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Ocean acidification reduces shell formation in tiny foraminifera indicating big changes to global carbon cycle

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May 25, 2017 University of California – Davis Bodega Marine Lab    ScienceDaily
… For the study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists raised foraminifera — single-celled organisms about the size of a grain of sand — at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory under future, high CO2 conditions. These tiny organisms, commonly called “forams,” are ubiquitous in marine environments and play a key role in food webs and the ocean carbon cycle….UC Davis scientists found that under high CO2, or more acidic, conditions, the foraminifera had trouble building their shells and making spines, an important feature of their shells….[and] showed signs of physiological stress, reducing their metabolism and slowing their respiration to undetectable levels.

This is the first study of its kind to show the combined impact of shell building, spine repair, and physiological stress in foraminifera under high CO2 conditions. The study suggests that stressed and impaired foraminifera could indicate a larger scale disruption of carbon cycling in the ocean….

…As a marine calcifier, foraminifera use calcium carbonate to build their shells, a process that plays an integral part in balancing the carbon cycle. Normally, healthy foraminifera calcify their shells and sink to the ocean floor after they die, taking the calcite with them. This moves alkalinity, which helps neutralize acidity, to the seafloor. When foraminifera calcify less, their ability to neutralize acidity also lessens, making the deep ocean more acidic. …”That acidified water from the deep will rise again. If we do something that acidifies the deep ocean, that affects atmospheric and ocean carbon dioxide concentrations on time scales of thousands of years.” [Catherine] Davis said the geologic record shows that such imbalances have occurred in the world’s oceans before, but only during times of major change. “This points to one of the longer time-scale effects of anthropogenic climate change that we don’t understand yet,” Davis said.

…strong winds periodically push nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean up to the surface– Upwelling supports some of the planet’s most productive fisheries and ecosystems. But additional anthropogenic, or human-caused, CO2 in the system is expected to impact fisheries and coastal ecosystems…. UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory in Northern California is near one of the world’s most intense coastal upwelling areas. At times, it experiences conditions most of the ocean isn’t expected to experience for decades or hundreds of years.

Seasonal upwelling means that we have an opportunity to study organisms in high CO2, acidic waters today — a window into how the ocean may look more often in the future,” said co-author Tessa Hill, an associate professor in earth and planetary sciences at UC Davis. “We might have expected that a species of foraminifera well-adapted to Northern California wouldn’t respond negatively to high CO2 conditions, but that expectation was wrong. This study provides insight into how an important marine calcifier may respond to future conditions, and send ripple effects through food webs and carbon cycling.”

Catherine V. Davis, Emily B. Rivest, Tessa M. Hill, Brian Gaylord, Ann D. Russell, Eric Sanford. Ocean acidification compromises a planktic calcifier with implications for global carbon cycling. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-01530-9

Abstract: ….We cultured a globally important calcifying marine plankter (the foraminifer, Globigerina bulloides) under an ecologically relevant range of seawater pH (7.5 to 8.3 total scale). Multiple metrics of calcification and physiological performance varied with pH. At pH > 8.0, increased calcification occurred without a concomitant rise in respiration rates. However, as pH declined from 8.0 to 7.5, calcification and oxygen consumption both decreased, suggesting a reduced ability to precipitate shell material accompanied by metabolic depression. Repair of spines, important for both buoyancy and feeding, was also reduced at pH < 7.7. The dependence of calcification, respiration, and spine repair on seawater pH suggests that foraminifera will likely be challenged by future ocean conditions. Furthermore, the nature of these effects has the potential to actuate changes in vertical transport of organic and inorganic carbon, perturbing feedbacks to regional and global marine carbon cycling. The biological impacts of seawater pH have additional, important implications for the use of foraminifera as paleoceanographic indicators.

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