Oswego researcher wins NSF grant to probe mass-extinction puzzle

SUNY Oswego earth sciences faculty member and paleontologist Diana Boyer has received a three-year, $52,000 National Science Foundation grant to advance understanding of a mass extinction whose evidence lies in ancient layers of black shale in Western New York and Eastern Ohio.

Diana Boyer and Amanda Snyder check samples of dissolved black shaleThe collaborative grant, coupled with another for University of California, Riverside, will allow scientists and students to benefit from each institution’s high-tech equipment and expertise in paleontology and geochemistry to assemble new pieces of a longstanding puzzle of what caused the mass die-off in the Appalachian Basin sea about 375 million years ago.

Boyer said the project will rely on a centimeter-by-centimeter investigation of shale strata, comparing data on five Devonian extinction events—an approach made possible by state-of-the-art analytical techniques at Oswego and in California. A key is identifying trace elements that can potentially indicate what it was about the chemistry of the ocean at that time—in particular, oxygen levels—that could have served as the kill mechanism of this mass extinction.

“From the chemistry of the rocks, we can tell what was happening with the ocean’s oxygen level,” Boyer said. “We are trying to capture even small-scale changes by looking at the signals at the elemental level.”

The importance of investigating prehistoric die-offs is significant in light of human-inflicted ocean inputs—adding nutrients from garbage, pollutants from runoff and so on—that result in reduced oxygen and can reach a threshold where conditions are past recovery, she said.

“Probably the biggest significance (of understanding mass extinction) is how oxygen stress affects ocean life, given what we as humans are doing to coastal waters today,” Boyer said.

Student opportunities

Providing further clues to what happened in the Late Devonian die-off, the college’s Varian ICP-MS (inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer) and UCRiverside’s equipment and techniques for analyzing biomarkers in dissolved samples of rock will probe geochemical similarities and differences across several mass-extinction events.

“I am extremely excited about the grant,” Boyer said. “This is an amazing opportunity for me and for students to work with significant resources from the National Science Foundation on significant questions.”

One SUNY Oswego student, senior biology major and geology minor Amber Snyder, already has started with the project, analyzing dissolved samples of rock from earlier trips to exposed shale beds in Western New York.

“I got trained on an ICP-MS—that’s something many graduate students don’t get to do. I got that opportunity as an undergraduate, and I’m very happy about that,” said Snyder, who is leaning toward environmental sustainability with a focus on limnology (study of freshwater lakes) when she enters graduate school.

Boyer said another student, Juanita Diaz, will accompany her on a sample-gathering trip to another geological site west of Cleveland this summer.

The University of California, Riverside’s collaborative grant of $206,000 for the project will support significantly more expensive analysis there, as well as a K-12 program among young students—many from underrepresented ethnic groups—to interest and train them in the sciences.

PHOTO CAPTION: Puzzle pieces—SUNY Oswego earth sciences faculty member Diana Boyer and senior biology major Amber Snyder check samples of dissolved black shale that may hold clues to what caused a mass extinction about 375 million years ago. The work, here involving the college’s inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, is part of a $52,000 National Science Foundation grant to Oswego in collaboration with recipients of a second grant at University of California, Riverside.

(Posted: Apr 10, 2014)

Tags: research news: faculty student collaborations, research experience for undergraduates, research, geology, earth sciences, diana boyer