Challenge accepted: Survival lessons from ancient “building-animals”

By Anna Weiss, PhD 2019

PhD student Anna Weiss accepted the challenge of doing the "Up Goer Five" challenge we posted about a few weeks ago! Below is her description of her PhD research (the impacts of temperature, nutrients, and other environmental stressors on corals), using only the 1000 most common words in the English language. Want to give it a try? Email us at

Sometimes when the place an animal lives changes too much or too fast, all the animals die out. It’s important to study why this happens so we can stop this from happening today. By studying the bodies of animals that died many, many years ago, we can learn why this happens and why it sometimes doesn’t. I study the bodies of animals that lived in the sea. There are a kind of animal that live in the sea that have other animals that live inside of them and make food from the sun, like a flower. They also build the hard parts of their bodies together into something big that rises off the sea floor like a building. If the water gets too hot or too full of dirt or other bad things, the animals usually lose their flower-animals and die, and the under-water buildings can’t grow anymore. Many, many, many years ago, the water got very hot very fast, the water was full of pieces of dirt and the animals couldn’t grow their buildings, but the animals didn’t all die, which is a surprise. I am trying to find out why.

Building-animals have different ways that they can live: some make food from the sun and some eat food from the water, they can grow in many different shapes, and they make babies in different ways. Others can do better when it is hot than others, while others can stand changes in the seawater better. I think that the building-animals that can eat in different ways, keep their flower-animals when the water changes, or shoot their babies into the water instead of keeping them nearby, will live after this event. To see if this is true, I am making a table of all the building-animals and how they live, and I will see which ones all die out and which ones don’t, and whether they live in the same way. This can tell us about how much change building-animals can live through before they all die out, and whether certain changes are worse for the building-animals than others. Some of these building-animals are still alive today, so we can even learn what they might do if today’s sea changes, too.



Cover photo courtesy of NSF Multimedia Gallery