Small Sea Creatures May Be the 'Canaries in the Coal Mine' of Climate Change

Feb 19, 2008
Small Sea Creatures May Be the 'Canaries in the Coal Mine' of Climate Change
Pteropod mollusc, Limacina helicina.

As oceans warm and become more acidic, ocean creatures are undergoing severe stress and entire food webs are at risk.

The information was presented by scientists at a press briefing on February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Gretchen Hofmann, associate professor of biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has just returned from a research mission to Antarctica where she collected pteropods, tiny marine snails the size of a lentil, that she refers to as the "potato chip" of the oceans because they are eaten widely by so many species. The National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs funded the expedition.

Pteropods are eaten by fish that are in turn consumed by other animals, such as penguins. As these small creatures are stressed by an increasingly acidic ocean, due to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, they are less able to cope with a warmer ocean.

"These animals are not charismatic but they are talking to us just as much as penguins or polar bears," said Hofmann. "They are harbingers of change. It's possible by 2050 they may not be able to make a shell anymore. If we lose these organisms, the impact on the food chain will be catastrophic."

Hofmann is a molecular ecologist who studies how genes go off and on as certain marine animals work to make their calcium carbonate shells from the seawater they live in. She characterized her recent trip to Antarctica as an urgent research mission.

She has performed extensive studies of the sea urchin that lives in the kelp forests of California. Sea urchins are a vital part of the food web and play a major economic role in California fisheries, since the roe of the sea urchin is a valuable sushi called "uni."

Hofmann explained that as marine invertebrates deal with increasing acidity, the larvae have to "re-tune" their metabolism in order to still make a shell. But this is done at a cost. The physiological changes that are a response to the acidity make the animals less able to withstand warmer waters, and they are smaller.

"These observations suggest that the ‘double jeopardy' situation –– warming and acidifying seas –– will be a complex environment for future marine organisms," she said.

Hofmann is studying levels of carbon dioxide that would result from what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts would occur if humanity continues on a "business as usual" scenario projected out to the year 2100.

Source: UCSB

Explore further: Italian olive tree disease stumps EU

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mercury pollution danger for arctic ivory gulls

Mar 20, 2015

A paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B today says that mercury levels in arctic ivory gulls have risen almost 50 fold over the last 130 years. Scientists think this increase in mercury pollutants could ...

Feds document seabird loss in North Pacific waters

Mar 19, 2015

The number of seabirds, including gulls, puffins and auklets, has dropped significantly in the Gulf of Alaska and northeast Bering Sea, a possible consequence of warmer waters, according to a preliminary ...

Arctic sea ice hits record low

Mar 19, 2015

Arctic sea ice has reached its lowest winter point since satellite observations began in the late 1970s, raising concerns about faster ice melt and rising seas due to global warming, US officials said Thursday.

Unique animal communities may need special protection

Mar 18, 2015

New Zealand's underwater mountains are home to unique animal communities which need careful environmental management, research from Victoria University of Wellington and the National Institute of Water & ...

Recommended for you

Italian olive tree disease stumps EU

21 hours ago

EU member states are divided on how to stop the spread of a disease affecting olive trees in Italy that could result in around a million being cut down, officials said Friday.

China starts relocating endangered porpoises: Xinhua

Mar 27, 2015

Chinese authorities on Friday began relocating the country's rare finless porpoise population in a bid to revive a species threatened by pollution, overfishing and heavy traffic in their Yangtze River habitat, ...

A long-standing mystery in membrane traffic solved

Mar 27, 2015

In 2013, James E. Rothman, Randy W. Schekman, and Thomas C. Südhof won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of molecular machineries for vesicle trafficking, a major transport ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RAL
1 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2008
This explains why the oceans of the world became void of all life when the temperatures were so warm that Greenland was being farmed.

I guess the only way these projects get funded or published anymore is by promising an "alarming tie-in with Anthropogenic Global Warming".

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.