But collecting oysters was not easy. At low tide, oyster walls are viscous, sometimes surrounded by thigh-high mud. The shells themselves are razor-sharp and covered by infectious bacteria. This makes heavy gloves and sturdy balance essential when maneuvering around an open wall.
Gray, fossilized oyster shells, rough and often stained with barnacles, are not to be seen, but collectively they preserve valuable information for decades. Researchers were particularly interested in how oysters changed shape during the fall of fishing. According to Durham, the shell size of an oyster can tell you how fast an animal has grown, how long it has lived, and how it responds to changes in water quality over its lifetime.
Measuring the size of past generations of shells and creating a timeline based on that data has also helped scientists deal with the phenomenon of baseline changes Di what Dietl calls “generational amnesia.” Because environmental degradation occurs over time, it can change the perception of natural conditions. For example, the size of oysters on the waves may seem normal today, but, once the project is completed, researchers will find that the animals are half the size of the more powerful ancestors.
After measuring them, the shells are deposited in the collection of the Paleontological Research Institution. About 40,000 shells collected from the Florida oyster wall have already made their way to Ithaca, neatly arranged in drawers or stored in buckets with rocking in plastic. Each shell stores an important data point that informs the future of oysters in Florida. All the information has been added to a database that will help environmental managers determine which walls have fallen the most – and which are likely to be saved.
Dietl’s historic Oyster Body Size Project is one of several projects in the growing field of conservation paleobiology, where fossil data informs modern conservation efforts. Carl Flesa, a geologist at the University of Arizona who has worked with Dittel on other projects, compared the effort to “working the dead.”
In her own work, Flesa uses clam fossils to bring down the Colorado River Delta. When the river was dammed in the 1930’s, the amount of water reaching the delta’s wetlands decreased. This leaves a whole island of delicious clam shells to study for Fleischer. Recently, his work has helped restore pockets of river habitat at the bottom of waterlogged rivers.
Florida environmental managers are already benefiting from Dietl’s work. As they rebuild the wall with limestone or fossilized oyster shells to provide a strong surface for attaching oysters, Brooker’s team also collects samples of live oysters. Back in the lab, these oysters are measured, weighed and entered into a database, much like their fossilized relatives in Ithaca. The work, though early, is promising. “We saw more adult oysters more than a year ago, more than last time,” Brooker said.
This is especially encouraging due to the depressing condition of oysters worldwide. Some estimate that 85 percent of oyster wall habitats worldwide have been lost in the last two centuries. Eastern oysters found along the Florida Panhandle are a microcosm of this larger trend. Available from once Texas Per Maine, They are virtually extinct along the large swaths of the New England coast. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment in the oyster world,” Durham said.
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