A cascade of otters

4 04 2022

Carnivores are essential components of trophic webs, and ecosystem functions crumble with their loss. Novel data show the connection between calcareous reefs and sea otters under climate change.

Trophic cascade on the Aleutian Islands (Alaska, USA) linking sea otters (Enhydra lutris) with sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus) and calcareous reefs (Clathromorphum nereostratum). With males weighting up to 50 kg, sea otters have been IUCN-catalogued as Endangered since 2000. The top photo shows a male in a typical, belly-up floating position. The bottom photo shows live (pinkish) and dead (whitish) tissue on the reef surface as a result of grazing of sea urchins at a depth of 10 m. Sea otters are mesopredators, typically foraging on small prey like sea urchins, but their historical decline due to overhunting unleashed the proliferation of the echinoderms. At the same time, acidification and sea-water warming have softened the skeleton of the reefs, allowing for deeper grazing by sea urchins that eliminate the growth layer of living tissue that give the reefs their pinkish hue. Large extents of dead reefs stop fixing the excess in carbonic acid, whose carbon atoms sea water sequesters from the atmosphere enriched in carbon by our burning of fossil fuels. Photos courtesy of Joe Tomoleoni taken in Moss Landing – California, USA (otter), and on the Near Islands – Aleutian Archipelago, Alaska (reef).

For most, the decisions made by people we have never met affect our daily lives. Other species experience the same phenomenon because they are linked to one another through a trophic cascade.

A trophic cascade occurs when a predator limits the abundance or behaviour of its prey, in turn affecting the survival of a third species in lower trophic levels that have nothing directly to do with the predator in question (1).

Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) represent a text-book example of a trophic cascade. These mustelids (see video footage here and here) hunt and control the populations of sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus polyacanthus), hence favouring kelp forests  — the fronds of which are eaten by the sea urchins.

Removing the predator from the equation should lead to more sea urchins and less kelp, and this chain of events is exactly what happened along the coasts of the North Pacific (2, 3). The historical distribution of sea otters once ranged from Japan to Baja California through the Aleutian Islands (see NASA’s photo from space, and documentary on the island of Unimak), a sub-Arctic, arc-shaped archipelago including > 300 islands between Alaska (USA) and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia), extending ~ 2000 kilometres, and having a land area of ~ 18,000 km2.

But the fur trade during the 18th and 19th centuries brought the species to the brink of extinction, down to < 2000 surviving individuals (4). Without otters, sea urchins boomed and deforested kelp ecosystems during the 20th Century (5). Now we also know that this trophic cascade has climate-related implications in other parts of the marine ecosystem.

Underwater bites

Doug Rasher and collaborators have studied the phenomenon on the Aleutian Islands (6). The seabed of this archipelago is a mix of sandy beds, kelp forests, and calcareous reefs made up of calcium and magnesium carbonates fixed by the red algae Clathromorphum nereostratum. These reefs have grown at a rate of 3 cm annually for centuries as the fine film of living tissue covering the reef takes the carbonates from the seawater (7).

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The state of global biodiversity — it’s worse than you probably think

24 01 2020

Chefurka biomass slide

I often find myself in a position explaining to non-professionals just how bad the state of global biodiversity really is. It turns out too that even quite a few ecologists seem to lack an appreciation of the sheer magnitude of damage we’ve done to the planet.

The loss of biodiversity that has occurred over the course of our species’ time on Earth is staggering. This loss is now truly planetary in scale and caused by human actions, albeit the severity of which is unequally distributed across the globe1. While Sandra Díaz and company recently summarised the the extent of the biodiversity crisis unfolding1 well in their recent synopsis of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)2 report, I’m going to repeat some of the salient summary statements here, and add a few others. Read the rest of this entry »

South Australia’s tattered environmental remains

16 04 2014

State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

South Australia State budget percentage expenditures for health, education and environment

Yesterday I gave the second keynote address at the South Australia Natural Resource Management (NRM) Science Conference at the University of Adelaide (see also a brief synopsis of Day 1 here). Unfortunately, I’m missing today’s talks because of an acute case of man cold, but at least I can stay at home and work while sipping cups of hot tea.

Many people came up afterwards and congratulated me for “being brave enough to tell the truth”, which both encouraged and distressed me – I am encouraged by the positive feedback, but distressed by the lack of action on the part of our natural resource management leaders.

The simple truth is that South Australia’s biodiversity and ecosystems are in shambles, yet few seem to appreciate this.

