Will climate change affect the cherished California roll?

Who would have thought that rice, seaweed and crab meat would be so tasty? But have you ever thought that climate change might cause this roll to go “extinct?” Believe it or not, humans are responsible for the warming of Earth due to burning fossils fuels. This will affect marine ecosystems by increasing ocean temperatures, possibly putting crab meat in danger. Not only can increased water temperature affect crabs, but it also impacts marine ecosystem services, such as invader control. Did you know that climate change can cause changes in species distribution, impacting food webs and human jobs?

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Is climate change really happening? Photo credit: The Climate Reality Project https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/telling-story-eight-great-infographics-climate-change

If crabs cannot adjust to changing environmental conditions, rising temperature might cause crab extinction since specific temperature is vital for body processes, such as respiration and protein formation. However, research also indicates that crabs eat and move more in warm temperatures. An interesting body mechanism for crabs is that if the temperature is too high, they will regurgitate fluid from their stomachs as a potential way to cool down!

This week, my lab partner and I indirectly tested the effect of climate change on the future of California roll by examining the effect of rising water temperature on the time it takes for shore crabs (Hemigrapsus oregonensis) to start feeding. These shore crabs live in intertidal habitats containing mud, gravel, or sand. They eat algae and other small invertebrates and can be eaten by large crabs, fish, and even birds.

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A close up of the shore crab Hemigrapsus oregonensi. Photo credit: Jerry Kirkhart 2011, creative commons 2.0 https://www.flickr.com/photos/jkirkhart35/5913660429

Our experiment consisted of us dropping a crab in either cold or hot water and timing how long it would take to start feeding on crushed mussels. Unfortunately, we found no relationship between temperature and the time it took for crabs to start feeding, although there was a trend for crabs starting to feed faster in hot water. According to this trend, it is possible that climate change may cause crabs to flourish by allowing them to become more efficient predators. This might seem good for the crabs, but it can also alter food webs and threaten marine biodiversity.

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We timed how long it would take for shore crabs to start feeding on crushed mussels in cold and hot water. Photo taken by author (Aysha Ayub 2017).

Unfortunately, rising ocean temperature is not the only consequence of climate change. The increase of greenhouse gases is also causing sea levels to rise and become more acidic. Scientists believe that rising sea levels can erode shorelines resulting in habitat loss while acidic water can cause damage to shelled animals. Therefore, we need to examine multiple consequences of climate change before we can determine the fate of California roll!

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