Animals Know How to Survive Climate Change, If Humans Don't Destroy Their Homes

Belgian cook Alexandre Vanlancker holds a handful of mussels at the Chez Leon restaurant in central Brussels November 24, 2011. Reuters

Mussels, sea stars, crabs, snails, sea urchins, little fish, and baby abalone—a type of mollusk—thrive on the rocky shores of the West coast among seaweeds. These habitats also help to protect marine species from drying up and overheating, especially in the wake of climate change.

But the habitats' protection might only help in the short term, according to a study published on Wednesday.

Once the species (like seaweed) that form these habitats can't take the heat, the other plants and animals that live there are at risk of being wiped out. Low tides expose these species to extreme heat, which continues to worsen in the wake of climate change.

Mussel bed species "would be toast," said Laura Jurgens, a postdoctoral researcher at Temple University and the Smithsonian Institution who was a PhD candidate at the University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory at the time of the study. "They really depend on those habitats," she told Newsweek.

The study, published in Ecology Letters, suggests that previous research predicting that species suffering from climate change will move further north should be reevaluated. Scientists measured mussel bed temperatures from June to October in 2012 and during the same period in 2013 along the rocky shoreline from California's Channel Islands to Washington's Olympic National Park. The two key species in these habitats were Mytilus californicanus and Neorhodomela larix—the California mussel and the turf-forming black pine alga, respectively.

The results showed that species are supported by their habitats through what's dubbed "ecological air conditioning." Similar to how a forest retains moisture and would keep humans shaded on a hot day, the seaweeds keep mussel beds much cooler than they would be without that protection, Jurgens said. She compared the concept to modern air conditioning.

A man casts his line into the waves as he fishes along the shores of Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego, California, January 24, 2011. Reuters

"We might take for granted some of the resilience of our ecosystems because we don't realize how much they depend on these habitats," Jurgens said in a statement. "For creatures that live in mussel beds and seaweed beds, it's like having a house with air conditioning at low tide. You can tolerate a lot of what goes on outside if you have air conditioning. But if you're looking at a future with more intense heat waves, and you don't have air conditioning anymore, you wonder, 'Where can I go?'

Moving north won't necessarily work, she added. The species need the habitats themselves to keep their "homes" cool. The research suggests that plants and animals won't move to other locations until species protecting them are threatened. The means that dependent species may be particularly vulnerable to events such as warm blobs of ocean water, disease, extreme storms, or intense heat waves. Habitats, therefore, are sometimes more important than how far north or south a species exists.

A man casts his line into the waves as he fishes along the shores of Torrey Pines State Beach in San Diego, California, January 24, 2011. Reuters

"If you're an octopus living in a mussel bed, the most important thing to keep your body temperature survivable is that mussel bed around you, not whether you live in Southern California, where it's warmer, or Washington," Jurgens said in a statement.

Restoring habitats from permanent damage could help maintain biodiversity as temperatures rise. These findings can extend to other habitats, such as how trees support chipmunks and birds, and how mangroves and marshgrasses support fish and other animals.

"The same kind of dynamics are happening in those habitats," Jurgens told Newsweek in an email. Some of the ways scientists think about how species will respond to climate change is that they will either adapt or move. That research, Jurgens said, "hasn't taken into account that these species are really tied to these habitats."