September 18, 2014, by Tim Radford
Climate of concern: sharks such as the smooth dogfish face a new man-made threat
Image: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons
Scientific studies show that the sense of smell so vital for the survival of predators such as sharks, as well as for their prey, is being impaired as carbon dioxide increases acidification of oceans. LONDON, 18 September, 2014 − Global warming could be bad for sharks, too. These ocean-going creatures that have survived 420 million years of natural climate change could be at risk from increasingly acidic seas, according to two entirely different scientific studies. The sharks are already in trouble everywhere. They are pursued as food or feared as a threat, and the habitat they favour is gradually being degraded or destroyed. But Danielle Dixson, a marine conservation biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, and colleagues report in Global Change Biology that changes in the pH value of water – in other words, as the seas became more acidic – have interfered with a shark’s ability to smell food.
Dr Dixson has already shown that increasing acidification, due to greater levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, could change the behaviour of reef fish, seemingly making them less afraid of predators because the acidic waters disrupt a specific receptor in the fish’s nervous system. This time, she experimented with a shark known as the smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis), which is found in the Atlantic waters off the US coast. She tested 24 sharks in a 10-metre tank with two currents or plumes of water. One was normal sea water, and the other was rich in the odour of squid. As expected, the sharks showed a distinct preference for the smell of food. Then she and her colleagues enriched the water with carbon dioxide − to levels predicted for mid-century as greenhouse emissions continue to rise, and the seas become more rich in carbonic acid. When released into the most acidic water, the sharks actually avoided the plume of squid odour. Once again, the change in the water’s pH seemed to have disrupted an all-important receptor, and thus the sharks’ interest in hunting. “Sharks are like swimming noses, so chemical cues are really important for them in finding food,” Dr Dixson said.
Overall activity did not change significantly, but shark attack behaviour did. The squid odour was pumped through bricks to give the sharks something to push against, but the sharks in the most acidic waters responded less aggressively. “They significantly reduced their bumps and bites on the bricks, compared to the control group,” Dr Dixson said. “It’s like they’re uninterested in their food.” There is always the chance that, as acidity levels slowly rise, sharks will adjust or adapt. But increasing acidification may not even give them the chance to adapt. In a second paper, this time in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Rui Rosa, senior researcher at the Centre for Oceanography in Cascais, Portugal, and colleagues considered the impact of warmer and more acidic seas on the survival of the newly-hatched tropical bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum), normally found in the intertidal zones of the western Pacific. The researchers tested hatchlings in tanks at temperatures and pH values predicted for 2100, and found “significant impairment” in survival rates. In their experiments at normal temperature conditions, mortality among the hatchlings was zero. In experimental conditions, behaviour changes were apparent from the outset and, within 30 days, more than 40% had died. – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.