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Q&A: Jon Lefcheck, MarineGEO Pioneer

Posted by KristenM on November 26th, 2018
Two men sitting on couch with mugs.

Jon Lefcheck (right) at Swansea University in Wales with colleague John Griffin. Lefcheck taught a course on mathematical modeling in Wales in 2017.
(Photo courtesy of Jon Lefcheck)

by Kristen Minogue

Jon Lefcheck has spent most of his life on the East Coast. But as the new coordinating scientist for the Marine Global Earth Observatories (MarineGEO), he’s about to get a crash course in doing marine biology on the other side of the country and the other side of the globe. In this Q&A, learn about some of the weird discoveries and creatures he’s encountered so far, and why the coasts make society tick. Edited for brevity and clarity.

You were the first person in your family to go to college. What motivated you to push yourself in that way?

I always liked school—oddly enough, yeah, I know. I liked science. I pushed my parents to send me to private high school so that I could get more into my studies, and they were hugely supportive the entire way. I think that was their dream, that they would have a kid that would grow up to go on to college. My father said he wanted me to be a doctor when I was born. He meant medical doctor, so I’m not sure how he feels. But, you know, Ph.D. Click to continue »


Volunteer Spotlight: Bruce Birdsell, Educator For All Ages

Posted by KristenM on November 19th, 2018

by Sara Richmond

Two men in jackets beside river.

Volunteers Bruce Birdsell (right) and Joe Hasuly teach students how to seine for fish in the Rhode River.
(Credit: SERC)

When Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) volunteer Bruce Birdsell was retiring, he attended a SERC Open House and learned about volunteer opportunities. Eventually, he signed on with SERC’s education program, where he has been a volunteer for the past six years.

According to Bruce, volunteering aided the transition into retirement. In addition to helping fill a newly open schedule, it was refreshing to work outdoors after a career in corporate management.

As an education volunteer, Bruce assists with several activities in the Shorelines Connections program, a field trip for third- through 12th-graders. This program gives students hands-on experience in watershed modeling, exploring oyster reefs, using seining nets to catch fish and invertebrates, and examining plankton under microscopes. He also leads canoe trips, guiding students along Muddy Creek and the Rhode River as they look for wildlife and discuss SERC research.

“The real reward is when you get the ‘aha moment’ from the kids,” he says. When this happens, their excitement over seining or other activities becomes visible. “You can see in their reaction that a lightbulb has gone off.” Click to continue »


8 Ways Nature Can Help Us Conquer Climate Change

Posted by KristenM on November 15th, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

The United States may be officially pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, but scientists are still brainstorming ways the country could meet its original goals. Mother Nature can lend a far more powerful hand than we thought, if given the chance.

Led by The Nature Conservancy, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and other organizations looked at 21 “natural climate solutions,” like restoring forests and wetlands or planting cover crops. According to the report published Wednesday in Science Advances, these tactics could knock an estimated 1.2 trillion kilograms off the U.S.’s yearly carbon emissions—just enough to hit the country’s 2025 targets for the Paris agreement. And they come with a range of side benefits, including increased yields for farmers and decreased risks of catastrophic wildfires.

But to work, they would also require a serious rethinking of how our society values carbon. Today, saving 1,000 kg of carbon is worth about $10. To provide enough incentive to make these solutions widespread, the authors estimated those credits would need to go for at least $100 per 1,000 kg.

We’ve highlighted eight of these solutions below, but you can read about all 21 in the full report.

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eDNA emerges as powerful tool for tracking threatened river herring in Chesapeake Bay

Posted by KristenM on November 1st, 2018

Article contributed by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Using environmental DNA (eDNA) to track the presence of fish in waterways is emerging as a powerful tool to detect and understand the abundance of species in aquatic environments. However, relatively few studies have compared the performance of this emerging technology to traditional catch or survey approaches in the field.

Researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center field tested using eDNA—tracking the presence of fish by identifying DNA that has been left behind in the water—to detect river herring in tributaries of Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. They found that tracking and quantifying herring DNA from the environment corresponded well to more traditional field methods and has great potential to assist future monitoring efforts of river herring abundance and habitat use.

“Sampling a single river, you need a net, crew, permits, it can be expensive,” said study author Louis Plough of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “The eDNA approach is an alternative where you just take water and you get an idea of the abundance of fish.” Click to continue »


Student Spotlight: Not Your Average High School Science Experiment

Posted by KristenM on October 29th, 2018

by Anika Mittu, student contributor

Girl giving two thumbs up in front of an orchid poster.

High school sophomore Nia Zagami and her classmates collected data on conserving threatened pink pink orchids, which brought her in front of an audience of scientists at the Native Orchid Conference this year. (Credit: Tony Zagami)

While preparing two students to speak at the 2018 Native Orchid Conference held at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center this summer, citizen science coordinator Alison Cawood assured them that their presentation on pine pink orchids would be low stress.

Sitting in the back of the conference room and smoothing over their dresses, the students felt otherwise.

“I feared that I would not be smart enough to share the data, and that I would mess up or look clueless,” said Nia Zagami, a sophomore at Sherwood High School and presenter at the conference. “Knowing that I was just a high schooler who was expected to speak in front of scientists and orchid enthusiasts really made me nervous.”

