Project Overview

Functional responses to warming seas: trait variation along modern and ancient environmental gradients

Faculty Sponsor

Paul Harnik (


Earth and Environmental Geosciences


Coastal environments are rapidly changing due to rising temperatures and nutrient pollution. Primary productivity is enhanced in warmer, nutrient-rich waters, but the resulting decomposition of algal blooms contributes to ocean deoxygenation and acidification which can adversely affect marine organisms at higher trophic levels. In the Paleo Lab, we use two approaches to investigate the sensitivity of marine species to anthropogenic environmental change: 1) we compare populations in different regions of the oceans today to see how their characteristics vary with environmental conditions; and 2) we compare populations over time using the skeletal remains of historical populations that are preserved in marine sediments. In the summer of 2024, we will apply these approaches in two geographic settings, the Gulf of Mexico which includes one of the world’s largest oxygen-limited dead zones, and the Gulf of Maine which is one of the most rapidly warming regions of the oceans today. We will focus on marine mollusks because of their diversity and abundance in coastal habitats, and because their biomineralized tissues (shells) can persist for millennia on the seafloor and can be dated using radiocarbon analysis. Participating students will gather data on the functional traits (e.g., egg size, body size) of past and present marine populations in the lab using a combination of light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy. Students will learn to program in R to explore their data and conduct quantitative analyses. Students may also have the opportunity to participate in coastal fieldwork and/or data collection at other institutions. The Paleo Lab will work on these projects in collaboration with Prof. Rebecca Metzler in Physics and Astronomy, and our labs will hold group research meetings throughout the eight weeks. Individual student projects will consider how life histories and other functional traits vary along modern and ancient environmental gradients.

Student Qualifications

All students interested in interdisciplinary science are encouraged to apply. The Department of Earth and Environmental Geosciences encourages all students interested in summer research opportunities to meet with potential faculty supervisors before submitting their applications.

Number of Student Researchers

4 students

Project Length

8 weeks

Applications open on 10/03/2023 and close on 02/28/2024

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If you have questions, please contact Karyn Belanger (