Winter 2016 - Susan Kidwell

Winter term 2016

Dr. Susan Kidwell – William Rainey Harper Professor of Geosciences, University of Chicago
Sponsored by John-Paul Zonneveld and Atlas

Dead shells do tell tales: Evaluating human impacts using the youngest fossil record

Biologists and the public increasingly appreciate the many ways that humans interact with natural systems, mostly to the detriment of wild species and habitats. However, data are difficult to acquire for more than a few select species and for the past several decades to centuries that are needed to recognize change, discriminate between natural and human drivers, and establish natural baseline conditions. Field work, experiments, and modeling are revealing that death assemblages — the actively accumulating shells and bones encountered in present-day seabeds and landscapes — are remarkably reliable sources of historical ecological information at precisely these scales despite the perils of skeletal destruction and 'time-averaging'. Paleontologists are now testing this approach in a large range of settings to develop it as a standard method for the toolkit of conservation biologists and environmental managers. Such studies turn uniformitarianism upside-down – we are applying earth science methods to very young fossil records to better understand modern-day biota. The effort to get a mechanistic understanding of death assemblage preservation is, however, also yielding insights relevant to deep-time records and to the long-term burial and recycling of biogenic carbonates.

From left: Merilie Reynolds, Susan Kidwell, Janina Czas & Danielle Simkus