Have no fear lumberjacks; put away your beard-wigs o hairy ones, for it is not human beards that are in danger, but the beards of the marvelous mussel. If you are shocked and surprised that mussels have beards, I am delighted that you stumbled upon this article today. A mussel-beard, also also known as a byssus, is made up of threads that mussels produce to anchor themselves to their surroundings. When you don’t move and you live in the wave-swept intertidal zone, it is either hold on or be gone.
The threads that make up these beards are mechanical marvels. They are incredibly strong and elastic; more than 5 times as strong and 15 times more flexible than our achilles tendon (that’s a lot by the way). On top of that, the threads attach themselves with amazing glue that does not break down in water like current synthetic glues (another big deal by the way). These properties are so impressive that mussel-beards are being looked at to inspire the development of artificial tendons and new adhesives.
“That’s blowing my mind and is really cool”, you are probably saying, “But you still haven’t talked about climate change at all!” Well I’m glad you brought that up.
Climate change, the abridged version: a multitude of changing environmental conditions that are in large part a result of an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One of these changing conditions is called ocean acidification as more carbon dioxide dissolves into seawater. This change in ocean chemistry can cause problems for certain sea creatures as they just to try to go about their lives, minding their own business.
Lots of scientists have looked at the effect ocean acidification has on animals that make hard parts made of a material called calcium carbonate, like corals and clams. However, what about all the other materials out there? We don’t want them to feel left out do we!? For example, what about those super cool mussel-beards whose legendary properties I have previously regaled you with? That is one of the questions that I set out to answer in my experiment.
As part of my study, I measured the rate of thread production in either regular or acidic seawater. I found (drumroll please…) that mussels were much faster at producing threads in regular seawater than acidic seawater. This could mean that mussels may have attachment issues (and I’m not talking about leaving home) if the oceans continue to acidify.
Though I’m sure the inherent worth of the mussels and their beards are enough for you to care about this, just in case, the aquaculture of mussels in Canada was worth 49.5 million dollars in 2013 (not an insignificant amount of the rainbow coloured stuff – we’re in Canada after all). So knowing this information is pretty dang useful and important.
So as you fight the good fight against climate change, know that you may have been doing it for you, you may have been doing it for the polar bears, but now, you can proudly say that you hg it for the beards.