Will acid seas result in giant shellfish?

As the world’s seawater becomes more acidic due to rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, some shelled marine animals may actually become bigger and stronger, suggests research by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The finding could have important implications for ocean food webs and the multi-billion dollar global market for shellfish and crustaceans, the University of North Carolina said in a statement released today.


The American lobster (Homarus americanus) in the left picture was reared for 60 days under normal CO2 (400 parts per million). The lobster on the right was reared for 60 days under high CO2 (2850 ppm).

Photographs by Justin Ries/UNC-Chapel Hill

“Previous research has shown that ocean acidification–the term for falling pH levels in the Earth’s oceans as they absorb increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere–is likely to slow the growth or even dissolve the shells of such creatures,” UNC said in a statement.

“However, the new study, published in the December issue of the journal Geology, suggests that sediment-dwelling marine organisms may exhibit a wider range of responses to CO2-induced acidification than previously thought: some may get weaker while others become stronger.”

Predator-prey relationships change

Researchers also found that creatures whose shells grew the most, such as crabs, tend to prey on those whose shells weakened the most, such as clams.

Such changes could have serious ramifications for predator and prey relationships that have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, said Justin Ries, who completed the study at Woods Hole and is now an assistant professor of marine sciences in the UNC College of Arts and Sciences.

“There is no magic formula to predict how different species will respond, but one thing you can be sure of is that ecosystems as a whole will change because of these varied individual responses,” Ries said.

blue-crab-in-acid-sea-pictures.jpgBlue crab (Callinectes sapidus) in the left picture reared for 60 days under normal CO2 (400 ppm). The crab on the right was reared for 60 days under high CO2 (2850 ppm).

Photographs by Justin Ries/UNC-Chapel Hill

Ries and colleagues grew 18 different species of economically and ecologically important marine calcifiers (animals that make shells out of calcium carbonate) at various levels of CO2 predicted to occur over the next several centuries, the UNC statement explained. “When CO2 combines with water, it produces carbonic acid, raising the overall amount of carbon in seawater but reducing the amount of the carbonate ion used by organisms in their calcification.”

Seven species (crabs, lobsters, shrimp, red and green calcifying algae, limpets and temperate urchins) calcified at a higher rate and increased in mass under elevated CO2. Ten types of organisms (including oysters, scallops, temperate corals and tube worms) had reduced calcification under elevated CO2, with several (hard and soft clams, conchs, periwinkles, whelks and tropical urchins) seeing their shells dissolve. One species (mussels) showed no response.


Photographs by Justin Ries/UNC-Chapel Hill

“Shelled marine organisms need carbonate ions to build their shells that protect them from the intense predation that defines everyday life on the shallow sea floor,” Ries said. “The organisms that responded positively to higher CO2 levels are apparently more adept at converting the elevated dissolved inorganic carbon in the seawater, which results from elevated atmospheric CO2, back into a form that they can use directly in their calcification. The others, however, appear to be less adept at manipulating dissolved inorganic carbon.”

Ries said the varied responses may reflect differences in organisms’ ability to regulate pH levels at their sites of calcification; their ability to generate a protective organic layer that limits their exposure to surrounding seawater; whether they use more soluble forms of calcium carbonate in their shells; and their ability to utilize CO2 directly via photosynthesis.

The co-authors of the Geology study are Anne L. Cohen and Daniel C. McCorkle from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

This post was corrected from its original published form.  The study was funded, conducted, and the paper submitted from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and changes have been made to reflect the correction. 


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