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Ocean Life Coping with Climate Change through Evolution

Photo of different types of E. huxleyi algae from the  Natural History Museum in the UK

Climate change is again threatening thousands of living species to extinction, as it has done to the dinosaurs during the first ice age.  Researchers from Cornell University recently published a study that says that half of the bird species in North America face extinction due to loss of habitat caused by aberrant changes in the weather.  Now, if warm blooded animals and whole forests are dying off because of a warming planet, what more of microscopic plants and animals?

It turns out that algae have a fighting chance.  German scientists found that Emiliania huxleyi phytoplankton, that is food to hundreds of species of fish and a known carbon sequesterer, is able to evolve fast enough to cope with changes in the environment brought about by this global phenomenon.  While coral is known to bleach because of rising temperatures and increasing acidity, E. huxleyi is able to evolve more than once a day – around 500 times a year, in fact to cope with these.  This is a significant finding because although one needs an electron microscope to view these plants, they reproduce quickly and produce gigantic blooms that are visible from outer space, feeding on carbon dioxide while feeding fish and other sea creatures.

What is surprising about this is that E. huxleyi is a calcifying organism, and is sensitive to lower water pH. As temperatures rise, solubility of carbon dioxide into seawater also increase resulting in carbonic acid.  With the seas seen to become increasingly acidic, the finding that they can actually evolve to cope with acidity means that the fish and other sea creatures that also survive will have a source of food.

In addition, sea urchins and corals seem to be more adaptive than previously thought and can last much longer than earlier forecasts.

It is our hope, though, that we, as a species, do not evolve into thicker faced creatures that care more about personal comfort than the environment.

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