Sea snails on acid

Photo credit: Gabriel Ng

Photo credit: Gabriel Ng

Twice a day the rocky Pacific coast traps seawater in pools as the tide rolls in and out. Compared to the ocean, the puddles are so small and innocuous that it seems nothing momentous could possibly be happening there, but there is. It turns out tiny black turban snails may be getting a buzz from the changing levels of acidity caused by ocean acidification. The scientists at Bodega Marine Lab looked closely at sea stars and snails to find out.

The underside of the purple sea star is covered in tiny delicate suction cups that make one wonder how it moves fast enough to be a voracious hunter, but it is. It’s the bully on the playground, a merciless predator. It can pry open mussel shells, turn its stomach inside out and wrap it around large prey, and digest its meal before even swallowing. It’s no wonder that when black turban snails sense the purple star’s arrival, they all flee to safety, crawling quickly up the side of a tide pool until the enemy leaves the water. Quickly for snails, that is.

Snails have always been good at running away from their primary predator – the purple sea star – until now. Brittany Jellison, a graduate student at University of California Davis, has found in a recent study that the snail’s dramatic response might be slowing down because of ocean acidification. Jellison modified tide pools to mimic ocean acidification conditions. Then she observed the snail’s response by measuring the path they took to safety. What she found when watching the snail was a trippy set of behaviors.

“Elevated carbon dioxide is a foreign substance in seawater, and snails are taking that foreign substance into their body, so yes, they in essence are on drugs,” said Brian Gaylord, a professor at UC Davis Bodega Marine Lab, where Jellison discovered that under ocean acidification conditions, snails didn’t immediately flee the pool to safety.

Ocean acidification occurs when the ocean absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  While most scientists studying the phenomenon are trying to understand how it effects a single species in a lab, Jellison’s work explores how ocean acidification effects multiple species interactions.

“I think what’s really important here is that she is moving beyond thinking about an individual species, and instead thinking about how the direct effects on individuals scale up when they are in nature and interacting with other species. That is the important part of it,” said Kristy Kroeker, Assistant Professor at the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of California Santa Cruz.

Professor Philip Munday of James Cook University agrees. He studies how ocean acidification effects reef fish and their ability to adapt to a changing environment.

“Ecosystems are a whole combination of interactive species,” said Munday. “If we want to understand how ocean acidification is going to impact marine ecosystems we need to understand how it will impact with the really critical ecological interactions, such as predatory-prey interactions. That’s one of the really exciting things about Jellison’s work.”

Tide pools on the Pacific coast have natural fluctuations in acidity, and the black turban snail and other animals that live there have adapted to that. Jellison wondered if the snails would be tolerant to ocean acidification conditions as well, or if they would reach their tipping point, and no longer able to tolerate the changes.

To find out, Jellison made model tide pools in aquariums. So that the snails would feel most at home, she simulated the conditions of natural tide pools, with one exception. Jellison changed the levels of acidification in some of the pools to mimic the levels that are expected for rock pools under ocean acidification by the year 2100. Having some tide pools with normal conditions and some with future acidic conditions allowed her to compare the behavior of sober snails with snails on acid.

With the arena built, let the show begin. Clutching her camera, Jellison carefully lowered black turban snails into the tank. One by one the snails reacted to a chemical cue produced by the predator sea star. Jellison took photos every two minutes for a half hour, then analyzed them for the distance the snails traveled, where they moved, and most importantly, if they left the water and escaped to safety. In total, Jellison did two 5-day trials, created 32 aquariums, tested 32 snails, and took photos every two minutes for 28 minutes per snail.

Under normal conditions, the snails will run away and exit the water, a flight response that keeps them safe. Jellison found that in water with higher acidity the snails started to run away, but instead of moving to dry ground, they seemed to get confused, haphazardly meandering around the pool.

Ocean acidification’s ability to change the interactions between predators and prey can have far reaching consequences. Jellison and her team aren’t yet sure exactly why the snails act confused. They think it’s related to changes in the brain as the animal tries to maintain balanced brain chemistry, which is something they would like to understand further.

“I really love research and I especially love working with marine animals,” said Jellison, “but when I think about what my work is saying about the future it can be a little bit hard to take in. Most of the things we are finding is that the world is going to look very different form what we see today.”

In the meantime, Jellison continues this research out in the field, in a creative study that has her waking up at all hours to hike to the tide pools and observe snails – all to understand the cascading effects of ocean acidification on the ecosystem. “I have a lot of hope that we will move forward as a society and try to come up with solutions and actually make changes. It is having hope that is important,” said Jellison.

Ocean acidification may cross national boundaries, and reach all corners of the earth, but a glimpse into a puddle of seawater reveals an elaborate community, a tiny snail, and a big message.

Teresa L. Carey, Scientific American, 7 November 2016. Article.

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