Tuesday, December 8, 2009


The 15th annual UN Climate Change Conference, COP15, opened ceremoniously in Copenhagen yesterday. Over the last few days, there has been a tug of war between the hopeful and the pessimistic about whether this conference will result in consensus or policy action. I'm among the hopeful, buoyed by the push towards action by the Obama administration, which is ready to talk numbers and commitments (a 17% cut in 2005 emissions by 2020 is on the table - not very ambitious, but a start), the EPA's fresh announcement that it will regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and the coverage of Copenhagen by the American press, which seems to me more intense than of past conferences - all positive indications that negotiations will make progress towards international carbon and climate regulation. My sentiments are perfectly described by the conference's concert event series, Hopenhagen, a Danish-English hybrid that rings with European cool and American optimism.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Tasking the Task Force

This evening, I submitted a comment to the Ocean Policy Task Force as follows:
Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I attended the Task Force’s public forum in Providence, RI, and I have been impressed by the participatory environment that you have created for developing a plan to manage and conserve ocean resources and ecosystems.

I would like to speak for an ocean-dependent industry that is not always considered as a user-group – marine scientists. I am a marine biologist at Brown University in Rhode Island. My livelihood depends on access to the sea and marine resources, not unlike the fishermen and ferrymen who spoke at the forum. I have found that most of the shoreline is restricted access across private property and that even public property managers are often hesitant to allow research. This is doubly true for manipulative field research, which can be disruptive but is the most telling and mechanistic type of science. There is little intertidal and underwater space set aside for research.

I have benefited greatly from the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, a network of 27 coastal reserves designated for research activities. They have funded my work, and, almost more importantly, they own coastal ecosystems where I can do science. Using field experiments in these reserves, I have developed predictions of how valuable coastal wetlands will respond to global warming. This is the kind of vital knowledge managers and policymakers will need to anticipate the effects of global change on ecosystems and to head off deleterious effects on human communities.

The interim report calls to “use the best available science and knowledge to inform decisions affecting the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes.” I am a scientist who would like to provide that information in the coming decades. Please enable research by maintaining access for governmental and non-governmental researchers when you are planning for the diverse users of our coastal oceans.
Read more about the Ocean Policy Task Force, charged with developing a recommendation for a national policy for our oceans, coasts, and the Great Lakes, on the Council on Environmental Quality's webpage.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


At the Bourne Scallop Festival, they will be serving up over 3 tons of scallops to more than 55,000 visitors this weekend! I partook in the deliciousness last night, and savoring the bounty of scallops made me thankful that the Georges Bank fishery closure area has resurrected the New England sea scallop fishery.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

clam seed

I took a trip to the newly expanded shellfish hatchery at Roger Williams University over the Labor Day weekend. Karin Tammi, the hatchery manager, gave me a tour and tutorial on how to spawn, settle, and grow oysters and quahogs, from larvae to spat (newly metamorphosed bivalves) to juvenile and reproductive adult. (FYI, I have a new fascination with bivalves, and, if you frequent maritima, you're sure to hear more.)

It's hard to avoid an interest in quahogs living in Little Rhody, the Ocean State, home to one of the most productive quahog fisheries in the country (8% of the national market share in 1997, down from 25% in 1985, Source: Rice et al. 2000). You can find families digging seaside at many public access beaches, and any real Rhody has their favorite quahogging spots and techniques, though they may not be willing to share these secrets.

You might be surprised to find out that the quahog fishery is supplemented in several ways. Quahogs are moved from the Providence River, where water quality is poor, to areas in Narragansett Bay where water quality is better. Collected quahogs have also been used to found spawner sanctuaries in grounds closed to shellfishing. Additionally, hatchery reared juveniles are added, or seeded, in areas, notably Greenwich Bay, where I collected the quahog below. You can see a distinct color change in the shell indicating a change in the environmental conditions where it was living (e.g. from a hatchery to the Bay).
From maritima

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I just got back from the annual conference of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I participated in a "BioBlitz" in the Bosque Reserve near the Albuquerque BioPark, arranged by ESA's Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) (How's that for a clever acronym?). The idea of the BioBlitz is to get outside and systematically identify species, as a tool for science education and a great way to get to know a new environment. I was surprised to find many familiar genera in the desert wetland. Below are some photos of the species we found.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Monday, July 20, 2009

bloody barnacles!

