The Biology and Paleo Environment Division (B&PE) is a diverse group of oceanographers, geologists, geochemists, biologists and environmental scientists who pursue research in two connected efforts. First, we use biology (usually looking at fossils) to uncover clues about Earth’s past environment. We also strive to understand how the modern environment— through its oceans, atmosphere and land—affects present-day biology.
All organisms record the environment in which they exist. Ecosystems are shaped by such factors as temperature, water availability, nutrients, light and chemical or physical changes and, hence, shape the creatures that live in them. These organisms, in turn, exert an influence on their surrounding environment. By studying living organisms or fossil remains, B&PE scientists can make sense of Earth’s current environment, how it has changed through time and what may be expected in the future as current trends play out.
B&PE scientists turn to a number of primary sources to conduct research on past environments, including deep-sea sediment cores, samples from coral reefs and growth rings of trees. Deep-sea sediment cores are like tape recordings of the past that allow scientists to look at Earth’s history over the last several million years. In an example of such research Lamont-Doherty scientist Peter deMenocal and former graduate student Sarah Feakins examined leaf wax from plant material preserved in deep-sea cores to link major climate changes with fundamental evolutionary events in human history.