Environmental change impacts on marine calcifiers: spatial and temporal biomineralisation patterns in Mytilid bivalves
Environmental change is a major threat to marine ecosystems worldwide. Understanding the key biological processes and environmental factors mediating spatial and temporal species’ responses to habitat alterations underpins our ability to forecast impacts on marine ecosystems under any range of scenarios. This is especially important for calcifying species, many of which have both a high climate sensitivity and disproportionately strong ecological impacts in shaping marine communities. Although geographic patterns of calcifiers’ sensitivity to environmental changes are defined by interacting multiple abiotic and biotic stressors, local adaptation, and acclimation, knowledge on species’ responses to disturbance is derived largely from short- and medium-term laboratory and field experiments. Therefore, little is known about the biological mechanisms and key drivers in natural environments that shape regional differences and long-term variations in species vulnerability to global changes.
In this thesis, I examined natural variations in shell characteristics, both morphology and biomineralisation, under heterogeneous environmental conditions i) across large geographical scales, spanning a 30° latitudinal range (3,334 km), and ii) over historical times, using museum collections (archival specimens from 1904 to 2016 at a single location), in mussels of the genus Mytilus. The aim was to observe whether plasticity in calcareous shell morphology, production, and composition mediates spatial and temporal patterns of resistance to climate change in these critical foundation species.
For the morphological analyses, the combined use of new statistical methods and multiple study systems at various geographical scales allowed the uncoupling of the contribution of development, genetic status, and environmental factors to shell morphology. I found salinity had the strongest effect on the latitudinal patterns of Mytilus shape. Temperature and food supply, however, were the main predictor of mussel shape heterogeneity. My results suggest the potential of shell shape plasticity in Mytilus as a powerful indicator of rapid environmental changes.
I found decreasing shell calcification towards high latitudes. Salinity was the best predictor of regional differences in shell deposition, and its mineral and organic composition. In polar, low-salinity environments, the production of calcite and organic shell layers was increased, while aragonite deposition was enhanced under temperate, higher-salinity regimes. Interacting strong effects of decreasing salinity and increasing food availability on compositional shell plasticity predict the deposition of a thicker external organic layer (periostracum) at high latitudes under forecasted future conditions. This response potential of Mytilus shell suggests an enhanced protection of temperate mussels from predators and a strong capacity for increased resistance of polar and subpolar individuals to dissolving water conditions.
Analyses of museum specimens indicated increasing shell calcification during the last century. Deposition of individual shell layers was more closely related to temporal changes in the variability of key environmental drivers than to alterations of mean habitat conditions. Calcitic layer and periostracum showed marked responses to alterations of biotic conditions, suggesting the potential of mussels to trade-off between the deposition of calcareous and organic layers as a compensatory response to strategy-specific predation pressure. These changes in biomineralisation indicated a marked resistance to environmental change over the last century in a species predicted to be vulnerable, and how locally heterogeneous environments and predation levels can have a stronger effect on Mytilus responses than global environmental trends.
My work illustrates that biological mechanisms and local conditions, driving plastic responses to the spatial and temporal structure of multiple abiotic and biotic stressors, can define geographic and temporal patterns of unforeseen species resistance to global environmental change.