Understanding Climate Change with Robot Mussels
Global air and water temperatures continue to rise unremittingly. Climate change is probably the biggest concerns of our time. And it’s not just us that’s affected, it’s also the millions of other populations of species.
Brian Helmuth, a professor of Marine and Environmental Sciences at Northeastern University, studies climate change with the help of robot mussels placed in places called “refugia”. These are geographic areas less susceptible to climate change, where stationary animals have a higher chance of survival.
Generally, mussels settle in inter-tidal beds for life and can’t move to different spots even in case of temperature levels rising to lethal limits. “If we have a big heat wave that bakes everything off the shore, there may be animals that survive in some of these refugia,” said Helmuth. “Survivors can then repopulate surrounding areas.”
But where might these refugia be? And at what point is it no longer one? To study these refugia, Helmuth created robomussels, a temperature logger that looks and feels just like a real mussel, with all the same thermal characteristics. Made out of epoxy, this device is the same shape, color, and size as the creature about which it’s collecting data. Real mussels cannot regulate their temperature on their own and relate it to the temperature of their environment. These devices absorb and release heat in virtually the same way as real mussels with great accuracy.
Helmuth first developed and installed robomussels in 1998 in Monterey, California; he’s since overseen their installation in 71 sites worldwide. This includes Northeastern’s Marine Science Center in Nahant. “The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of other large bodies of water on the planet,” said Helmuth. Mussel populations all over the world too are progressively declining. But with robomussels, researchers are on their way to identifying safe havens along the world’s coasts where mussels can continue to exist—without being fried.