OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Study finds tropical fish moving into temperate waters

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Tropical herbivorous fish are beginning to expand their range into temperate waters – likely as a result of climate change – and a new international study documents the dramatic impact of the intrusion in the Mediterranean Sea.

Temperate waters are typically dominated by algal “forests” and have naturally low levels and limited diversity of herbivores, the researchers say. But as tropical fish move into these waters, they are consuming much of the plant life and changing the habitat as well as the manner in which different species interact.

Results of the study, which was funded primarily by the Pew Foundation, have just been published in the Journal of Ecology. It builds on a previous study documenting the move of tropical fish species into temperate waters that recently was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“The introduction of tropical fish into more temperate regions is troubling and this new study gives a vivid example of what can happen when non-native species occupy a new ecosystem,” said Fiona Tomas Nash, a courtesy professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University and a co-author on both studies.

“We now know that the arrival of tropical fish into temperate areas is occurring on an increasing basis around the world,” she added. “This is the first attempt to characterize what impacts these fish are having – and the mechanisms driving these impacts.”

In this latest study, an international research team surveyed roughly 1,000 kilometers of coastline in the eastern Mediterranean to study two species of tropical fish called rabbitfish. They were introduced to the region through the Suez Canal and now have become a dominant component of the total fish biomass in the southernmost part of the eastern Mediterranean.

This part of the Mediterranean has two distinct areas – one with warmer regions that attract abundant numbers of rabbitfish, and colder regions where they are very rare or completely absent. Where abundant, their damage has been striking: a 65 percent reduction in canopy algae, a 60 percent reduction in overall benthic biomass (algae and invertebrates) and a 40 percent decrease in the total number of plant and animal species.

“The fear is that if the colder regions warm just a bit through climate change or some other mechanism, rabbitfish will begin moving into those areas as well,” Tomas Nash said.

To learn more about how the rabbitfish changed the ecosystem, the researchers videotaped fish feeding in the Mediterranean off Turkey in two areas – one dominated by tropical rabbitfish and the other dominated by native temperate fish. They were surprised by what they found. Native temperate herbivorous fish actually had higher consumption rates than the tropical rabbitfish. “We did not expect to see that,” Tomas Nash said.

But while native fish targeted only adult macroalgae, the two species of rabbitfish fed complementarily – one targeted the mature kelps while the other fed almost exclusively on emerging algal “recruits,” or juvenile plants.

“The result is that one species denudes the forest and the other prevents it from recovering,” said Tomas Nash, who also has a faculty appointment with the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies in Spain.

A study off Japan by collaborators found that the introduction of tropical species there, including rabbitfish and parrotfish, resulted in the loss of kelp forests and the emergence of non-native corals in as little as 20 years.

In the first paper, the researchers outlined how tropical herbivorous fish primarily along west boundary currents are moving into temperate zones, including South Africa, Brazil, the Gulf of Mexico, Australia and Japan, as well as the Mediterranean. Other areas, including the Pacific Northwest of the United States, have not seen sustained spread of tropical species likely due to prevailing currents and because surface waters are too cold due to seasonal upwelling.

The researchers found algal forests in the waters off Greece had not been severely affected because only the rabbitfish that feeds on adult algae is present and in relatively low densities. They have just begun studies of rabbitfish and chub arrivals in Australia.

“The greatest damage that we documented was off Turkey, which may be serving as the proverbial canary in the coal mine,” Tomas Nash said. “The barrenness of the underwater habitat is unique and quite striking – it is spread over hundreds of kilometers.”

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Fiona Tomas Nash, 541-737-4531; fiona.tomasnash@oregonstate.edu

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Effects of non-native fish

New study finds “saturation state” directly harmful to bivalve larvae

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The mortality of larval Pacific oysters in Northwest hatcheries has been linked to ocean acidification, yet the rate of increase in anthropogenic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the decrease of pH in near-shore waters have been questioned as being severe enough to cause the die-offs.

However, a new study of Pacific oyster and Mediterranean mussel larvae found that the earliest larval stages are directly sensitive to saturation state, not carbon dioxide (CO2) or pH. Saturation state is a measure of how corrosive seawater is to the calcium carbonate shells made by bivalve larvae, and how easy it is for larvae to produce their shells.

It is important to note that increasing CO2 lowers saturation state, the researchers say, and saturation state is very sensitive to CO2; the challenge interpreting previous studies is that saturation state and pH typically vary together with increasing CO2. The scientists utilized unique chemical manipulations of seawater to identify the direct sensitivity of larval bivalves to saturation state.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, are being reported this week in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“Bivalves have been around for a long time and have survived different geologic periods of high carbon dioxide levels in marine environments,” said George Waldbusser, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and biogeochemist and lead author on the study, “The difference is that in the past, alkalinity levels buffered increases in CO2, which kept the saturation state higher relative to pH.”

