Tag Archives: Nature

Impacts of climate change on marine communities, seagrass dieback, and a trip to the Abrolhos Islands!

You may have noticed a lack of posts over the last few weeks.  No holiday for me though, here’s a quick taste of some of the other stuff I’ve been up to!

Impact of climate change on marine coastal ecosystems – A masterclass with Nuria Marbá
I was lucky enough to be invited along to present some research at a masterclass at the Institute of Advanced Studies led by Nuria Marbá in late March.  Nuria is a highly respected marine ecologist, and is mainly focussing on researching how coastal communities will respond to climate related stressors such as increased sea surface temperature.  Nuria gave a fantastic talk on the responses of a variety of different coastal ecosystems to projected future warming; from seagrass meadows in the Mediterranean to seaweed communities off the coast of Greenland.   In particular, the seagrass Posidonia oceanica – the real foundation species of the Mediterranean Sea – is at real risk from a combination of increased temperatures and future human activity.  P. oceanica has historically been able to resist disturbance events through extremely long life spans – a study led by Sophie Arnaud-Hound in 2012 suggest that some clones are thousands of years old!!!  However, this long life span is coupled with extremely slow recovery, and it is the really fast rate of expected change in temperature that is expected to cause the P. oceanica meadows to really struggle.  Above average temperatures in the Mediterranean in the last decade has already resulted in significant shoot mortality (Marba and Duarte 2010 Global Change Biology), and the predictions for seagrass response to future warming events look even scarier – with the present consensus being a “functional extinction of P. oceanica meadows by the middle of the century (2049±10), even under relatively mild greenhouse-emissions scenario” (Jorda et al. 2012 Nature Climate Change).  This is all pretty sobering stuff considering that P. oceanica forms the basis of key ecosystems in the Mediterranean Sea.

Closer to home, I presented some initial research that was conducted looking at the effect of the 2011 Marine Heatwave on seagrass populations in Shark Bay.  We travelled up to Shark Bay in March 2011 (right in the middle of the heatwave) as part of a separate research project, and noticed two striking features – water temperatures were far higher than normal, and the dominant seagrass Amphibolis antarctica (wire weed) had experienced severe defoliation (leaf loss) in certain parts of Shark Bay.  Closer analysis showed that the areas worst affected were adjacent to the recently flooded Wooramel River, so we hypothesis that a combination of elevated temperatures and decreased light availability may be leading to the loss of leaves.  Effectively, we believe that the increased temperature increases respiratory demand (the seagrasses get ‘hungrier’ for light) whilst the decreased light availability stops that demand being met.  We are re-visiting previous study sites where defoliation was noticed in an attempt to measure the recovery of the seagrasses; so I’ll keep you posted!

Defoliation in Shark Bay seagrass meadows

A healthy Amphibolis antarctica meadow (left) and a defoliated meadow in Shark Bay (right). We believe a combination of low light availability and elevated tempertaures has led to this loss of leaf material.

Other workshop presentations included a discussion on the impacts of the same marine heatwave on marine communities (in particular, macro algae) up and down the West Australian coastline by Thomas Wernberg, carbon sequestration impliactions from Oscar Serrano-Gras, and a discussion of the effects of warming on feedback in algal assemblages from Scott Bennett.  All in all, a fantastic workshop that will hopefully have positive benefits for the management of marine communities in the face of continued warming of our oceans.

A trip to the Houtmans Abrolhos!
For one week at the start of April I was lucky enough to help out Luke Thomas with his research into coral resilience at the beautiful Houtman Abrolhos.  The Houtman Abrolhos is a chain of small islands located 80km off the coast of Geraldton, Western Australia.  They are really special as they are the highest latitude true coral reef in the Southern Hemisphere.  As such, they may represent an important site that could potentially act as a refuge or a stepping stone for some coral species to move south as temperatures increase.

Acropora research at the Abrolhos Islands

Luke taking samples to investigate coral resilience at the Houtman Abrolhos.

Luke is trying to figure out the genetic connectivity of the corals in the Houtman Abrolhos with those in other locations along the West Australian coast, such as those found in Shark Bay, Ningaloo Reef, and Cygnet Bay.  This will help to determine the resilience of the coral reef communities in the Houtman Abrolhos to future changes in climate (Luke explains things much better than I do here!).  We also carried out some ecological experiments on kelp beds at the same time, so it was a full week of research!  But luckily the weather held up for us and we had some stunning dives – hopefully I’ll be able to post some more photos at a later date!

Kelp research at the Abrolhos Islands

Some fantastic visibility led to some incredible kelp dives (20m depth at this site!) Photo: Gary Kendrick

The inaugural Oceans Institute Student Conference
March also seen a landmark for the UWA Oceans Institute – the first student conference was held at the University Club at UWA.  There were a huge range of talks that showed the breadth of research at the university – everything from tracking marine plastics to studying the biology of pteropods!  And even me trying to get everyone excited about phosphorus cycling in seagrass sediments (what’s more, I was awarded joint first place for the presentation, and won a return trip to Rottnest Island – fantastic!).  One of the highlights from the conference was a talk by renowned marine ecologist Callum Roberts about the pressures facing coral reef ecosystems over the next 100 years.  He was quick to emphasise that warming temperatures aren’t the only threat, with human impacts such as overfishing and pollution likely to lead to worsen negative impacts on these reefs.  Sobering stuff.  On a brighter note, the day as a whole went well, and I think that the 2013 OI student conference will set the benchmark for many more successful conferences in years to come!  Big thanks to Liza, Eric, Renee and the rest of the organising committee!

