Learning From Big Fish and Old Snails

As an undergraduate geology student at Oregon State University during the early 1980’s, I once wrote a semester research paper entitled, “The Biogeographic Distribution of Gastropods in the Late Devonian Period.” Sounds riveting, right?

old snailAs you might expect, my scientific paper about the habitats of 350 million-year-old snails turned out to be a real page-turner. I earned a B- and was thrilled. 

Unfortunately, I have not had many opportunities since then to share my rather exquisite knowledge of prehistoric snails with others. Shockingly, the subject never comes up during dinner parties or social events I attend. It appears most people just don’t care much about snails unless they come as an appetizer with garlic and herb butter.

It’s also challenging to subtly slip in the phrase, “Hey everyone, I once wrote a thesis about snails” into any conversation without an awkward response. Anyway, when the right time comes, I’ll be ready!

So, let’s go back to that time when my research specimens were kicking butt – the Devonian Period of geologic time.

In case you weren’t around, the Devonian Period of earth’s history was actually a fairly rousing time – as geologic time periods go anyway.

The Devonian Period is referred to as “The Age of Fish.” It lasted from 419 to 359 million years ago, long before even the dinosaurs walked the Earth. There were no large land animals, and the biggest animals were still in the oceans.

One of the largest was Dunkleosteus, a sea monster like no other.

Dunkleosteus was a powerful fish that grew up to 33 feet long and was covered with thick armor. It was a fierce predator and had sharp bones sticking out of its jaw instead of teeth.

It literally ate sharks for breakfast.


Suddenly sharks don’t seem so bad, do they?

You might think that this tank-like fish could withstand anything. But, unbeknownst to them, time was running out for Dunkleosteus.

Throughout the oceans, species began dying out, and by the time it was all over between 79% and 87% of all species had gone extinct – including Dunkleosteus. It was one of the worst mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

Clearly, something dreadful must have happened, but what? There is no smoking gun, no sign of anything dramatic. Instead, it seems the trigger was something utterly innocuous – but which led to a series of knock-on effects that ultimately proved catastrophic.

devonianScientists now believe the most likely cause of this major extinction of ocean species was land plants.

The theory is that the rise of vascular land plants, a group that includes everything from trees to ferns and flowering plants, began on earth during this time. Their roots penetrated the ground deeply, breaking up rocks and helping to create soil.

By breaking down rocks, the plants released nutrients and minerals. These would have benefited the plants, but they also got washed into rivers and then out into the oceans.

That is when things began to go wrong for life in the seas.

These nutrients were food for microscopic algae in the oceans and those algae began to multiply. The resulting blooms of algae were then broken down by bacteria, which used up oxygen in the process. The end result was likely large regions (dead zones) of the ocean where there wasn’t enough oxygen dissolved in the water for animals to breathe.

In the Devonian Period, the dead zones would have spread over many thousands of years, gradually forcing animals into confined areas. The animals in the oceans then began to struggle, and ultimately died out: all thanks to the success of land plants.

Here’s where I share some of that exquisite snail knowledge that has been trapped in my brain for 35 years. Snails were some of the more resilient species during the Devonian extinction. In fact, more than 90% of the gastropod species survived to evolve into the snails which now inhabit all of the world’s oceans.

In short, snails are tough little bastards.

There are two major lessons we can learn from this trip down memory lane.

  1. One change to an ecosystem can have huge consequences.
  2. Sometimes being the big, bad shark killer isn’t a good thing.

Okay, now hold on for a rather clumsy segue from the Devonian Period to the …

With Secretary Betsy DeVos’s swearing-in yesterday, we are now entering a new period for public education in Americalet’s see … how ’bout we just call it the Devosian Period.

See what I did there?

To be sure, Betsy is a education monster like no other.

She is a powerful fish in a big ocean. She is a fierce predator who eats smaller fish for breakfast. She’s done this for most of her life.

Yet, unbeknownst to her, the climate of education reform has already changed.

The abject failure of NCLB, RttT, and test-based accountability over the past two decades has prompted many Americans to rethink their ideas of how to best improve schools for kids in the 21st century.

DeVos and her fellow reformer’s have a status quo model which seeks to rank, sort, and punish public schools. They use test scores and disparaging labels to sustain their narrative of failing schools and uncaring teachers. They aim to introduce competition in order to open the door for corporate profiteers and private school vouchers.

As the public is learning, many of these voucher and school choice schemes have not resulted in better outcomes, just less accountability. Moreover, these programs have contributed to greater gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots” and greater segregation of schools based on race and economic status.

More than anything else, we are learning that the big fish like DeVos are no longer content to swim in the shadows and wait for us to come to them. They’re coming for us in plain sight, with a smile on their face.

Yet, based on the millions of phone calls received by the Senate over the past few weeks, a lot of Americans are no longer afraid of the big fish.

To be sure, Betsy DeVos’s appointment could have huge consequences for public education in our country.

If DeVos is successful in executing her vision of school choice over an eight-year period, public school in some American cities and states may face extinction. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for them to recover.

On the other hand, the American public may finally be approaching the point when we yell out a collective “enough” and demand the end of federal intrusion into the function and operation of our local schools.

Honestly, no one really knows how the Devosian period will eventually end.

We do know that at the end of the Devonian Period, the giant flesh-eating predators could not adapt to changing waters and perished.

On the other hand, the resilient, hard-shelled snails just kept their heads down, lived day to day moving at their own pace, and didn’t worry too awful much about all the CHAOS unfolding in the big ocean above them. And they survived.

There might just be a lesson there for us, between the big fish and the old snails.

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