Andy Estep '07 and Leslie Mills '08 spent winter term in the Bahamas, but sunbathing was not on their to-do lists. Instead, the burgeoning scientists helped Associate Professor of Geology Karla Parsons-Hubbard, Rebekah Shepard '02, and Matthew McEttrick '05 retrieve clams, mussels, sea urchins, and wood from the ocean floor. Their project is part of a long-term research study of fossilization that Parsons-Hubbard began more than 12 years ago.
Parsons-Hubbard has monitored the decay rates of these objects for the past decade, charting changes that have occurred over time in the present-day environment. Her goal is to gain a better understanding of the ancient environments where similar remains where once buffeted about and partially dissolved before fossilization took place.
"We're interested in how animals become fossilized in the first place and how location affects the preservation of an animal once it dies," Parsons-Hubbard says. "Understanding these processes can help us reconstruct and study ancient underwater environments."
The group used the Johnson Sea Link, a manned research submersible that can descend to a maximum operating depth of 3,000 feet, to retrieve the samples from the ocean floor. Back on board their floating laboratory, Estep photographed the specimens while Mills documented the condition of the crab remains. Obie alumnus McEttrick catalogued the sea urchin remains, while Shepard–who had worked with Parsons-Hubbard as an undergraduate–helped the new assistants get their bearings and collected microbial samples for her PhD work at the University of California, Davis. All in all, the group worked up more than 1,000 specimens in only 10 days.
"Everyone worked very hard from the 7 a.m. breakfast call until well after 10 p.m. every night," says Parsons-Hubbard. "Our trip was very successful, and we look forward to finishing the collection process this summer in the Gulf of Mexico."