Here are home videos of some of my favorite study organisms, barnacles! At the Vancouver Aquarium, I saw these dramatic red Pollicipes polymerus gooseneck barnacles and also these impressively large acorn Balanus nubilus (confirmation anyone?), surrounded by white anemones. While intertidal gooseneck barnacles are common on the Pacific coast, they are not present on the Atlantic U.S. in the intertidal - so I brought them home...on video.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Spartina likes it hot

Some like it hot. Spartina patens, the dominant grass in New England salt marsh, does, but many salt marsh forb species, pictured above, do not. In field experiments warming areas of salt marsh on the border of Spartina grass and forb panne zones, I found that the species in the forb panne, a unique and diverse group of stress tolerant forbs, were outcompeted by Spartina under warmer conditions. Plant diversity rapidly declined in experimentally warmed plots as Spartina took over.

From these results, my co-author, Mark Bertness, and I predict declines in salt marsh plant diversity and reductions in forb panne area in the near future due to global warming. In fact, in the warm years when we did our experiment (2004-2006), forb panne area was lost even in control plots, and forb pannes were lost before our very eyes. Read all about it in this month's Ecology Letters.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Synchronized swimming and nursing

Incredibly, the Vancouver aquarium is home to two captive-bred beluga whale calves at the moment, one one-year old and one three-week old. It's an rare opportunity to see whales do things you have always wondered how they do, such as give birth. When I was visiting recently, I observed the one year old calf nursing. The museum guide explained their tandem movements: the calf bumps the underbelly of the mother to signal a desire to nurse, they swim together underwater and the calf, with it's tongue shaped like a straw, takes a drink from one of the mother's two nipples, located close to her tail. Watch it happen in the video that I took - you can see a trail of whale milk in the water as the calf pulls away at the end.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

all washed up, reproductively

From maritima

While walking to our field site at Mt. Hope Farm in Bristol, RI on Friday, we found this jelly-like egg mass washed up in the high intertidal. I don't know if it is indeed an egg mass or what type of organism it belongs to. The photos capture it fairly well - it was nearly two feet in diameter, and made of many translucent, nodular strings. Anyone have any ideas?
From maritima

Saturday, June 13, 2009

marsh restoration in the Gulf of Mexico

Here is a photo of the type of wave protection being put on salt marsh restorations in the Gulf of Mexico, like the ones referred to in Rusty Feagin's comment. Thanks for the photo, Rusty!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

plants vs. soil - a meaningless fight

Salt marshes and mangroves are reported to protect coasts from erosion and reduce storm surges. Salt marsh area has been correlated with reduced property damage from hurricanes along the Gulf Coast (Costanza et al. 2008, Ambio), and mangrove forest purportedly protected villages and reduced the death toll of a 1999 Indian cyclone (Das and Vincent 2009, PNAS).

However, a new study about to be published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reports that the soil, not the vegetation, in marshes is the important the feature preventing coastal erosion. The study, led by Rusty Feagin of Texas A&M, put large cores of marsh with and without vegetation in a wave tank and observed erosion patterns. Vegetation did not affect the rate of erosion, but sandy soils eroded more quickly than organic soils. The report questions the efficacy of salt marsh restorations that aim to prevent coastal erosion.

I look forward to reading the full publication. While I am sure it is a worthy scientific contribution, I think drawing conclusions about restoration efforts from these findings is misguided. The key about marshes is that they are biogenic - the organisms (in this case, plants) build the habitat. Were the plants not present, there would not be bare soil, but rather open water. Therefore, the idea of erosion protection from marsh soils without plants is nonsensical. Additionally, the key to maintaining the habitat is not erosion resistance, but sediment balance: how quickly sediment is added compared to the rate it is eroded. The plants likely act on the sediment addition end, even if they don't always contribute to the prevention of erosion (although they likely also do this in peaty soils, like in New England marshes). Finally, the coastal protection value of marshes comes from erosion prevention AND wave attenuation. In models, it is mostly the wave attenuation process that affords coastal protection from storms.

You can read a brief about the article published online at Nature.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Spring means unkempt lawns

As any New Englander will tell you, spring is much better after a long winter. Everything comes back to life, and that includes the weeds. I love lawns this time of year, before people rouse their lawnmowers. The weeds grow tall and in rosettes, and flower and seed - a suburban tallgrass prairie. A few photos from my pedestrian commute:

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bizarro Fungus

When my friend Andrew Altieri pointed out this bizarro structure in the cedar trees at Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington, RI, we had trouble even identifying it to the plant or animal kingdom. Prof. Doug Morse, at Brown, who has helped me identify strange maritima creatures in the past, helped us place it - in the Fungi kingdom...We should have guessed it. Fungi is a happy home for many weirdos that have never fit neatly into plant or animal designations.

