Why Paleontologists Are Getting Into Florida’s Oyster Business

However, harvesting oysters wasn’t easy. The oyster reefs are enclosed by viscous, sometimes high-heeled mud at low tide. The oyster shells are sharp and covered in bacteria. For maneuvering around exposed reefs, you will need to use heavy gloves and a sturdy balance.

The gray, fossilized oyster shells, rough and often stippled with barnacles, don’t look like much, but collectively they preserve decades-worth of crucial data. The researchers were particularly interested in how oyster size had shifted over the course of the fishery’s collapse. According to Durham, the size of an oyster’s shell can tell you how fast the animal grew, how long it lived, and how it responded to changes in water quality during its lifetime, among other information.

Measuring the shell sizes of past generations and creating a timeline based on that data also helped the scientists combat the phenomenon of shifting baselines—what Dietl calls “generational amnesia.” Because environmental decline occurs over time, it can alter perception of natural conditions. Although the oysters that poke above the waves might seem normal may be half of what they were in the past. Researchers may discover this when the project is finished.

After they are measured, the shells are deposited in the Paleontological Research Institution’s collection. There are approximately 40,000 shells that were harvested from Florida’sIthaca oyster reefs are already well-organized in drawers, plastic wrapped in plastic and kept in buckets. Every shell contains a vital data point that will help Florida oyster farmers. All of the information is added to a database that will help environmental managers determine which reefs have declined the most—and which have the potential to be saved.

Dietl’s Historical OysterBody Size Project is only one example of the many projects that make up conservation paleobiology. Fossil data can be used to inform conservation efforts. Karl Flessa, a geologist at the University of Arizona who has worked with Dietl on other projects, likens the effort to “putting the dead to work.”

Flessa uses clam-fossils to chart the decline in the Colorado River Delta. When the river was dammed in the 1930s, the amount of water reaching the delta’s wetlands slowed to a trickle. Flessa was able to study entire islands of desiccated shells from these clam shells. His work has helped to restore pockets of riparian habitat along the riverbed.

Environmental managers in Florida are already reaping the benefits from Dietl’s work. As they re-establish reefs by laying down limestone or fossilized oyster shells to provide sturdy surfaces for oyster attachment, Brucker’s team also collects living oyster samples. The lab measures the oysters and weighs them before they are entered into a database. This is similar to their Ithaca fossilized relatives. Although the work is still early, it looks promising. “We have seen more adult oysters than the last time we were out there, more than a year ago,” Brucker says.

This is particularly encouraging considering the poor state of oysters worldwide. Over the past two century, some estimate that 85 percent oyster reef habitat has been lost around the globe. This larger trend is illustrated by the Florida Panhandle’s eastern oysters. They were once found across the entire New England coast, from Texas to Maine. Says Durham: “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment in the oyster world.”

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