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Stars, Anemones, & Cucumbers—Oh My!

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

Who’s excited to talk about astronomy, flowers, & vegetables?

… Kidding! I want to tell you about sea stars, anemones, & cucumbers, of course! These large benthic (seafloor) lifeforms are among many that make up the base of the marine food web. Therefore, this ecosystem supports life ranging from kelp to killer whales! It supports coastal marine environments, life deep in the ocean, & even organisms on land! Kelp is a big player in this, where it can drift for 1000’s of kilometers & enter all these ecosystems. When it does, it provides a source of energy, which can boost productivity (how quickly biomass is produced) in those environments. Kelp is also highly productive where it grows, & is one of the ocean’s best primary producers, converting an estimated 20 times more carbon dioxide into oxygen than from the same area of forested land! This is incredibly helpful to help mitigate climate change as the ocean gets more and more acidic. However, reliable information about how these benthic organisms interact with each other (their food web) & how they interact with their environment is lacking… &, that’s where I come in!

I’m a Master’s student investigating how interactions among these benthic organisms affect (1) how well their environment works (ecosystem functioning), & (2) benthic biodiversity. I hope to provide knowledge that will help future researchers better understand how climate change will affect coastal benthic environments in the Arctic, & therefore find ways to conserve these ecosystems.

Being on a research vessel is fast-paced & stressful—I may have went 36 hours without sleep at one point—but fellow researchers (& the science of course!) make it all worth it. When you’re in the field, you’re part of a team. Because I knew there was a crowd of fellow researchers happy to help me problem solve & support my endeavors (as I supported theirs), I was more confident in the science I was doing. As you can see, it is quite chilly most days in the Arctic! Dressed in a survival suit, steel-toed boots, & a hardhat, I felt invincible on the deck while collecting mud from a box corer & specimens from an Agassiz trawl. I know what you’re thinking— “Was it always that messy?” Yes, yes it was. But, when you’re in the field… the messier, the merrier!

So far, I’ve found a few interesting patterns from the trawl near Nain, Labrador. I’ve discovered that brittle stars might rely more on benthic &/or land food sources compared to basket stars, cucumbers, anemones, & crabs. Since so many of these top benthic predators appear to have a more non-benthic &/or marine diet, this could indicate that the offshore food web is more complex!

Greater complexity usually means greater ecosystem functioning & biodiversity. When I first started learning about marine food webs, I intuitively thought that nearshore sites would be more diverse, since they’re so productive. However, say a larger diversity of organisms can survive in certain offshore vs. nearshore ecosystems. There’s a higher chance there will be more organisms that specialize in different jobs, thus allowing increased ecosystem functioning (efficiency)!

My preliminary research has also found that diversity increased as I moved from Southern sites to more Northern sites. This may bode ill for climate change impacts in the Arctic—after all, more Northern areas will likely become more similar to Southern areas below them as global warming continues. Could this indicate that we might see decreased diversity in the North with ongoing climate change? There is still research to be done that will dive to the seafloor to investigate the details. Until then, this is just the tip of the iceberg…

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