The nerves didn’t fade until Zagami, joined by fellow Sherwood sophomore and presentation collaborator Sudha Sudhaker, walked to the front of the conference room and adjusted her microphone multiple times. And then, the pair eased into their normal student voices to explain their own data and what citizen science means to them. An audience of blank stares began grinning.

Zagami and Sudhaker had recently finished their second semester of Honors Biology under teacher Laura Dinerman. Although Honors Biology is a common science course for underclassmen at Sherwood, Dinerman’s 60 students taking the course during spring 2018 did something decidedly less common: a professional conservation experiment. Dinerman’s class measured the growth of the pine pink orchid (Bletia purpurea). Though common in the tropics, in the continental U.S. the pine pink orchid grows only in Florida, where it’s threatened. The students grew the orchids under different soil nutrient conditions (fungi, fertilizer or unchanged soil) in their classroom, as part of a citizen science project led by the Smithsonian.

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How Golden Star Tunicates Make Themselves at Home in an Alien Ecosystem

Posted by Philip on October 26th, 2018

By Philip Kiefer

Roughly half of the species living in the San Francisco Bay are newcomers, brought (often unintentionally) by humans. The Bay has been an international shipping hub for over a century, and it’s accumulated biological detritus from around the world. But not everything that’s brought here sticks: It’s something of a mystery why some species proliferate in an alien environment while others die off.

Intern Kenyan Pappe pulls up a fouling panel at a local marina.
(Jenny Parr/SERC)

This summer, two interns at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s West Coast branch (SERC-West), investigated how one invader cements itself in the environment during environmental chaos. Jenny Par and Kenyan Pappe looked at the golden star tunicate Botryllus schlosseri, a type of marine invertebrate that often lives around marinas.

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Bio Blitz! Critters of the Eastern Shore

Posted by KristenM on October 23rd, 2018

by Carmen Ritter, SERC Fish & Invertebrate Ecology Lab intern

Picture that tiny town that one friend always tells you they’re from, with the single post office and the neighbors that know every detail of your personal life. Now picture that, on the water, even smaller. Welcome to Wachapreague, Virginia.

Wachapreague sits on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and claims to be “The Flounder Capital of the World.” The locals are some of the friendliest people you could find, and nearly everyone in the area fishes. I wasn’t there for recreational purposes, though.

This summer, I visited the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Eastern Shore Lab (VIMS ESL) with about 20 scientists from around the country to conduct a bio blitz documenting the biodiversity of Chesapeake Bay. The blitz was organized by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and MarineGEO (the Marine Global Earth Observatory). While most scientists were from the Smithsonian and other research institutions surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, some flew in from Florida, Washington State or Puerto Rico. After gathering for a meeting on the first evening, we all prepared the lab space for samples and headed to bed. The blitz officially started first thing Monday morning.

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War of the Periwinkles

Posted by Philip on October 9th, 2018

by Philip Kiefer

There’s a war of attrition playing out on the coastlines of the San Francisco Bay that is in a ponderous class of its own. A tiny snail, called a rough periwinkle (Littorina saxatilis), might be pushing its native counterpart, the checkered periwinkle (Littorina scutulata), from the beaches it once called home. But no one is quite sure why, or even how quickly it’s spreading.

Someone looking down at a handful of snails, on a beach.

Adrielle Cailipan examines a handful of invasive periwinkles. (Philip Kiefer/SERC)

Adrielle Cailipan, a recent graduate of San Francisco State University, is spending her summer internship in the world of periwinkles with the West Coast Lab of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). She’s working not only to document the spread of the rough periwinkle, but also to understand what makes the invader so successful.

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Teaching Moment: Research Takes a Right Turn

Posted by Philip on October 5th, 2018

by Philip Kiefer

In the messy world of science, real progress often happens when experiments don’t go as planned. It’s in these moments that scientists learn that the world doesn’t work like they expected. This year, two teaching fellows at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) had a taste of that during a summer project on oyster predation. Although the data they collected didn’t answer their questions about oysters, it did tell an unexpected story about the coastline. They’re bringing that knowledge back to their classrooms, to show students that science isn’t just about collecting facts, but about how to creatively interrogate the natural world.

This summer, SERC’s West Coast lab hosted two fellows from California’s STEM Teacher and Researcher (STAR) program. The fellowship supports STEM teachers who want to actively pursue science research during the summer in order to bring that experience back to their classrooms.

Two people standing in front of a mudflat

Evie Borchard and Jason Thomas, teacher-researchers at SERC, stand in front of prime oyster habitat in the San Francisco Bay. (Philip Kiefer/SERC)

“We want to give teachers the opportunity to do research that they can share with their students,” said Erin Blackwood, an education and outreach coordinator at San Francisco State University who organizes the STAR program locally. “At the same time, the program gives our scientists a new perspective on science education–they have to think about how they would teach their research to a high-school student.”

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Invasive Plants Can Boost Blue Carbon Storage

Posted by KristenM on October 1st, 2018

by Kristen Minogue

Green marsh banks alongside river on a cloudy day

Some invasive plants like Phragmites australis, the light-brown stalks on this Maryland marsh, could more than double the ability of marshes and other coastal ecosystems to store blue carbon. (Credit: Gary Peresta/SERC)

When invasive species enter the picture, things are rarely black and white. A new paper has revealed that some plant invaders could help fight climate change by making it easier for ecosystems to store “blue carbon”—the carbon stored in coastal environments like salt marshes, mangroves and seagrasses. But other invaders, most notably animals, can do the exact opposite.

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