So for the benefit of those who couldn’t attend, I’ve uploaded the podcast of my slideshow for general viewing here. I’ve also highlighted some key points from the talk below: Read the rest of this entry »

Essential predators

21 11 2012

© C. Hilton

Here at ConservationBytes.com, My contributors and I have highlighted the important regulating role of predators in myriad systems. We have written extensively on the mesopredator release concept applied to dingos, sharks and coyotes, but we haven’t really expanded on the broader role of predators in more complex systems.

This week comes an elegant experimental study (and how I love good experimental evidence of complex ecological processes and how they affect population persistence and ecosystem stability, resilience and productivity) demonstrating, once again, just how important predators are for healthy ecosystems. Long story short – if your predators are not doing well, chances are the rest of the ecosystem is performing poorly.

Today’s latest evidence comes from on an inshore marine system in Ireland involving crabs (Carcinus maenas), whelks (Nucella lapillus), gastropd grazers (Patella vulgata, Littorina littorea and Gibbula umbilicalis), mussels (Mytilus edulis) and macroalgae. Published in Journal of Animal Ecology, O’Connor and colleagues’ paper (Distinguishing between direct and indirect effects of predators in complex ecosystems) explains how their controlled experimental removals of different combinations of predators (crabs & whelks) and their herbivore prey (mussels & gastropods) affected primary producer (macroalgae) diversity and cover (see Figure below and caption from O’Connor et al.). Read the rest of this entry »

Marine forests dropping off the edge

21 11 2011

This is probably a little late in terms of breaking news, but it’s good fodder for a blog post nonetheless.

I’ve done several posts now on the value (and threats) of marine macroalgae (seaweeds) – the last one hinted that a major paper was imminent regarding the fate of one of the world’s most important centres of macroalgae diversity in response to our rapidly changing climate: southern Australia.

Well, that paper has now come out in the eminent journal Current Biology headed by that crazy Aussie-Viking phycologist, Dr. Thomas Wernberg (byline here: Thomas was just awarded an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship and deserves many congratulations – not least for which the audacity to wear yellow budgie smugglers in public).

Entitled simply “Seaweed communities in retreat from ocean warming“, the short paper belies a hell of a lot of work examining over 60 years of herbarium records indicating MASSIVE shifts in the macroalgae community southwards on both the east and west coasts of Australia (see some media spots here). What do I mean by ‘massive’? Well, about 300 species on average (52 examined in most detail) shifted about 200 km south on the east coast (where warming has been most pronounced), and about 50 km south on the west coast. Read the rest of this entry »

Global erosion of ecosystem services

14 09 2010

A few months ago I was asked to give a lecture about erosion of ecosystem services to students in the University of Adelaide‘s Issues in Sustainable Environments unit. I gave that lecture last week and just uploaded a slidecast of the presentation (with audio) today.

I’ve reproduced the lecture here for your viewing pleasure. I hope you find the 45-minute presentation useful. Note that the first few minutes cover me referring to the Biodiversity film short that I posted not too long ago.

CJA Bradshaw

PhD scholarships in marine plant ecology and conservation

12 05 2010

Two new APAI (Australian Postgraduate Award – Industry) PhD scholarships are available at the University of Adelaide, both in marine ecology and conservation.

Molecular Systematics and Ecology of Marine Macroalgae

Dr. Frederico Gurgel at the University of Adelaide is seeking 2 PhD students interested in working on several aspects of the marine green macroalgal genus Caulerpa. Honour students are also welcome to apply. APAI PhD scholarships are the best-paid scholarships from the Australian Research Council (fees + AU$26,000 p.a. for 3 yrs). Possible co-advisors: Prof. Corey Bradshaw (University of Adelaide/South Australian Research and Development Institute – SARDI), Dr. Jason Tanner (SARDI), and Dr. Marty Deveney (SARDI). External collaborators: Dr. Peter Grewe (CSIRO Marine), Dr. John Runcie (University of Sydney). Starting date: any time.

Integrative approach to the study of Caulerpa taxifolia in Australia: Ecological, Physiology, Phylogeography and DNA barcoding

The students will perform comparative ecological and physiological assays among Australian native and invasive strains of C. taxifolia (and related species) to study their response (e.g., growth, reproduction, photosynthesis, gene expression) to distinct abiotic factors and global climate change scenarios (e.g., pCO2, pH, temperature, light, salinity, nutrients). Students will perform a multi-marker comparative phylogeographic study among 14 invasive (NSW and SA) and 4 native (QLD, NT, WA) populations to determine the origin of introduced populations in temperate Australia. Students will build a dual-marker DNA barcode database of all species of Caulerpa in Australia as a tool to identify morphologically compromised specimens. Additionally, they will perform a molecular-assisted evolutionary (phylogenetic) study of the genus and develop demographic models to predict the fate of Caulerpa populations under different abiotic scenarios. The students will have the option to choose the components of the project they desire.

