New strategic vision for field stations and marine labs

Field stations and marine labs take on the future of science In this guest post, Ian Billick, PhD,  introduces the new strategic vision, released today, for the disparate network of field stations and marine labs. Recommendations include creating virtual access to historic data archives and streamlining physical access to field sites for extramural researchers. Billick  is Past President of the Organization of Biological Field Stations and current Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. Bodega Marine Laboratory and Reserve. Credit, University of California Natural Reserve System. AS a field station director, I’m often dealing with the present, negotiating access to research sites or managing construction projects. Recently I participated in a planning effort organized by field stations and marine labs (FSMLs) to figure out what field scientists will need in the future, and how FSMLs can help. The Organization of Biological Field Stations and National Association of Marine Laboratories hosted a national workshop and conducted a survey of hundreds of place-based research sites. Perhaps the loudest call was for a stronger network among FSMLs. As research expands to more complex problems and greater spatial and temporal scales, integrating FSMLs into a coherent portfolio of national assets could help scientists take advantage of the available opportunities—from conducting research across multiple sites to integrating rich data streams. FSMLs are a critical part of the nation’s infrastructure for field science. They serve as hosts for a number of large-scale initiatives, such as the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), and the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) network. Furthermore, the FSML network, almost 90% of which is not involved in these national initiatives, represents a highly flexible, decentralized network that supports field research across a broad geographic scope. More than 400 FSMLs all across the country, with $1+ billion invested in them collectively, provide logistical support, access to field sites, critical contextual knowledge, and opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. Not only did many of the ideas and technical expertise that support national initiatives largely emerge from individual FSMLs, but many of the insights generated by national initiatives will require complementary research at FSMLs outside the programs. Each of these field stations and marine labs has historic data that is priceless. If we’re serious about understanding a changing world, we need to make these data accessible to scientists—not just the data that can be harmonized across large geographic areas, but also the idiosyncratic location-specific information that FSMLs tend to specialize in. It is precisely this incredible richness and diversity of knowledge about each site that offers the greatest potential for discovery. One of the other issues that emerged was the increasing difficulty...

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Waves mightier than sun, otter or urchin: storm disturbance shapes California kelp forests

This post contributed by Liza Lester, ESA communications officer. As winter storms pick up along the California coast, a harvest of giant kelp comes ashore with the tides, torn from seafloor anchorages by the rough action of waves. Waves are the most powerful force shaping the kelp forest, superseding the influence of temperature, nutrients, and hungry animals, say University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researchers in the November issue of Ecology. From Alaska to Baja California, kelp undulates in the currents of rocky coastal shallows, feeding and sheltering a host of sea creatures and birds. Americans harvest kelp for food and fish feed, and the kelp forest harbors commercially valuable fish and shellfish. In central and southern California, the giant kelp predominates. Macrocysits pyrifera anchors at depths of 6 to 150 feet, and is the largest alga in the world, reaching underwater heights of nearly 150 feet in a single season. Conversion of sunlight into kelp fuels an ecosystem. “Primary production is the amount of plant material produced per unit area of the Earth’s surface per unit time. It’s really the basis of all life on Earth for the most part,” said Dan Reed, research biologist at the Marine Science Institute at UCSB, and principle investigator of the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research project. In the kelp forest, the primary producer is the kelp itself. Reed and his colleagues wanted to know how periodic disturbances from large waves stacked up against other influences on kelp forest growth. Lack of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, slows the kelp’s exuberant expansion, as do the teeth of small, but numerous, sea animals. Kelp is the favorite food of the sea urchin, as commercial harvesters of the fist-sized, spiky animal well know. Urchins do not climb the kelp stalks. They forage across the seafloor, devouring fallen kelp blades (analogous to leaves) and chunks. But their powerful, self-sharpening teeth can also chew through the holdfasts of the kelp, releasing the giants to the mercies of the ocean currents, as graphically exhibited by time-lapse footage in the BBC’s documentary Planet Earth. In concentrated herds, unchecked urchins have been known to raze entire forests. The check on the urchin is the sea otter, a top predator of the kelp forest. The demands of the otters’ high metabolisms drive them to eat up to a fourth of their body weight in invertebrates daily, and they like sea urchins. The otters are a classic example of a keystone species, an animal whose eating habits tip a crucial balance in a cascade of consumer-and-consumed reactions. The arrival of otters in new territory has changed relatively barren, stony seafloor into...

