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When worms first wooed

Where would you find the renowned paleontologist who discovered evidence of the earliest animal sexual reproduction on earth?

One place was at Marie Eiffel’s last week having coffee.

Islander Mary Droser was on a weeklong visit back to the Island, and she stopped by to talk about her research. She traces her fascination with science to her summers at her family’s home on Little Ram, floating in the creeks and bays, watching the sea life around her.

“At age 5 I announced I wanted to be a marine biologist,” she said. “Then by age 10 I’d decided to become a geologist.” She followed her passion through college at the University of Rochester, then earned her Ph.D. in paleontology at the University of Southern California.

When her research took her to the Australian outback, she took her son and daughter along. Still in diapers, they were cared for by Ms. Droser’s mother, whose support enabled the family to travel together. Had she taken flak for bringing her young children to the unforgiving terrain of the outback? “Yes,”she said. “But people live there with their children, so why shouldn’t I have my children there?”

As a perfect thank-you to her mother, Ms. Droser named her historic fossil find after her: Funisia Dorothea. The worm-like, upright animal lived some 550 million years ago.

The discovery of dense collections of fossils of the same age led the paleontologist to conclude that they reproduced sexually. With a broad smile, she readily acknowledges that there’s humor to be found in this discussion of sex, even if it’s sex that took place half a billion years ago.

When the discovery was announced in 2008, it was widely covered in media from Australia to New York to London. Ms. Droser’s husband, Nigel Hughes, is British, and he enjoyed telling friends that the British paper The Daily Mail, which typically dedicates its page three to bare-breasted bombshells, had accorded the fossil story that coveted spot. “Imagine seeing not only my wife, but my mother-in-law on page three!” (The tabloid headlined the story, “When the Earth First Moved.”)

This celebrity fossil story took a turn back to Shelter Island about a year ago. Ms. Droser’s sister, Liza Casey, contacted local artist Hap Bowditch to craft a sculpture of Ms. Droser’s discovery. Working from a faint photo of the fossil in rock and an artist’s interpretive drawing, Mr. Bowditch fashioned a metal version of the creatures as they might have appeared swaying in the ocean — which Australia was, back in the Neoproterozoic period.

Ms. Droser had always loved Hap’s work, she said, and was thrilled to receive this as a Christmas gift from Ms. Casey. “It took a sculptor who lives so close to the water, like Hap, to fashion the funisia as you would imagine them, moving with the sea currents on the ocean floor,” she said.

As the photograph of the sculpture makes clear, it isn’t hard to associate the creatures with sex. “They’re so phallic,” Ms. Droser laughed.

The sculpture has made it to her lab at the University of California at Riverside, where she teaches. “My students have fun with it,” she said, “decorating the tubes with little hats for different holidays.” The sculpture will eventually get to her research station in Australia, and Hap and Dianne Bowditch will make their way there next fall to visit Ms. Droser.

The site of her discovery, with the support of the Australian government, is in the process of being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ms. Droser’s husband spends much of his time in the Himalayas, studying animals related to the horseshoe crab, from 480 million years ago. The family passion has continued with their children, now in college. Her daughter is studying environmental science with an eye to future life on Mars, and her son’s concentration is marine biology.

“The best thing about Shelter Island,” she said, “is that a third of the Island is the Nature Conservancy Mashomack Preserve, protecting ecological systems of our land and water.”

She acknowledged that widespread evidence of climate change makes this a “scary time.” She doesn’t have to look far for evidence that the past informs the future.

“One of my courses is called, ‘Headlines in the History of Life,’” she said. “Twenty years ago we were talking about the extinction of the dinosaurs. Now, it’s all about climate change.”