Charting a New Course

Establishing a permanent marine station heralds an era of progress for Smithsonian research

Smithsonian Marine Station
Smithsonian Marine Station

In mid-March, the Institution broke ground on an 8,000-square-foot laboratory building that will become the new home of the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida. This occasion begins a new era for marine biology at the Smithsonian.

For 25 years, the Marine Station, a research facility of the National Museum of Natural History, has conducted marine studies from a floating barge of World War II vintage that's docked at the campus of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce. This cooperative relationship has been very beneficial, but to accommodate our growing program we need to establish our own permanent site. Assisted by the MacArthur Foundation, in 1996 we acquired eight acres near the Fort Pierce Inlet, on a barrier island between the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic. The 156-mile-long lagoon, the focus of much of our research, is a coastal estuary that encompasses extraordinary diversity in marine life.

The Smithsonian Marine Station, directed by biologist Mary Rice, has long been a magnet for scientists from the Institution and the world because it offers a unique transition zone between temperate and tropical waters. Equally important, the station forms a vital link in an elaborate "necklace" of Smithsonian coastal research stations that stretches from our Environmental Research Center on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to our Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Collectively, these stations allow our scientists to compare environmental trends across a wide range of latitudes and combine expanding knowledge about natural history and marine ecosystems in new and exciting ways. The Florida site provides ready access to an incredible array of habitats, including mangroves, marshes, sea grasses, tidal flats, reefs, sandy beaches and waters of the continental shelf and the Gulf Stream.

More than 70 percent of the world's population lives in coastal areas that are subjected to natural changes that have an increasingly dramatic impact on human lives. Understanding such areas has far-reaching consequences for land use, economics and social development. The Marine Station contributes to our knowledge by examining one of our most biologically productive but fragile systems, the Indian River Lagoon.

Research at the Marine Station emphasizes biodiversity of marine organisms, including life cycles and ecology. I am informed that researchers explore the most fundamental processes of growth, from single-celled eggs to exotic larval forms that float in the plankton and replenish the lagoon. Aboard the research vessel Sunburst, scientists sample planktonic larvae from the lagoon and from the Gulf Stream. Using fine-meshed conical nets, they collect fantastic squid larvae with big eyes and tiny suckers, worm larvae spinning like pinwheels, and tiny crab larvae with long spines. Scientists study transformations that reveal the amazing mechanisms of cells, which in turn provide clues about how populations of crabs and other species in the coastal food web are regulated.

Our very capable taxonomists provide comprehensive analyses of biodiversity in Florida and throughout the Caribbean. Recent studies focus on marine algae, sea stars, sea urchins and marvelous burrowing shrimp. In addition, the Smithsonian Marine Station is the home of the Indian River Lagoon Species Inventory, which documents the nearly 3,000 species of plants, fishes and invertebrates that make biodiversity in this estuary the highest in the United States.

Ecologists from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center on the Chesapeake, one of the links in our connecting research stations, are conducting studies of blue crabs in the lagoon. With new funding from the National Science Foundation, they are able to compare patterns of blue crab biology in Florida with those of Maryland's heavily fished population.

On the diffusion side of our mission, the Marine Station's new site will allow us to bring marine science into the everyday lives of local schoolchildren and involve Florida's senior citizens as docents and volunteers. The station also hopes to expand its professional training programs for young scientists. Over the years, the station's scientists have served as mentors to more than 100 students from around the world, helping them launch careers in marine biology.

The biological richness of the famed "Treasure Coast" of Florida is critical to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who derive recreation and livelihood from it. The Marine Station attests to our active involvement in local, state and regional environments and underscores the Smithsonian's commitment to understanding marine ecosystems globally. In a wonderful way, the station's emergence from a floating sea base to dry land at Fort Pierce heralds the next chapter in the Institution's exciting history in marine biology. Our future in the Sunshine State could not be brighter.

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