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Climate Change: Kiss Mussels 'Goodbye'

Jul 12, 2015 06:23 PM EDT

It's no secret that most climate experts are expecting surface temperatures to rise in the coming years. It was already confirmed earlier this year that 2014 was the hottest year on record, with warming oceans identified as a main driver in this harmful change. Now experts are saying that if things stay on track, mussels will be one of the first species to be in hot water - literally.

Of course, the consequences of rising ocean temperatures have already been seen, particularly with the mass degradation and mass-bleaching of tropical corals. Rising temperatures in conjunction with heightened ocean acidity weakens the symbiotic partners of coral - the algae that help make reefs strong and give corals their vibrant colors - in what some scientists call a doomsday 'double whammy.'

That same acidification of the Earth's oceans has caused some to speculate that many shelled creatures will be in big trouble by 2030 - having to commit more energy to shell formation, lest they become dangerously vulnerable to predators.

However, in the case of mussels, it's not acidification that experts and conservationists are most worried about. Temperature spikes in the tropics are expected to be accompanied by increased rainfall - unexpected extreme weather approaching monsoon-like conditions.

According to investigator Lucy Turner, at the  Marine Biology and Ecology Research Centre, of Plymouth University, that increased rainfall would inevitably dilute salt concentrations in tropical waters. Less salt and warmer water would in-turn dramatically alter local microscopic communities, paving the way for disease-causing bacteria and plankton species which produce toxins, such as the lethal PST (paralytic shellfish toxin). And one of the first organisms to be harmed by this change would be mussels.

"If the changes in the environment put the mussels' bodies under higher stress levels than usual, and we then challenge them with these microorganisms, the immune system may become compromised," Tuner explained in a statement. (Scroll to read on...)

To determine just how bad things could get, Turner even led her colleagues in raising mussels under predicted high temperature/low salt conditions. The result, as published in The Journal of Experimental Biology, showed a dramatic decline in mussel numbers, to a point that they would no longer be able to sustain local seafood industries, like the fledgling Green Mussel industry in South-West India.

"We know that climate change is causing a change in the timing and duration of the monsoon [which] is likely to increase the chance of outbreaks of toxic plankton blooms and make farming bivalves such as mussels increasingly challenging," Turner warned. "The Indian government needs to be vigilant about monitoring coastal water quality, particularly as the shellfish industry continues to grow."

Now the researchers plan to turn their attention to oysters and clams, hoping to better predict if and when climate change will impact these similar industries as well.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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