‘Worldwide diebacks of seagrass ecosystems’: A seminar from Ole PedersenI also had the pleasure of heading along to a seminar from Ole Pedersen; a 2013 Professor-at-Large at UWA.  Ole is one of the authorities in the ecophysiology of aquatic plants (including seagrasses!) and is primarily based at the University of Copenhagen, but is over for a two week stint to do some work in Western Australia!  Ole’s seminar focussed on two potential causes of dieback of seagrass – hypoxia (lack of oxygen) and sulphide intrusion (effectively poisoning!).  Ole has played a leading role in the creation of microsensors that can be used to measure oxygen and sulphide concentrations in the field, and his research indicates the both hypoxia and sulphide intrusion could lead to further loss of seagrass communities as ocean temperatures rise!  I’m lucky enough to be helping Ole and Jens Borum (also visiting from the University of Copenhagen) out with some of their experiments into the potential responses of West Australian seagrass species to changing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the water column, so I should be able to also keep you posted on that research!

As you can see, a busy few weeks, which is why the blog has taken a bit of a back seat!  Rest assured I hope to blog more over the next few weeks!

Marbá, N., & Duarte, C. (2009). Mediterranean warming triggers seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) shoot mortality Global Change Biology, 16 (8), 2366-2375 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2009.02130.x

Jordà, G., Marbà, N., & Duarte, C. (2012). Mediterranean seagrass vulnerable to regional climate warming Nature Climate Change, 2 (11), 821-824 DOI: 10.1038/nclimate1533

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Marine Ecology or Marine Biology….what’s the difference!?!?!?

A few of you may be wondering why the blog is called ‘Confessions of a Marine Ecologist” and not ‘Confessions of a Marine Biologist”.  After all, if you ask a group of school kids what they want to be when they grow up, more than a handful would happily answer “marine biologist”, but I would happily put money on none answering “a marine ecologist”!  Even when I decided I wanted to study life in the ocean, I searched for courses on marine biology, not marine ecology!  And I myself often wondered why people I was introduced to describe themselves as ‘marine ecologists’ instead of ‘marine biologists’.  So what’s the difference?  And, more importantly, why do I feel the need to describe myself as a marine ecologist that will almost definitely get me less traffic and fewer looks of admiration from non-scientists (incidentally, these looks of admiration are quickly replaced by confusion when you explain to people that you work on seagrass instead of dolphins or turtles!)

Coral Reef Community at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

Why do we find marine organisms in some places but not others? This question is at the heart of all marine ecology!

Let’s start at the difference between the two.  Marine biology is the study of life in the oceans.  The mention of marine biology invokes thoughts of dolphins, turtles, and maybe even some pretty coral-reef fish from Finding Nemo!  However, marine biology is a whole lot more than that, investigating all life in the ocean, from the phytoplankton (very small) to the blue whales (very big).  In short, marine biologists concentrate on studying their chosen species, answering questions like “What type of fish is that?”, “How do the bodies of whales cope with extreme depths?”, and “How do sharks sense their environment?”.  All in all, some pretty cool stuff in my opinion!

So what makes us fully fledged marine ecologist different from our biologist counterparts?  Well, I think that marine ecology is even cooler than marine biology because as marine ecologists we link what we know about the biology of a given species with other plants/animals and the environment as well.  This allows questions to be explored like :”Why do ecosystems that are so depleted in nutrients (like the Great Barrier Reef) have such high biodiversity and productivity?”, “What will happen to the local seagrass and fish population if we build a new jetty here?”, and “How does the presence of keystone predators (like sharks) effect not only turtle and dugong numbers, but the type of plants we see on the seafloor?”.  Nature is extremely complex, and I believe that we can only  gain a limited understanding of how nature works by simply looking at individual species in isolation.  This is where marine ecology comes in….we attempt to understand how species interact with one another and their environment (things like temperature, nutrient/food availability, light……even human-related disturbances).  When we consider that we live in a world where climatic conditions are changing at an unprecedented rate, we need marine ecology to help make predictions about how marine species will respond to such environmental changes, and how best to mitigate against any potential losses.

If we were splitting hairs, ecology is technically a form of biology, but I felt the need to write this post given how passionately I see some researchers stating that they are in one camp or another. Most importantly, we need to have marine biologists and ecologists to help us understand marine organisms and how they interact with the environment and each other.  But as an ecologist (albeit a biased one!) what gets me excited isn’t just finding out how the amazing plants and animals we find in the ocean work, but how they interact with each other and their environment, explaining why we see certain species in some places and not others!

So hopefully this little rant has shed some light on the importance of us marine ecologists!  Though I’m still not holding my breath for any school kids to profess a desire to become a marine ecologists any time soon!