But harvesting oysters is far from easy. At low tide, the oyster reef is surrounded by thick mud, sometimes thigh-high mud. The shell itself is very sharp and covered with infection-causing bacteria. This makes heavy gloves and a firm balance essential when manipulating around bare coral reefs.
The gray, fossilized oyster shells are rough and often dotted with barnacles. They don’t seem to be many, but together they hold important data for decades. Researchers are particularly interested in the changes in oyster size during the collapse of the fishery. According to Durham, the size of the oyster shell can tell you the animal’s growth rate, life span, and its response to changes in water quality during its lifetime.
Measuring the shell size of past generations and creating a timetable based on this data also helps scientists combat the phenomenon of baseline changes-what Dieter calls “intergenerational amnesia.” Since environmental decline will occur over time, it will change the perception of natural conditions. For example, the size of oysters poking over the waves today may seem normal, but once the project is completed, researchers may find that these animals are only half the size of their stronger ancestors.
After the measurement, the shells are stored in the collection of the Institute of Paleontology. Approximately 40,000 shells harvested from Florida’s Oyster Reef have been shipped to Ithaca, neatly arranged in drawers or wrapped in plastic and stored in buckets. Each shell holds an important data point that can inform the future of Florida oysters. All the information is added to a database, which will help environmental managers determine which coral reefs have fallen the most and which are likely to be saved.
Dieter’s historical oyster body shape project is just one of several projects in the emerging field of conservation paleontology, and fossil data provide information for modern conservation efforts. Carl Fraesa, a geologist at the University of Arizona who has worked with Dieter on other projects, likened this effort to “make the dead work.”
In his own work, Fraesa used clam fossils to map the decline of the Colorado River Delta. When the river was dammed in the 1930s, the amount of water reaching the delta wetlands slowed to a trickle. This left the entire dry clamshell island for Fraesa to study. Recently, his work has helped restore part of the riverside habitat to the dry river bed.
Environmental managers in Florida have benefited from Dieter’s work. When they rebuilt the coral reef by laying limestone or fossil oyster shells to provide a solid surface for oysters to attach to, Brook’s team also collected live oyster samples. Back in the laboratory, the oysters were measured, weighed, and entered into the database, just like their fossil relatives in Ithaca. Although this work is early, it is very promising. Brooke said: “We saw more adult oysters than we did when we last went to sea more than a year ago.”
This is especially encouraging given the bleak condition of oysters around the world. It is estimated that in the past two centuries, 85% of the world’s oyster reef habitat has disappeared. Eastern oysters found in the Florida Panhandle are a microcosm of this larger trend.Once found from Texas arrive Maine, They are functionally extinct in large areas of the New England coast. Durham said: “This is a time for everyone in the Oyster World to participate.”
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