Our mystery organism is a cedar apple rust, Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae, a fungus that spends part of its life cycle in red cedars, and the other half in apple or crab apple trees, to which it does much more damage. This time of year, during the spring rains, the rust's woody galls on cedar branches begin producing these bright orange telial horns which contain the spores that will infect young apple leaves later this growing season. You can see more info on the cedar apple rust, found at least as far as Texas, here and download a fact sheet here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

like sesame seeds in a sandbox

Field season has not yet truly begun here in New England (we're still anxiously awaiting budburst!), but I have been spending some time in the field, investigating barnacle recruitment in Narragansett Bay. Here, the intertidal barnacle Semibalanus balanoides reproduces in the fall and broods its larvae until the winter. Larvae are released in January and develop in the water column for about a month and begin to settle in February and March. They settle as cyprids, a larval stage that looks an awful lot like a sesame seed (see photos). In the cyprid stage, the barnacles decide where on the shore to settle and attach, based on chemical cues from adult barnacles and surface texture. This is a critical moment in a barnacle's life - after metamorphosis, it will be stuck in the same place for the rest of its sessile adult life.

Click here for full size photos.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Mangrove restoration suggestion

My collaborator, Brian Silliman, and I published a comment this month in the British scientific journal Ambio about incorporating into mangrove restoration design plans the natural capacity of wetland plants to reduce environmental stress for them and their neighbors . Here is an excerpt (references omitted):
Using Facilitation Theory to Enhance Mangrove Restoration
Most mangrove restorations around the world, including the Philippines example, plant mangroves as single seedlings, evenly spaced, in rows. This configuration is based on the assumption that competition among seedlings needs to be minimized to foster establishment and growth. Thus seedlings need to be spaced well away from each other to maximize light availability and minimize competition between neighbors. However, whereas light availability can be a limiting factor at later stages in mangrove forest development, the limiting growth factors at the initial stages of mangrove establishment are edaphic stressors, such as low redox potential and high soil salinity, as recognized by the Samson and Rollon. Because coastal wetland plants engineer the substrate to ameliorate these harmful conditions, an effect that increases with wetland plant density, seedlings are likely to exhibit positive, not negative, density dependence because of the facilitative effects of neighbors on ameliorating anoxic soil conditions.
Ecological theory and wetland experiments both predict that mangrove seedlings have a far better chance of survival if they are planted in clusters of several seedlings rather than plantation style. Planting seedlings in clusters will likely allow the necessary positive feedbacks to take root in the absence of adult plant roots or pneumatophores. For example, a black mangrove restoration in Mexico that planted five-seedling clusters resulted in notably high survival of planted seedlings (74%) after 4 years, despite being planted in a mudflat environment. Mangrove seedlings frequently suffer high rates of mortality, and clustered or redundant plantings allow surviving seedlings to compensate for lost neighbors. Nurse plants, which can serve the same purpose in a restoration as seedling clusters, promoting the facilitative species interactions that ameliorate abiotic stress, have also been found to improve mangrove restoration success. Higher plant densities have also been found to reduce herbivory on susceptible, young plants in other saline wetland environments.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Punta del Diablo fishery

My husband, Benjamin Gedan, author of the small state blog, made this short video about the fishermen and seafood we saw (and ate!) in Punta del Diablo, Uruguay, a small fishing village on the South American Atlantic coast. I loved seeing the fisherman haul their boats ashore and peeking at their fresh catch. However, I was dismayed to see that several small hammerhead sharks were caught as bycatch (non-target catch). Shark populations are in decline worldwide, largely due to sharkfin fisheries. The sharks are not eaten in Uruguay. The bycatch hammerheads were tossed off to some young boys to play with.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Small mammals control invasive plant colonization

My research was published in the most recent issue of Ecology. Very little is known about the role of small rodents in New England tidal marshes, a heavily researched ecosystem. Yet I found that these small rodents, mice and voles primarily, had an astonishingly large effect in tidal marsh plant communities.

Phragmites australis, the common reed, and Typha angustifolia, cattails, are major nuisance species in New England tidal wetlands, which are already heavily degraded by tidal restriction and land reclamation. Both plant species propogate clonally, can takeover entire communities, and disrupt wetland hydrodynamic processes. In my research in New England tidal marshes, I found that rodent herbivory has a strong effect on colonization and establishment of Phragmites and Typha in brackish and fresh tidal marsh systems. In caged areas, where rodents were excluded, plant species composition was drastically changed and Phragmites and Typha clones were established within three years, whereas these nuisance species were consumed by rodents in uncaged areas. This research tells us that small mammal populations are a necessity for New England tidal marshes in order to maintain healthy communities of native plants.

Read the research abstract here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

10,000 lakes...in Florida?

