Biology Faculty Proceedings, Presentations, Speeches, Lectures

Title

The importance of natural history and research collections to environmental reconstruction and remediation, and the establishment of shifting baselines

Event Name/Location

American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, 2012

Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date

1-1-2012

Abstract

The Earth's environments are changing more rapidly today than at almost any time in the Phanerozoic. These changes are driven by human activities, and include climate change, landscape alteration, fragmentation and destruction, environmental pollution, species overexploitation, and invasive species. The rapidity of the changes challenges our best efforts to document what is changing, how it has changed, and what has been lost. Central to these efforts, therefore, is the proper documentation, archiving and curation of past environments. Natural history and other research collections form the core of this documentation, and have proven vital to recent studies of environmental change. Those collections are, however, generally under-utilized and under-appreciated by the general research community. Also, their utility is hampered by insufficient availability of the data, and the very nature of what has been collected in the past. Past collections emphasized a typological approach, placing emphasis on individual specimens and diversity, whether geological or biological, while what is needed today is greater emphasis on archiving entire environments. The concept of shifting baselines establishes that even on historical time scales, the notion of what constitutes an unaltered environment is biased by a lack of documentation and understanding of environments in the recent past. Baselines are necessary, however, for the proper implementation of mitigating procedures, for environmental restoration or remediation, and for predicting the near-term future. Here we present results from a study of impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (DWH) on the American oyster Crassostrea virginica. Natural history collections of specimens from the Gulf and elsewhere have been crucial to this effort, and serve as an example of how important such collections are to current events. We are examining the effects of spill exposure on shell growth and tissue development, as well as the potential incorporation of trace heavy metals into the tissues and shells of the animals. There are numerous natural hydrocarbon seeps in the Gulf, however, as well as thousands of active and past industrial drill sites. It is expected that organisms in the Gulf have been and continue to be exposed to hydrocarbon contamination, and any conclusions drawn regarding the impact of DWH must account for those other sources. We are therefore establishing baselines of contamination both pre-dating the petroleum industry, and pre-dating the DWH spill. Natural history museum specimens dating back to the 19th century and spanning the 20th, coupled with material collected just prior to, during, and since the spill, are being combined to create a narrative of changing conditions in the Gulf. Those specimens represent our best record of the recent environmental history and states of Gulf coastal environments.

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