“The difference in the present ocean is that the processes that contribute buffering to the ocean cannot keep pace with the rate of anthropogenic CO2 increase,” added Waldbusser, who is in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “As long as the saturation state is high, the oysters and mussels we tested could tolerate CO2 concentrations almost 10 times what they are today.”

The idea that early bivalve development and growth is not as physiologically linked to CO2 or pH levels as previously thought initially seems positive. However, the reverse is actually true, Waldbusser noted. Larval oysters and mussels are so sensitive to the saturation state (which is lowered by increasing CO2) that the threshold for danger will be crossed “decades to centuries” ahead of when CO increases (and pH decreases) alone would pose a threat to these bivalve larvae.

“At the current rate of change, there is not much more room for the waters off the Oregon coast to absorb more CO2 without crossing the threshold we have identified with respect to saturation state,” he said. Results of the study help explain commercial hatchery failures and why improving water chemistry in those hatcheries has been successful.

What kept the system more balanced in the geologic past likely included a combination of factors, the researchers say. One factor in past increases of carbon dioxide was high levels of volcanic activity. However, greater volcanic activity also coincides with more tectonic plate activity and uplift, increasing the weathering of rock surfaces – and thus alkalinity in rivers, where it eventually flowed into the ocean to offset the CO2.

Computer models suggest that carbon dioxide is increasing through human activity some 100 to 1,000 times faster than the weathering processes that produce alkalinity can keep up, Waldbusser noted.

The Nature Climate Change study builds on previous research by Waldbusser and colleagues that outlined the mechanisms by which young bivalves create their shells after fertilization. In that study, the researchers found that young oysters and mussels had to build their shells within 48 hours to successfully begin feeding at a rate fast enough to survive, and that rate of shell-building would require a lot of energy. Thus in the presence of acidic water, they had to divert too much energy to shell-building and lacked the energy to swim and get food.

“The hatcheries call it the ‘lazy larvae syndrome’ because these tiny oysters just sink in the water and stop swimming,” Waldbusser said. “These organisms have really sensitive windows to ocean acidification – even more sensitive then we previously thought.”

In this latest study, the researchers used high-resolution images to analyze the development of oyster and mussel shells. They found that the organisms – which are about 1-100th the diameter of a human hair – actually build a complete calcium carbonate shell within six hours, about 12 hours after fertilization.

Throw off the ocean chemistry just a bit however, the researchers say, and a greater proportion of the shells do not develop normally. The ones that do are smaller, leading to potentially weaker organisms that will take longer to get to a size where they can settle into adult life.

“When the water is more saturated and has greater alkalinity it helps offset higher levels of carbon dioxide, ensuring that shell formation can proceed – and also making the shells bigger,” Waldbusser said. “This can have a significant impact on their survivability into the future.”

Shellfish hatcheries are altering their water chemistry based on the OSU research to create more favorable saturation state conditions for young bivalves; however this only helps organisms that can be cultured easily and increasing alkalinity in natural environments is a formidable challenge because of the amount required.

Other Oregon State researchers on the Nature Climate Change study included Burke Hales, Chris Langdon, Brian Haley, Paul Schrader, Elizabeth Brunner, Matthew Gray, Cale Miller and Iria Gimenez.

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George Waldbusser, 541-737-8964; waldbuss@coas.oregonstate.edu

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“Big Data” challenge seeks techie solution to science problem

NEWPORT, Ore. – Hatfield Marine Science Center researchers studying the marine food web have literally tens of millions of photographic images of small marine organisms called “plankton” to identify – a task that would take two lifetimes to finish manually.

Their hope is that the data science community can develop a computer algorithm that can do it automatically.

This week, Booz Allen Hamilton, a management and technology consultant firm, and Kaggle, the leading online data science competition community, announced the launch of the inaugural National Data Science Bowl to seek a solution to this “big data” challenge.

They are offering prize money totaling $175,000 to the creators of the top three algorithms – the largest such purse designated for a Kaggle competition benefitting social good. More information on the National Data Science Bowl is available at: http://www.datasciencebowl.com/

The 90-day competition will not only provide the data science community a chance to flex its creativity and brain power, it hopefully will solve a challenge facing marine science researchers who need to process massive amounts of data in hours, not decades. The winning algorithms will be donated to Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., for use by the scientific community.

