Imagine if a huge volcanic rift were to open up along the middle of St. George St. tomorrow afternoon, and the east and west halves of the university started drifting apart like tectonic plates.

Things on campus would probably stay pretty much the same.

The Vic kids would continue to patronize Northrop Frye and Burwash and the life science students would stay west of Queen’s Park, in familiar places like Lash Miller and Earth Sciences. Students would stick to their favourite spots—and just go with the flow.

Richard Winterbottom, a professor of Zoology, and graduate student Francesco Santini—whose labs are at the Royal Ontario Museum—have found that as continents slowly creep across the globe, the marine life that lives on a particular coastline will migrate along with their homes-in-motion for millions of years.

“We’re trying to figure out if there’s any relationship between the geological evolution of [an] area and the organisms that inhabit it,” he says.

Winterbottom is a wry South African native who’s been around coastlines for most of his life. “I’ve been working for about 30 years on marine coral reef fishes,” he boasts. As a boy, he developed an interest in coastal marine life from spear fishing and skin diving. Since he joined the ROM in 1978, he’s been collecting fish from around the world for a number of research programs. But when he began to notice strange similarities in marine populations from within the Indo-Pacific waterway—which stretches from Africa to Easter Island—he smelled a fresh, fishy, research opportunity. Winterbottom and Santini analyzed fish and coral reef life from different zones of the Indo-Pacific to try to find different species that are related to each other by virtue of similar bits of biology. They would often discover two fish in two very distant zones that possessed a peculiar kind of bone structure, for example, not found in any other region. “[This data],” Santini explains, “tells you that [both species] have inherited an [unusual bone type] from a common ancestor.”

After collecting lots of examples of these types of similarities, Winterbottom and Santini fed their data into a computer that deduced how similar two species from different zones really were, based on statistical methods and other research data.

If the computer deemed that two particular species were similar enough, Santini and Winterbottom concluded that millions of years ago, the two separate spots that each similar species now calls home were once unified.

As continental drift pushed the continents into their contemporary configurations, the unified zones were split up and the common ancestor fish were split into two groups, moving away from each other at a speedy 11 millimetres per year.

In addition to drawing a map of what the ancient Earth used to look like, Winterbottom’s research may prove to be a valuable aid in preserving marine life.

As human activity destroys coastal habitats, environmentalists could use the ROM’s data to pinpoint areas of very high biodiversity that must be saved.

Winterbottom is enthusiastic about assisting environmental activism. But he cautions that economic forces may end up trumping ecological concerns. He uses the common practice of dynamite fishing in the Philippines as an example.

“If you’re down in the water three miles away, it’s like being hit in the chest by a sledgehammer.”

“It destroys [marine animals’] coral habitats. There’s nowhere for the fish to go.”

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