Sunday, August 7, 2011

Pity the Pteropods

Gareth here. After a hiatus from fieldwork during the past winter and spring, we're back on the blog. Today is the first day of a new cruise on board Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's own Research Vessel Oceanus and we're embarking on a new and highly inter-disciplinary project that we're all very excited about. The project is a collaboration between biologists like myself, chemists, and applied ocean physicists. We're combining forces to learn more about the effects of ocean acidification on pteropods (the first 'p' is silent), a group of gastropods (like snails) that live in the marine pelagic environment. We're interested in the thecosome or shelled pteropods since these particular pteropods form a thin calcium carbonate shell, making them especially sensitive to the chemical changes happening in the marine environment as a consequence of the oceans absorbing excess CO2 released into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels.

Limacina helicina, a species of pteropod that we hope to encounter during our cruise. Pteropod means 'winged foot' and these animals are also known as sea butterflies. (Photo: Russ Hopcroft, UAF).
More detail on ocean acidification and pteropods will follow in later posts, but briefly, the overall goal of our project is to measure the abundance, distribution, and migratory behavior of pteropods while simultaneously measuring their chemical environment. By examining how pteropods live and behave in the modern-day ocean, and by comparing what we see this year to a cruise next year to the Pacific where the seawater pH is quite different, we hope to gain a greater understanding of how pteropods are likely to respond to the future, more acidic, ocean.

AB (Able-bodied Seaman) Mark secures our net system as we pull away from the WHOI dock where friends, family, and colleagues wave goodbye (Photo Alex Bergan).
We sailed this morning and quickly hit some fairly rough seas so we have had a few green faces but enthusiasm is still running high. Tomorrow morning we'll do a test station to make sure all of our gear is operating properly, and then we have another three days' steam to the start of our survey transect, where we'll start the real work of the project. Tune back in soon!

Securing some last items in the main lab before we hit heavier seas... (Photo Alex Bergan).


  1. Great blog Gareth, looking forward to hearing about your oceanographic exploits! - Jamie Pierson

  2. Dr. Lawson, at some point you should explain why it's important and significant in the ocean acidification discussion that pteropod shells are made of aragonite and not calcite. (If you're too busy on the cruise, I could...)

  3. A good point about aragonite vs. calcite. Things are indeed busy out here, so if you'd like to provide an explanation on the topic that would be great!

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  5. Hello, I was wondering if you had any images of pteropods that were damaged, or having trouble forming shells, potentially due to ocean acidification?