“The National Data Science Bowl was born from the realization that, in order for the data science community to grow and thrive, it must be given opportunities to use its talents to benefit both business and society,” said Josh Sullivan, vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton’s Strategic Innovation Group. “We are extremely honored to partner with leaders such as Kaggle and the Hatfield Marine Science Center for this initiative.”

Robert Cowen, director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, admits the task is daunting. In the summer of 2014, center researchers embarked on an 18-day expedition funded by the National Science Foundation to study interactions between larval fishes, their planktonic prey, and their predators in the Straits of Florida. With their specially designed imaging system, the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS), they collected 32 terabytes of images of plankton, fish and jellyfish.

That is an amount of data equivalent to 9 million MP3 songs, or enough music to listen to nonstop for 52 years.

Plankton are the fundamental biological building blocks of ocean ecosystems, yet scientists don’t know as much about them as they would like, including their diversity, interactions with other marine organisms, what triggers their blooms, and how they respond to climate change.

Advancing scientific knowledge about these tiny organisms begins with identifying and cataloguing them, Cowen pointed out.

“Many economically important animals – including fishes, crabs and other shellfish – are part of the plankton in their early life stages,” he said. “Much of what we study relates to understanding the relationship between larval fishes and their planktonic prey and predators.”

Ultimately, what scientists are interested in “is what drives variation in year-to-year population abundances of key fish species,” said Su Sponaugle, co-principle investigator on the project and a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at OSU.

Jessica Luo, a doctoral student from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences working with Cowen and Sponaugle at the Hatfield Center, said what the researchers need from the data science community is akin to “facial recognition” software for planktonic species.

“At a minimum, we’re aiming for an automatic classification system that can identify organisms to the class or order level, in general groups like fish or shrimps,” she said. “But with distinctly shaped or transparent organisms, we think it might be possible to get down to the genus or even species level. It will be difficult, because plankton are of all different sizes, shapes and orientations, and are moving in all different directions.”

Kelly Robinson, a post-doctoral researcher at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, said scientists would benefit greatly from an automated system that could provide near real-time data of plankton abundance and diversity while aboard ships.

“From a resource management perspective, it is less effective to analyze plankton abundance and diversity from four years earlier if the resource that depends on plankton responds rapidly to environmental change,” she said. “The current process of manually identifying organisms is time-consuming and laborious.  The ocean is changing rapidly and there is an urgency to learn as much as we can about plankton interrelationships to help ensure the health of our marine environments.”

For the competition, participants will be given access to nearly 100,000 underwater images and tasked with developing an algorithm that will identify and monitor them at a scale never before attempted. If successful, it will open up new doors to researchers and vastly improve the ability of resource managers to apply science to decision-making.

“The algorithms resulting from this competition will be applied to millions of images taken in a variety of marine environments, allowing cross-comparison and analysis at an unprecedented scale,” Cowen said.

Media Contact: 
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Bob Cowen, 541-867-0211; Robert.Cowen@oregonstate.edu;

Jessica Luo, 650-387-5700; Jessica.luo@rsmas@miami.edu;

Kelly Robinson, 253-232-3899, Kelly.robinson@oregonstate.edu

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No laughing matter: Nitrous oxide rose at end of last ice age

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Nitrous oxide (N2O) is an important greenhouse gas that doesn’t receive as much notoriety as carbon dioxide or methane, but a new study confirms that atmospheric levels of N2O rose significantly as the Earth came out of the last ice age and addresses the cause.

An international team of scientists analyzed air extracted from bubbles enclosed in ancient polar ice from Taylor Glacier in Antarctica, allowing for the reconstruction of the past atmospheric composition. The analysis documented a 30 percent increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide concentrations from 16,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago. This rise in N2O was caused by changes in environmental conditions in the ocean and on land, scientists say, and contributed to the warming at the end of the ice age and the melting of large ice sheets that then existed.

The findings add an important new element to studies of how Earth may respond to a warming climate in the future. Results of the study, which was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation, are being published this week in the journal Nature.

“We found that marine and terrestrial sources contributed about equally to the overall increase of nitrous oxide concentrations and generally evolved in parallel at the end of the last ice age,” said lead author Adrian Schilt, who did much of the work as a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University. Schilt then continued to work on the study at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

“The end of the last ice age represents a partial analog to modern warming and allows us to study the response of natural nitrous oxide emissions to changing environmental conditions,” Schilt added. “This will allow us to better understand what might happen in the future.”

Nitrous oxide is perhaps best known as laughing gas, but it is also produced by microbes on land and in the ocean in processes that occur naturally, but can be enhanced by human activity. Marine nitrous oxide production is linked closely to low oxygen conditions in the upper ocean and global warming is predicted to intensify the low-oxygen zones in many of the world’s ocean basins. N2O also destroys ozone in the stratosphere.

