Shells and bad water: Ocean acidification and its effects on mollusks

By José H. Leal, Ph.D., Interim Director & Curator, Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum

Dr. Leal will discuss the some of the most recent finds and facts about the influence of ocean acidification on mollusks. Mollusks are small, slow-moving, slimy creatures that are barely noticed by most people. But there is much more to them than just a trail of slime or pretty empty shells. Mollusks are the second most diverse group of animals on Earth. There are at least 75,000 known species of mollusks, of which around 60% are marine. They are present in virtually all of Earth’s natural environments and ecosystems, including deserts, cold mountain springs, rainforests, and the deepest ocean trenches. They are important links in the oceans’ food webs. And, given the close association between accelerated increases in dissolved carbon dioxide (ocean acidification) and the chemical processes involved in shell growth, mollusks are probably the earliest to be affected by that human-induced phenomenon. 

Ocean acidification is caused by the increased uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide by sea water. More acidic sea water affects the shells of planktonic (open-water) mollusks, thinning and opening holes in those delicate structures. Acidification is already a tangible threat to several species of planktonic mollusks, including sea butterflies (pteropods), which are key links in open-ocean food webs, serving as food for many species of fish, which in turn feed larger animals such as sea birds, whales, and even polar bears. Recent research also shows, for instance, that the small, delicate larval shells of larger species are adversely affected. Minute increases in the oceans’ acidity going forward will certainly prove to be harmful to large numbers of species of molluscan species.

About the Speaker: José H. Leal, Ph.D. was the first Executive Director after the National Shell Museum’s Grand Opening in 1995. His love for shells and sea life goes back to his childhood years in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. José received his PhD in Marine Biology and Fisheries from the University of Miami. He has served as an Assistant Editor for Sea Frontiers Magazine (Miami), a Visiting Professor at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (Paris), and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC). José holds honorary faculty positions at the University of Miami and Florida Gulf Coast University (Fort Myers), where he is an affiliate member of the Coastal Watershed Institute. He is also a past president of the American Malacological Society and of Conchologists of America, a past board member of the Florida Association of Museums, an Accreditation Peer Reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums, and editor of The Nautilus. Throughout his tenure, José has worked tirelessly to improve the Museum’s collection, deciphering the complexities of mollusk identification and systematics, and interpreting mollusk science to the Museum’s audience at large. It was through José’s leadership that the Museum was awarded a 15-year accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums in 2010. As a result of this accreditation, the Museum could demonstrate to its communities, donors, and sponsoring agencies its commitment to excellence and continued institutional improvement. He directed the Florida United Malacologists (FUM) meetings at the Museum in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018, and 2020—a one-day gathering designed to facilitate and enhance communication among professional, amateur, and student malacologists.

In 2016, José led the Museum in hosting the Mollusks in Peril Forum, a 2.5-day event that brought together scientists, students, and concerned citizens to examine large-scale threats to mollusk populations.

Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum, 23 March 2021. More information.

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