Smithsonian to monitor marine biodiversity for generations

In a project called Marine GEO, scientists around the globe will collaborate in studying study ocean organisms and their environments.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

The Smithsonian Institution is leading an ambitious, long-term project that will study marine biodiversity around the globe. Marine Global Earth Observatory (Marine GEO) is modeled after the Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory (SIGEO), which has been monitoring forest plots worldwide for 35 years. SIGEO scientists study carbon fluxes and the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and forest function. The project aims to reduce scientific uncertainty about the potential effects of climate change on ecosystems, and enhance society’s ability to evaluate and respond to the impacts of global climate change.

John Kress, a research scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, is the director for the Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, which oversees Marine GEO. When we spoke about the project last week, Kress said it’s important to start gathering baseline data as soon as possible, because things are changing rapidly. “In many ways,” he said, “we’re already late.”

What is Marine GEO?

It stands for Marine Global Earth Observatory. It’s a developing initiative at the Smithsonian to take on a new role with respect to monitoring marine biodiversity around the world. We must have 50 to 75 marine scientists scattered throughout our units, and those people have never really worked together before.

We have five existing marine stations that will serve perfectly as pilot sites: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Chesapeake, Md., National Museum of Natural History in Fort Pierce, Fl., and Carrie Bow Key, Belize, and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Pacific Station and Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

A family of capuchin monkeys watch the work of Smithsonian scientists below at the SIGEO plot on Barro Colorado Island in Panama. Credit: CTFS

How did this project come about?

The Smithsonian already has SIGEO, which is a terrestrial effort. We now have 40 plots where we are monitoring forest dynamics over a very long period of time. We’ve been doing it for 35 years. They started in Panama and now they’re all over the world. This is taking off as a way for us to sample environmental change around the world, and this one has been so successful, we said, let’s look at the marine realm. We really don’t have any money to do this yet, so we’re trying to get other federal agencies interested. We’ve already talked to NOAA and NSF.

What are some of the challenges in setting up a marine version, compared to the terrestrial program?

The forests are two dimensional: Everything is anchored in the ground and goes up. For example, in Panama, the plot there has 300,000 trees in it, but they don’t move. They just stay there and you measure them every five years. To do that in the marine environment is much more complicated. Things are moving, some things are on the surface, some are on the floor, and they’re all different shapes and sizes. We’re going to try to monitor everything from plankton to whales.

Smithsonian forest ecologist Geoffrey Parker measures the girth of a tree of the SIGEO plot at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Credit: Kirsten Bauer

We have six sampling methods:

  1. PLOTS: Standard sampling areas where a plot of a certain size is set up and everything within the space is recorded and inventoried.
  2. ARMS: (automated reef monitoring structures). We place a plastic square meter on the ocean floor and let things colonize there. Crustaceans will attach themselves to the plate, so it’s a good way to collect and study things that are sedentary.
  3. EARS (ecologic acoustic recorders). We can monitor the sounds from the ocean.
  4. GUTS: We’re going to let the organisms sample the environment, and then we’ll look at the contents of their stomach for analysis.
  5. TOWS: Time-tested method, towing a net behind a boat to collect organisms.
  6. CORES: Drilling a core several meters down for a sampling

Will you monitor on a yearly basis?

We’re not quite sure if it has to be annual. There is a tree census every five years. And some of these things, like the acoustic monitoring, might be permanent down there.

When did you start Marine GEO planning?

About a year ago, the Smithsonian launched an effort called the Grand Challenges, where we’ve defined four primary areas of scholarly work at the Smithsonian: Astrophysics; Biodiversity and Sustainability; World Culture; and the American Experience. I was appointed the director of the Biodiversity and Sustainability consortium. We’re working on developing projects to take advantage of the strength we have collectively. One of the efforts that has come out of this is Marine GEO. We had an institution–wide open forum where we pulled all these marine biologists together, and everyone started exchanging ideas. Now we have a steering committee and we’ve written a concept paper. It’s very new.

Smithsonian research assistant Paulino Villarreal checking dendrometer on one of the trees in the Barro Colorado Island plot. Credit: Markku Larjavaara

What are the most significant things learned so far from SIGEO, and what do you hope to learn in the marine version?

There’s a lot of monitoring of ocean environments, but at lot of it is biochemical. We realize there’s not that much monitoring biodiversity of the oceans, and that’s what we’re very good at.

As for the terrestrial side, we’ve learned these forests are extremely dynamic. There’s a lot of turnover of species. We established the first pod 35 years ago. The most recent one is going in right now in Gabon, and that brings us to 40. Now is when the real work starts, because we can start comparing plots.

How will you determine the plots beyond the five at your marine stations?

We’re looking at latitudinal gradients. Some may be NOAA sites, some may be Fish & Wildlife.

When will the first plot be operational?

One year. we’re looking to get a prototype going. We’re in the process of getting funding and scientists together. We’re trying to get the core idea but hope to engage marine biologists around the world. We’re looking at the expenses for these six methodologies, how we’ll monitor the biodiversity, how often we’ll have to do it. We don’t have the answers to all these yet.

What are you most curious about?

Well, I’m not a marine biologist; I’m the director of the consortium. But in that role, what I hope to see is Smithsonian marine biologists working together with a common agenda and doing this for a long time. We’ve been here 165 years; hopefully we’ll be here for another 165 years. Unlike universities that have shorter-term grants, were looking to monitor them for decades. That’s one of the advantages we have. We know things are changing rapidly; we just have to get in there and get some baseline data. In many ways, we’re already late.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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