August 11, 2011
Crinoid fossils, or "ringstones," are plentiful in Estonia.
WOOSTER, Ohio — A remarkable recovery from the world’s second greatest mass extinction took place approximately 440 million years ago, and an international team of scientists, which includes Mark A. Wilson from The College of Wooster, is hoping to learn more about how and why this recovery began in the Baltic region with the support of a $19,900 National Geographic Society research grant.
“Estonia and the surrounding Baltic countries appear to have been the center for a robust recovery of marine fauna in the Silurian geological period,” said Wilson, the Lewis M. and Marian Senter Nixon Professor of Natural Sciences and Geology at Wooster. “We are interested in the reasons for the rapid pace of the recovery and why this area led the way.”
Wilson and his colleagues, William A. Ausich from The Ohio State University and Olev Vinn from the University of Tartu (Estonia), are focusing on crinoids — marine animals that Wilson describes as having a “long and glorious evolutionary history.” Wilson and two Wooster students (Nick Fedorchuk and Rachel Matt) traveled to Estonia this past summer to comb through quarries and cliffs where crinoid fossils are plentiful. The scientists will return next summer with a new group of students for a three-week excursion “to collect as many specimens as possible” in an effort to determine how the crinoids recovered their diversity after the extinction. “Our belief is that the shallow carbonate reef and the tropical climate created an ideal environment for the origin of new species,” said Wilson. “From there the larvae spread widely through the ancient seas.”
Estonia is a fossil-rich region on a continent formerly known as Baltica, but it was inaccessible for decades because of Soviet occupation, which has left many beaches littered with discarded artillery shells and barrels of toxic waste. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, geologists, including Wilson (who will be making his fourth visit), began regular pilgrimages to the area. “This is a very well-preserved region, which we believe will put Estonia back on the geologic map for the Silurian,” said Wilson. “As paleoecologists, we are interested in learning more about how these invertebrates lived and evolved together in communities.”
After completing the fieldwork, Wilson will return to Wooster where his students will clean and prepare the specimens so they can see their features and identify them. “Our primary goal is to see what type of crinoids are present so that we can better understand how this robust recovery played out over time,” said Wilson. “There has not been much study of geography’s role in the recovery, and not much in terms of how this migration took place, so we are looking at a rare opportunity to work with an international team and focus on a particular testable hypothesis.”
Ultimately, the team of scientists hopes to make some observations about the effects of global climate change on the biosphere during a period that was free of human influence. “We have begun to understand biosphere recovery from global catastrophes,” said Wilson. “The cumulative data from the deep-time geological record will help us to understand effects on the current biosphere and inform governments of the best practices for mitigating the current biotic crisis.”
This National Geographic grant will also provide an opportunity for several more geology majors to collect data in Estonia for their Independent Study research — Wooster’s nationally acclaimed senior capstone experience in which a student works one-on-one with a faculty mentor on a research project that results in an undergraduate thesis.
1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, Ohio 44691. (330) 263-2000
© Map and Directions | Employment | A to Z Index | Contact Us | Terms and Conditions | Email | ScotWeb | ScotBlogs | Libraries | WHN