The Living Sea: How a Group of Women Botanists Proved that Coral Reefs are...

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Linda Hall Library

5109 Cherry Street

Kansas City, MO 64110

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The program

Coral reefs are currently threatened with “functional collapse,” a result of global climate change.[i] Though reefs cover less than 2 percent of the ocean floor, they support nearly 25 percent of ocean species, making their potential collapse a catastrophic event for the world’s biodiversity and the people who depend on reef ecosystems.[ii] The paradox of the coral reef ecosystem lies in its immense diversity and productivity despite the nutrient poor environment in which it exists. Much of this productivity is due to algae: “two-thirds of coral reef productivity is attributed to endosymbiotic dinoflagellates and one-third to other algae.”[iii] But the history of how scientists came to understand coral reefs has focused on their geological structure and distribution, and not their functions of life. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, algologists (a botanist who studies algae, also called phycologists) conducted research on the multiple ecological roles of algae on coral reefs. This talk explores how algologists, and in particular Anna Weber-van Bosse (1852-1942) and Ethel Barton Gepp (1864-1922), reframed the discussion of coral reefs from geological structures to living units, thus shaping the modern concept of the reef ecosystem.

Anna Weber-van Bosse was the first woman to be included as an official member of the scientific staff of an oceanographic expedition. She was responsible for studying the marine flora during the Siboga expedition (1899-1900), a Dutch government sponsored scientific exploration of the deep and shallow oceans of the East Indies Archipelago (modern day Indonesia). The year-long expedition made extensive collections of the marine plants and animals, and the resulting publications yielded 148 individual reports, published between 1901 and 1970. The Linda Hall Library holds the largest collection of the Siboga reports in the United States. Some of the Siboga reports will be on display during the lecture.



[i] O. Hoegh-Guldberg, P J Mumby, A J Hooten, R S Steneck, P Greenfield, E Gomez, C D Harvell, et al, “Coral Reefs Under Rapid Climate Change and Ocean Acidification,” Science 318 (2007): 1737-1742, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/318/5857/1737.abstract.

[ii] The Smithsonian Ocean Portal Team, “Introduction: Corals and Coral Reefs,” reviewed by Nancy Knowlton, https://ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/corals-and-coral-reefs.

[iii] Linda Graham, James Graham and Lee Wilcox, Algae, second edition, San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings: 2009, p. 548.

The speaker

Emily Hutcheson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in History of Science. She holds an MA in History of Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and MA in History and Philosophy of Science from Florida State University and a BA in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Yale University.

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Linda Hall Library

5109 Cherry Street

Kansas City, MO 64110

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