Desirable skills: 4WD and manual driving, snorkelling, SCUBA diving certification (open water minimum), molecular biology experience.

For more information please contact Dr. Fred Gurgel (e-mail or telephone: +61 8 8222 9291).

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Eastern Seaboard Climate Change Initiative

30 04 2009
© A. Perkins
© A. Perkins

I’ve just spent the last few days in Sydney attending a workshop on the Eastern Seaboard Climate Change Initiative which is trying to come to grips with assessing the rising impact of climate change in the marine environment (both from biodiversity and coastal geomorphology perspectives).

Often these sorts of get-togethers end up doing little more than identifying what we don’t know, but in this case, the ESCCI (love that acronym) participants identified some very good and necessary ways forward in terms of marine research. Being a biologist, and given this is a conservation blog, I’ll focus here on the biological aspects I found interesting.

The first part of the workshop was devoted to kelp. Kelp? Why is this important?

As it turns out, kelp forests (e.g., species such as Ecklonia, Macrocystis, Durvillaea and Phyllospora) are possibly THE most important habitat-forming group of species in temperate Australia (corals and calcareous macroalgae being more important in the tropics). Without kelp, there are a whole host of species (invertebrates and fish) that cannot persist. The Australian marine environment is worth something in the vicinity of $26.8 billion to our economy each year, so it’s pretty important we maintain our major habitats. Unfortunately, kelp is starting to disappear around the country, with southern contractions of Durvillaea, Ecklonia and Hormosira on the east coast linked to the increasing southward penetration of the East Australia Current (i.e., the big current that brings warm tropical water south from Queensland to NSW, Victoria and now, Tasmania). Pollution around the country at major urban centres is also causing the loss or degradation of Phyllospora and Ecklonia (e.g., see recent paper by Connell et al. in Marine Ecology Progress Series). There is even some evidence that disease causing bleaching in some species is exacerbated by rising temperatures.

Some of the key kelp research recommendations coming out of the workshop were:

  1. Estimating the value of kelp to Australians (direct harvesting; fishing; diving)
  2. Physical drivers of change: understanding how variation in the East Australian Current (temperature, nutrients) affects kelp distribution; understanding how urban and agricultural run-off (nutrients, pollutants, sedimentation) affects distribution and health; understanding how major storm events (e.g., East Coast Lows and El Niño-Southern Oscillation) affects long-term persistence
  3. Monitoring: what is the distribution and physical limits of kelp species?; how do we detect declines in ‘health’?; what is the associated biodiversity in kelp forests?
  4. Experimental: manipulations of temperature/nutrients/pathogens in the lab and in situ to determine sensitivities; sensitivity of different life stages; latitudinal transplants to determine localised adaption
  5. Adaptation (management): reseeding; managing run-off; managing fisheries to maintain a good balance of grazers and predators; inform marine protected area zoning; understanding trophic cascades

The second part of the discussion centred on ocean acidification and increasing CO2 content in the marine environment. As you might know, increasing atmospheric CO2 is taken up partially by ocean water, which lowers the availability of carbonate and increases the concentration of hydrogen ions (thus lowering pH or ‘acidifying’). It’s a pretty worrying trend – we’ve seen a drop in pH already, with conservative predictions of another 0.3 pH drop by the end of this century (equating to a doubling of hydrogen ions in the water). What does all this mean for marine biodiversity? Well, many species will simply not be able to maintain carbonate shells (e.g., coccolithophore phytoplankton, corals, echinoderms, etc.), many will suffer reproductive failure through physiological stress and embryological malfunction, and still many more will be physiologically stressed via hypercapnia (overdose of CO2, the waste product of animal respiration).

Many good studies have come out in the last few years demonstrating the sensitivity of certain species to reductions in pH (some simultaneous with increases in temperature), but some big gaps remain in our understanding of what higher CO2 content in the marine environment will mean for biota. Some of the key research questions in this area identified were therefore:

  1. What is the adaptation (evolutionary) potential of sensitive species? Will many (any) be able to evolve higher resistance quickly enough?
  2. In situ experiments outside the lab that mimic pH and pCO2 variation in space and time are needed to expose species to more realistic conditions.
  3. What are the population consequences (e.g., change in extinction risk) of higher individual susceptibility?
  4. Which species are most at risk, and what does this mean for ecosystem function (e.g., trophic cascades)?

As you can imagine, the conversation was complex, varied and stimulating. I thank the people at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science for hosting the fascinating discussion and I sincerely hope that even a fraction of the research identified gets realised. We need to know how our marine systems will respond – the possibilities are indeed frightening. Ignorance will leave us ill-prepared.

CJA Bradshaw

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