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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Robo-mussel To The Rescue

Robo-mussel To The Rescue

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Thursday, May 3, 2018/Categories: wildlife conservation, marine life, sustainability, environment, climate change

                         Robo-mussels Sensor in a Marine Reef. (credit: Northeastern University)

Keystone species are particularly important ecologically. Their importance is usually noticed when they are removed or they have disappeared from an ecosystem. The results are usually dramatic changes to the rest of the community. This has been observed in a diversity of ecosystems and for a wide range of organisms, so what happens to keystone species happens to others. A dramatic example of their impact was seen after the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone after nearly a century of absence. Within just a few years of their reintroduction, changes to the entire ecosystem affecting both plants and animals and plants were readily observed. The recovery of ecological balance was also much faster than imagined.

Mussels function as keystone species for coastal and marine tidal zones. Innovative research at Northeastern University has determined just how important are these mollusks to their ecosystem. Their resilience or susceptibility to climate change will be critical to know. Deploying artifical "robo-mussels", the size, shape, and color of their living counterparts, in coastal mussel beds the shell-like robots track environmental conditions like temperature and incoming solar raditation.

According to their announcement, environmental data is gathered by the robotic-sensors every 10-15 minutes by the Boston researchers and teams of other scientists working around the world. The robo-mussels track mussel body tem­per­a­tures, deter­mined by the surrounding air or water, and the amount of solar radi­a­tion they absorb. The information has produced a 'big-data' baseline allowing the sci­en­tists "to pin­point areas of unusual warming, inter­vene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosys­tems, and develop strate­gies that could pre­vent extinc­tion of cer­tain species."

Brian Helmuth, the project's lead investigator, considers mus­sels a barom­eter of cli­mate change. They rely on external sources of heat, like air tem­per­a­ture and sun expo­sure, for their body heat. they thrive, or not, depending on those environmental con­di­tions. If changes caused by climate change alter the stability, mussel beds could decline or be restricted to smaller areas. The researcher cautioned:

"loosing mussel beds is essen­tially like clearing a forest. If they go, every­thing that’s living in them will go."

The article detailing the research appears in Nature, Scientific Data. You may be hearing a great deal more about "keystone species" and climate change as more ecological studies employ robots to collect targeted data.

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