Prepare for a Lobster-Full Future: Acidic Oceans Could Help Some Critters

By Brett Israel | December 2, 2009 5:33 pm

lobster-ruler-webIn a bit of unexpected climate related good news—not for us, of course—some shell-building ocean dwellers like blue crabs, shrimp, and lobsters may actually benefit from increased ocean acidification. This surprising finding seems to be good news for lobster lovers, but researchers note that the ongoing acidification still appears to spell trouble for many marine creatures.

Scientists now think that acidifying oceans may allow these select crustaceans to build stronger shells and exoskeletons, instead of making them more brittle. Carbon dioxide (CO2)—the notorious byproduct of fossil fuel burning—dissolves in the ocean. That makes the ocean more acidic. It also reduces the number of so-called carbonate ions in seawater, and these ions are among the primary materials that sea creatures use to build their calcium carbonate shells and skeletons [LiveScience]. Justin Ries, a coauthor on the new study, speculates that these bottom dwellers are somehow better able to manipulate CO2 ions to build their shells, even though fewer CO2 ions are available to them in an acidic environment. However, exactly how they accomplish this is unknown.

Previously, scientists thought that all marine invertebrates would disappear as the oceans became more acidic. However, many of these creatures were alive during the Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago when CO2 levels were 10 times pre-Industrial levels. To see if they would all wither away in acidic oceans, Ries and colleagues exposed 18 species of marine organisms to seawater with four levels of acidity. The first environment matched today’s atmospheric CO2 levels, and two others were set at double and triple the pre-Industrial CO2 levels, mimicking conditions predicted to occur over the next century. The fourth CO2 level was 10 times pre-Industrial levels [ScienceNOW Daily News]. The results are a mixed bag for the organisms tested.

Blue crabs, shrimp, and lobsters, became juiced on the increased CO2, the researchers report in the journal Geology. However the news is not all good because American oysters, scallops, temperate corals, and tube worms developed thinner shells at the highest CO2 levels. The exoskeletons of clams and pencil urchins practically dissolved at the highest CO2 levels.

For clams and pencil urchins, the findings are troubling, since their shells and spikes are more than just pretty accessories—they serve as armor against their predators. In fact, the researchers found that creatures whose shells grew the most, such as crabs, tend to prey on those whose shells weakened the most, such as clams [NatGeo News Watch]. However for the super-sized animals, getting bigger may come with a cost, since extra energy spent building thicker shells “might divert from other important processes such as reproduction or tissue building,” [USA Today] said study coauthor Anne Cohen.

Says author Ries: “The take-home message is that the responses to ocean acidification are going to be a lot more nuanced and complex than we thought” [ScienceNOW Daily News].

Related Content:
80beats: No (Ear) Bones About It: Acidified Oceans Mess With Fish Physiology
80beats: Warmer and More Acidic Oceans Spell Trouble for Jumbo Squid
80beats: Ocean Acidification Could Leave Clown Fish (Like Nemo) Lost at Sea
80beats: Ocean Acidification: Worse Than the Big Problem We Thought It Was
80beats: No More Speculation: Scientists Prove Ocean Acidification is Already Underway

Image: Justin Ries / University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    This is a piece of horrible journalism. Without knowing the full ecosystem effects, there is no way you can see it’s “good” for one animal. Ignorant drivel.

  • HankHenry

    The headline “Acidic Oceans Could Help Some Critters” is misleading, just because researchers tend to describe the addition of acidic CO2 to seawater in the ocean as “acidification,” the oceans are in no danger of becoming acidic – just slightly less alkaline. The good news in this research (and I’m not arguing it’s all good news) is that this research indicates that atmospheric CO2 “fertilizes” processes that permanently sequester anthropogenic CO2.

  • Arki

    as usual, things in nature tend to be more complexed than originally thought.

  • http://www.unc.edu/~jries/ WaterRocks

    Link to research paper (provided toll-free courtesy of GEOLOGY):
    http://geology.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/full/37/12/1131?ijkey=O79jdQYUdBqN2&keytype=ref&siteid=gsgeology

    Prof. Ries’ website:
    http://www.unc.edu/~jries/

    Related press coverage:
    http://www.unc.edu/~jries/press.html

    NPR – All Things Considered (interview):
    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121378547

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