"What the Ancient Oyster Knows"

"Scientists in the emerging field of conservation paleobiology believe that the key to oyster conservation could be contained in ancient shells."

"Stephen Durham ignores the cold water seeping into his hiking boots as he wades into a shallow, brackish creek wending through a salt marsh in Madison, Connecticut. With each step, shells crunch under his feet and he sentences a few more oysters to an early death. Below these casualties, the remains of their ancestors lie entombed in the muck. Less than a meter down, they could be hundreds of years old—artifacts of a time before modern record-keeping. Like thousands of soap-dish-sized Rosetta stones, the shells can reveal clues about the past—if you know what you’re looking for.

Durham, sporting a trimmed grad-student beard and a hat from a seafood restaurant, is a new kind of sleuth. He’s one of the world’s first students trained in conservation paleobiology, a young field that applies a paleontologist’s skill set to modern-day conservation challenges by decoding animal and plant remains. Research led by The Nature Conservancy indicates that, globally, oyster populations have declined by 85 percent over the past 130 years. The information Durham can glean from the old eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) shells in this small marsh—like how salty the water was when they lived, how big and how quickly they grew, and how tightly clumped they were—could provide valuable context for efforts to conserve and restore eastern oyster reefs today. But the people responsible for that restoration work are going to need some convincing."

Geoffrey Giller reports for Hakai magazine September 13, 2016.

Source: Hakai, 09/14/2016