Marine life can hang on to buy time in the face of global warming

Jurgens’ research was conducted near Bodega Bay in northern California.

Courtesy of Laura Jürgens

Some marine species can help protect others from climate change by shielding them from heat, according to a new study by a professor at Texas A&M University in Galveston.

Laura Jurgens, assistant professor of marine biology, and her colleagues at the University of Vermont and the University of California, Davis detail the findings in the current issue of Ecology.

The team studied how small crabs and isopods – which are marine versions of woodlice – that live on rocky shores respond to warming of their natural habitats on rocky shores. They discovered that the beds of mussels in which these animals live protect them from temperature variations and prevent them from drying out and dying in hot, sunny weather.

“These mussel beds provide a kind of ‘ecological climate control’ within their canopies, much like forests,” Jurgens said. “The results show how conserving habitats formed by plants and animals can help buy time for heat-sensitive species, helping them weather the short-term effects of climate change. But it also means that habitat destruction can make other species more vulnerable to global warming.

The research was conducted in marine areas near Bodega Bay in northern California.

Jurgens said that without the protection of mussel beds, some marine species cannot survive under current conditions.

“But they can tolerate even a worse climate scenario, perhaps as long as the year 2099, because the mussel bed environment remains intact,” she said. “This research shows that it is more important than ever to protect vulnerable habitats like mussel beds, which are threatened by trampling and destructive recreational mussel harvesting in many coastal areas of the United States.”

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation.

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