Limpets may be biggest clue to local climate change

July 31, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Most people associate climate change with dramatic events like big storms, or drought, or large chunks of ice disappearing from the arctic. In most cases, the effects are more subtle. ABC7 News follows a San Francisco State University researcher who has been looking at climate change on a much smaller scale.

When we read or hear about our rapidly warming climate, it's natural to assume they're talking about someplace else. We never look for evidence in our own backyard, and if we did, would we even know where?

"Specifically, I'm looking for Marin snails called limpets," said Brittany Bjelde.

Her fellow scientists actually call her the "Limpet Lady."

"You get used to it. And people identify you with the species you're working with," said Bjelde.

It might feel like a stretch to connect sea snails with climate change, but not if you spent time with her along San Francisco Bay shorelines. The limpets are fragile creatures that survive in both hot sun and cold water, which makes them unique, especially in these changing times.

"They're found were land meets the sea so these animals on a daily basis they are exposed to both aerial conditions on the rocks that you and I may see, as well as underwater. So they see two environments," said Bjelde.

The animals see two extreme environments. The question about these creatures living in both air and water is how much change can they take?

"In the air they are really susceptible to any future changes in temperature," said Bjelde.

It matters because those limpets are another of those proverbial canaries in coal mines.

Brittany has been collecting specimens for three years and subjected them to intense scrutiny.

In a laboratory setting, she has put the limpets through a series of tests to determine just how much of a temperature range they can endure by measuring heart rates, oxygen consumption, and metabolism. The evidence shows that the limpets have reached their adaptive limits, which renders them vulnerable.

When we asked Bjelde what happens if the limpets are vulnerable, she said, "Then a lot of other species might be vulnerable as well."

And on a coastline ecosystem filled with interacting species, think of dominoes. If the limpets disappear because of a changing climate, what's next?


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