Supplementary material from "A conservation palaeobiological perspective on Chesapeake Bay oysters"

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The eastern oyster plays a vital role in estuarine habitats, acting as an ecosystem engineer and improving water quality. Populations of Chesapeake Bay oysters have declined precipitously in recent decades. The fossil record, which preserves 500 000 years of once-thriving reefs, provides a unique opportunity to study pristine reefs to establish a possible baseline for mitigation. For this study, over 900 fossil oysters were examined from three Pleistocene localities in the Chesapeake region. Data on oyster shell lengths, lifespans and population density were assessed. Comparisons to modern Crassostrea virginica, sampled from modern monitoring surveys of similar environments, reveal that fossil oysters were significantly larger, longer-lived and more abundant than modern oysters from polyhaline salinity zones. This pattern results from the preferential harvesting of larger, reproductively more active females in the modern population. These fossil data, combined with modern estimates of age-based fecundity and mortality, make it possible to estimate ecosystem services in these long-dead reefs, including filtering capacity, which was an order of magnitude greater in the past than today. Conservation paleobiology can provide us with a picture of not just what the Chesapeake Bay looked like, but how it functioned, before humans.This article is part of the discussion meeting issue ‘The past is a foreign country: how much can the fossil record actually inform conservation?’.


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