“Warming makes terrestrial microbes produce more nitrous oxide,” noted co-author Edward Brook, an Oregon State paleoclimatologist whose research team included Schilt. “Greenhouse gases go up and down over time, and we’d like to know more about why that happens and how it affects climate.”

Nitrous oxide is among the most difficult greenhouse gases to study in attempting to reconstruct the Earth’s climate history through ice core analysis. The specific technique that the Oregon State research team used requires large samples of pristine ice that date back to the desired time of study – in this case, between about 16,000 and 10,000 years ago.

The unusual way in which Taylor Glacier is configured allowed the scientists to extract ice samples from the surface of the glacier instead of drilling deep in the polar ice cap because older ice is transported upward near the glacier margins, said Brook, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The scientists were able to discern the contributions of marine and terrestrial nitrous oxide through analysis of isotopic ratios, which fingerprint the different sources of N2O in the atmosphere.

“The scientific community knew roughly what the N2O  concentration trends were prior to this study,” Brook said, “but these findings confirm that and provide more exact details about changes in sources. As nitrous oxide in the atmosphere continues to increase – along with carbon dioxide and methane – we now will be able to more accurately assess where those contributions are coming from and the rate of the increase.”

Atmospheric N2O was roughly 200 parts per billion at the peak of the ice age about 20,000 years ago then rose to 260 ppb by 10,000 years ago. As of 2014, atmospheric N2Owas measured at about 327 ppb, an increase attributed primarily to agricultural influences.

Although the N2O increase at the end of the last ice age was almost equally attributable to marine and terrestrial sources, the scientists say, there were some differences.

“Our data showed that terrestrial emissions changed faster than marine emissions, which was highlighted by a fast increase of emissions on land that preceded the increase in marine emissions,” Schilt pointed out. “It appears to be a direct response to a rapid temperature change between 15,000 and 14,000 years ago.”

That finding underscores the complexity of analyzing how Earth responds to changing conditions that have to account for marine and terrestrial influences; natural variability; the influence of different greenhouse gases; and a host of other factors, Brook said.

“Natural sources of N2O are predicted to increase in the future and this study will help up test predictions on how the Earth will respond,” Brook said.

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Adrian Schilt, schilta@science.oregonstate.edu;

Ed Brook, 541-737-8197, brooke@geo.oregonstate.edu

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Photo at left: Taylor Glacier in Antarctica

New technology tracks carcinogens as they move through the body

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers for the first time have developed a method to track through the human body the movement of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, as extraordinarily tiny amounts of these potential carcinogens are biologically processed and eliminated.

PAHs, which are the product of the incomplete combustion of carbon, have been a part of everyday human life since cave dwellers first roasted meat on an open fire. More sophisticated forms of exposure now range from smoked cheese to automobile air pollution, cigarettes, a ham sandwich and public drinking water. PAHs are part of the food we eat, the air we breathe and the water we drink.

However, these same compounds have gained increasing interest and scientific study in recent years due to their role as carcinogens. PAHs or PAH mixtures have been named as three of the top 10 chemicals of concern by the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry.

With this new technology, scientists have an opportunity to study, in a way never before possible, potential cancer-causing compounds as they move through the human body. The findings were just published by researchers from Oregon State University and other institutions in Chemical Research in Toxicology, in work supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)

The pioneering work has been the focus of Ph.D. research by Erin Madeen at Oregon State, whose studies were supported in part by an award from the Superfund Research Program at NIEHS for her work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

“We’ve proven that this technology will work, and it’s going to change the way we’re able to study carcinogenic PAHs,” said David Williams, director of the Superfund Research Program at OSU, a professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences and principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute.

“Almost everything we know so far about PAH toxicity is based on giving animals high doses of the compounds and then seeing what happens,” Williams said. “No one before this has ever been able to study these probable carcinogens at normal dietary levels and then see how they move through the body and are changed by various biological processes.”

The technology allowing this to happen is a new application of accelerator mass spectrometry, which as a biological tracking tool is extraordinarily more sensitive than something like radioactivity measuring. Scientists can measure PAH levels in blood down to infinitesimal ratios – comparable to a single drop of water in 4,000 Olympic swimming pools, or to a one-inch increment on a 3-billion mile measuring tape.

As a result, microdoses of a compound, even less than one might find in a normal diet or environmental exposure, can be traced as they are processed by humans. The implications are profound.

