The impacts of ocean acidification and warming on the Antarctic bivalve, Laternula elliptica

Laternula elliptica are large bivalves found in high densities in soft sediments in coastal regions of the Southern Ocean. L. elliptica form an important part of the ecosystem, due to significant sediment stabilisation and deposition. Despite the important role L. elliptica play in their environment, little is known about how projected ocean change will impact future populations of this species. Invertebrate larvae are considerably more sensitive to environmental stressors than juveniles and adults, and increases in mortality and minor reductions in dispersal could significantly reduce future population sizes. In a rapidly changing climate, some of the greatest changes are expected at high latitudes. The greatest rates of warming of surface waters are occurring in the Southern Ocean. Additionally, undersaturation of aragonite due to ocean acidification is expected to affect these waters within decades. Calcifying organisms such as molluscs may be particularly sensitive to reduced pH and saturation states associated with ocean acidification. However, information on larval responses to these stressors in Antarctic species is limited.

The larvae of L. elliptica are large and lecithotrophic. Maternally provided energy reserves sustain development until the completion of metamorphosis. While large reserves may support long development times and extended encapsulation, they are finite and cannot be replenished. Any stress during larval development could increase metabolic costs and deplete reserves, preventing metamorphosis. These stressors may also impact the calcification process and shell structures, resulting in weaker larvae at settlement that are more vulnerable to injury. Small reductions in larval survival could limit recruitment and population growth may decline. Various responses to ocean acidification (OA) and warming were studied in the larvae of L. elliptica. Larvae were raised under control pH and temperatures (~8.00 and – 1.7°C, respectively) and conditions representing projections for the Antarctic by the end of the century and 2300 (pH 7.80, 7.65 and -0.5, +0.5 and +1.5°C), both individually and in combination. The effect of these stressors on fertilisation rates, development timing and rates of abnormalities at various life stages were examined. Furthermore, SEM analysis determined the impacts of OA and warming on larval shell growth and morphology. Respiration rates and lipid reserves in developing larvae were also determined.

Information on OA and temperature responses in Antarctic larvae is limited, and this is the first study on the effects of these stressors in Antarctic bivalves. Elevated temperatures largely improved development, increased early fertilisation rates, and accelerated development through all larval stages and larvae reached competency 5 d ahead of larvae at the control temperature. This would allow for faster settlement, significantly reducing time spent in more vulnerable development stages. Elevated temperatures also improved calcification in later D-stage larvae increasing shell lengths and reducing pitting and cracking, suggesting these larvae will be in a better condition at settlement. Reduced pH improved fertilisation at control temperatures, but impaired it at elevated temperatures, although overall fertilisation was greater at pH 7.65/0.4°C compared to the control temperatures (60% and 50%, respectively). Developmental delays were observed at reduced pH; however the effect varied between experiments. In the first, developmental delays due to reduced pH were observed at all experimental temperatures and were greatest at 0.4°C, while in the second experiment, delays only occurred at ambient temperature. The delay at ambient temperature was 2 d in both experiments. The delaying effect in the first experiment was mitigated by the overall faster development with elevated temperature. Larvae at pH 7.65/0.4°C reached competency at 22 d compared to 24 d at pH 7.98/-1.6°C. Larvae from the most extreme treatment (pH 7.65 and 0.4°C) still reached the D-larvae stage two days ahead of those at control conditions (pH 7.98 and -1.6°C).

This also was the first study to perform a detailed analysis of the effect of pH and temperature on shell size and ultra-structure in Antarctic bivalve larvae. D-larvae from reduced pH treatments had significantly larger shells at elevated temperatures. While light microscopy suggested no significant effect of pH on development, SEM analysis revealed that reduced pH severely impaired the quality of the larval shell at all temperatures. They were more likely to have abnormal larval shapes, as well as malformed hinges and edges. These malformations will carry over into juvenile stages, impairing swimming and feeding capacity, which would reduce settlement success and condition. Additionally, these larvae had lower shell integrity, with high frequencies of pitting and shell damage, including cracking under reduced pH, although elevated temperatures partially ameliorated this effect. Larval shells at reduced pH were weaker, indicating they will be more susceptible to injury and predation. This would flow on to later life-history stages, impairing success in settlement when juveniles must bury in the sediments.

This is the second study, and the first for molluscs and Antarctic species, to perform a detailed biochemical analysis of the use of energetic reserves in larvae in response to OA. The larvae of L. elliptica are lecithotrophic, depending on maternally provided energy for development to competency. However, the composition and size of the reserves were unknown. The lipid reserves in the larvae were large, dominated by triacylglycerols and phospholipids. Despite significant depletion of both these lipid classes during development, more than 65% of the original lipid pool remained at the D-larval stage, suggesting significant reserves exist for later metamorphosis. Higher metabolic rates are expected in response to pH and temperature stress and supporting these rates may be energetically demanding. However, larvae did not alter use of any of the lipid classes at elevated temperatures. Increases in oxygen consumption in the larvae at elevated temperature indicated low temperature tolerances in L. elliptica larvae, possibly around -0.5°C. These may place increased energetic demands on later life stages that cannot depend on maternally provided resources. Under OA, the energetic demands of calcification are expected to increase due to the costs of active maintenance of the pH of cellular fluids. However, respiration rates were unaffected by reduced pH and a greater lipid reserve remained in larvae at pH 7.65/-1.7°C compared to all other treatments, suggesting larvae may respond to OA by reducing calcification.

Additionally, the impact of reduced pH on biodeposition was assessed in adult L. elliptica. Short term (48 h) exposure to reduced pH (to pH 7.54) did not influence biodeposition rates or the organic composition of faeces and pseudofaeces, although compositional changes may have occurred in the latter due to increased mucous production or altered particle selection.

Overall, some resilience to projected climate change conditions was observed in the larvae of L. elliptica. Under future elevated temperatures, larger populations could occur due to improved fertilisation as well as larvae reaching competency sooner with no added energetic costs. However, changes in respiration rates indicate that temperature tolerance thresholds are low. The increased metabolic demands with temperatures above -0.5°C could impair growth beyond the D-larval stage, when they are no longer dependent on maternally provided energetic reserves. Additionally, larvae may be compromised by reduced pH, as shell quality and integrity were significantly impaired. This could significantly influence recruitment and mortality rates in settlement, exposing larvae to crushing fractures in burial or reducing burial capacity. Even with slightly greater larval numbers and faster development, an overall population decline would occur if larvae fail in settlement. This study has shown that the larvae of L. elliptica are highly sensitive to future ocean change conditions, but future studies of later life history stages are needed to confirm the impacts of these changes on the greater population.

Bylenga C. H., 2016. The impacts of ocean acidification and warming on the Antarctic bivalve, Laternula elliptica. PhD thesis, Victoria University of Wellington, 165 p. Thesis.


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