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Elizabeth A. Nesbitt, Ph.D.

Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology and Micropaleontology, Associate Professor, Earth and Space Sciences Department


(206) 543-5949


1) We study the fossil biotic communities that developed around ancient hydrocarbon seeps, now preserved in marine rocks along the west coast of North America. Modern faunas associated with methane seepage are being intensively studied off the coast of Oregon, and we are using the fossil seeps to give a long time – geologic time – perspective on these chemosymbiotic organisms. Seep mollusks and foraminifera are particularly abundant in Cenozoic rocks of the Pacific Northwest margin, following the establishment of a new tectonic regime with the initiation of the first Cascades volcanic chain, ~40 million years ago. Prior to that hydrocarbon seeps, and their associated communities, flourished along the California marine margin, and are now preserved in the northern Sacramento Valley. These provide a wealth of data for tracing evolutionary lineages, biodiversity, biogeographic distribution and comparisons with similar setting in New Zealand, Japan, Alaska. and southern Europe. I work closely on these projects with Dr. Ruth Martin (UW), Dr. Kathy Campbell, University of Auckland, New Zealand, and Dr. Marta Torres, COAS, Oregon State University.

2) We are investigating  the Recent microbiota of Puget Sound, from samples collected by Washington Department of Ecology (Puget Sound Ambient Monitoring Project) over the last 10 years. This sampling program continues and is the basis for the monitoring program that involves investigations of the macrobiota, sediment characterization, organic and inorganic pollutants in the Sound; until now no studies have been done on the foraminifera, ostracods and diatoms. These microscopic organisms  are very sensitive to their physical environments in terms of temperature, salinity, water-depth, light, sediment-water interface conditions, oxygen and pollutants. Our objective is to provide a biotic signal of abiotic conditions that have changed over the last 10 years, and compare these results with similar studies of estuaries and fjords microbiota from around the world. On this project, I am working with Dr. Ruth Martin and undergraduate students from the Earth & Space Sciences Department, as well as Dr. Brian Sherrod of the U.S. Geological Survey and Richard Groomer.

3) With graduate student Adelina Prentice, we are investigating Plio-Pleistocene littoral marine sequences along the eastern Pacific margin of southern Peru, Baja Mexico and California to understand the paleoecological changes during the “warm” Pliocene and cold Early Pleistocene.  Along coastal southern Peru the marine sequences have been dramatically uplifted at a rapid rate, and rare rocky intertidal ecosystems have been preserved.  Our research includes tracking the initiation of El Niño events both north and south of the equator, along this Pacific coastline.

4) We continue to work on the last major extinction event of marine faunas at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary (33 to 34 million years ago) when the Earth changed from a global greenhouse to an icehouse climate. Oceanographic studies indicate that this change was extremely rapid, resulting in ice sheets that extended across the entire Antarctic landmass for the first time in 10's of millions of years. Along the western Pacific margin there was nearly 100% turn-over of molluscan species. With graduate student, Bret Buskirk, we are expanding this study into the Rocky Mountains region with investigations into the molluscan fauna from lakes that span this critical boundary time.

5) We are broadening our investigation into shallow marine trace fossil assemblages and investigating their stratigraphic and paleoecological importance. With Dr. Gabriela Mangano, University of Saskatchewan, we are investigating the ichnofauna and ichnofabric of marine Cambrian formations in Eastern Washington and British Columbia. Such studies provide high-resolution data for reconstructing the histories of depositional basins along the coast margin of the Pacific.

photo of Liz Nesbitt
Standing above the Zambezi river in Zambia


Curator of Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway with artist Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson paleontologist from the Denver Museum of Natural & Science. This includes both an in-house exhibit, and one traveling exhibits that will tour nationally, and one small exhibit that will travel to small museums, libraries and community centers in Washington State.

Curator of The Big One: Earthquakes of the Pacific Northwest project that includes a traveling exhibit with visiting geologist, an in-house exhibit, an extensive Web site, and numerous outreach components. Collaborators on this project include numerous research scientists from the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and the University of Washington Earth and Space Sciences Department and College of Engineering, U.S. Geological Survey, and Washington Sea Grant (NOAA).

Curator of Life and Times of Washington State, a long-term exhibit depicting the geological history of our region with fossils and minerals and magnificent murals.

Curator of numerous small, temporary exhibits including the Olympic National Park seastar, ammonites, Quaternary salmon fossils, new mineral acquisitions, fossil dolphins from Washington and Oregon, and Antarctic meteorites.

Miocene seastar
Miocene seastar from Olympic National Park