“Knowing how people metabolize PAHs may verify a number of animal and cell studies, as well as provide a better understanding of how PAHs work, identifying their mechanism or mechanisms of action," said Bill Suk, director of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program.

One PAH compound studied in this research, dibenzo (def,p)-chrysene, is fairly potent and defined as a probable human carcinogen. It was administered to volunteers in the study in a capsule equivalent to the level of PAH found in a 5-ounce serving of smoked meat, which provided about 28 percent of the average daily dietary PAH intake. There was a fairly rapid takeup of the compound, reaching a peak metabolic level within about two hours, and then rapid elimination. The researchers were able to study not only the parent compound but also individual metabolites as it was changed.

“Part of what’s so interesting is that we’re able to administer possible carcinogens to people in scientific research and then study the results,” Williams said. “By conventional scientific ethics, that simply would not be allowed. But from a different perspective, we’re not giving these people toxins, we’re giving them dinner. That’s how much PAHs are a part of our everyday lives, and for once we’re able to study these compounds at normal levels of human exposure.”

What a scientist might see as a carcinogen, in other words, is what most of us would see as a nice grilled steak. There are many unexpected forms of PAH exposure. The compounds are found in polluted air, cigarettes, and smoked food, of course, but also in cereal grains, potatoes and at surprisingly high levels in leafy green vegetables.

“It’s clear from our research that PAHs can be toxic, but it’s also clear that there’s more to the equation than just the source of the PAH,” Williams said. “We get most of the more toxic PAHs from our food, rather than inhalation. And some fairly high doses can come from foods like leafy vegetables that we know to be healthy. That’s why we need a better understanding of what’s going on in the human body as these compounds are processed.”

The Williams-led OSU laboratory is recruiting volunteers for a follow-up study that will also employ smoked salmon as a source of a PAH mixture and relate results to an individual’s genetic makeup.

Some of the early findings from the study actually back up previous research fairly well, Williams said, which was done with high-dose studies in laboratory animals. It’s possible, he said, that exposure to dietary PAHs over a lifetime may turn out to be less of a health risk that previously believed at normal levels of exposure, but more work will need to be done with this technology before such conclusions could be reached.

Collaborators on the study were from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the OSU Environmental Health Sciences Center.

“Further development and application of this technology could have a major impact in the arena of human environmental health,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

Media Contact: 
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David Williams, 541-737-3277 or david.williams@oregonstate.edu

Scientists prepare for another wave of tsunami debris, possible invasives

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists monitoring incoming tsunami debris were taken aback last spring when some 30 fishing vessels from Japan washed ashore along the Pacific Northwest coast – many of them covered in living organisms indigenous to Asia.

Incidence of wayward skiffs and other tsunami debris subsequently declined sharply over the summer because of seasonal shifts in the winds. Now, those winds and currents have returned to their winter-spring pattern and scientists are expecting more items to wash ashore – even though it is nearing four years since a massive earthquake and tsunami shook Japan.

Blue mussels have been found on literally every boat that has washed ashore and some 200 different species overall have been documented on tsunami debris, according to John Chapman, an Oregon State University marine invasive species specialist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

“The crustaceans and bivalves are of particular concern because they could introduce new diseases, and compete with, displace or otherwise affect our oyster or mussel populations,” Chapman noted.

Just last week, a tote with numerous mussels washed up at Seal Rock – a sign that debris will still be arriving over the next few months. Of particular concern are boats and large objects that wash ashore carrying a variety of living organisms – including some new species that were not aboard the now-infamous dock that landed on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June of 2012.

“We continue to find new organisms that we have never seen before,” Chapman said. “There isn’t as much diversity aboard the Japanese fishing vessels as there was on the dock, but each new species that we haven’t seen before is a cause for concern.

“No one can predict if these new species may gain a foothold in Northwest waters – and what impacts that may have,” he added.

Chapman and OSU colleague Jessica Miller have examined roughly a dozen boats that have washed ashore from the southern Oregon coast to the central Washington coast. Most of them were similar in style – long, narrow skiffs up to 30 feet in length, with no motors. As they drift from Asia to the West Coast of North America, they pick up a variety of organisms along the way.

“We’ve been surprised at the tenacity of some of these coastal Asian organisms that are arriving on the tsunami debris because the middle of the ocean isn’t the most biologically productive place for coastal species,” Miller said.

Among some of the species the Oregon State biologists have encountered over the past year are bat stars, which are sea stars that look like they have bat wings; striped knifejaw, fish that were found alive in at least one boat; and numerous small crustaceans.

