Sore Mussels? More Evidence Climate Change Is Dooming Ocean Bivalves

In 2010, researchers at the University of South Carolina found that the ranges of blue mussels had shifted 350 kilometers north as summer ocean temperatures rose.

Along the southern portion of its range, intertidal populations of M. edulis have experienced catastrophic mortality directly associated with summer high temperatures. Over the past 50 years, a geographic contraction of the southern, equatorward range edge of M. edulis has occurred, shifting the range edge approximately 350 km north of the previous limit at Cape Hatteras, NC.

So if warming ocean temperatures are causing mussels to shift 350 km northward, no big deal, right? They can just adapt and ship themselves north.

Not if warming temperatures are not the only thing threatening sea life.

In 2011, additional research indicated that, much like other ocean organisms that depend on calcified structures for survival, ocean acidification makes mussel shells thinner.

A study released this week in Nature showed another way climate change threatens mussels: proteinaceous byssal threads. Essentially, they’re the things that mussels use to anchor themselves to rocks. Byssal threads are non-calcified structures, yet the researchers found that as carbon dioxide levels increased, the byssal threads snapped more easily. It’s a hard life for a mussel when it can’t attach itself to the ocean floor.

The mussels will have a tough time adapting their byssal threads and shells if ocean acidification levels are increasing faster than they did over the last 300 million years. Stronger storms hitting the coastline will only make things harder for mussels.

Does it matter to us? According to researchers at the University of Washington, mussels play a crucial part of the aquatic ecosystem, filtering up to a liter of water per hour:

Mussels play a surprisingly large role in marine ecosystems. They provide habitats for smaller organisms and species, as well as shelter and protection from harmful factors such as heat, desiccation, and predators. Stabilizing soft sediment of the ocean floor by attaching to roots, transferring energy by converting algae into tissue, and filtering water are other valuable mussel occupations, in addition to their status as a decent entree for fish, crabs, birds, and people.

They are often referred to as a foundation species,” said Emily Carrington, UW professor of biology. “They provide several ecosystem services; mussels filter water very effectively, a liter of water per hour.”

Menus will be affected as well. European researchers released a report card last year saying that if ocean temperatures rise by 1 degree Celsius, mussel harvests could fall by half in the Mediterranean.

4 Responses to Sore Mussels? More Evidence Climate Change Is Dooming Ocean Bivalves

  1. Greg Hamby says:

    Mussel are not as numerous as in the past on the pilings of the US Army Corps of Engineers research pier in Duck NC at approx 36.5 N

  2. Daniel Coffey says:

    As one who spent a great deal of youthful time raising and breeding fish, it has always been apparent that water chemistry affects the health of aquatic organisms. Every person who has ever tried to breed fish or other organisms knows that the pH matters a great deal, for reasons which are probably related to the survival of the eggs, sperm, or young, as much as the adult forms.

    The acidity of the oceans is caused by a vast number of combustion byproducts, not the least CO2. The stronger pH altering chemicals are SO2, SO3, N2O, NO2, etc., all of which produce strongly disassociated acids, unlike the weaker acids of CO2 and its ilk.

  3. Jakob Wranne says:

    “Sore Mussels.”
    English is very good for puns. It’s very punishable. In the end it turns out to be very, very punny.
    (Does this has anything to do with Punjab pundits?)

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I heard something to the effect that the destruction of global shark populations had led to an increase in skates and rays and other similar species, because the predation by sharks had disappeared. In turn the rays et al were destroying the stocks of their preferred food, including shell-fish. I believe, if my erratic memory is not failing me, that the Chesapeake Bay was mentioned as a place where this process was in full swing.