EMU paleontologist wins grant to analyze new species of fossil macroalgae and links between early marine plant life, animals

Goal is to develop a more complete story for history of early life

by Pamela Young, Published June 03, 2013

YPSILANTI - Steven LoDuca is one professor whose research takes him deep into the past.

He spends his time examining remnants of marine plant life that lived and thrived throughout North America and elsewhere nearly 500 million years ago.

LoDuca, a paleontologist at Eastern Michigan University, and his co-researcher, Shuhai Xiao, a professor of geobiology at Virginia Tech, were recently awarded a $160,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for a three-year research project to analyze this early life.

Paleontologist Steven LoDuca, left, is one of only a small group of scientists specializing in fossils of early plant life

He and Xiao will focus on fossils that represent the organic remains of early marine plants. These plants, called macroalgae, were the first plants in the history of life large enough to be seen with the naked eye. The grant will help to document the diversity of macroalgae that lived at different times and at different places on the early Earth.

Both researchers are members of a small group of paleontologists specializing in this type of research.

"This baseline study will establish the foundation necessary for a larger-scale investigation of the earth-life system during this critical interval," said LoDuca, a professor in the Department of Geography and Geology. "This includes evolutionary feedback between early marine animals and algae, and changing carbon cycle dynamics."

LoDuca's research will include examining the role of macroalgae in the carbon cycle during the early history of the Earth.  During this cycle, macroalgae take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and then, when they die and are buried, develop into fossil fuels made of carbon like coal and oil. It's a process that occurs over millions of years.

The grant will allow LoDuca and Xiao to analyze and describe new species of fossil macroalgae ranging from 1.2 billion to 400 million years old that have been recovered from several continents. They'll also study fossil specimens from the same time period that are currently housed in major museums in China, Europe and the United States.

"Once we complete the basic inventory, it will be possible to document diversification events among macroalgae," LoDuca said. "We'll then look to see if there was a correlation between diversification events for marine algae and those previously documented for marine animals, such as the Cambrian Explosion, and we'll look for links between marine plants and animals in terms of one group influencing the evolution of the other."

A fossil alga that is part of the public display of the famous Burgess Shale fossils at the Smithsonian. It is only two inches wide.

Working with fossils takes patience. "We do a lot of digging," he said. "We do field work near Escanaba, and around the Midwest and Canada. The entire North American continent was covered in a shallow sea during the ancient past, so important fossil deposits for this work are distributed widely across the area."

In addition to fieldwork, LoDuca also works in his lab with fossils sent to him from all over the world.

One of his most interesting research sojourns took place last summer when he visited the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.  LoDuca and Kara Marsac, an EMU undergraduate student, worked with the museum's fossil collections. It was a rare opportunity for Marsac because undergraduates normally don't have such access to those collections. 

During their visit, they made the first detailed observations using an electron microscope of specimens collected 100 years ago from the Burgess Shale. Located in the Canadian Rockies, this deposit is famous for its exceptionally well-preserved fossils of early life. In addition to a wide array of macroalgae, this fossil deposit includes many fossilized marine animals, some with bizarre anatomical features. For example, one tiny creature, called Opabinia, was found to have five eyes, and a long appendage that extended off the head with a pincer-like structure at the end.

In connection with this project, LoDuca will be traveling to China this summer to attend a workshop jointly funded by the NSF and the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The workshop is intended to foster collaborative research between U.S. and Chinese paleontologists. LoDuca was one of only a handful of U.S. paleontologists selected to take part in this workshop.

"It is a dream come true to work with materials in the best museums and to connect with paleontologists around the world," LoDuca said. "By working together with my co-researcher, Shuhai Xiao, we can develop a more complete story for the history of early life."




Pamela Young

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