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Ecological research in images

(Click the below image to view the photo gallery.) This week, the American Museum of Natural History launched the exhibit “Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies” which explores the images produced by scientists while performing research. The images range from bug genitalia to staghorn coral (see video at the end of this post). As quoted in a recent Wired Science article, “‘A lot of people come to the museum under [the] impression that we just look at stuff in dusty jars, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,’ said zoologist Mark Siddall, curator of the museum’s new exhibit. ‘There’s a lot of solid, cutting-edge research going on here with incredibly advanced technology.’” Dave Mosher explained in the Wired Science article that images like these are a large part of any scientific endeavor, but often times, these images are filed away—never to be seen by the public. Of course, there are journals that publish images alongside the research articles. While they are all accessible through searches, these images are not typically displayed like those that are being featured in the AMNH’s new exhibit. The above photo gallery presents only some of the images that have been featured in the Ecological Society of America’s journals over the last decade or so. Click on the image to scroll through and learn a bit about the research corresponding with each image. Many of the images featured in ESA journals are taken by the researchers themselves. Browse all of the cover images on ESA’s journals...

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Are seagrasses buried under urban development?

Seagrass populations are facing major declines in the midst of global climate change and increasing urban development along coasts, according to a study conducted at the request of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Frederick Short from Jackson Estuarine Laboratory in New Hampshire and colleagues reported that, of the 72 species of known seagrass, 10 species are classified at a higher risk of extinction and 3 qualify as endangered. Seagrass meadows are responsible for many vital functions in marine ecosystems, explained Robert J. Orth from the College of William and Mary and colleagues in a 2006 study. They are directly linked to mangroves, coral reefs, salt marshes and other marine habitats. These meadows provide a haven for species of finfish and shellfish in their juvenile stages. Manatees, dugongs and green sea turtles are also heavily dependent on seagrasses: They provide the primary source of nutrients for these endangered marine animals. Reduction in the area of seagrass coverage available to these endangered species would undoubtedly decrease their already diminishing populations, according to Orth and colleagues. Seagrass is also a large source of carbon, some of which is transported deeper into the ocean, serving as a nutrient source for organisms that live in food-limited environments. Seagrass also captures and holds carbon within its rhizomes, roots and leaves. Much like tropical ecosystems, seagrass meadows serve as biodiversity hotspots, providing shelter and allowing various species to flourish in the nutrient-rich environment. Seagrasses serve as effective bioindicators because changes in their environment can cause changes in their development and ability to serve as filters. According to Orth and colleagues, changes in water quality are easily identified by the health of seagrasses because of their high reliance on light—for example, when a decline in seagrasses is linked to an increase in nutrient deposits from coastal development. The environmental advantages of seagrass can be noted by the after-effects of the “eelgrass wasting disease” of the 1930s: Substantial amounts of seagrass were destroyed on coasts surrounding the North Atlantic Ocean due to the wasting disease and in turn caused alterations in current patterns. Food chains and fisheries were damaged, and sedimentation was negatively affected. Research conducted by Orth and colleagues suggested that, although seagrass species were able to undergo evolutionary adaption during periods of environmental fluctuations, current environmental changes are occurring too rapidly to allow them to adapt. Increases in sea surface temperature, sea level and the frequency of storms, which cause surges and swells, have all played a part in impacting seagrass populations, wrote the researchers. Tsunamis and hurricanes have frayed seagrass communities and in turn affected their ability to provide the ecological...

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