Sunday 1 December 2019

For Chesapeake oysters, the way forward leads back—through the fossil record

NOVEMBER 21, 2019 

by Joseph McClain, The College of William & Mary

Big oyster/old oyster: Rowan Lockwood displays one of the 900 oyster fossils studied in a palaeobiological analysis of the oysters of the Chesapeake Bay. She and co-author Roger Mann believe fossil beds paint a picture of the oyster population of a healthy Chesapeake ecosystem. Credit: Stephen Salpukas 

Oysters once dominated the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the Bay to return to full ecological health without restoring Crassostrea virginica to its glory days of the Chesapeake's apex filterer. 

Rowan Lockwood and Roger Mann believe that you have to go back to the fossil record to get your head around the idea of a fully oystered Chesapeake. Their paper, "A conservation paleobiological perspective on Chesapeake Bay oysters," appears in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions B, titled ""The past is a foreign country: how much can the fossil record actually inform conservation?". 

Lockwood is a professor in William & Mary's Department of Geology, which she chairs. Mann is a professor in the Department of Fisheries Science at the university's Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Their collaboration melds Lockwood's examination of long-dead oysters in the Chesapeake with Mann's expertise in the state of oysters today. 

Their paper looks at 900 fossil oysters from three Pleistocene reefs and compares them to oysters today. Lockwood and Mann employ conservation paleontology methods to create a model of how the Chesapeake Bay looked and functioned long before humans. 

Basically, the prehistoric oysters were bigger and more numerous—and therefore filtered more water. 

"This is clearly a case of bigger is better," Lockwood said. "Larger oysters filter significantly more water, remove more algae, produce more offspring, buffer more acidic bay water, recycle more nitrogen and possibly even bury more carbon than smaller ones." 

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