'Sea butterflies' are part of effort to better understand changing oceans

January 22, 2015 by Chris Adams, Mcclatchy Washington Bureau

For Gareth Lawson, the tiny water creatures known as "sea butterflies" might offer insight into one of the biggest problems to confront the world's oceans.

Lawson is a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a private nonprofit across the water from Martha's Vineyard. Sea butterflies - formally known as pteropods (pronounced TARE-a-pods) - are tiny marine snails.

"No more than a few centimeters - many of them the size of a grain of sand," said Lawson.

They're vital to understanding the world's changing oceans because they come equipped with thin, sometimes transparent shells that are susceptible to changing ocean chemistry. As waters become more acidic, the sea butterflies' shells dissolve.

While the long-term impact on sea butterflies and the marine environment around them is uncertain, what Lawson does know is that these lowly, delicate creatures play a big part in the food chain.

Pink salmon off the coast of Alaska, for example, get half their diet some years from sea butterflies.

"If they all dissolve away, what happens to the ?" he said. "That's not clear."

Lawson's work is part of an ongoing effort by the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that sought five years ago to better understand .

David Garrison, a program director in the foundation's Division of Ocean Sciences, said changing acid levels might affect organisms in the ocean "in ways we can't appreciate." The foundation had a five-year program, starting in 2010, that awarded about $12 million a year for research into ocean acidification. Lawson's work at Woods Hole was among the projects.

Among 22 grants announced last year:

-Florida Atlantic University will study marine macroalgae and how their responses to changing could affect .

-University of California, San Diego, will explore the links among offshore biogeochemistry, coral reef metabolism and acidification.

-Pennsylvania State University will explore the response of tiny shelled organisms to ocean acidification during a warming period 56 million years ago.

-Duke University and Georgia Institute of Technology researchers will explore how microbes in coastal ecosystems fare differently from those in the open ocean.

-North Carolina State University researchers will study ocean acidification and coral reefs.

Of the projects announced in 2014, nine are by California researchers; two by North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Florida; and one each by Hawaii, Oregon, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Bermuda.

Explore further: A grim future for coral reefs—why it matters for New Zealand

21 shares

Related Stories

What's eating the sea butterfly? CO2, study says

November 25, 2012

Rising acidity is eating away the shells of tiny snails, known as "sea butterflies", that live in the seas around Antarctica, leaving them vulnerable to predators and disease, scientists said Sunday.

How corals can actually benefit from climate change effects

November 5, 2014

Researchers from Northeastern University's Marine Science Center and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have found that moderate ocean acidification and warming can actually enhance the growth rate of one reef-building ...

Recommended for you

The powerful meteor that no one saw (except satellites)

March 19, 2019

At precisely 11:48 am on December 18, 2018, a large space rock heading straight for Earth at a speed of 19 miles per second exploded into a vast ball of fire as it entered the atmosphere, 15.9 miles above the Bering Sea.

Revealing the rules behind virus scaffold construction

March 19, 2019

A team of researchers including Northwestern Engineering faculty has expanded the understanding of how virus shells self-assemble, an important step toward developing techniques that use viruses as vehicles to deliver targeted ...

Nanoscale Lamb wave-driven motors in nonliquid environments

March 19, 2019

Light driven movement is challenging in nonliquid environments as micro-sized objects can experience strong dry adhesion to contact surfaces and resist movement. In a recent study, Jinsheng Lu and co-workers at the College ...

Levitating objects with light

March 19, 2019

Researchers at Caltech have designed a way to levitate and propel objects using only light, by creating specific nanoscale patterning on the objects' surfaces.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

gkam
not rated yet Jan 22, 2015
Uneducated goobers do not understand how we and all other living things are interconnected.

It is a failure of education which is very dangerous for our long-term survival on Earth.

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.