Integrating Paleobiology, Archeology, and History to Inform Biological Conservation
The search for novel approaches to establishing ecological baselines (reference conditions) is constrained by the fact that most ecological studies span the past few decades, at most, and investigate ecosystems that have been substantially altered by human activities for decades, centuries, or more. Paleobiology, archeology, and history provide historical ecological context for biological conservation, remediation, and restoration. We argue that linking historical ecology explicitly with conservation can help unify related disciplines of conservation paleobiology, conservation archeobiology, and environmental history. Differences in the spatial and temporal resolution and extent (scale) of prehistoric, historic, and modern ecological data remain obstacles to integrating historical ecology and conservation biology, but the prolonged temporal extents of historical ecological data can help establish more complete baselines for restoration, document a historical range of ecological variability, and assist in determining desired future conditions. We used the eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) fishery of the Chesapeake Bay (U.S.A.) to demonstrate the utility of historical ecological data for elucidating oyster conservation and the need for an approach to conservation that transcends disciplinary boundaries. Historical ecological studies from the Chesapeake have documented dramatic declines (as much as 99%) in oyster abundance since the early to mid-1800s, changes in oyster size in response to different nutrient levels from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, and substantial reductions in oyster accretion rates (from 10 mm/year to effectively 0 mm/year) from the Late Holocene to modern times. Better integration of different historical ecological data sets and increased collaboration between paleobiologists, geologists, archeologists, environmental historians, and ecologists to create standardized research designs and methodologies will help unify prehistoric, historic, and modern time perspectives on biological conservation.