Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Climate change monitors

Losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest. If they go, everything that's living in them will go. They are a major food supply for many species, including lobsters and crabs. They also function as filters along near-​​shore waters, clearing huge amounts of particulates. So losing them can affect everything from the growth of species we care about because we want to eat them to water clarity to biodiversity of all the tiny animals that live on the insides of the beds.

One direct impact of global climate change is the change in body temperature in ecothermic organisms. Especially species that are exposed to direct solar radiation can exhibit much higher internal temperatures that the medium around them with profound impact on their physiology. 

In this regard mussels can act as a barometer of climate change. That's because they rely on external sources of heat such as air temperature and sun exposure for their body heat and thrive, or not, depending on those conditions. For the past 18 years, every 10 to 15 minutes, a global research team used biomimetic sensors - which they called robomussels - to track internal body temperature, which is determined by the temperature of the surrounding air or water, and the amount of solar radiation the devices absorb. They placed the devices inside mussel beds in oceans around the globe and recorded temperatures. The researchers have built a database of nearly two decades worth of data enabling them to pinpoint areas of unusual warming, intervene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosystems, and develop strategies that could prevent extinction of certain species. Using this kind of fieldwork along with mathematical and computational models, they can forecast patterns of growth, reproduction, and survival of mussels in intertidal zones.

These datasets tell us when and where to look for the effects of climate change. Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble. The robomussels' near-​​continuous measurements serve as an early warning system. If we start to see sites where the animals are regularly getting to temperatures that are right below what kills them, we know that any slight increase is likely to send them over the edge, and we can act.

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