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Studying molluscs to understand climate change

The Northeastern University and the University of Palermo are studying small marine animals to better understand effects of climate change.

by Gabriella Galloro
05 February 2020
2 min read
by Gabriella Galloro
05 February 2020
2 min read

A study led by Professor Gianluca Sarà

From the University of Palermo, Professor Gianluca Sarà, in collaboration with the Northeastern University in Boston, is using a combination of advanced engineering, mathematical modelling and on-site observation to study those shoreline areas that form the interface between the sea and the atmosphere… By observing the behaviour of animals such as hermit crabs, limpets and mussels, we can study the effects of climate change. Following on from the article by Amanda Saint in which she described the pioneering work of Brian Helmuth from the Northeastern University, came the inspiration to look into this subject more deeply and in so doing discover the collaborative partnership that exists between the Northeastern University and the University of Palermo. More specifically, Gianluca Sarà, Professor of Ecology, is heading up a handful of explorers hailing from all corners of the globe.

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The effects of climate change understood through molluscs.

Molluscs, little sensors

Thanks to their habitat and their shells, molluscs are the perfect candidates for helping to study climate change. Hermit crabs, limpets and mussels all live in a particular zone known as the intertidal zone. It's that area of the shore that's above water level at low tide and underwater at high tide, a kind of interface between the sea and the atmosphere… so these molluscs spend 12 hours per day out of water and 12 hours immersed in it, in a continuous cycle consisting of 6-hourly alternate phases. Thus making them particularly useful for studying climate. Professor Sarà and his team are using thermal engineering techniques to conduct their research, these include a combination of on-site observation work, remote sensing and mathematical modelling to understand how the environment is impacting on the body temperature of these coastal marine animals. In other words, the molluscs (particularly mussels) can accommodate small sensors within their shells that constantly measure their body temperature, which correlates with the outside air temperature. This kind of monitoring makes it possible to study the effects of environmental variations, from climate change to local human activity. This group of researchers are working closely with two PhD students from the Hong Kong University, three PhD students from the Northeastern University and undergraduates from Palermo.

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An intertidal zone in the Mediterranean.

The author: Gabriella Galloro

"I live in a world of colour, somewhere between fantasy and science fiction, but with a beady eye on reality. And I work in Media Production at Eni".