Size changes how these species respond to ocean acidification

Small Tidepool in Point Loma (San Diego, CA)Public Domain / Jon Sullivan

Pacific Northwest tide pools are known for the sea stars, sea urchins, mussels and barnacles that they harbor. But amidst these charismatic animals, you will often find tufts of bright pink coralline algae. Although coralline algae are more closely related to other algae than they are to corals, their external skeletal structure is made from the same calcium carbonate (CaCO3) found in corals. And, just like corals around the world, coralline algae are threatened by the rapidly changing chemistry of the world’s oceans, termed “ocean acidification”.

“Coralline algae are among the most vulnerable calcifying species to an acidifying ocean,” says Dr. Allison Barner, lead author of a recent study concerning how coralline algae respond to ocean acidification. “The ecological consequences of coralline algae decline are likely to be high, as they play key roles in many marine ecosystems.” The loss of coralline algae could be particularly problematic for animals that graze on them or use their presence as an indicator of favorable habitat. The frailty of coralline algae to ocean acidification stems from their protective CaCO3 layer, which is comprised of magnesium calcite and dissolves more readily than other forms of CaCO3 as the ocean’s pH continues to drop.

While the general sensitivity of coralline algae to changing ocean conditions is well-established, Dr. Barner says that “even closely related species can have different responses to acidification and not much was known about the drivers that shape this variation.” To determine what causes these wide-ranging responses to ocean acidification, Dr. Barner and colleagues grew five coralline algae species commonly found along the rocky shores of Oregon in acidic seawater for a few days and tested 10 different hypotheses that spanned genetic relatedness, differences between species, size, physiology, and habitat preferences. The researchers demonstrated that acidic seawater did not affect each species differently. Rather, it was the size of an individual coralline alga that determined it’s photosynthesis and calcification rates, with larger individuals performing better. By distinguishing the shared characteristics that drive multiple species’ responses to environmental change (in this case, size), we can learn how to best protect groups of species instead of single species from the consequences of ocean acidification. Given that these coralline algae exist within an ocean acidification hotspot, identifying these size-based responses for multiple coralline algal species could be beneficial for the algae themselves and the sea life that they support.

By distinguishing the shared characteristics that drive multiple species’ responses to environmental change (in this case, size), we can learn how to best protect groups of species instead of single species from the consequences of ocean acidification. Given that these coralline algae exist within an ocean acidification hotspot, identifying these size-based responses for multiple coralline algal species could be beneficial for the algae themselves and the sea life that they support.

 

Priya Shukla, Forbes, 31 July 2018. Article.

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