It’s not all about temperature for corals

31 05 2017


Three of the coral species studied by Muir (2): (a) Acropora pichoni: Pohnpei Island, Pacific Ocean — deep-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; (b) Acropora divaricate: Maldives, Indian ocean — mid-water species/IUCN ‘Near threatened’; and (c) Acropora gemmifera: Orpheus Island, Australia — shallow-water species/IUCN ‘Least Concern’. The IUCN states that the 3 species are vulnerable to climate change (acidification, temperature extremes) and demographic booms of the invading predator, the crown-of-thorns starfish Acanthaster planci. Photos courtesy of Paul Muir.

Global warming of the atmosphere and the oceans is modifying the distribution of many plants and animals. However, marine species are bound to face non-thermal barriers that might preclude their dispersal over wide stretches of the sea. Sunlight is one of those invisible obstacles for corals from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

If we were offered a sumptuous job overseas, our professional success in an unknown place could be limited by factors like cultural or linguistic differences that have nothing to do with our work experience or expertise. If we translate this situation into biodiversity terms, one of the best-documented effects of global warming is the gradual dispersal of species tracking their native temperatures from the tropics to the poles (1). However, as dispersal progresses, many species encounter environmental barriers that are not physical (e.g., a high mountain or a wide river), and whose magnitude could be unrelated to ambient temperatures. Such invisible obstacles can prevent the establishment of pioneer populations away from the source.

Corals are ideal organisms to study this phenomenon because their life cycle is tightly geared to multiple environmental drivers (see ReefBase: Global Information System for Coral Reefs). Indeed, the growth of a coral’s exoskeleton relies on symbiotic zooxanthellae (see video and presentation), a kind of microscopic algae (Dinoflagellata) whose photosynthetic activity is regulated by sea temperature, photoperiod and dissolved calcium in the form of aragonite, among other factors.

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Noisy oceans

20 01 2014
killers & boats
Killer whales are social animals that navigate all oceans and seas between the Arctic and Antarctica – they can be regarded eusocial since reproduction ceases around 40 years of age and menopausal females help care for offspring: like humans [13, 14]. Group cohesion in killer whales relies on a complex repertoire of vocalisations including clicks, whistles and calls. Sounds are instrumental for prey searching, orientation and communication. Foote [5] focused on calls, which are made up of series of discrete sounds that resemble squeaks, screams, and squawks to the human ear. It has been postulated that individuals learn to vocalise by imitation of peers of the same pod, and that only the base structure has a genetic, hence heritable, component [15]. Regardless, pods develop regional dialects. Those dialects, along with aspects of diet, genetics, morphology and behaviour, differentiate the three main lineages of killer whales (resident, transient and open sea) that might have been genetically isolated for ~ 150 to 700 thousand years and, potentially represent different taxa [16, 17]. The species might abandon the IUCN conservation category of ‘Data Deficient’ as soon its taxonomic uncertainty is resolved.Resident killer whales form matrilineal groups of 2 to 15 individuals  (the matriarch and her offspring) – known as pods, in turn subdivided into subpods centred around grandmothers and great-grandmothers. The Southern Resident population is regarded as an acoustic clan comprising 3 pods currently numbering 81 individuals = 26 (J pod) + 19 (K pod) + 36 (L pod) (2013 survey), among whom the matriarch Granny is the oldest at 103 years! This clan feeds mainly on fish, and dwells in the coastal waters between British Columbia (Canada) and Washington State (USA), particularly south of Vancouver Island – nothing is known about where they spend the winter. The clan lost 20 % of its members between 1995 & 2001, and 13 more by 2013, and now faces the decline of its main prey: Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) [18]. The two pics show two sub pods of this clan swimming close to a whale-watching boat near Friday Harbour (San Juan Island) and a Chinese ship at Puget Sound (Seatle, USA). Photo credits: Marla Holt, NOAA/NMFS Northwest Fisheries Sciences Center.

Acoustic pollution has become a transnational issue, particularly in marine ecosystems [1] by virtue of the physical fact that sounds travel in water farther and faster than in air. In our noisy, modern world, many species are now forced to modify their vocal repertoire in response to noise. The pivotal social role that vocalisations play in all cetacean species makes these predators and filter feeders particularly vulnerable to this environmental problem.

Last night, an ambulance siren woke me, only seconds before the neighbour’s washing machine started spinning, and a good friend of mine rang from overseas. Gradually more and more people are living in societies plugged in to noisy mechanical and electronic devices 24 hours a day, 356 days a year.

Engine-powered vehicles are the main source of anthropogenic noise, and their numbers can grow even at a higher rate than the human population – so spreading not only diseases [2] but also decibels over a global network of travelling routes. In an ecological context, we refer to noise as a kind of sound (= energy wave detected by an auditory system) that is not considered a biologically meaningful cue by wildlife (including us) and might also cause physiological stress. Experts refer to ‘masking’ as those situations in which noise interferes the perception or emission of sounds that matter to the life history of species – a global concern in both terrestrial [3] and aquatic [4] ecosystems.

Andy Foote [5] has assessed the effect of vessel traffic on the vocal behaviour of the three pods forming the Southern Resident population of killer whales (Orcinus orca¸ see video). He recorded calls from these cetaceans from a ship, and through an array of submarine microphones in Haro Straight, between San Juan Island (Washington State, USA) and Vancouver Island (British Columbia, Canada). Between the 1990s and the 2000s, local traffic density had multiplied by a factor of 5 and currently, > 20 whale-watching vessels follow these killer whales daily among an active fleet of > 70 commercial vessels. Foote compared call length through 35 hours of underwater killer whale recordings over three periods (1977-1981, 1989-1992, 2001-2003), each comprising situations in which the pods were exposed to both noisy and quiet environments. Over the study, call length varied between 0.3 and 2.0 seconds; while on average, L-pod calls were the shortest (0.6-0.8 seconds), and J-pod calls the longest (0.9-1.0 seconds). Read the rest of this entry »

Where are they? Finding (and conserving) the biggest fish in the sea

16 11 2011

A post from my PhD student, Ana Sequeira, on her latest paper just out in Diversity and DistributionsOcean-scale prediction of whale shark distribution.

© W Osborn (AIMS)

The ocean is our major source of water, it stabilises our breathable atmosphere and provides many supplies such as medicines (e.g., anti-cancer therapy drugs1) and food. Despite its the importance for human life, many marine species are now at a high risk of extinction owing to human changes to the oceans.

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus, Smith 1828) – an icon of the oceans of a spectacularly huge size and docile character – is just one of those species.

Despite being a fish that many people (mainly in Southeast Asia) are happy to have on their plate, whale sharks are worth millions of dollars every year in the ecotourism industry worldwide. One would then expect that being such a profitable species, their ecology would be well known and thoroughly studied.

The reality is quite different.

Basic information on whale sharks such as the whereabouts of their breeding areas, the average number of offspring per female, or even how many individuals still exist, is not currently known. Moreover, despite the genetic evidence that whale sharks worldwide are connected among different oceans, it is unclear if they move from places where they are protected to places where they are still illegally fished.

Information on distribution and patterns of occurrence in space and time is essential for conservation, and can help to save entire ecosystems if used correctly, for example: to isolate important mating and breeding areas.

To identify the whale shark’s seasonal distribution patterns in the Indian Ocean, to test if records follow a decreasing trend over time, and if occurrence is related to variation in climatic signals, we used multivariate distribution models of seasonal and inter-annual whale shark sightings opportunistically collected over 17 years by the tuna purse-seine fishery. Read the rest of this entry »