The world was our oyster: Records reveal the vast historical extent of European oyster reef ecosystems

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Ruth H. Thurstan , Hannah McCormick, Joanne Preston, Elizabeth C Ashton, Floris P Bennema, Ana Bratoš Cetinić, Janet H Brown, Tom C Cameron, Fiz da Costa, David Donnan, Christine Ewers, Tomaso Fortibuoni, Eve Galimany, Otello Giovanardi, Romain Grancher, Daniele Grech, Maria Hayden-Hughes, Luke Helmer, K Thomas Jensen, José A Juanes, Janie Latchford, Alec BM Moore, Dimitrios K Moutopoulos, Pernille Nielsen, Henning von Nordheim, Bárbara Ondiviela, Corina Peter, Bernadette Pogoda, Bo Poulsen, Stéphane Pouvreau, Callum M Roberts, Cordula Scherer, Aad Smaal, David Smyth, Åsa Strand, John A Theodorou, Philine SE zu Ermgassen


Anthropogenic activities have impacted marine ecosystems at extraordinary scales. Biogenic reef ecosystems built by the European flat oyster (Ostrea edulis) typically declined prior to scientific monitoring. Collating >1,600 records published over 350 years, we created a highly resolved (10km2) map of historical oyster reef presence across its biogeographic range, including documenting abundant reef habitats along the coasts of France, Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Areal extent data were available from just 26% of locations, yet totalled >1.7 million hectares (median reef size = 30ha, range 0.01 - 1,536,000ha), with 190 associated macrofauna species from 13 phyla described. Our analysis demonstrates that oyster reefs were once a dominant three-dimensional feature of European coastlines, with their loss pointing to a fundamental restructuring and ‘flattening’ of coastal and shallow-shelf seafloors. This unique empirical record demonstrates the highly degraded nature of European seas and provides key baseline context for international restoration commitments.



Biodiversity, Marine Biology, Terrestrial and Aquatic Ecology


Biogenic reef, Ecosystem collapse, environmental history, historical ecology, shifting baselines, Ostrea edulis, shifting baseline


Published: 2023-12-07 22:47

Last Updated: 2023-12-07 22:47


CC BY Attribution 4.0 International

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Conflict of interest statement:

Data and Code Availability Statement:
Data is posted to figshare and will be made publicly available upon publication. The dataset is available upon request until then.