Biodiversity on a Changing Planet

Two rows of shells, 6 in each row. Top row shows modern, bottom row is same shells from Pliocene, showing small variations in color and pattern.


The fossil and modern western Atlantic (WA) molluscan fauna spanning the last 3.2 million years (myrs), combined with data on functional traits and physiology, can be leveraged to predict biotic responses to climate change. This fauna has thousands of species, including many still extant and some that are economically important, large numbers of digitized distributional records, and spans 2 intervals of warming, 3.25–3.025 myrs ago (the mid-Pliocene Warm Period, mPWP), and 130,000–123,000 years ago (the Last Interglacial). This provides a detailed framework for quantifying origination, extinction, and biogeographic changes experienced over macroevolutionary time scales during climatic warming. Statistical analyses of functional traits, supplemented by multi-stressor experiments to assess physiological response in extant species, can determine which factors best predict species survival and extinction. In addition, detailed past, present, and future climate models indicate climatic conditions soon to be experienced by this fauna are comparable to those prevalent during the mPWP.


The goal of this proposed research is to use the fossil record and extant biota of Western Atlantic mollusks to develop a predictive framework for which species will survive and which will go extinct over the next few centuries due to profound human-induced climate change. Many taxa in this biota provide significant food resources. Our work will examine key functional traits associated with long term species survival, including physiological variables such as metabolic rate, which is strongly influenced by climate and a highly significant predictor of extinction probability in marine mollusks over the last 3.2 myrs. We will:

  1. Collect functional trait data from fossil and modern mollusks
  2. Use statistical analyses of these to quantify their contributions to extinction resistance
  3. Perform experimental studies to ground truth the relationship between mollusk physiology, climate, and ocean acidification
  4. Apply an ecological niche modeling (ENM) approach to place past and predicted future species distributions in the context of past and forecasted future marine conditions, all in order to develop a predictive framework for understanding the past and quantifying the future of this biota

Broader Impacts

The work has 9 associated broader impacts, with a focus on outreach primarily targeting K-16 students from historically excluded groups. 1) We will partner with environmental non-profit Bridging the Gap, which works with K-12 schools and organizations in the Kansas City metro area, and add to their educational materials on climate change impacts, conduct outreach, and give presentations to schools and organizations. 2) We will mentor undergraduates from historically-excluded groups recruited via a program at the University of Kansas (KU). 3) We will work with another program at KU that helps students from first generation, low-income, and historically excluded groups in Kansas City, KS middle schools succeed academically, and provide new outreach and education on climate change. 4) We will develop a physical and online museum exhibit on fossil and modern mollusks at the Paleontological Research Institution’s Museum of the Earth. 5) New images, species records, and occurrence data will be added to the existing online Neogene Atlas of Ancient Life. 6) Additions will be made to a citizen-science program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to provide outreach to students at a high school and community college with large numbers of female and historically-excluded students. 7) We will expand on a residential science camp at William & Mary (W&M) to provide STEM enrichment and research opportunities to low-income high school students from historically excluded backgrounds.8) We will enhance an academic support program focusing on first generation and historically excluded undergraduates at W&M by providing novel field and research opportunities. 9) At least 3 post-doctoral scholars, 2 graduate students, and 16 undergraduate students will receive training.


This project involves Bruce S. Lieberman at KU, as well as Biodiversity Institute research affiliates Erin Saupe (Oxford University), and Luke Strotz (Northwest University), as well as Jonathan Hendricks (Paleontological Research Institution), Rowan Lockwood (William & Mary), and Emily Rivest (Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences).

More information on the project is available in the 2022 KU News article, Study will predict fate of Western Atlantic mollusks by scouring ancient fossil record.


  • Bruce S. Lieberman

  • Erin Saupe, Oxford University

  • Luke Strotz, Northwest University

  • Jonathan Hendricks, Paleontological Research Institution

  • Rowan Lockwood, William & Mary

  • Emily Rivest, Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences