The Ecosystems Center and a Century of ESA

September 11th, 2015 @

It’s the 100th birthday of the Ecological Society of America, and Ecosystems Center scientists and their work are being featured in the celebration. Formed in 1915 through the vote of several members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the ESA is now the largest professional society devoted to the science of ecology, with more than 10,000 members.

As part of the centennial activities, ESA has identified “Notable Papers of the Last Century”, and among those listed are two published by Ecosystems Center scientists:

Melillo JM, Aber JD, and Muratore JF. (1982) Nitrogen and Lignin Control of Hardwood Leaf Litter Decomposition Dynamics. Ecology, 63(3): 621-626.

Chapin III FS, Shaver GR, Giblin AE, Nadelhoffer KJ, Laundre JA. (1995) Responses of Arctic Tundra to Experimental and Observed Changes in Climate. Ecology, 76(3): 694-711.

Also, at the recent ESA national meeting in Baltimore, MD, the ESA Science Committee presented a celebratory “Ignite” session, where eight speakers were invited to provide their vision of a roadmap for key advances, frontiers, challenges, and applications of ecology over the next 100 years. “Got Organisms?” was the title of Zoe Cardon’s talk in the session. Over the last several decades, she says, there has been an explosion of research in biological science at the two ends of the biological spectrum—genes and ecosystems. “But where did the organisms go?” she asks. “Organismal ecology links genes with ecosystems,” Cardon says. The expression of genes “packaged” within organisms has to be carefully orchestrated for organisms to survive. At the same time, organisms (whether microbial, plant, or animal) carry out many of the large-scale environmental functions upon which humanity depends, such as cleansing wastewater and recycling nutrients in soil. Understanding organismal biology, Cardon says, helps bridge knowledge at the two ends of the biological spectrum—and that’s especially important in the face of rapid global change.

A ciliate active in sludge from the Falmouth, MA wastewater processing plant. Credit: Suzanne Thomas (MBL) and Ruby An (Metcalf intern, University of Chicago, and MBL SES student).

Rachel Chelsea Nagy Defends Thesis on Amazon Land Use Change

September 11th, 2015 @

Rachel Chelsea Nagy, a student in the Brown-MBL Graduate Program in Biological and Environmental Sciences, successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Ecological and Biogeochemical Consequences of Land Use Change in the Brazilian Amazon” on August 6 at Brown University. Nagy, a student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at Brown, was co-advised by MBL Senior Scientist and Ecosystems Center Director Chris Neill and Steven Porder, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown.

This month, Nagy began a post-doctoral position with Jennifer Balch in the Dept. of Geography at the University of Colorado-Boulder. She is studying the links between fire distribution and anthropogenic activities across the United States.

Chelsea Nagy installing a temperature/ humidity logger to monitor microclimate conditions in riparian forests in the summer of 2013 on the Tanguro ranch in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Chelsea Nagy installing a temperature/ humidity logger to monitor microclimate conditions in riparian forests in the summer of 2013 on the Tanguro ranch in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Nagy’s doctoral research compared the structure, composition, and diversity of plant species in intact riparian forests (adjacent to rivers or streams) to riparian forests that were isolated by clearing for agriculture. She found that the size distribution, number of dead trees, mortality, biomass and carbon storage of altered riparian forests surrounded by agriculture were similar to that of intact riparian forests. However, riparian fragments had fewer seedlings and saplings that indicated reduced potential for forest regeneration. Agricultural fragments also had lower tree species diversity and a different species composition than intact riparian forests.

Nagy's other projects looked at carbon storage in agricultural soils and regrowing secondary forests. Her work showed that the widespread conversion of forests to intensive soybean production did not lead to large reductions in soil carbon despite relatively large changes in microclimate that accompany the land conversion. She developed a mass balance biogeochemical model to understand how different disturbance and land use practices, such as land clearing, shape nutrient limitation and biomass recovery in tropical secondary forests. Her model indicated that nitrogen limits growth of young secondary forests but that this limitation progresses to phosphorus as the forest ages. These results show the importance of retaining nutrients, particularly phosphorus, in order to fully recover from the disturbance of forest clearing.

Nagy’s doctoral committee also included Ed Rastetter, Senior Scientist at the MBL Ecosystems Center and Susan Trumbore, Professor of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine, and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry.

Chelsea Nagy conducting a forest inventory of woody plants, seedlings, and saplings in Mato Grosso, Brazil

Chelsea Nagy conducting a forest inventory of woody plants, seedlings, and saplings in Mato Grosso, Brazil

Funding for Nagy’s doctoral research was supported by an EPA’s STAR graduate fellowship, a NSF grant to Chris Neill and Michael Coe (Woods Hole Research Center), with additional grant support from Steven Porder. Nagy also earned a Dissertation Development Grant (DDG) from the Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown and a Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) award for research in Brazil.

Nagy, R.C., Porder, S.; Neill, C., Brando, P.; Quintino, R.M., Nascimento, S.A. (2015). Structure and composition of altered riparian forests in an agricultural Amazonian landscape. Ecological Applications 25(6): 1725-1738.