Teams of scientists from around the North Pacific region, including Chapman and Miller, have identified more than 165 species that were aboard the original dock, and another 40-50 species that were found on other debris items, including boats. The rate of incoming debris should be slowing, the researchers say, but the arrival of so many boats last spring suggests that the threat is not over.

Invasive marine species are a problem on the West Coast, where they usually are introduced via ballast water from ships. OSU’s Chapman is well aware of the issue; for several years he has studied a parasitic isopod called Griffen’s isopod that was introduced from Asia. Griffen’s isopod infests mud shrimp in estuaries from California to Vancouver Island and is decimating their populations.

The OSU researchers are working with other scientists on the West Coast, who are attempting to genetically identify all of the species arriving on tsunami debris using genomic sampling – work led by Jon Geller of Moss Landing Marine Laboratory. Geller and his students also are collecting samples of marine life in Northwest coastal and estuary communities to look for evidence that non-native species may have established.

“We’re also doing a lot of old-fashioned looking,” Chapman said. “But new species can be difficult to identify if you aren’t searching for them directly in the first place. So we’ve identified three species that are particularly abundant in Asia, appear highly suited for invading the open coast, and would be readily apparent to searchers looking in the right place.”

These species include a hydroid, Eutima; a fly, Telmatogeton; and an amphipod crustacean, Caprella cristibrachium.

Media Contact: 
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John Chapman, 541-867-0235;

Jessica Miller, 541-867-0381

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Science study links greenhouse gases to African rainfall

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists may have solved a long-standing enigma known as the African Humid Period – an intense increase in cumulative rainfall in parts of Africa that began after a long dry spell following the end of the last ice age and lasting nearly 10,000 years.

In a new study published this week in Science, an international research team linked the increase in rainfall in two regions of Africa thousands of years ago to an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The findings are critical, researchers say, because they provide new evidence that increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could have a significant impact on the future climate of Africa.

“This study is important not only because it explains a long-standing puzzle, but it helps to validate model predictions of how rising greenhouse gas concentrations might change rainfall patterns in a highly populated and vulnerable part of the world,” said Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist and co-author on the study.

The study was led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It used computer simulations and analysis of geologic records of past climate.

The researchers focused on the era following the last ice age. When ice sheets covering North America and northern Europe began retreating after the last glacial maximum some 21,000 years ago, there was a long dry spell in central Africa that lasted until about 14,700 years ago, when rainfall increased abruptly. Scientists have long been puzzled by the regime shift, which turned deserts into grasslands and earned the African Humid Period moniker.

Rainfall actually increased in two separate regions of Africa – one north of the equator, the other south. Some previous studies had suggested that the shift may have been triggered by changes in the Earth’s orbit, but lead author Bette Otto-Bliesner said orbital patterns alone could not explain increased rainfall of that extent in both regions.

As the Earth emerged from the ice age, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane increased significantly – almost to pre-industrial levels – by 11,000 years ago. As the planet continued warming, ice sheets melted and the influx of fresh water from North America and northern Europe began weakening the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which brings warm water up from the tropics and keeps Europe temperate.

This weakening of the Atlantic ocean current simultaneously moved precipitation southward toward the southernmost part of Africa, and suppressed rainfall in east Africa and northern equatorial Africa during the long dry spell, the researchers say.

When the ice sheets stopped melting, the circulation strengthened and brought precipitation back to the north. This change, coupled with the orbital shift and warming of both the atmosphere and oceans by greenhouse gases, triggered the African Humid Period.

“This study provides yet another demonstration of the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate to small changes in atmospheric greenhouse gases,” said Clark, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The science team recreated records of past moisture conditions by examining fossils, former lake levels and other geologic data, and simulated past climate with a power climate model developed by NCAR.

”The future impact of greenhouse gases on rainfall in Africa is a critical socioeconomic issue,” Otto-Bliesner said. “Africa’s climate seems destined to change, with far-reaching implications for water resources and agriculture in ways that may generate new conflicts.”

The study focused on the Sahel region of Africa to the north, including Niger, Chad and northern Nigeria; and the southeastern equatorial region of Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya.

Media Contact: 
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Peter Clark, 541-737-1247; clarkp@geo.oregonstate.edu

Atmospheric carbon dioxide used for energy storage products

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Chemists and engineers at Oregon State University have discovered a fascinating new way to take some of the atmospheric carbon dioxide that’s causing the greenhouse effect and use it to make an advanced, high-value material for use in energy storage products.

This innovation in nanotechnology won’t soak up enough carbon to solve global warming, researchers say. However, it will provide an environmentally friendly, low-cost way to make nanoporous graphene for use in “supercapacitors” – devices that can store energy and release it rapidly.