There has been debate about the value of secondary forest, and I have read similar debate about the equivalency of restored ecosystems to their natural counterparts. But what about another common semi-natural system, artificial lakes?

My grandmother lives in Florida in a condo development with an artificial lake behind her building. I’ve observed that, in Florida, there are many, many grandmothers who live adjacent to many, many artificial lakes. I’m not sure if the lakes are usually stocked with fish or not, but I’ve seen a good deal of birds around these lakes, such as the pictured group of white ibises, Eudocimus albus, and the cattle egret, Bubulcus ibis, below.

The abundance of waterbirds suggests some ecosystem value from artificial lakes. Some ecologists argue that birds are good indicators of community health (though probably not these birds, which are quite common in disturbed systems).

However, these lakes must be quite eutrophied. They are generally adjacent to well-trimmed lawns and golf courses that I presume are well-fertilized. A close-up photo of the lakewater nearshore shows a thick algal slime in the lake. To sum up: These artificial lakes are probably crappy habitat, but at least there are a lot of them…

Friday, February 6, 2009

Avoiding the mistakes of FDR's CCC

I published an oped in today's Providence Journal:

PRESIDENT Franklin D. Roosevelt took dramatic action in his first 100 days in office in 1933, establishing New Deal agencies that arguably saved our economy and completed valuable arts and public-works projects. Among Roosevelt’s most deeply felt contributions were those in environmental conservation, one of the president’s most enduring legacies.

As we face this new economic crisis, our new president is reading FDR’s playbook on how to rescue a floundering economy. President Obama’s new New Deal will likely mimic FDR’s strong commitment to conservation, and it should.

But as the president plans the next great environmental leap forward, and Rhode Island officials prepare lists of “shovel-ready” projects to be funded with economic-stimulus money, it is important we learn the lessons not only of FDR’s successes, but also of the programs that bequeathed serious environmental challenges to future generations.

Read on at the ProJo...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

forests, new and old: one is silver and the other's gold

Last week, The New York Times published an article (“New jungles prompt a debate on rainforests”), positing that saving old growth rainforest may be less important than previously thought because:

1) "By one estimate, for every acre of rain forest cut down each year, more than 50 acres of new forest are growing in the tropics on land that was once farmed, logged or ravaged by natural disaster."

2) "Globally, one-fifth of the world’s carbon emissions come from the destruction of rain forests, scientists say. It is unknown how much of that is being canceled out by forest that is in the process of regrowth."

I think this article has done a severe disservice to rainforest conservation, by giving legitimacy to uncertain ideas and unresolved hypotheses.

I consent that secondary forest likely has conservation value, in terms of both carbon sequestration capacity and wildlife habitat. Indeed, secondary forest clearly has a large conservation value when compared to cultivated land. However, it does not necessarily when compared with old growth forest. "[Dr. Wright, a STRI senior scientist] says new research suggests that 40 to 90 percent of rain-forest species can survive in new forest." A 60% loss of biodiversity, or anything close, is unacceptable, particularly in rainforests, where we have yet to discover the wonder, scientific mysteries, and human value of many of the species that reside there.

Despite reports that deforestation rates are declining, massive tracts of primary forest continue to be cut down or burned in many parts of the world. Although many small farmers are moving to cities, as the article points out, industrial agriculture has transformed the amount of clearing that can be accomplished by a small labor force. A colleague of mine, Shelby Hayhoe, works in Mato Grosso in Brazil, and tells me of soybean plantations as far as the eye can see, and expanded every year. Another colleague, Noé de la Sancha, studies the ever-disappearing forest fragments that remain between soybean fields in Paraguay. Even if secondary forest in Panama can support high diversity, I worry for the species endemic to these South American regions, where forest is still rapidly disappearing.

Although The New York Times’ article gives voice to dissenting opinions and recognizes that the equivalency of secondary forest is still in question, I am not sure all readers will get past the photo caption, describing a former farm as “land now reverting to nature, a trend dimming the view of primeval forests as sacred.”

Old growth and new growth and everything in between. A canopy walk in Belize, where forests have been growing back for centuries, but are still heavily influenced by local Maya.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I visited the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in NYC this weekend. I was awed to see the excellent way that phylogenetic relationships were represented in the museum exhibits and especially in the Halls of Saurischian and Ornithischian Dinosaurs (take the virtual tour here). The museum biologists and designers did an incredible job at making cladistics accessible, by draping the phylogeny of vertebrates across the floorplan of the entire fourth floor, which lets the visitor walk evolutionary branches - stopping at the nodes to learn about evolutionary novelties. I spent nearly 30 minutes looking at pterosaurs, a group that includes pterodactyls and which, long before birds, were the first vertebrates to evolve flight.

