Climate Change Hitting the Sea's Little Guys Too

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"Sea Butterflies" Next?

Scott Doney, a chemical oceanographer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, said that Hofmann may have done "the same type of experiments [as previous researchers], but went beyond looking at the physiological impact of acidification on organisms.

"[Hofmann] used molecular biological tools to see what proteins are turned on or off as they experienced stress if the waters become really acidic," Doney said. "It is a validation in many ways of the physiological experiments others had done."

Doney compared sea urchins to homeowners who use all their cash to build the dwellings but don't leave any money for furniture.

"From the short-term experiments that have been running, the best indication is that likely the population as a whole will suffer dramatically," Doney said. "But, in addition to being a food source for things we eat, [sea urchins] are a harbinger of the damage we do to ecosystems."

Hofmann also pointed out that she just returned from Antarctica, where she was collecting samples of another first-rung-in-the-food-chain creature, the pteropod.

These miniscule creatures—which resemble snails flying through water—are sometimes referred to as sea butterflies.

They are an essential food source for many fish such as salmon, which feed penguins, seals, and other animals.

Hofmann plans to get a quick scan of the pteropod DNA sequence and then use that information to predict the impact climate change will have on these organisms.

"Pteropods are one of our lead organisms for understanding and predicting the effects of climate change. But they are a very unknown organism," she said.

"Pteropods are cold-adapted, so while we haven't tested it yet, we suspect their ability to tolerate temperature increases could be very narrow," Hofmann added.

"And they can't migrate anywhere to find colder water, so the pteropod situation could be even more dire than with sea urchins."

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