Such devices are used in everything from heavy industry to consumer electronics.

The findings were just published in Nano Energy by scientists from the OSU College of Science, OSU College of Engineering, Argonne National Laboratory, the University of South Florida and the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Albany, Ore. The work was supported by OSU.

In the chemical reaction that was developed, the end result is nanoporous graphene, a form of carbon that’s ordered in its atomic and crystalline structure. It has an enormous specific surface area of about 1,900 square meters per gram of material. Because of that, it has an electrical conductivity at least 10 times higher than the activated carbon now used to make commercial supercapacitors.

“There are other ways to fabricate nanoporous graphene, but this approach is faster, has little environmental impact and costs less,” said Xiulei (David) Ji, an OSU assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science and lead author on the study. “The product exhibits high surface area, great conductivity and, most importantly, it has a fairly high density that is comparable to the commercial activated carbons.

“And the carbon source is carbon dioxide, which is a sustainable resource, to say the least,” Ji said. “This methodology uses abundant carbon dioxide while making energy storage products of significant value.”

Because the materials involved are inexpensive and the fabrication is simple, this approach has the potential to be scaled up for production at commercial levels, Ji said.

The chemical reaction outlined in this study involved a mixture of magnesium and zinc metals, a combination discovered for the first time. These are heated to a high temperature in the presence of a flow of carbon dioxide to produce a controlled “metallothermic” reaction. The reaction converted the elements into their metal oxides and nanoporous graphene, a pure form of carbon that’s remarkably strong and can efficiently conduct heat and electricity. The metal oxides could later be recycled back into their metallic forms to make an industrial process more efficient.

By comparison, other methods to make nanoporous graphene often use corrosive and toxic chemicals, in systems that would be challenging to use at large commercial levels.

“Most commercial carbon supercapacitors now use activated carbon as electrodes, but their electrical conductivity is very low,” Ji said. “We want fast energy storage and release that will deliver more power, and for that purpose the more conductive nanoporous graphene will work much better. This solves a major problem in creating more powerful supercapacitors.”

A supercapacitor is a type of energy storage device, but it can be recharged much faster than a battery and has a great deal more power. They are mostly used in any type of device where rapid power storage and short, but powerful energy release is needed.

They are being used in consumer electronics, and have applications in heavy industry, with the ability to power anything from a crane to a forklift. A supercapacitor can capture energy that might otherwise be wasted, such as in braking operations. And their energy storage abilities may help “smooth out” the power flow from alternative energy systems, such as wind energy.

They can power a defibrillator, open the emergency slides on an aircraft and greatly improve the efficiency of hybrid electric automobiles. Nanoporous carbon materials can also adsorb gas pollutants, work as environmental filters, or be used in water treatment. The uses are expanding constantly and have been constrained mostly by their cost.

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Xiulei (David) Ji, 541-737-6798

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Nanoporous graphene
Nanoporous graphene

PNAS study: Ocean biota responds to global warming

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As the Earth warmed coming out of the last ice age, the rate of plankton production off the Pacific Northwest coast decreased, a new study has found, though the amount of organic material making its way to the deep ocean actually increased.

This suggests that during future climate warming, the ocean may be more efficient than previously thought at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – at least in some regions – but raises new concerns about impacts on marine life.

Results of the study are being published online today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide like a sponge; scientists say that about one-third of all CO2   emitted historically by burning fossil fuels is now in the ocean. “This is a good news/bad news situation,” said Alan Mix, an Oregon State University oceanographer and co-author on the study. “It helps to slow the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, but it makes the ocean more acidic.”

A major uncertainty has been how life in the ocean will respond to increasing CO2   and global warming. Growth of phytoplankton (microscopic plants such as diatoms) near the sea surface converts carbon dioxide into organic matter. When the plankton die, their organic remains either decompose in the surface ocean, or sink into the abyss.

This sinking of plankton effectively pumps CO2   out of the atmosphere. The so-called “biological pump” stores carbon in the deep sea, which is one way that biology influences global climate.

“It has been assumed that the amount of organic material that sinks to the sea floor would parallel that produced through photosynthesis near the sea surface,” said Mix, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Surprisingly, our study found that even as plant growth decreased, past warming actually enhanced the biological export of carbon to the deep sea, at least in the northeast Pacific.”

Lead author Cristina Lopes, a visiting scientist at Oregon State who is based at the Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera (IPMA, Portuguese Sea and Atmosphere Institute) in Portugal, and colleague Michal Kucera at the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences at Germany’s University of Bremen, calculated the productivity of marine plankton during the last major global warming event leading to the end of the last ice age. They did so by examining fossil diatoms buried in sediment off the coast of Oregon.

