Future Seas: Intraspecific variability in the ecological and transcriptional stress responses of intertidal ecosystem engineers
Ocean acidification, eutrophication, and climate change are priority areas for global biodiversity conservation research (Mrowicki et al. 2016), and have been identified as ‘grand challenges’ for marine research (Elith & Leathwick 2009, Kuo & Sanford 2009). There is a need to better understand organism–environment linkages, identify the importance of the functional diversity of species, and understand how organisms respond to both natural and anthropogenically driven environmental change. The effects of climate change, coupled with ocean acidification, are already significantly altering the structure and functioning of coastal ecosystems around the globe (Kuo & Sanford 2009).
Rapid environmental changes in natural systems are variable and nonlinear, with biological responses difficult to interpret due to the complex, interacting influences exerted on organismal physiology. Species-specific impacts occur as the result of different functional traits (growth, reproduction, morphology), sensitivities, and adaptive and acclimatory capacities. Ecological stability is related to pathways of energy flow within organisms, with resultant implications for the resilience, resistance and persistence of populations. Shifts in the temporal dynamics of ecosystem engineers in response to environmental changes can change the vulnerability of entire communities to disturbance (such as temperature shifts), although the degree of potential change is poorly understood (Pearson et al. (2009). Biological impacts cause subsequent shifts in species distributions that are likely to result in novel ecological conditions in future climates that have no previous analog (Mieszkowska et al. 2006, Helmuth et al. 2006, Burrows et al 2011).
Environmental change is rapidly increasing in rate and magnitude, and can alter survival, fitness, phenologies and interactions, affecting population viability and food web dynamics and the ecological stability of ecosystems (Lima & Wethey 2009). The gradual increase in multifactorial environmental pressures may drive changes or result in an Abrupt Community Shift (ACS) (Russell et al. 2013) that may select for more resistant phenotypes. However, whilst ACS are ultimately induced by large scale environmental changes, ecosystem stability is generated by local scale conditions, presenting a fast-moving target for the management and conservation of species, ecosystems, and the services that they provide. To address this challenge requires interdisciplinary science and data at multiple scales.
The rocky intertidal zone is a natural laboratory for examining these relationships between abiotic stressors and biological interactions. Intertidal species are easily accessible, their ecology and biology are well understood, and they act as early warning systems for anthropogenic impacts (http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1, http://oceanacidification.noaa.gov). High spatio-temporal variation in environmental and anthropogenic parameters occur at the local scale and across large latitudinal gradients in environmental conditions from the tropics to the poles. The rocky intertidal is an ideal study system for ecological stability and the processes governing resilience and resistance as this ecosystem is comprised of species from both terrestrial and marine evolutionary origins and has high natural social capital value.
This project will address the challenges of fast-moving, local-scale stressors by; 1) Investigating phenotypic plasticity under future climate scenarios and the implications for local adaptation of key ecosystem engineer species over multiple generations; and 2) Address the degree of ecological sensitivity to environmental conditions by identifying transcriptome responses and physiological mechanisms of selected target species.
The student will be