Fortunately for the Smithsonian, Hurricane Michael did not seriously affect the Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida, located further south on the Atlantic coast. Yes, the Smithsonian does have a major research station in Florida! The Station began in 1972 as a collaboration with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation, but as interest in its research programs grew, the Smithsonian Marine Station was created as a separate unit of the National Museum of Natural History in 1983. A groundbreaking marine biologist, Mary E. Rice, who is also a curator of worms at the National Museum of Natural History, was named its first director. Rice did pioneering work on the life cycles of Sipuncula worms, little known creatures that inhabit all the Earth’s oceans.
The Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce, Florida, is located in the Indian River Lagoon, and protected by barrier islands. The Indian River Lagoon is a long, narrow estuary stretching 150 miles along Florida’s east central coast, with varied habitats, including mangroves, salt marshes, seagrass beds, sand and mud flats, and oyster reefs. Nearby are the sandy beaches of the barrier island, the extensive waters and sandy plains of the Continental Shelf, and, at the edge of the Shelf, the Florida Current, a component of the Gulf Stream System. The Florida Keys with their coral reef ecosystems are some 200 miles to the south. The location provides access to the Atlantic Ocean, but also to the rich marine estuary along the coast.
In its early years, the station served as a field site for researchers from the National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, primarily to collect museum specimens, but over time, researchers became more interested in the varied marine environments and the ecological balances of species. Soon researchers from across the globe were asking to work at the station. From the outset, Rice was interested in determining life cycles of marine species, especially marine worms (yes, there are worms in the ocean, not just your back yard). Since some of these marine worms metamorphosize, meaning they go through very varied life stages like a caterpillar to a butterfly, scientists were not sure which larval forms went with which adults. Using a former US Army floating barge with a circulating seawater systems feeding aquariums allowed Rice and her colleagues to trace the life cycles through the various stages and link many larvae to their adult forms. But the work has raised as many questions as answers about the complex factors that guide these lifecycles. Now called “evo-devo,” these studies of the evolutionary development and variation of species is at the cutting edge of marine research. The SMS’s work expanded beyond Florida in October 2009 when the Station assumed management of the Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystems Program based at the Carrie Bow Cay Field Station on the Meso-American Barrier Reef in Belize, insuring the continuation of another important base for Smithsonian marine research.
The station also focuses on popular education. In addition to many school programs, the station runs the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit at the St. Lucie County Aquarium. It began when a coral reef exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History was slated to be dismantled. The curator who developed it, Walter Adey, did not want to see it lost, so Rice negotiated with St. Lucie County officials to have it installed in their local museum in 2001. They later added several more exhibits of local marine ecosystems, and it is a popular education and tourist destination today.
- Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce
- Marine Ecosystems Exhibit, St. Lucie County, Florida
- Mary Rice, Research Zoologist Emeritus, Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce