April 4, 2020

Jeremy Jackson: Paleontology and Paleobiology Conservation Biolog


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From Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

“There are no important questions today for understanding how the Earth works – ecologically, evolutionary, geochemically, oceanographically, meteorologically – that can be answered by a single person, or by a single discipline. All of the great questions are interdisciplinary. All of them require multiple kinds of expertise and all of them require teamwork and interaction.”

Research Focus

My research interests have evolved from a strict focus on the ecology of coral reefs to paleontological investigations of the evolution of marine ecosystems in response to environmental change and finally towards elucidating the causes and consequences of past and ongoing human activities on the health of ocean ecosystems. I co-founded with Tony Coates a multidisciplinary international research team to document the ecological responses of marine ecosystems to changes in oceanography due to the gradual isolation of the by the rise of the Central American Isthmus and am continuing research on the underlying factors responsible for evolutionary change in select lineages and the mass extinction that occurred at the beginning of the Pleistocene. My  other current focus is on historical ecology, more specifically in demonstrating the trajectory and ecological consequences of different human activities on the structure and function of ocean ecosystems over the past few thousand years.

How do different factors interact to cause a mass extinction?

Paleontologists traditionally look for prominent environmental events to explain pulses of speciation and extinction in the fossil record. But ecological insight suggests that a more complex series of cascading events stretching over a million years or more are most likely responsible, including not only environmental change but also biological interactions and the phenomenon of ‘extinction debt’ developed for conservation biology. I am examining changes in functional biology and history patterns to better understand the chronology of Caribbean extinctions over the past 5 million years.

Why does the Indo-West Pacific have so many more species than the Caribbean?

Our recent work on bryozoans demonstrates that species richness was similar in both regions 5 million years ago, and the same was apparently true for reef corals.  Ongoing work suggests that the Mediterranean host similar species diversity before it dried up at about the same time. The obvious implication is that the great differences in species diversity today between the Caribbean and Mediterranean versus the Indo-West Pacific is due mass extinction in the Caribbean and Mediterranean rather than, has long been speculated, higher speciation rates in the Pacific.

How and when has the trajectory of human activities on the oceans transitioned from predominantly local to global impacts and what is their relative importance today?

We have long known that fishing intensified sufficiently by the time of the Roman Empire to drastically deplete Mediterranean fish stocks but have only recently documented the deep historical roots of overfishing worldwide. My group is working to untangle the history of human disturbance and the comparative consequences, of fishing, land use, habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change on Caribbean coral reef ecosystems. The central question is to what extent local management to regulate and diminish fishing, habitat destruction, and pollution on coral reefs can increase their resilience to coral bleaching, disease, and acidification due to the anthropogenic rise in CO2?

How distinct is the Caribbean marine biota from other tropical seas?

The Caribbean is a Mediterranean sea landlocked to the north, west, and south, and isolated from all other tropical oceans for 5 to 3 million years. Biotas in many groups are also deeply divergent as demonstrated especially for reef corals, but also for other groups such as bryozoans. I am interested in the extent to which this isolation has affected the ability of Caribbean biotas to cope with human disturbance. For example, the recent supposedly global extreme coral bleaching events did not occur in the Caribbean, whereas disease outbreaks appear to be more pervasive and fatal to Caribbean invertebrates such as corals and sea urchins than elsewhere in the tropics.


Publications by Jeremy Jackson in STRI Bibliography

Publications available in PDF


[email protected]+1 (858) 518-7613

For more on this story go to; https://stri.si.edu/scientist/jeremy-jackson

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