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Diving Into the Past: Duquesne Biologist Documents Ancient History in Australia

A Duquesne University biologist is helping to document a living, reef-like structure in remote Australia while examining the most ancient fossil records of life on Earth.

Dr. John Stolz, professor of biology and director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education, has traveled to western Australia's Shark Bay World Heritage Site to study stromatolites-reef-like structures that form a living community of microorganisms.

Stromatolites are formed in shallow water by the trapping, binding and cementation of sediment by microorganisms. These living organisms provide the most ancient records of life on Earth by fossil remains.

"It's a window into our past-a living window-in the sense that the living organisms around today are the result of more than three billion years of evolution," Stolz said. "The organisms we're studying today are similar to what existed way back when."

Stolz partnered with Dr. Pam Reid, professor at the University of Miami's Department of Marine Geology and Geophysics, whose long-term goal is to map the entire Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve in Shark Bay to show the diversity and distribution of its stromatolites and the organisms forming them.

The research location is remote and not readily accessible; the Australian government requires permits for any sampling. The research itself can be dangerous, with stinging jellyfish and poisonous sea snakes prevalent in the area. "A single bite from a sea snake can be fatal," cautioned Stolz, who only had one close encounter with a snake during his trip.

Stolz and Reid looked at different microbial communities forming the structures of reefs, which come in various shapes and sizes and thrive at Hamelin Pool because its water has a higher saline content than sea water.

While the stromatolites have been studied by geologists for decades, Stolz said that biologists and ecologists have just begun researching the communities in any detail.

"It's the ecology that leaves behind this rock record," said Stolz, who has examined other reef-like structures near the Bahamas. "If we can tease apart some of the ecology and the community diversity, we have a better window on what life was like hundreds of millions of years ago."

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.