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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Robomussels To The Rescue

Robomussels To The Rescue

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Wednesday, October 19, 2016/Categories: wildlife conservation, marine life, sustainability, environment, climate change

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.

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