Don’t forget to remember the past

I have recently returned from the 10th International Temperate Reefs Symposium in Perth. It was great to spend a week talking good science

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow. Photo: Owen Burnell

Seagrass may increase their productivity in the future as they use CO2 for photosynthesis.
Photo: Owen Burnell

with a vibrant group of great scientists. There was an array of talks from classical marine ecology (which is great to see!) to novel modelling approaches and plenty of discussion of human impacts in marine systems. In the rare moments of quiet since my return I’ve been thinking about the main message that I took away from the meeting, and it’s this: anthropogenic climate change may be new to the planet, but we were studying the effects of human activities on ecosystems for several decades before we even realised that climate change was happening. So why is it that we seem to have abandoned ecology in our race to understand climate change?

While I was writing my talk for the conference I realised that, in general, research into the effects of climate change in marine ecosystems has been hampered by not looking at the literature on other human impacts. For example, there is a rich and abundant literature on how excess nutrient loads degrade ecosystems and change their structure and function. Yet, it is only recently that we have realised that CO2 is a “nutrient” or resource in marine systems. This seems logical; after all, plants use inorganic carbon for photosynthesis.  However, the story isn’t that simple, with different algae and seagrasses using different forms of carbon for photosynthesis. Even more confusing is that it looks like the “weedy” species will benefit by switching to the most abundant source of carbon and start to dominate ecosystems (see some of my papers and Harley et al. for the ecosystem effects and Raven & Hurd for the physiological aspects)! But I digress….

The point is that for some reason we don’t seem to draw on this older literature for the general principles of what we may expect to see as CO2 concentrations increase in the oceans. We’re starting to catch up, but the lost time is frustrating – let’s not make the mistakes of past generations but rather learn by them.

Digital library links for: Connell & Russell 2010


Ocean acidification: will there be ecosystem effects?

Turfs overgrowing coral

Algal turfs overgrowing corals under acidified conditions at CO2 seeps, which we use at “natural experiments”. Note that the seagrass in the middle of the photo also grow well under these conditions.

It has been a while since my last post, for which I apologise, but I have just emerged from a particularly busy period. I was lucky enough to be invited to an ocean acidification round table at the Peter Wall Institute in Vancouver late last year and we have been madly working on multiple papers since then (and I also had a short break over the Christmas week because of sheer exhaustion!). Why are we working so madly to get the papers written? Because the topic of the meeting is both topical and imminently important: how do we predict the ecosystem-level impacts of ocean acidification, and what can we do about it?

Why is this such an important question? The simple answer is that ocean acidification is a direct consequence of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s simple, indisputable chemistry. As CO2 dissolves into seawater it forms carbonic acid, finally reducing the amount of carbonate in the water (a good diagram of this reaction can be found here). The early research into this field (only 10 years ago now!) focussed entirely on calcifying species, such as gastropods and corals, because they use this carbonate to form their hard structures (calcium carbonate). What we’ve realised more recently, and a big part of my research program, is tha t the extra Carbon in the system (in the form of CO2) is also a resource for some algae and plants, potentially causing a change in the dominant species in ecosystems (see my photo of a “future” coral reef and kelp forest in this post).

Algal turfs dominating under acidified conditions at cold-water (temperate) CO2 seeps, which we use at "natural experiments". You can just see the fronds of a solitary kelp plant in the right of the photo, otherwise they are rare at the site (when they should be 8 - 10 plants per metre!).

Algal turfs dominating under acidified conditions at cold-water (temperate) CO2 seeps, which we use at “natural experiments”. You can just see the fronds of a solitary kelp plant in the right of the photo, otherwise they are rare at the site (when they should be 8 – 10 plants per metre!).

I’m happy to say that we made real progress in trying to understand what the likely ecosystem effects are globally, and more importantly the things that we need to know into the future. I won’t pre-empt our publications, but the synopsis is that ecosystems will change, and for the worse. This has been highlighted before, including for Australia, but for the first time I think we’re starting to get at understanding the ecological mechanisms (which is essential if we are to help the systems resist this change!).

Lead by Prof. Chris Harley, and including an amazing group of contributors, I’d say it was the most successful round-table that I’ve been involved with and we’ll have some good papers coming out soon (I’ll be sure to post about them!). If you’re interested in the topic and want more information, I strongly suggest that you watch this video of the public event we held as part of the week’s activities.


Digitial library links for:Falkenberg et al. 2013
Russell et al. 2013

Mediation of global change by local biotic and abiotic interactions

Dr Laura FalkenbergThis post is basically a short synopsis of the work done by one of my (now ex-) Ph.D. students, Dr Laura Falkenberg. Laura’s work has turned much of what we thought we knew about the effect of increased CO2 and nutrients on its head; we found synergies where we didn’t expect them (reviewed in a book chapter) and system resilience and resistance to change beyond what we hoped (via strong competitive interaction and trophic links; published in Oecologia, PLoS One and Marine Ecology Progress Series). Laura has certainly helped us look at things in new ways and given us hope that in marine systems where synergies between stressors exist that management of local conditions could potentially buy us some time in mitigating climate change (e.g. reducing nutrient flows into the marine environment, in Journal of Applied Ecology).

