Get your optimism from the past

When we think about a “pristine” untouched ecosystem we often have a single, preconceived image in mind. It could be a grassland with thousands of bison, a thick tropical forest, or a coral reef teeming with fish and sharks. These places certainly existed, and in many cases are now lost or replaced by alternatives, but there has always been variation and that variation must have contributed to the rich mosaic of life.

It is this variation that we propose can help conservation, but first we need to describe it. If we can describe it we can do a better job of placing modern ecosystems into context. In this paper, published in Conservation Biology, BaselineCaribbean members discuss our ideas of how the fossil record can be used to redefine what should be considered “pristine” and the positive benefits of doing so for conservation.

Open Access available

O’Dea, A., M. Dillon, E., H. Altieri, A. and L. Lepore, M. (2017), Look to the past for an optimistic future. Conservation Biology. doi:10.1111/cobi.12997




New expedition: Curaçao February 20th


The Baseline Caribbean team is gearing up for another expedition, this time to the sparkling, cerulean seas of the Netherlands Antilles in the Southern Caribbean.

Reefs on these Dutch Islands are in relatively good shape when compared to the rest of the Caribbean. But what were they like in the past?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that sharks were once abundant around these islands, yet empirical data are desperately needed to guide management. Reef fish communities are overfished today, but by how much? When did coral communities begin to deteriorate, and did it depend on their proximity to historical settlements?

To get at these questions and more, we plan to collect nearly a ton of sediment from modern and fossil reefs along the southwest coast of Curaçao. We also hope to get the chance to explore Klein Curaçao — a 1.7-square-kilometer uninhabited island just southeast of its big sister and namesake.

Instead of reading about the results in a stale journal in two years’ time, experience science in action. Beginning February the 20th, join us with daily posts, photos, and short videos from the field on the Baseline Caribbean science blog.

This expedition builds on our previous exploits in Panama, Belize and the Dominican Republic. We see familiar faces return: Erin Dillon (who recently hightailed it to the McCauley Lab), faithful malacologist Felix Rodriguez and ring-leader Aaron O’Dea. We are also joined by some fresh blood in the form of fish ecologist and evolutionary biologist Michele Pierotti and STRI videographer extraordinaire  Ana Endara.

A huge Thank You to our supporters who will make it possible: The Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity field station (CARMABI) who kindly gave us a Research Prize, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), and YOU! – the generous donors who contributed to our crowd-funding campaign. Stay tuned…!





A guide to collecting a bulk sample

A bulk sample simply means that there is as little bias as possible during collection. Instead of picking the most beautiful or well-preserved fossils from an outcrop, we take whole lumps of the sediment, which are then transported whole back to the lab in Panama for washing, picking and identification of the fossils. Only then will the bounty they yield be revealed.

This means we have to collect massive amounts of rock and sediment, but it’s the only way to provide a measure of the abundance of the many different organisms in an ecological way. This ecological approach to paleontology is critical for we want to know what the structure of the whole ecosystem was like.

Sped up from 15 minutes to a minute and a half, the video shows Erin and Aaron collecting a 10kg bulk sample of 7000 year old reef sediments in the Enriquillo basin. All the coral, mollusks, fish otoliths, sponge spicules and shark dermal denticles will be picked from these to help reconstruct the ecosystems of the past.

¿Porqué los moluscos de hace 7,000 años eran mas grandes y fuertes?

Félix Rodríguez nos comparte unas observaciones sobre los fósiles de moluscos que hemos encontrado durante la expedición:

Después de los corales fósiles que hemos visto, los moluscos son los mas diversos y abundantes en los sitios donde estuvimos, tanto al norte como al sur del Lago Enriquillo. Lo que mas llama mi atención de estos moluscos es su preservación, algunos incluso


Félix en Samaná, República Dominicana.

mantienen matices de color. Además  se ven como si estuvieran suspendidos en el tiempo, es decir, son una real fotografía del pasado de hace 7 mil años. Otro aspecto interesante de estos moluscos fósiles es su gran tamaño y grosor, comparándolos con los actuales, que son mas pequeños y frágiles, siendo las mismas especies  en algunos arrecifes donde actualmente estamos trabajando. En mi mente surgen varios interrogantes: ¿Qué ha cambiado? ¿eran mas longevos los moluscos que hoy día? ¿había mas alimento para ellos? ¿es por esta razón su talla y grosor? Por el momento, no hay una respuesta, pero de seguro esto nos ocupará tiempo en responder.