Marine biologists probe 'black box' mysteries of the sea

h that leads to a clear understanding of the different ecosystems that are found along the West Coast – from Washington state to Southern California.

"There's certainly a lot of variation along the coast," observed Denny, the John B. and Jean De Nault Professor of Marine Sciences at Stanford. "For instance, if you put little bare plastic or ceramic plates down in the intertidal zone in Oregon and come back a couple of weeks later, the plates are likely to be covered with barnacles."

But when Denny and his colleagues tried the same experiment a few hundred miles south of Oregon along California's Monterey Bay, the results were dramatically different.

"We put out 200 plates for two years running, and we had maybe 10 barnacles on all of them," he recalled. "So there are just whopping differences in the rate at which barnacle larvae are being recruited into the system, depending on where on the coast you are."

Species distribution also varies on much smaller scales, as Denny learned when he and his students counted the number of new mussels that had attached themselves to a set of ordinary plastic kitchen scrubbers installed along a short stretch of shore. "It turned out to be real patchy for some reason. There were some spots out there that reliably recruited mussels, and others just a few feet away that didn't, so a lot of the variation that's going on is being driven at the small scale rather than the large scale."

Making waves

One factor that may affect the abundance of marine organisms – on a small and large scale – is the constant pounding of the surf against the shore.

"It's obvious that when waves crash, they apply really huge forces to things that live out there," Denny said, noting that a 6-foot wave applies the same kind of force to barnacles and other tiny creatures that a 1,000 mph wind would apply to a person standing on land.

"There aren't many things on land that wou

Contact: Mark Shwartz
Stanford University

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