Ph.D. thesis: Mediation of global change by local biotic and abiotic interactions
by Dr Laura Falkenberg.

Throughout my Ph.D., I assessed the conceptual model that while cross-scale abiotic stressors can combine to synergistically favour shifts in marine habitats from kelp forests to mats of turfing algae, management of local conditions can counter this change. My experimental manipulations found broad support for the hypotheses that; 1) cross-scale factors (i.e. local and global) can have interactive effects which increase the probability of expansion of turfs but not kelp and, 2) management of local conditions (e.g. maintaining intact forests, limiting nutrient enrichment) can dampen the effects of global change (e.g. forecasted carbon dioxide). I published the results from my thesis in four papers. In the first, I showed that experimental enrichment of CO2 and nutrients influence the biomass accumulation of turf and kelp differently, with turf responding positively to enrichment of both resources while kelp responded to enrichment of nutrients but not CO2. Given that such direct responses could be mediated by interactions with other taxa, in the second paper I considered a key competitive interaction and revealed that the presence of kelp can inhibit the synergistic positive effect of resource enrichment (i.e. CO2 and nutrients) on their turf competitors. Similarly, in the third paper I highlighted the importance of herbivory by showing that under enriched CO2 conditions rates of this process were increased to counter the expansion of turfs. Finally, in the fourth paper, I considered a scenario in which these biotic controls were absent and identified that where multiple resources had been enriched and prompted a synergistic response (i.e. the expansion of turf where CO2 and nutrients are modified), subsequent reduction of the locally-determined factor alone (i.e. nutrients) substantially slowed further expansion of turf algae, but that the legacy of nutrient enrichment was not entirely eradicated. Together, these results represent progress in ecological tests of hypotheses regarding global climate change as they incorporate comprehensive sets of abiotic and biotic community drivers.

You can access all of Laura’s publications from the University of Adelaide’s digital library, or email her for a copy.

Eutrophication offsets sea urchin grazing on seagrass caused by warming and OA

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow. Photo: Owen Burnell

Amblypneustes pallidus in a Posodonia seagrass meadow.
Photo: Owen Burnell

The title to this blog seems a bit counterintuitive, almost like eutrophication is a good thing. Don’t believe that for a second! In a recently published paper, Owen Burnell of the University of Adelaide presents some interesting data on the interactions between eutrophication (an all too common local stressor), ocean acidification and warming (both increasingly alarming stressors of global origin). As I keep discovering, interactions between these stressors never seem to turn out the way we expect:

The accumulation of atmospheric [CO2] continues to warm and acidify oceans concomitant with local disturbances, such as eutrophication. These changes can modify plant– herbivore grazing interactions by affecting the physiology of grazers and by altering the nutritional value of plants. However, such environmental changes are often studied in isolation, providing little understanding of their combined effects. We tested how ocean warming and acidification affect the per capita grazing by the sea urchin Amblypneustes pallidus on the seagrass Amphibolis antarctica and how such effects may differ between ambient and eutrophic nutrient conditions. Consistent with metabolic theory, grazing increased with warming, but in contrast to our expectations, acidification also increased grazing. While nutrient enrichment reduced grazing, it did not fully counterbalance the increase associated with warming and acidification. Collectively, these results suggest that ocean warming and acidification may combine to strengthen top-down pressure by herbivores. Localised nutrient enrichment could ameliorate some of the increased per capita grazing effect caused by warming and acidification, provided other common negative effects of eutrophication on seagrass, including overgrowth by epiphytes and herbivore aggregation, are not overwhelming. There is value in assessing how global and local environmental change will combine, often in non-intuitive ways, to modify biological interactions that shape habitats.

Digital library

Atmospheric CO2 reaches 400 ppm

In May 2013 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the USA reported that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 at one of their recording stations topped 400 ppm for the first time. The media surrounding this event seems to have been very much based around the event itself with little comment on what it may mean. I find this moderately disappointing because we can be moderately confident of one thing  – increased CO2 in the atmosphere means that more will dissolve into the ocean, which means an increase in ocean acidification (this is classical chemistry!).

Despite the recent efforts of some of the worlds best scientists, both here in Australia and overseas, we still have an incomplete picture of the likely biological and ecological effects of this ocean acidification. However, we can be fairly certain of two things:

1. Ocean acidification will have negative impacts on organisms which form calcareous structures like the shells of molluscs (see pictures below) and the skeletons of corals; and

2. We are becoming increasingly aware that the increase in CO2 as a resource will cause changes to systems that are dominated by primary producers like seagrass and algae (e.g. kelp), mostly for the worse (for a starting point you could look at my webpage, but contact me for more information if you want!).

