Marine restoration scientists are using a new but very old tool to boost the survival of oysters and help restore their reef homes: paleontological history.

Restoring oyster reefs is not an easy task, but by digging deep and examining centuries-old reefs, scientists say they may stand a better chance of bringing oysters back.

To find out how geohistorical data—information gathered from sources such as fossils and sediments—could be used, researchers surveyed oyster biologists and restoration practitioners across the United States. Their findings are published in the Journal of Shellfish Research.

“Oysters today face a variety of threats, including climate change, coastal development, and harvest pressure,” says Stephen Durham, a doctoral student in the field of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University.


“Understanding how oyster reefs functioned in the past, even before human influence, can help us decide what can or should be done to manage and restore oyster populations in the face of these diverse stresses. We were curious to know what oyster restoration professionals thought about using geohistorical data to do this.”

By digging into an oyster reef, scientists can access the shells of previous generations from centuries—and even millennia—gone by. Shells offer many clues about oyster biology—including how fast they grew, how long they lived, and how oyster reefs functioned under differing climatic conditions.

Survey respondents recognized the potential of information from the past and expressed a willingness to use this data if it became available, particularly to bolster baseline knowledge of ecological conditions.

‘Put the dead to work’

“When you’re trying to assess the condition of an ecosystem, such as an oyster reef, you need some kind of baseline to compare to. Often in oyster conservation those baselines come from other natural, relatively undisturbed oyster reefs … but such baselines lack temporal context,” Durham says.

“Providing baseline data is one area where conservation paleobiology may be able to help significantly—geohistorical records can provide local data on timescales ranging from decades to millennia that can help us understand the extent of habitat change.”

Conservation paleobiology—the application of data from geohistorical records to conserving biodiversity and ecosystems—has the potential to save oysters, the researchers say.

“The survey results are encouraging for future data integration,” says Gregory P. Dietl, curator of Cenozoic invertebrates at the Cornell-affiliated PRI and an adjunct assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences, referring to the ancient oyster shells research.

“This collaboration [between biologists and paleontologists] will take time and patience, but the potential rewards are great. It’s time for us to put the dead to work.”

This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Blaine Friedlander-Cornell University
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