Whitney Lapic, Paleoecologist

Fig 1. This was from August 2019. I was on a research vessel off the coast of Florida, helping the EAT team collect specimens.

Some background information for you all– I am a second year Master’s student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I would consider myself an aspiring paleoecologist and paleobiologist. And my interests lie in paleoecology, specifically predator – prey interactions, as well as science communication.

We know that predation plays a role in influencing modern ecosystems and so my research explores the impact that predation had on shaping ecosystems through geologic time. I am specifically looking at echinoids and how sea urchins and sand dollars evolved after new groups of predators emerged during the Mesozoic Marine Revolution (MMR). This time in Earth’s history is known for rapid diversification and emergence of new groups of marine life – many of which can be found in our oceans today. With all of these new or bigger and better predators in the oceans, prey, such as sea urchins, need to develop ways that they can deter predators from successfully attacking and preying on them.

The project that I am working on is part of the Echinoid Associated Traces Project (EAT) which addresses a wide range of paleoecological questions using biotic interactions and echinoids. My project investigates whether or not trends that can be seen in mollusks and their predators during the MMR can be seen in other groups of organisms. Recent studies suggest that the MMR was not this singular, homogenous event that it has previously thought to have been and so, we are looking at the timing of these potential escalatory trends in echinoids relative to other groups of organisms in which these trends have been so thoroughly demonstrated.

Fig 2. This is Encope, a live sand dollar that was collected off the coast of Florida.
Fig 3. In fall of 2019, I travelled to Moscow, Russia for the European Conference on Echinoderms. I attended a field trip and had the opportunity to look for sea urchin fossils.

When you think of sea urchins, you might think of long, sharp spines covering the entire organism, but that isn’t always the case. To determine if sea urchins developed traits to deter predators, we first need to find out what helps them avoid becoming prey. Over the past year, I have been identifying characteristics that we propose serve some form of antipredatory function. These morphologies include long and wide spines as well as spines that have unique shapes or sharp thorns covering them. These morphologies can actively deter predators by inflicting damage or they can promote the settlement of encrusting organisms that may provide camouflage. With the help of our undergraduate interns, I have been collecting data on these antipredatory morphologies across groups of echinoids.

Collecting data from so many specimens is no easy feat during a global pandemic. Thankfully, recent years have given rise to online databases and collections such as IDigBio. While it is no replacement for traveling to a museum to search for specimens, using images downloaded from IDigBio, our interns and I can still view hundreds of specimens from museums around the world. Through these virtual collections, we can digitally measure and categorize specimens and their antipredatory morphologies.

As an undergraduate student, I was unaware of some of these resources that were available to me, and so I feel as if they are perhaps unknown to undergraduate students who may be unable to work hands on with museum specimens for any number of reasons. With the current pandemic, the need for digital collections and databases is that much clearer. I am incredibly lucky that I am still able to continue my research and that my project may provide internship opportunities for the undergraduates involved, and much of that is due to the digitalization of museum collections.

Fig 4. Goniocidaris tenuispina (USNM E0001335), a sea urchin with highly ornate and long spines. This specific specimen is one of hundreds observed from collections that have been digitalized and made available through IDigBio. This image is from the Smithsonian and is from the NMNH Extant Specimen Records. There is a Creative Commons license (CC0) associated with it, so it is not subject to copyright.

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