Unfortunately, as we enter a time of uncertainty for science funding in Australia, we may not develop a complete understanding of the system-wide effects of ocean acidification until it’s too late.

The growing edge of a juvenile abalone under high atmospheric CO2 (ultra-high magnification). Photo: Owen Burnell

The growing edge of a juvenile abalone under high atmospheric CO2 (ultra-high magnification). Photo: Owen Burnell

The growing edge of a juvenile abalone under normal atmospheric CO2 (ultra-high magnification)

The growing edge of a juvenile abalone under normal atmospheric CO2 (ultra-high magnification)

Aquatic body parts reveal all

This post is written by guest blogger Dr Zoë Doubleday, who is a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Marine Biology Program at The University of Adelaide. She has a particular interest in the utilisation of hard calcified tissues found in aquatic organisms as tools for answering critical questions in aquatic ecology. What interests me about Zoe’s work is how you can apply the techniques below to understanding past environmental conditions in the ocean and what that can tell us about the future…..


When you look at a tree stump what do you see? That’s right, rings, rings radiating out from the center to the edge; rings that represent the growth history of the tree.  Aquatic species also have rings laid down like this, year after year, decade after decade, in all kinds of body parts.  Fish and squid ear bones, shark vertebrae, coral skeletons, marine mammal teeth, bivalve and gastropod shells, cuttlefish bones. . .and the list goes on.  The beauty of hard calcified tissues is that many form growth rings with a precise periodicity (e.g. daily or annual), providing a time-calibrated archive of biological and environmental information.  To extract information from these natural chronometers we can analyse their chemical composition (such as trace elements and isotopes) and examine their growth ring

The otolith (ear bone) of a Murray Cod showing annual growth rings. Photo: Zoe Doubleday

The otolith (ear bone) of a Murray Cod showing annual growth rings. Photo: Zoe Doubleday

patterns (such as number and width) in relation to the temporal context of ring formation.  From here we can examine both the biological history (e.g. age, growth, diet, and movement) and environmental history (e.g. temperature and salinity) of an individual from birth to death.  This type of data can additionally tell us two important things: how the environment is changing and what biological impact that environmental change is having.

Another valuable attribute of calcified tissues is that they can hang around long after the organism has died.  This allows us to compare information derived from modern-day samples with information derived from historical (e.g. 19th and 20th Century), archeological and even paleontological samples.  Such comparisons are very powerful and can provide a rare and crucial insight into past biological baselines and what aquatic environments may have been like, say, prior to industrial-scale fishing or European colonization. This in turn can help us make a more realistic assessment of how much humans have impacted, and are impacting, the environment and about what environmental changes might happen in the future.

In the Marine Biology Program, we have a number of biochronologists working away on a range

Red Gurnard Perch (deep-water marine fish) ear bone with growth ring measurements. Photo: Gretchen Grammer

Red Gurnard Perch (deep-water marine fish) ear bone with growth ring measurements. Photo: Gretchen Grammer

of calcified tissues collected from freshwater to oceanic environments.  From here we are linking chemical and growth pattern data to various climatic and oceanographic variables, tracking movement patterns of individuals over large spatial and temporal scales, and seeing how biological indices, such as growth rate, age, and diet are changing.  However, there is still much to discover and uncover in calcified tissues and, in my opinion, is a mu ch underutilized resource of historical data, particularly in Australia.  As we continue to dig up long forgotten sample archives, find novel body parts with chronological properties, and work with constantly evolving analytical technology, who knows what we will find next…

Vertebra of Port Jackson Shark. Photo: Chris Izzo

Vertebra of Port Jackson Shark. Photo: Chris Izzo

The sins of the parents…..

Are not necessarily visited on the children, at least not with ocean acidification.Clownfish

There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years about the ability of plants and animals to adapt to ocean acidification. Some researchers are adamant that the rate of change is so fast that no animals will be able to adapt. A recent study by Miller et al. suggests that this may not be the case. In fact, they show that nature may just be a little more resilient than we give her credit for (or at least some species will be).

Professor Phil Munday and his team from James Cook University has been working on this concept for a while. The difficulty is that it is hard to raise multiple species of long-lived animals (or plants) in the lab to conduct these experiments. Miller et al. show that it’s worth trying. They exposed breeding pairs of cinnamon anemonefish to different levels of ocean acidification (OA) for two months before the breeding season. The astonishing thing is that their offspring weren’t negatively affected by this OA, whereas other juvenile fish coming from “normal” seawater were. What does this mean? That there was some sort of non-genetic adaptation within one generation!

We don’t know the underlying physiological mechanisms for this adaptation, or what other long-term trade-offs it may have (e.g. reduced reproductive output in the offspring?), but it is a promising outcome. Now all we need are more long-term, multi-generational research and we may begin to put a picture together on how our oceans will (or won’t) adapt to ocean acidification!