Scientists

Whale Earwax: What You Can Learn From Strange Collections

An unidentified earplug from the National Museum of Natural History collection. The light and dark layers come from a build up of keratin and lipids and can be used to estimate whale age. Credit: Megan Chen, NMNH Ever collected something a bit strange? Snow globes, pens, stamps and coins are fairly typical, but museum collections can have some odd groups. Like hundreds of whale earwax plugs. Yes, that’s right: whale earwax. All cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) produce earwax, just like humans. In some species of baleen whales and in sperm whales, whale earwax can build up in layers...Read more

Bugs and Slugs: The Hidden Secret to Healthy Seagrasses

Neptune grass ( Posidonia oceanica ) is a slow-growing and long-lived seagrass native to the Mediterranean. Credit: Gaynor Rosier/Marine Photobank Slip into the water along a sheltered coast in nearly any part of the world and you’re likely to find yourself in an emerald field of seagrass . Like flowering plants on land, seagrasses grow, flower, and produce seeds—and they do it all underwater. Although they may lack the star power of coral reefs, seagrass meadows can be equally beautiful, teeming with a diversity of life, and are every bit as important as reefs. Seagrass meadows are nurseries...Read more

The Discovery of Two Extreme Sea Stars

Two new species of sea stars were discovered in the deep sea: Paulasterias tyleri (on the left) in a North Pacific hydrothermal vent community, and Paulasterias mcclaini (on the right) in the deep sea off the coast of Antarctica. Credit: Chris Mah, NMNH Recently, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History researcher Chris Mah and collaborators with the British Antarctic Survey and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute used molecular tools and a scanning electron microscope to discover two new species of sea stars. These sea stars live across the world from one another, one in...Read more

Fishing for Plastic: Science in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By now, you have probably heard of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch . The name conjures the image of a floating island made of familiar plastic trash such as soda bottles and plastic bags, disposable utensils and lighters. However, this image doesn’t really capture the full spectrum of plastic debris that is out there. While some of the plastic pieces swirling in the Pacific Ocean are large, many of them are closer to the size of a popcorn kernel—and certainly small enough for fish to eat, at least in theory. While we have lots of evidence that sea turtles , seabirds , and marine mammals eat...Read more

Let's Get Our Hands Dirty This Women's History Month

A view of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as seen from a NOAA research aircraft, June 2010. Credit: David Valentine, University of California Santa Barbara In the ocean world, there are many women to celebrate during Women’s History Month. Consider Rachel Carson , who started her career as a marine biologist, Sylvia Earle (“Her Deepness”), or our very own Nancy Knowlton , a self-proclaimed #OceanOptimist after years of coral reef doom and gloom. This March, we are narrowing down the list by interviewing researchers who have gotten their hands dirty—literally. The women scientists featured...Read more

Charles Darwin's Ocean Upwelling

The Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System consists of the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, offshore atolls, and several hundred sand cays, mangrove forests, coastal lagoons, and estuaries. The system's seven sites illustrate the evolutionary history of reef development. Credit: Tony Rath Charles Darwin is so well known he almost needs no introduction. The 19th-century naturalist and geologist spent his life documenting and collecting information on the natural world . From birds to flowers to invertebrates, living and extinct, all species and their distributions held his interest...Read more

Worth the Investment: Ocean Real Estate Reveals Hidden Diversity

Nancy Knowlton, Smithsonian's Sant Chair for Marine Science, puts out an Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure (ARMS) during a dive in the Red Sea. Credit: Michael Berumen Good real estate is hard to find. This is as true underwater as it is on land. So when Smithsonian scientist Dr. Matthieu Leray built 18 potential homes for undersea creatures living on oyster reefs, they moved in fast. After just six months in the water, Dr. Leray counted more than 2,000 different types of organisms—most of them very small—living in his small underwater “condos,” which were placed in a variety of locations...Read more
School of blue rockfish in a kelp bed.

Stinkin' Seaweed Makes Tasty Food for Coastal Animals

School of Blue Rockfish ( Sebastes mystinus ) in a kelp bed consisting mostly of the bull kelp ( Nereocystis luetkeana ). Credit: Steve Lonhart / NOAA MBNMS Most people try to avoid rotting kelp at the beach. The feeling of a floating piece of seaweed wrapping around an ankle is enough to shake even the most steeled swimmer, and then there's the strong smell! But in our research group, we go out of our way to find rotting seaweed at the shore so that we can study how kelp tissues change as they die and decompose. While this may seem like an odd thing to care about, detached and decomposing...Read more
The coastline of American Samoa National Marine Sanctuary

The Reefs of American Samoa: A Story of Hope

American Samoa National Marine Sanctuary comprises a fringing coral reef ecosystem nestled within an eroded volcanic crater on the island of Tutuila, American Samoa. Credit: Wendy Cover Sometimes called the rainforests of the sea, coral reefs are incredibly diverse and complicated systems. Because of this complexity, it can be a challenge to manage and protect reefs—and sometimes multiple threats must be addressed in quick succession. Overfishing, pollution and coral predators all have negative impacts on coral and the many animals that live on the reef. But with vigilant protection and...Read more

Sequencing at Sea: Studying Small Things Using Big Equipment

"Barely a room onboard escaped being turned into a part of the sequencing laboratory," wrote Rob Edwards in a blog post about doing genomic sequencing at sea. Credit: Mark Vermeij Microbes are some of the most important organisms in the sea. These miniscule organisms provide an important link in the food web between the dissolved nutrients in the ocean and larger organisms like corals , fishes, and sharks . Without the microbes nothing would be able to use those nutrients, and the machinery of the ocean’s food web would grind to a halt. While microbes are very easy to collect—just scoop up a...Read more

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