In the Spectrum of Life, the massive evolutionary tree spanning a wall in the Hall of Biodiversity, one bright bird caught my eye. I knew I'd seen it before - and not in the wild. I figured it out looking at some of last year's photos. It is/was a scarlet ibis, Eudocimus ruber, that I previously saw in La Sebastiana, Pablo Neruda's second home, now a museum (though not of natural history), in Valparaiso, Chile. So, AMNH, there you go, helping yet another biologist draw curiously odd conclusions. Below, La Sebastiana's ibis, on display in a plastic bubble in Neruda's old living room.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

science in Obama's inaugural

Inspired by Obama's inaugural theme of "American Renewal," I made the trek to Washington, DC and braved the crowds for the inaugural ceremony. It didn't disappoint - the optimism and the friendliness of people gathered in the capital was invigorating. I've been especially excited about Obama's political appointments of renowned scientists, many of which are nobel laureates and national academy members. Which is why I screamed the loudest (of all 1.8 (±1) million spectators) when Obama said in his inaugural speech, "We will restore science to its rightful place." The wording was perfect; science, the application of observation and rational thought, deserves an honored position in government.

Below are my photos of the lively (but frigid) scene on Inauguration Day, Tuesday, Jan. 20th, in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

lake blue

From maritima

Glacial lakes (fed primarily by glacial meltwater) are often a milky blue-green. These surreal lakes captivated me when I visited Torres del Paine National Park in Chile in October 2008. A park ranger explained to me that the unique color comes from suspended sediment, or "rock flour," reflecting sunlight. When I visited Mendoza, in the foothills of the Argentine Andes, in November, I noticed the same color quality in a lake there (see images of Pehoe Lake in Torres del Paine and the lake in Mendoza above). I think that the blue color in the Mendoza lake is probably also related to suspended sediment - there must be impressive erosion from the Andes each year. The lake was fed by a turbid, muddy, braided river. Water color can be affected by a number of factors, such as algal growth, bottom color, and depth, so I can't be sure, but it seems highly likely that the same process of erosion and sediment suspension caused this lovely scene in dry, sunny Mendoza as in the famously harsh landscape of Torres del Paine.
From maritima

Monday, January 12, 2009

'tis the season

Well, it's technically a bit after the season, but here is a plant that inspired in me some Christmas spirit. It's not related to Christmas holly (Ilex spp.), but this Argentine Berberis species (possibly ilicifolia or buxifolia) does a good imitation. My Argentine colleagues told me the common name of this plant is "calafate" - like the Patagonian city.

According to the Bradt Chilean Travel Guide, there is a saying "Quien come el calafate vuelve por más" (Whoever eats the calafate berry will come back for more). Berberis is in the barberry family, and other barberries are edible and supposedly make a good jam. However, take care on your identifications - my Plant Systematics textbook (Judd et al. 1999) says that many other Berberidaceae species are "extremely poisonous."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

better than special effects

Here is an amazing video compliments of David Gallo and TEDBlog. I have seen Roger Hanlon's clips of cephalopods many times now. These animals are enthralling and it never gets old. However, before seeing this video, I'd never seen these images of deep sea bioluminescence. Truly incredible.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

pollen slick

Observed: June 9, 2008

Out and about in Narragansett Bay, RI, last summer, near a field site on Hope Island, Joey Bernhardt (pictured below) and I spotted what looked like a film of pollution on the surface of the water (see photos). Upon closer inspection, the material looked organic. I can't be completely sure (no samples were taken), but I think it was a slick of pollen, taken from the shoreline by the tide. Many types of pollen are the same shade of yellow. I wonder if it came from synchronized flowering of a single high-pollen-producing species, or if it is the result of a high tide carrying off a mix of pollen from the shoreline. In the second week of June, we were coming off a spring tide series, one of the largest of the year, and it is an active flowering time in the area. Seen something similar?
From Blogger Pictures

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Perrito del agua

On a recent trip along the Atlantic coast of Uruguay, these nocturnal insects appeared one night by the dozens. An Uruguayan native called them "perritos del agua" (little water dogs) because they supposedly emerge prior to a rain. The book Latin American Insects and Entomology notes that dobsonfly larvae are often called "perros del agua." It doesn't look like an adult dobsonfly, but the black claw-like extensions on the first leg and the short translucent wings seem characteristic enough. All the individuals I saw were approximately 5 cm long. Anyone recognize this bugger?

Update 1/5/09: Prof. Doug Morse suggested that it might be a mole cricket. I'm sure he's right. See another photo of a mole cricket on Wikipedia.