Jocelyn Sessa, PhD, assistant curator of invertebrate paleontology, is one of many scientists at the Academy researching how ecosystems are responding to our changing environment. She studies the “canary in the coal mine” for acidification of the ocean — pteropods. Pteropods are tiny snails with thin, translucent shells. Although they’re the size of a grain of sugar, they’re an incredibly important indicator of what is happening in an ecosystem because their shells are especially prone to dissolution by ocean acidification.
Ocean acidification has been occurring since the industrial revolution. As ever more CO2 is pumped into our atmosphere, the ocean absorbs it and becomes more acidic, making it harder for organisms like pteropods to grow their shells. As a crucial part of the marine food web — a staple for whales, cod, shrimp, krill and more — changes that impact pteropods impact the entire ocean ecosystem. Jocelyn analyzes both modern and historical specimens from museum collections. Her goal is to determine a baseline of pteropod shell thickness over time and understand how ocean acidification may have affected shell growth.
Academy postdoctoral researcher Rosie Oakes, PhD, developed a method to quantify the thickness of the pteropod shell with the use of micro-CT scanning, which allows Jocelyn and Rosie to reconstruct the climatic conditions that have affected ecosystems historically. Understanding how these ecosystems responded to past events allows us to predict how they may respond to the changing conditions in today’s oceans.
Another member of the invertebrate paleontology team, collection manager Katy Estes-Smargiassi, is working to digitize the Academy’s specimens so they can be analyzed by other researchers from around the world. The Academy is home to the oldest invertebrate paleontology collection in North America, comprised of approximately 1 million specimens. Katy will catalog each specimen and make the Academy’s collection available online for the first time ever.
Katy’s priority is digitizing approximately 18,300 specimens from the Cenozoic Era (the last 66 million years of Earth’s history). These particular specimens capture a record of several important climatic events and can help researchers understand how marine ecosystems have responded to climatic changes in the past. With these materials made widely available online, researchers throughout the world will have access to information to better predict how these organisms may respond to similar events in the future.
The Invertebrate Paleontology team is just one of several Academy departments making positive impacts on our world and providing real science to inform public opinion so that it might shape public policy. Each of our scientists, collection managers, educators and students is a champion of the natural world.
If you want to meet these awesome scientists and see what the Academy’s collection of a million plus fossilized exoskeletons exposes about Earth’s history and climate, register now to attend our Shaker of Science event on Thursday, October 22.
Every fossil has a story to tell, but so do our intrepid scientists of invert paleo. They’ve traversed everything from the Bighorn Basin in Montana to sea ice in the Southern Sea, and you get to hear about it over a drink. Pour yourself a cocktail, sit back and join us for an insider’s look at what it takes to collect, curate and share a key component to understanding our planet’s past. No need for bug spray on this expedition!
Here’s a preview of your “BYO” libation menu for A Shaker of Science:
Temperance Cocktail: Mulled Hot Apple Cider
Directions: It’s fall, y’all. On the stove or in a microwave, bring to a boil 2 cups of locally sourced apple cider with 1 cinnamon stick, 6 whole cloves and a thick slice of orange. Let the cider steep for 5 minutes. Skim the cloves and orange slice from the cider and serve in a cozy mug with the cinnamon stick and a fresh orange slice or twist.
Cocktail: Rosie’s Gin and Tonic
Directions: Add ½ tsp. dried culinary rose petals into a highball or Collins glass, fill the glass with ice, then add another ½ tsp. of dried rose petals. Add 1/2 tsp. rosewater (or more to taste), 6 oz. tonic water and 1.5 oz gin to the glass and stir to combine.
Beer: Yards Brewing Company, Philthy
Everyone knows digging fossils is dirty work. Enjoy this Unfiltered Hazy IPA as you get the dirt on our Invertebrate Paleontology work.
Wine: Stags’ Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Decant this bold California Cab at least 30 minutes before sipping, and enjoy hearing about Katy’s explorations of California.
Photos by Five Five Collective for ANS