The Continuing Change of Evolution: As Studied by Dr. Geerat Vermeij

Fall 2012 –

Have you ever wondered why there are so many different varieties of life on land from flying, winged animals to ones that crawl or ones that climb yet when you look at life in the ocean, it all seems to fall into the same general category: fish? Last Thursday, October 25, famed marine scientist Dr. Geerat J. Vermeij, came to speak at Benton Hall, in his lecture “Moving Among Realms: Life in Freshwater, the Sea, and on Land”, on exactly these types of questions.

Dr. Vermeij is renowned for his work studying the shells of various mollusks and determining their evolutionary process and function in regards to earth’s life history and how our planet has changed over time. Dr. Vermeij brings a very unique and exciting aspect to his study of shells. Blind since age three, Dr. Vermeij studies shells entirely by touch, with his hands and the help of some very sophisticated instruments. Rather then hampering his studies, however, his condition allows him to have an unparalleled perspective on the intricate ridges, nodules, and other structural elements that mollusks have evolved over time as protection from predators.

His lecture on Thursday night covered much more than simple shellfish. Dr. Vermeij lectured not only on why land has developed so much more diversity in species than water, but also on how patterns of evolution will continue to adapt and have effects throughout Earth’s future, especially in the face of climate change. According to Vermeij, 15% of species on Earth are saltwater dwellers, and 2% freshwater dwellers, while a whopping 85% of all species, plant or animal, live on land. Nevertheless, this was not always the case.

In prehistoric times the sea was originally the cradle of life, with the majority of species residing in water. It wasn’t until around 320 million years ago that the photosynthetic capacity of earth (the ability of land dwelling bacteria to take in carbon dioxide and sunlight) increased enough to allow more complex creatures to form on land.

With this knowledge of how atmospheric change caused such a major shift in earth’s life forms, the question then becomes: What happens with climate change and the increased amount of carbon in the atmosphere? Vermeij, with the abundance of his research and knowledge on what spurs evolutionary change, concludes that any drastic shift in life will take many more millions of years to happen. But it is inevitable that the changes we are bringing to the planet now will render life on earth enormously different in the future than it is today.

Simple questions that produce such intense investigation as the one above is the crux of Vermeij’s studies, as he states that, “Asking apparently silly questions about ordinary things can be extraordinarily fruitful”. As Dr. Vermeij proved through his lecture, the simple question of what drives the formation of different shells can lead us to answers as to where life on earth is headed.

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