2015 Summer Undergraduates

June 25th, 2015 @

The Ecosystems Center is mentoring a record number of undergraduate students this year! All of the students are working with Center scientists and are fully participating in laboratory exercises and activities. While some are working here on the MBL campus, others are working at the Toolik Field Station in Alaska, the Marshview Field Station in Plum Island, MA, and one will be off to the Tanguro Field Station in Brazil! It's shaping up to be a great summer!

Biological Discovery in Woods Hole REU Program
Jasmine Prat, University of California, Santa Barbara (Tang)

Brown-MBL LINK Awardees
Jonathan Ang, Brown University (Tang)
Lena Champlin, Brown University (Neill)
Jon Gewirtzman, Brown University (Tang)
Sarah Skelton, Brown University (Valiela)

Cornell University Visiting Undergraduate Intern
Jeanne Powell, Cornell University (Howarth)

Linton-Jefferson Fellow
Kassandra Baron, Washington & Jefferson College (Deegan)

National Science Foundation REUs
Lindsay Arick, University of Central Florida (Giblin)
Vanessa Cabrera, University of California, Santa Cruz (Neill)
Andrew Collins, University of New England (Deegan)
Emily Maness, University of Tampa (Conte)
Nathalie Moore, William & Mary (Deegan)
Levi Simmons, Utah State University (Shaver)
Kate Yuhas, University of Michigan (Shaver)

Naushon Island Summer Research Program
Luke O'Brien, Boston College (Neill)

Metcalf Summer for Undergraduate Research
Ruby An, University of Chicago (Vallino)
Eva Kinnebrew, University of Chicago (Neill)
Jonathan Michelsen, University of Chicago (Tang)
Caroline Owens, University of Chicago (Valiela)
Leonard Shaw, University of Chicago (Conte)

The Woods Hole Partnership Educational Program (PEP)
Camila Fishtahler, William & Mary (Tang)
Wyntin Goodman, University of Maryland, Eastern Shore (Foreman)



Toolik Field Station, North Slope, Alaska

June 17th, 2015 @

Research assistants for the Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research project collect water from lakes in the foothills of the Brooks Range. Since 1975, this project has tracked nutrient fluxes and water chemistry to study ecosystem dynamics in the rapidly changing Alaskan arctic.

1 Toolik North Slope

Photo by Sarah Nalven (click for larger image)


Fazendo Tanguro, Mato Grosso, Brazil

June 17th, 2015 @

A rainstorm approaches a soybean field in Amazonian Brazil. Ecosystems Center scientists conduct experiments on this working farm to study how agricultural practices alter water and nutrient cycles.

Neill Amazon soybean field

Photo by Chris Neill (click for larger image)

Plum Island Estuary, Rowley, MA

June 17th, 2015 @

Saltmarsh Pickleweed, Salicornia europaea, near the MBL's Marshview Field Station, home of the Plum Island Ecosystem Long Term Ecological Research project. This project aims to understand the response of coupled watershed, marsh and estuarine systems to changes in climate, land use and sea level.


Photo by David S. Johnson (click for larger image)

Harvard Forest, Petersham, MA

June 17th, 2015 @

Soil warming plots located at the Harvard Forest. Established in 1991, this long term project warms the soil to 5 degrees C above ambient temperature and measures changes in soil processes.

11 HF Soil Warming

Photo by Audrey Barker Plotkin (click for larger image)

Waquoit Bay, Falmouth, MA

June 17th, 2015 @

A Semester in Environmental Science student uses a dip net to collect organisms in Waquoit Bay. Back in the laboratory, students build a food web using gut contents and stable isotopes. They then consider how local policy decisions, such as increasing the nitrogen load to the estuary, will alter these food webs.

4 Waquoit Bay

Photo by Sarah Nalven (click for larger image)

Sargasso Sea, Bermuda

June 6th, 2015 @

The recovery of the 500m sediment trap from the Oceanic Flux Program (OFP) mooring in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda.  At 37 years and running, the OFP is the longest running oceanographic time-series recording temporal variability of particle flux from the surface to the deep ocean resulting from the interplay between physical, biological and chemical processes.


Photo by Alice Carter (click for larger image)


Winter Impressions

March 12th, 2015 @

Even though the winter conditions have been unusually harsh this year, Ecosystems Center scientists carry out monthly water sampling campaigns in the watersheds contributing to Plum Island Sound. This effort is part of the Plum Island Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research project that studies the coupling between ecosystems upstream and the estuary downstream. This winter not only the freshwater is frozen over, but even the salt marsh areas and tidal creeks.


Sam Kelsey and Tyler Messerschmidt, Ecosystems Center Research Assistants, preparing to take water samples. Photo: Inke Forbrich


Frozen tidal creek in salt marsh. Photo: Inke Forbrich.


Ipswich River dam in Ipswich: sampling site for the PIE LTER project. Photo: Inke Forbrich.


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