Mobilizing Millions of Marine Mollusks of the Eastern Seaboard

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Mobilizing Millions of Marine Mollusks of the Eastern Seaboard

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Project Summary

The Eastern Seaboard of the United States (ESB, U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone) stretches from the Canadian border on the Atlantic along nearly 6,000 km of eastern coastline, around the Floridian Peninsula, and along the Gulf of Mexico to the south end of the Texan coast, including 18 U.S. states. The ESB region is densely populated, with 47% of the U.S. population expected to inhabit the counties adjacent to the shoreline by 2021. Habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, and climate change threaten commercially and ecologically important marine species all along the ESB. This project will make occurrence data with map coordinates available for over 3,000 species of mollusks that find their habitat along the ESB, including mussels, clams, conchs, snails, and squid. Data from these ecologically and commercially important species (over 4.5 million individual specimens) will be made available through public online data portals. While the geographic ranges for many species of mollusks are well-known, the extent of their distribution within the seafloor habitats they occupy is unknown. Adding map coordinates to occurrence records for live-collected mollusks in natural history collections will provide detailed knowledge of distributions. Because natural history collections have specimens collected from the mid-1800s to present, these occurrence records can help track distributional changes over time and lead to better fisheries and conservation management.

One hundred million mollusk specimens have been documented in natural history collections across North America, and the breadth, depth, and growth of these collections is exceptionally well-known compared to other invertebrate taxa. Mollusks are among the best sampled group of animals, with some species having over 2,000 digital records available in natural history collections making them extremely well-suited for environmental and biogeographical studies that track faunal change over time and space. However, already-digitized mollusk lots are missing essential data such as collecting date (30% of records) and reliable georeferences (85% of records). This project will generate reliable geo-coordinate data for all covered specimen lots using a collaborative georeferencing project in GeoLocate. GeoLocate will add layers for bathymetric data, benthic habitat, and marine conservation areas. Incorporating bathymetry into GeoLocate to determine the extent of locations will also provide that capability for complex elevational data for terrestrial species. Important trait data will also be incorporated. For the first time, molluscan occurrence data will distinguish between live- and dead-collected specimens, with a defined vocabulary for traits added to each record. Due to the long persistence of molluscan shells, the live/dead- collected distinction is crucial for all studies of biotic change using mollusks. Information on collecting dates will be refined where possible to increase resolution for detecting biotic changes. The data will be shared through public data repositories, including iDigBio, GBIF, OBIS, and the InvertEBase Symbiota portal.

Current Research

Project Websites & Social Media

Twitter: @EMollusks

Instagram: @eastern_seaboard_mollusks



Citizen Science & Outreach Projects

Project Leadership

Project sponsor: Field Museum of Natural History

Principal Investigator (PI): Rudiger Bieler (PI), Petra Sierwald (co-PI)

Project Collaborators

Field Museum of Natural History

Bieler, Rudiger, (NSF Award #2001510)

Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

Larson, Paul: (subaward of NSF Award #2001510)

Harbor Branch Oceanographic Museum

Hanisak, Dennis: (subaward of NSF Award #2001510)

Houston Museum of Nature and Science

Petway, Tina: (subaward of NSF Award #2001510)

University of Michigan Ann Arbor

Duda, Thomas F., (NSF Award #2001290)

Friends of the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences

Smith, Jamie M., (NSF Award #2001507)

University of Florida

Slapcinsky, John, (NSF Award #2001515)

Delaware Museum of Natural History, Inc.

Shea, Elizabeth K., (NSF Award #2001523)

Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

Traylor-Knowles, Nikki: (subaward of NSF Award #2001523)

GeoLocate, Yale University, Peabody Museum

Rios, Nelson: (subaward of NSF Award #2001523)

Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

Leal, Jose H., (NSF Award #2001528)

Harvard University

Giribet, Gonzalo, (NSF Award #2001536)

Carnegie Institute

Pearce, Timothy A., (NSF Award #2001546)

Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia

Rosenberg, Gary, (NSF Award #2001570)

Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History Foundation

Vendetti, Jann E., (NSF Award #2001600)

Protocols & Workflows

A basic guide to specimen photography in museum collections (Callomon 2021). This work was created as part of a series on photographing natural history specimens in a workroom or laboratory, but it should be useful for any project that requires “record photography” of relatively small objects. That term defines the basic purpose of the image: to create the most objective possible representation of an object so that it can compared with other similar ones. It is hoped that this will prove a practical guide that assists museum workers in setting up programs to produce large numbers of high-quality images. Some basic photographic principles are explained and options for equipment and techniques are presented, with specific reference to digital cameras.

A simple system for holding mollusk shells and other small objects for photography (Callomon 2020). A practical guide to making the photography mounts used in the Department of Malacology, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia.

Standard views for imaging mollusk shells (Callomon 2019). This stand-alone paper gives examples of standard poses and view sets for use in photographing mollusk shells. Standardization of orientation allows morphological comparisons within and across projects.


Professional Presentations

Other project documentation


2021 Adding unique molluscan live-dead data from the Paleontological Research Institution to the Eastern Seaboard TCN

The Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) will join the Eastern Seaboard Thematic Collection Network (ESB TCN) as a Partner to an Existing Network (PEN). The PRI’s collection houses hundreds of bulk samples of mollusks from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States that are highly relevant to the TCN’s goal of linking reliable live-dead trait data to molluscan specimen records. Adding the live-dead status of the mollusks collected greatly facilitates research regarding faunal changes over time and how they correlate with certain environmentally significant events. This project will increase the accessibility and discoverability of these collections, which can be used to assess the status and trends of estuarine resources along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States, particularly oyster reefs. The live-dead samples to be digitized for this project will help: 1) define baselines for estuarine habitats that are often overlooked, and under increasing stress from climate change, invasive species, pollution, overfishing, and habitat destruction, 2) detect recent natural and anthropogenic environmental changes, 3) develop a narrative of the historical range of variability, 4) set realistic targets for restoration, and 5) recognize ecological legacies that can be explained only by events or conditions that are not present in the ecosystem today. These data will help guide management, planning, and restoration efforts for these vulnerable habitats. The outreach activities for the project will create awareness of the value of museum collections in solving environmental change problems.

The project will digitize ~158,500 specimens – where the live-dead status of specimens is already known – with enhanced data (e.g., georeferences, updated taxonomy, specimen-level trait data) and mobilize them via online data aggregators, such as The primary benefits of these activities to the ESB TCN include: 1) increasing the amount of reliable live-dead collected trait data available, 2) increasing the representation of early life stages of mollusk species, particularly for economically and ecologically important oysters, 3) increasing the representation of estuarine molluscan taxa, and 4) helping to fill a geographic gap in the ESB TCN dataset. Imaging of 27 ESB type specimens will also support the ESB TCN’s goal of linking verified specimen records to photographs of type specimens, helping to increase public access to reliable species information. Beyond the scientific value of the live-dead data that the PRI will contribute to the ESB TCN, this project will build on the PRI’s strong history in developing open access, online introductory-level textbook materials about paleontology and the fossil record. Specific outreach activities include: 1) developing a new page about the importance of live-dead molluscan studies to the existing Digital Encyclopedia of Ancient Life (DEAL) chapter on conservation paleobiology and 2) creating a short (3-5 minute) video with closed captioning about the importance of live-dead molluscan studies as a conservation tool that will be shared on PRI’s YouTube channel and embedded in the DEAL page itself.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Project Sponsor: Paleontological Research Institute

Principal Investigator(s): Gregory Dietl (Principal Investigator)