In new work published today (Nov. 12) in the journal Science, an international team of scientists describe work in which the ocean mud and the many animals that live there are used to forecast how the extinction of species alters important ecological processes that sustain life at the bottom of the ocean.
The team's work was funded by the National Science Foundation.
"This is one of the first stabs at trying to see what will happen in ocean ecosystems as species go extinct," says Bradley Cardinale, a University of Wisconsin-Madison postdoctoral fellow in zoology and a co-author of the paper. "What goes on in the sediment is important, not only because it affects life at the bottom of the ocean, but also because it has a big impact on the rest of the marine ecosystem."
In the mud and sediments that have accumulated during many thousands of years at the bottom of the world's oceans lives an astonishing array of animals - such as crabs, clams, sea urchins, brittlestars and marine worms. These animals play an essential role in churning up and filling the sediments with oxygen, making it possible for other forms of marine life to flourish.
The new study rests on a comprehensive survey of 139 marine invertebrates that inhabit the sediment of Galway Bay, Ireland, led by Martin Solan of the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. By looking at how extensively the sediments are mixed there, and matching that with data on each species' size, abundance and movement through the mud, it is possible to construct mathematical models to predict the ecological consequences of losing species, according to Cardinale.