Over the last two decades, Brian Helmuth of Northeastern University has developed a way to study the effects of climate change in intertidal zones of the sea: the use of “robomussels.” And now the results of his experiments are proving particularly useful.
The devices look like actual mussels in the ocean—black, oval-shaped, and slick—but tiny sensors are embedded in them which emit a blinking green light.
Helmuth implants the robomussels into mussel beds to track temperature, which fluctuates depending on water and air temperatures as well as the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the devices.
As robomussels record temperatures within mussel beds, information is compiled into a database. The result is a “thermal diary” which Helmuth uses to forecast patterns of mussel growth.
Helmuth’s research is showing that mussels are potentially threatened by—and indicative of—climate change. Mussels are vulnerable to changes in temperature, since they rely on external heat sources. An environment that is too hot can kill them: thus, data from robomussels is crucial to the survival of global mussel beds because they indicate when and where temperatures are too high for mussels to handle.
Saving mussels in “hotspot” zones of dangerous climate change is critical to maintaining the biodiversity of coastal ecosystems. Helmuth equates the loss of mussel beds to deforestation—many species in an ecosystem are threatened if one “link” in the complex chain is damaged; for example, crabs and lobsters could suffer as a result of declining mussel populations, since they rely on mussels as part of their food supply. The robomussels, then, allow scientists to take proactive steps to prevent the absolute destruction of mussel beds.
Intertidal zones are such complicated areas of marine life that warming patterns can be difficult to predict and gauge, as Helmuth explains in Scientific Data. Climate change cannot be pinpointed as the definite and sole culprit of damages to mussel beds. However, the use of robomussels may help scientists to more confidently establish relationships between climate change and damages to marine life and forecast effects of planetary warming on sea creatures.