Susan Kidwell, University of Chicago Clark Alexander, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography
Biologists increasingly appreciate the need for longer term perspectives on the presence and abundance of species in coastal environments in order to evaluate how these important ecosystems have been altered by human activities, which in most areas began well before the advent of quantitative surveys in the early 20th century and federally mandated biomonitoring in the 1970s. Very young fossil records ? that is, skeletal remains from the last few decades, centuries, and tens of millennia, embedded within the upper few meters of the sedimentary record ? offer a promising means both of reconstructing changes in ecosystems over the full history of cultural/industrial development and of acquiring the information on truly natural conditions that is essential to developing restoration targets. However, to confidently merge these geologically young paleontological data with conventional neo-biological data, we need to understand how, if at all, biological information is altered with the progressive, natural burial of shelly remains. Research over the last 20 years finds that molluscan death assemblages (clam and snail shells) present within the uppermost, storm- and animal-stirred few centimeters of the seabed can include some fairly old shells (thousands of years old, especially on open continental shelves), but are strongly dominated by individuals that died during the last (most recent) ?urban? century and especially the last few decades. Death assemblages from this mixed layer are thus clearly time-averaged, but the strongest signal is from the final stages of skeletal accumulation, much like a photographic time-exposure produces a somewhat blurry track of a moving object whose final position is captured with snapshot-like clarity. Here, with NSF funding, we will test for the first time the extent to which skeletal assemblages retain this level of temporal resolution as they undergo progressive burial into deeper, more permanent layers of the Holocene sedimentary record, where the assemblage is no longer refreshed by new shell input and is subject to different chemical regimes. We will leverage extensive prior knowledge of seafloor animals and environmental conditions on the southern California continental shelf to conduct a series of observational experiments on the key factors thought to control skeletal accumulation, namely (1) the intrinsic durability of shell material (focus on six key genera of bivalves, differing in shell mineralogy and microstructure), (2) rates and types of sediment accumulation (land-derived mud and sand, plus shell-rich seabeds deprived of sediment), and (3) rates and depths of sediment mixing by storms and burrowing animals, with factors 2 and 3 quantified using radioisotopic methods. Shell ages will be based on radiocarbon-calibrated amino-acid racemization dating, which we have already determined works well in this region. Data on how temporal resolution changes with burial will be generated by dating sets of shells from a series of horizons in long (3-4 m) sedimentary cores. We will take these cores at sites both along the known legacy gradient of sediment toxicity from DDT-charged wastewater effluents on the Palos Verdes shelf and from historically uncontaminated seafloors, providing an ?unnatural? experiment on the effects of bioturbation. Using stochastic simulations and likelihood analysis of shell-age frequency distributions as well as conventional statistical analysis of experimental results, this project will identify the dominant mechanisms that determine shell preservation, which is relevant to the ecological fidelity as well as the temporal resolution of skeletal assemblages in both the deep- and near-time fossil records. Of even broader implications, we will develop and refine protocols for merging biological information from paleontological and neo-biological sources, as part of the burgeoning new field of conservation paleobiology. Research papers will be published in marine biological and pollution journals rather than only earth science journals to promote scientific integration. We already have a cooperative relationship with scientists from several regional agencies charged with environmental management, who will be kept up to date with research results by talks on site. Archived skeletal assemblages from our cores will constitute a new resource for future studies of diverse types (e.g., morphology, sclerochronology, isotopes, molecules), particularly when combined with extensive mixed-layer death assemblages that we have already archived from past (1970s) and ongoing (2003 ? present) surveys and biomonitoring of living shelf communities. The project will provide field and lab experience for a post-doctoral scholar and for undergraduate and graduate student assistants drawn from an historically black institution (Savannah State). We will also develop a lab exercise for use in local high schools and 2-year or 4-year colleges on the historical ecology of the southern California marine bight and the power of sedimentary cores for environmental and ecological analysis. This region has strong public interest and governmental commitment to coastal environmental quality, and thus has a good existing infrastructure for public outreach.