California’s Stinson Beach. In the early 1990s, green crabs began to take up residence here, and since then they’ve done their fair share of damage.

The primary problems with green crabs in Seadrift are that they’re hungry and there are scads of them. This lagoon houses the highest density of green crabs documented on the West Coast, and they eat a whole lot. In nearby sites, like Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay, green crabs have caused native bivalve populations to plummet, and in some cases they have edged out other native crabs. In Seadrift, the sheer number of green crabs suggests that the impact on the ecosystem may be similarly drastic. That’s why in 2009, scientists at SERC-West, UC Davis, and Portland State started working with community members and citizen science volunteers to remove the crabs from the lagoon. Click to continue »

 

Want Biodiversity? Love Your Enemies…Sometimes

Posted by KristenM on 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.”

Click to continue »

 

Scientists Turn Up the Heat on Herbivores and Their Food

Posted by KristenM on 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 »

 

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (2)

Posted by KristenM on July 25th, 2017

SERC-West Summer Intern Spotlights

by Ryan Greene

An intern in orange waders sprays a net hanging off the back of a boat.

Intern Elena Huynh helps clean a net during SERC’s annual zooplankton survey in San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) main campus is on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. SERC’s largest West Coast outpost, SERC-West, sits on the San Francisco Bay in California. To highlight SERC’s work out west, we’ve started Tidings from the Sunset Coast, a summer series about the life and times of SERC-West. Our first post explored California’s wet winter. This post features the stellar interns who are spending their summer at SERC-West.

Interns at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have the chance to work on independent projects while receiving personalized mentorship in a multidisciplinary atmosphere. Some people conduct experiments, others develop educational programs, and others (like me) write about the happenings at SERC. Simply put, SERC internships let you grow in whatever ways you want to be growing!

Check out the spotlights below to see what the interns at SERC-West are up to this summer. Click to continue »

 

Sharing Your Workspace with the Eastern Rat Snake

Posted by KristenM on July 16th, 2017

by Sara Richmond

Man holding snake in marsh

Scientist Guy Thompson holds up an eastern rat snake found at GCREW. (Credit: Gary Peresta/SERC)

To some, snakes are difficult creatures to love. Despite their reputation, however, snakes play critical roles in their environments by keeping populations of their prey in check. That’s why many scientists at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) have grown to appreciate their presence, particularly the eastern rat snake.

Eastern rat snakes, also known as black rat snakes or Pantherophis alleghaniensis to herpetologists, are a common sighting near SERC’s Global Change Research Wetland (GCREW). The GCREW project sits in roughly 170 acres of brackish marsh and is home to several experiments investigating rising sea levels, invasive species, global temperatures, carbon dioxide and other major players in global change. Click to continue »

 

Tidings from the Sunset Coast (1)

Posted by KristenM on July 12th, 2017

How California’s Record-Setting Rains Are Reshaping the Ecology of San Francisco Bay

By Ryan Greene

Clouds hang over the San Francisco skyline.

The San Francisco skyline as seen from San Francisco Bay. Credit: Ryan Greene/SERC

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s (SERC) largest West Coast outpost sits on San Francisco Bay in Tiburon, California. The Tiburon branch, affectionately known as SERC-West, serves as the nexus of SERC’s research activities on the western coast of North America. At a whopping 2,462 miles from SERC’s main campus on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, SERC-West can feel a bit remote. In an attempt to bridge this distance, we’re launching Tidings From the Sunset Coast,” a summer story series about all things SERC-West. The first snippet is a story about the wildly wet winter California experienced this year and what all this fresh water means for the marine life in San Francisco Bay. Enjoy!

A big band of clouds stretches from Hawaii to the western coast of North America.

Image from NASA’s VIIRS satellite show one of many “atmospheric rivers” which slammed the California coast this past winter. Credit: Jesse Allen and Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory

When it comes to rain in California, the last few years have been a feast-or-famine affair. After a bitter drought that sported some of the driest years on record, this past winter brought more precipitation than the northern parts of the state have ever documented. To put it lightly, the weather has been extreme. And while the wet winter has refilled reservoirs and beefed up the snowpack, leading Governor Jerry Brown to end the drought state of emergency in all but four counties, it has also wreaked its fair share of havoc.

Here at SERC-West, scientists have been following another part of this story: the bombardment of freshwater runoff that inundated San Francisco Bay this winter. All the fresh water from the rain drastically reduced the saltiness (a.k.a. salinity) of the Bay. For many plants and animals used to saltier water, this was simply too much to handle. The devastation has been widespread, and according to ecologist Andy Chang, who currently heads up SERC-West, in some areas, the changes to the ecosystem might be less than fleeting.

“We’re kind of expecting to see local extinctions of some species that were here before,” he says. Click to continue »

 

Time Travel, with Trees

Posted by KristenM on 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!

Posted by KristenM on 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 »