Ocean acidification bends the mermaid’s wineglass

Ocean acidification lowers the saturation state of calcium carbonate, decreasing net calcification and compromising the skeletons of organisms such as corals, molluscs and algae. These calcified structures can protect organisms from predation and improve access to light, nutrients and dispersive currents. While some species (such as urchins, corals and mussels) survive with decreased calcification, they can suffer from inferior mechanical performance. Here, we used cantilever beam theory to test the hypothesis that decreased calcification would impair the mechanical performance of the green alga Acetabularia acetabulum along a CO2 gradient created by volcanic seeps off Vulcano, Italy. Calcification and mechanical properties declined as calcium carbonate saturation fell; algae at 2283 µatm CO2 were 32% less calcified, 40% less stiff and 40% droopier. Moreover, calcification was not a linear proxy for mechanical performance; stem stiffness decreased exponentially with reduced calcification. Although calcifying organisms can tolerate high CO2 conditions, even subtle changes in calcification can cause dramatic changes in skeletal performance, which may in turn affect key biotic and abiotic interactions.

 

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