Perse community lecture – ‘listening to shells’ (text & video)

We were pleased to welcome Liz Harper, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, to give the latest online Perse Community Lecture.

Prof Harper provided an insight into evolutionary biology and climate change in her talk entitled Listening to Shells.

She explained the origin of molluscs and the variety of molluscs and brachiopods, as well as how fossils can help us to understand shells and how and why they adapted to suit the organism and environment.

Prof Harper reflected on the materials aspect of shells, using the example of nacre, the ‘wonder material’ of mother of pearl, which has unexpectedly remained unchanged over the past few eras, suggesting that evolutionary development has turned its back on one of the most successful materials.

She outlined that the development of lighter shell materials has enabled species to thrive within their specific habitats. However, ongoing ocean acidification does pose a threat to organisms that make a shell, given the current ocean surface pH of 8.1 is expected to decrease significantly due to climate change, especially those that lay down shells made of calcium carbonate, such as sea butterflies.

Prof Harper gave an insight into the current methodology of research on how shell state and repair can be assessed and said observations suggest nature is showing an ability to adapt and repair, such as with New Zealand brachiopods.

However, she concluded that it was clear that there is permanent damage to the shell surface and to cope with the decreasing pH level in oceans, shell laying organisms are compensating at great cost in terms of the growth and reproductive aspects of their lives.

The event was free of charge, but with voluntary donations welcomed in support of Christel House Schools, a charity that transforms the lives of children by building and running learning centres in some of the world’s most deprived communities.

If you were unable to attend and would like to watch a recording of Prof Harper’s lecture, please click here.

The Perse School Cambridge, 21 June 2021. Text and video.

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