A breakthrough came from applying neural network methods now used by financial and insurance industries. “Inspired by brain research, we adapted these machine learning methods to analyze the fossil record for a new view of how the ocean works,” Kucera said.

The researchers found that during the ice age, the carbon trapped in plankton off Oregon was mostly recycled rather than exported to the deep ocean. As the ice age waned and the ocean warmed, plant growth decreased while carbon export increased.

“This counterintuitive effect was driven by a shift in ecosystems to one dominated by large diatoms,” Lopes said. “Those diatoms bloomed, then sank fast when they died.”

The researchers say their findings don’t necessarily mean that the ocean can continue to absorb increasing amounts of CO2   indefinitely, but that computer models of the ocean’s carbon cycle will need to take into account that plant productivity and carbon export are not always linked.

Evidence that export of carbon to the deep sea increases in some regions during long-term warming may help to slow down global climate change, but it may make some other impacts worse, the researchers point out. For example, as the extra sinking organic matter decomposes, it consumes oxygen dissolved in seawater – and loss of oxygen in the ocean is a growing concern.

Low-oxygen “dead zones” have appeared off the coast of Oregon several times in recent years.

“If these connections between warming and enhanced carbon export that we’ve found in past climate changes are triggered in the future, we can expect those marine dead zones to show up more frequently,” Mix said.

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Alan Mix, 541-737-5212, amix@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Arachnodiscus

Lionfish analysis reveals most vulnerable prey as invasion continues

CORVALLIS, Ore. – If you live in lionfish territory in the Atlantic Ocean, the last thing you want to be is a small fish with a long, skinny body, resting by yourself at night, near the bottom of the seafloor.

If so, your chances of being gobbled up by a lionfish increase by about 200 times.

Findings of a study on lionfish predation behavior, which may also apply to some other fish and animal species, have shed some new light on which types of fish are most likely to face attack by this invasive predator, which has disrupted ecosystems in much of the Caribbean Sea and parts of the Atlantic Ocean.

The research has been published in the Journal of Animal Ecology by scientists from Oregon State University and Simon Fraser University. It used the study of lionfish to gain broader insights into how predators select their prey, and developed a new method for predicting diet selection across various prey assemblages.

“With species now moving all over the world in both marine and terrestrial systems, we need to know who will eat whom when species encounter each other for the first time,” said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow in the OSU College of Science, who has done extensive studies of lionfish.

“Normally, predator-prey experiments take a lot of effort and time,” Green said. “But there are mathematical techniques that can help us better understand what is happening when we observe animals hunting in the wild, and why some species get eaten and others don’t.”

Green said that researchers want to identify common features across the animal kingdom that make some species more vulnerable than others.

“We’re playing catch-up on this,” she said. “However, with the case of species invasions, a much better understanding of which native species are at risk can help us target management intervention. This could help avoid extirpations and, in the worst-case scenario, more outright extinctions.”

This study is one of the first to identify general traits of prey that predict vulnerability to predation, and examine diet selection at different spatial scales. Some of the findings may be relevant to other invasive species problems, such as expansion of the Burmese python in the Florida Everglades and the spread of Asian tiger prawn into the Gulf of Mexico.

The study also showed that although lionfish have a voracious appetite and will eat almost any fish smaller than they are, they do have their favorites.

They find it easier to stalk and attack solitary fish, rather than those in schools. They like to hunt at dusk, near the bottom, and for some reason tend to avoid fish that clean off parasites from other fish species that are common in a marine environment.

“Fish that clean parasites off of other fish appear to be avoided by lionfish,” Green said. “Those that don’t will be much harder hit.”

Having all the traits that make them vulnerable, for instance, raises a serious question about the ability of some species to survive the lionfish invasion, such as the Exuma Goby, a small fish native to one area of The Bahamas. It has many traits lionfish prefer.

OSU researchers are working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature to help identify some of the species and problem areas most at risk of extinction from the lionfish invasion, and where control of the invaders should be prioritized.

Lionfish are now established on coral reefs across the western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, and the invasion continues to spread while reef biodiversity and biomass rapidly declines. The high rate of fish mortality also poses an additional threat to coral reefs themselves, which can become covered with algae if enough fish are not present to eat the algae and keep it under control.

The research was supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the David H. Smith Conservation Research Program.

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Stephanie Green, 778-808-0758

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Hunting lionfish
Hunting lionfish


Lionfish
Hunting at dusk


Algae on coral reef
Algae-covered corals


“Picky Eaters,” a Podcast about species diet preferences, is online at: http://bit.ly/1vpMcAA