The Earth is changing. Temperatures are getting warmer and more variable, ocean waters are getting more acidic and they hold less oxygen. The salinity of coastal waters is becoming more variable. How are these environmental changes affecting the animals that live in the ocean? How does their metabolism change, and can it change enough to compensate? Will marine animals move from the places they used to live to new habitats that are more hospitable? Will they reproduce less or at different times of year? Will their behaviors change?
Dr. Jonathon Stillman and his students are answering these kinds of questions through their research on the tissue- and cellular changes that underlie changes in how crabs and other marine animals function and behave. They learn how the hearts, nerves, gills, livers and muscles of these animals work by studying their proteins and genomes. They compare species that have spent thousands to millions of years living in different environments to learn which ones have the evolutionary potential to tolerate the environmental conditions of the future, and which ones may be at risk.
They are finding that changes in the behavior of crabs when water temperatures increase result in increased crowding and results in more injuries. Additionally, the change in behavior of one crab species results in increased risk of injury and stress in another species, just because of the changes in behavior of the first one alone. We call these the ‘indirect effects of climate change.’ Learning about the direct and indirect effects of climate change on marine life, and being able to predict which species may be most susceptible to indirect effects is helping inform management decisions and conservation planning.