Only as strong as the weakest link: structural analysis of the combined effects of elevated temperature and pCO2 on mussel attachment

Predicting how combinations of stressors will affect failure risk is a key challenge for the field of ecomechanics and, more generally, ecophysiology. Environmental conditions often influence the manufacture and durability of biomaterials, inducing structural failure that potentially compromises organismal reproduction, growth, and survival. Species known for tight linkages between structural integrity and survival include bivalve mussels, which produce numerous byssal threads to attach to hard substrate. Among the current environmental threats to marine organisms are ocean warming and acidification. Elevated pCO2 exposure is known to weaken byssal threads by compromising the strength of the adhesive plaque. This study uses structural analysis to evaluate how an additional stressor, elevated temperature, influences byssal thread quality and production. Mussels (Mytilus trossulus) were placed in controlled temperature and pCO2 treatments, and then, newly produced threads were counted and pulled to failure to determine byssus strength. The effects of elevated temperature on mussel attachment were dramatic; mussels produced 60% weaker and 65% fewer threads at 25°C in comparison to 10°C. These effects combine to weaken overall attachment by 64–88% at 25°C. The magnitude of the effect of pCO2 on thread strength was substantially lower than that of temperature and, contrary to our expectations, positive at high pCO2 exposure. Failure mode analysis localized the effect of temperature to the proximal region of the thread, whereas pCO2 affected only the adhesive plaques. The two stressors therefore act independently, and because their respective target regions are interconnected (resisting tension in series), their combined effects on thread strength are exactly equal to the effect of the strongest stressor. Altogether, these results show that mussels, and the coastal communities they support, may be more vulnerable to the negative effects of ocean warming than ocean acidification.

Newcomb L. A., George M. N., O’Donnell M. J. & Carrington E., 2019. Only as strong as the weakest link: structural analysis of the combined effects of elevated temperature and pCO2 on mussel attachment. Conservation Physiology 7(1): coz068. doi: 10.1093/conphys/coz068. Article.

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