Keystone species are particularly important ecologically. Their impact is usually noticed when they are removed or they disappear from an ecosystem, resulting in dramatic changes to the rest of the community. Their importance 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 re-introduction, dramatic changes to the entire ecosystem affecting both plants and animals and plants, was rapidly observed.
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. Employing artifical "robomussels" with the size, shape, and color of their living counterparts, shell-like robots with built-in sensors to track temperature and environmental conditions, are planted in coastal mussel beds.
According to the announcement, environmental data is gathered by the robot-sensors every 10-15 minutes by the Boston researchers and teams of other scientists working around the world. The robomussels track of 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 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 and thrive, or not, depending on those environmental conditions. If changes caused by climate change alter their stable conditions, mussel beds could decline or be restricted to smaller areas. The researcher noted:
"losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest. If they go, everything that’s living in them will go."
The article detailing the new research appears in Nature, Scientific Data. You may be hearing a great deal more about "keystone species" and climate change as more ecological studies with big-data sets become known.