Burke Museum Home


These are some research projects Curator of Malacology, Kirsten Rowell, is currently working on.

Ecological and Environmental Reconstructions

Reconstructing historical conditions gives biologists and managers a benchmark from which they can make comparisons and measure change in ecosystems - and it is exactly what is missing in many ecosystems, ecological baselines. The lack of pre-disturbance information on environments and it inhabitants makes it nearly impossible to quantify impacts from disturbance events such as dams and river regulation, climate change and pollution, or over harvesting and development. I use the chemistry (primarily stable isotopes of C, O, and N) embedded in skeletal remains of animals such as snails, bivalves and fish to tell me about salinity, temperature, productivity, food-web structure and population structure. Shells and bones from specimens that lived thousands of years ago are like geochemical banks that hold a bounty of environmental and biological information. I use this information to measure environmental change over time.

Totoaba fish in Colorado River Estuary

Grace Harbour Clamgardens

First Nations Clam Gardens in British Columbia

Mariculture has been practiced for thousands of years. The recent and local discovery of several hundred expansive rock walls at the lower intertidal boundary of small bays, later recognized as ancient clam gardens, has prompted many questions about this ancient mariculture technique and its influence on coastal productivity. I’m working with a team of archaeologists, ecologists, and traditional ecological knowledge holders to provide evidence for the past ecological and cultural role of clam gardens that may inform contemporary conservation strategies. It is widely assumed that clam gardens served to increase secondary production of clam beaches managed by First Nations. I use a suite of isotopes in concert with growth increments to empirically test these questions from an experimental ecology standpoint.

Conservation and management in the Gulf of California

Only 80 years ago, the upper Gulf of California was dominated by the influence of the Colorado River inflow. The spring melt from the Rocky Mountains, used to connect the interior continental United States to the coast of Mexico. Today the over allocation of the Colorado River flow has severed this connection. How has the wholesale removal of Colorado River water impacted the marine ecosystem? Through the chemistry within mollusks shells and fish bones collected by, Hohokam people, 1,000 - 5,000 years ago, I explore how the environment has changed and how these organisms have responded to this change.

Colorado River mouth sikes

Natural Histories Project

The Renessiance of Natural History

Natural history, the focused attention to the natural world, is in decline. In research, in education, and in society, people are spending less time in natural systems and managers often lack access to critical natural history information. These changes have far reaching consequences for how we interact with the natural world, and our ability to predict the responses of natural communities to perturbation. Over the past two years I have been pushing the natural history Initiative forward. We have held Four, week-long conferences focused on the challenges, opportunities and future of Natural History in the 21st century. For more information on this initiative please see our website: or read the Biology Letters Meeting Report out (2011) on the conferences. Over 75 tangible outcomes spawned from these conferences in the form of products, activities and projects. One of my favorites is the Natural Histories Project.