Functional impacts of ocean acidification in an ecologically critical foundation species

Anthropogenic CO2 is reducing the pH and altering the carbonate chemistry of seawater, with repercussions for marine organisms and ecosystems. Current research suggests that calcification will decrease in many species, but compelling evidence of impaired functional performance of calcium carbonate structures is sparse, particularly in key species. Here we demonstrate that ocean acidification markedly degrades the mechanical integrity of larval shells in the mussel Mytilus californianus, a critical community member on rocky shores throughout the northeastern Pacific. Larvae cultured in seawater containing CO2 concentrations expected by the year 2100 (540 or 970 ppm) precipitated weaker, thinner and smaller shells than individuals raised under present-day seawater conditions (380 ppm), and also exhibited lower tissue mass. Under a scenario where mussel larvae exposed to different CO2 levels develop at similar rates, these trends suggest a suite of potential consequences, including an exacerbated vulnerability of new settlers to crushing and drilling attacks by predators; poorer larval condition, causing increased energetic stress during metamorphosis; and greater risks from desiccation at low tide due to shifts in shell area to body mass ratios. Under an alternative scenario where responses derive exclusively from slowed development, with impacted individuals reaching identical milestones in shell strength and size by settlement, a lengthened larval phase could increase exposure to high planktonic mortality rates. In either case, because early life stages operate as population bottlenecks, driving general patterns of distribution and abundance, the ecological success of this vital species may be tied to how ocean acidification proceeds in coming decades.

Gaylord B., Hill T. M., Sanford E., Lenz E. A., Jacobs L. A., Sato K. N., Russell A. D., & Hettinger A., 2011. Functional impacts of ocean acidification in an ecologically critical foundation species. The Journal of Experimental Biology 214(15):2586-2594. Article (subscription required).

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