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Innovator Spotlight: Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Maryland, USA

Within the controlled conditions these studies necessitated, the Fluence LEDs allow us to mimic outdoor light conditions as closely as possible.Dr. Karin Burghardt

Smithsonian Environmental Research: Understanding Ecosystems for a Sustainable Future

Climate change has been at the forefront of research driven by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, particularly analyzing its effects on species and ecosystems around the world. Temperate and tropical plants have begun migrating north in response to global warming along the eastern U.S. shoreline, particularly in the transitional areas between the tropical and temperate zones. In this region, temperate coastal wetlands occupy over 3,500 miles of shoreline from Florida to Canada. It is within this and other range-edge habitat, where scientists like Dr. Karin Burghardt have focused their research on the impact of global warming on the responses of mangrove species as they migrate north.

“Our team has been studying mangroves for years along the FL coastline, in natural habitats. However, in order to determine the plasticity of young plants to environmental changes, we needed to bring our trials into growth chambers. Within the controlled conditions these studies necessitated, the Fluence LEDs allow us to mimic outdoor light conditions as closely as possible.”

Reducing Cost and Environmental Impact

Because mangrove forests have adapted to grow on the edge of fresh and salt water, they provide a unique habitat that stabilize coastlines. Mangroves provide critical habitats for diverse species, they store vast amounts of carbon and provide protection from weather. Historically, mangroves have existed in the tropics due to their intolerance of freezing temperatures, which poses the question, what happens to the growing number of mangroves along the east coast if a freeze occurs?

Dr. Burghardt and her team have been studying exactly this. Between 1984 and 2011 mangrove forests have doubled along the coastline of central Florida. Because these forests have a significant economic and ecological impact, researchers have been driven to understand the adaptive and plastic responses of mangrove species. This research is vital not only to understanding habitat change, but also to establishing land management policy.

Dr. Burghardt is conducting her experiments at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center Charles McC. Mathias Laboratory in Maryland. Individuals from six range-edge populations (east and west Florida; Baja, Mexico) and four core populations (east and west Panama) of three different mangrove species, black, red and white, are being tested within grow chambers programed to mimic the fall to spring season in tropical and temperate climates. Multiple seedlings from each parent tree grow in each environment before they undergo a freeze test to determine whether experiencing a temperate or tropical environment as a seedling allows mangroves to better tolerate the periodic freezes often experienced by seedlings at the range edges.

In previous trials, the team at SERC ran into limitations with T5 fluorescent lights typically used in research grow chambers; usable grow space was restricted and natural conditions were difficult to mimic. “With nearly 3,000 seedlings being tested, we run multiple experiments at the same time. With space limitations in the grow chambers, fluorescent lights were not cost-effective or energy efficient at the levels of PAR we needed to achieve.”

Smithsonian’s SPYDRx Plus-Powered LED Environment

Karin was impressed with how the seedlings reacted under the SPYDRx PLUS fixtures, “in grow chambers, it is difficult to get the plants to grow as they would in their natural habitat. With fluorescent lights, the plants had long internodal lengths as they were stretching for light. With the SPYDRx PLUS fixtures, we haven’t seen any reach, giving us a more realistic growth patterns.”

The mangrove trial is part of a larger focus at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center to study areas that are ecologically vulnerable where habitat changes are occurring sooner than expected. By understanding the adaptability and plasticity of species like the mangroves, researchers, ecologists, and planners can strategize for the changing coastlines. To learn more about the work being conducted, visit https://serc.si.edu/labs/terrestrial-ecology.