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Australian study a mecca for Shaler man

| Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
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John Stolz, a Shaler resident and biology professor at Duquesne University, spent two weeks on the other side of the world to study stromatolites, reef-like structures created by microorganisms, at Carbla Point, of Shark Bay, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in Australia.

John Stolz has studied marine systems from Massachusetts to the Bahamas, but this year, he took his research down under.

Stolz, a biologist at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, spent two weeks in Shark Bay, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage site in western Australia to study stromatolites — reef-like structures created by microorganisms.

“These stromatolites are a special kind of reef made by microorganisms instead of coral, similar to reefs that go back 3.4 million years in the rock record,” said Stolz, of Shaler.

“(Shark Bay) is a place where these microorganisms are living today … so we're using this system to help us understand this fossil record.”

Stolz worked with Pam Reid, a professor at the University of Miami's Department of Marine Geology and Geophysics, whose long-term goal is to map the entire Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve in Shark Bay to show the diversity and distribution of its stromatolites and the organisms forming them.

Stolz had been reading about the stromatolites at Shark Bay since his graduate-school days and was excited for the opportunity to study the area in person.

“For me, as a scientist, it was like visiting Mecca,” Stolz said. “These stromatolites go for miles, and you're standing in the middle of literally footstools and taller shapes. It looks like you're surrounded by mushrooms.”

Stolz and Reid faced many challenges in the remote area they were studying.

With the closest towns being more than one hour away, they had to travel with their equipment and set up a temporary laboratory in a cottage they rented on a 100,000-acre sheep farm. Trucks delivered food once a week.

In the bay, the scientists had to wear Lycra diving skins to protect themselves from the jellyfish and deadly sea snakes.

“It makes it a little exciting,” Stolz joked.

Stolz plans to meet with Reid this week to review the data they collected, and the pair is planning to make a return trip to Shark Bay this spring to continue their research.

“The next step is to synthesize some of the information and come up with a new model of how these things are growing and where they are,” Stolz said. “With different people coming in with different sets of eyes, we're seeing different things. Some cases, we're confirming things that other people have seen, and in other cases, we're discovering some things that are very different.”

Stolz said the small organisms and the stromatolites they create will provide information scientists can use to learn about the Earth's past and future.

“They tell us a lot about where we came from and how life evolved on the planet and are potentially sentinels with what the future may hold with climate and composition of the oceans,” Stolz said.

Bethany Hofstetter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6364 or bhofstetter@tribweb.com.

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