OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

New technology could improve use of small-scale hydropower in developing nations

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have created a new computer modeling package that people anywhere in the world could use to assess the potential of a stream for small-scale, “run of river” hydropower, an option to produce electricity that’s of special importance in the developing world.

The system is easy to use; does not require data that is often unavailable in foreign countries or remote locations; and can consider hydropower potential not only now, but in the future as projected changes in climate and stream runoff occur.

OSU experts say that people, agencies or communities interested in the potential for small-scale hydropower development can much more easily and accurately assess whether it would meet their current and future energy needs.

Findings on the new assessment tool have been published in Renewable Energy, in work supported by the National Science Foundation.

“These types of run-of-river hydropower developments have a special value in some remote, mountainous regions where electricity is often scarce or unavailable,” said Kendra Sharp, the Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor in Humanitarian Engineering in the OSU College of Engineering.

“There are parts of northern Pakistan, for instance, where about half of rural homes don’t have access to electricity, and systems such as this are one of the few affordable ways to produce it. The strength of this system is that it will be simple for people to use, and it’s pretty accurate even though it can work with limited data on the ground.”

The new technology was field-tested at a 5-megawatt small-scale hydropower facility built in the early 1980s on Falls Creek in the central Oregon Cascade Range. At that site, it projected that future climate changes will shift its optimal electricity production from spring to winter and that annual hydropower potential will slightly decrease from the conditions that prevailed from 1980-2010.

Small-scale hydropower, researchers say, continues to be popular because it can be developed with fairly basic and cost-competitive technology, and does not require large dams or reservoirs to function. Although all forms of power have some environmental effects, this approach has less impact on fisheries or stream ecosystems than major hydroelectric dams. Hydroelectric power is also renewable and does not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the most basic approaches is diverting part of a stream into a holding basin, which contains a self-cleaning screen that prevents larger debris, insects, fish and objects from entering the system. The diverted water is then channeled to and fed through a turbine at a lower elevation before returning the water to the stream.

The technology is influenced by the seasonal variability of stream flow, the “head height,” or distance the water is able to drop, and other factors. Proper regulations to maintain minimum needed stream flow can help mitigate environmental impacts.

Most previous tools used to assess specific sites for their small-scale hydropower potential have not been able to consider the impacts of future changes in weather and climate, OSU researchers said, and are far too dependent on data that is often unavailable in developing nations.

This free, open source software program was developed by Thomas Mosier, who at the time was a graduate student at OSU, in collaboration with Sharp and David Hill, an OSU associate professor of coastal and ocean engineering. It is now available to anyone on request by contacting Kendra.sharp@oregonstate.edu

This system will allow engineers and policy makers to make better decisions about hydropower development and investment, both in the United States and around the world, OSU researchers said in the study.

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Kendra Sharp, 541-737-5246

kendra.sharp@oregonstate.edu

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Small scale hydropower
Small scale hydropower

Oil and gas infrastructure doesn’t seem to deter nesting hawks

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Roads and petroleum wells in Wyoming’s oil and gas country don’t seem to interfere with the nesting of ferruginous hawks, according to recent findings by Oregon State University wildlife researchers.

In their three-year study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, wildlife biologists Zach Wallace and Patricia Kennedy found that the birds were equally likely to return to nests near energy infrastructure, such as roads and well pads, as to those farther away.

The birds’ nesting choices proved to be influenced more by abundance of prey animals such as ground squirrels, and by relatively sparse sagebrush cover, than by structures associated with oil and gas fields, the researchers concluded.

The study, conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service and Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, is the largest in the U.S. so far on the impacts of oil and gas development on the federally protected hawks, which are regarded as a “species of conservation concern” by some federal and state agencies.

But it’s too early, Wallace cautioned, to assume that oil and gas activities are benign.

“We don’t have pre-construction data,” he said, “so we were studying birds that had continued to nest after energy exploration began. It is possible that some hawks may already have abandoned the areas of densest development prior to our study.”

Kennedy said the long-term effect of energy development on abundance of prey is unknown.

“We know from the literature that ferruginous hawks can nest in working landscapes,” she said. “But we present our findings with some caution, because we don’t know what the thresholds are,” for habitat changes that will harm the birds’ reproductive success.

“Some prey species seem to thrive under disturbances from oil and gas development; others may not.”

Kennedy is a professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences stationed at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Union, Ore. Wallace led the study as Kennedy’s master’s student and now works for Eagle Environmental, a conservation consulting firm in New Mexico.

The ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) is the largest hawk species in North America. The birds are partially migratory, wintering as far south as central Mexico and returning north in the spring to breeding territories in the arid shrub- and grasslands of the western U.S.

The hawks nest in trees and rocky outcrops, returning to prior years’ nests if these are available. They also nest readily on human-made structures such as artificial nesting platforms, power poles, abandoned windmills, even gas condensation tanks. They will nest on the ground if elevated structures are not present, Kennedy said.

Birds that inhabit grasslands and shrublands are declining around the world primarily because of human-caused disturbances, Wallace said. He and Kennedy undertook the study to determine which of several key influences were most important in the hawks’ reuse of breeding territories and nesting success: abundance of prey, shrub cover, weather, type of nest substrate, and density of human structures such as roads and well pads.

The researchers counted hawk nests from a small airplane over three seasons, and they sampled prey species on the ground. Their study area covered nearly half the state of Wyoming and included both public and private land.

They divided the sampling territory into areas with low, medium and high density of oil and gas infrastructure. After the initial nest count, they monitored the nests during spring breeding season over the next two years to see whether the birds returned to prior years’ nests and how many young they produced.

Based on earlier research, they expected that returning birds would avoid nests within 1.5 kilometers of roads and well pads. Instead, they found that the birds were equally likely to come back to these nests as to the ones farther away.

The findings could affect the mitigation measures required of energy companies to protect wildlife habitat, said Wallace, which are now negotiated with land management authorities on a project-by-project basis.

“One of the strengths of our study is its broad spatial scale, which makes it more relevant to management decisions than the smaller-scale studies that have been done in the past,” he said. “We were able to study these hawks at the scale of their ecology, and also at the scale of oil and gas development.”

Wyoming’s oil and gas industry has grown rapidly since the late 20th century, although growth has slowed lately as prices for fossil fuels have declined.

“We collected an excellent, large dataset on the hawks’ nesting behavior in both disturbed and undisturbed areas,” Wallace said. “This study lays the groundwork for rigorous before-and-after studies if and when oil and gas drilling spreads into now-undeveloped areas.”

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Patricia Kennedy, 541-562-5129 X 31

pat.kennedy@oregonstate.edu

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Ferruginous hawk
Ferruginous hawk

Study finds native Olympia oysters more resilient to ocean acidification

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Native Olympia oysters, which once thrived along the Pacific Northwest coast until over-harvesting and habitat loss all but wiped them out, have a built-in resistance to ocean acidification during a key shell-building phase after spawning, according to a newly published study.

Unlike the commercially raised Pacific oysters, Olympia oysters don’t begin making their shells until 2-3 days after fertilization and make them far more slowly, which helps protect them from corrosive water during this critical development phase, said Oregon State University’s George Waldbusser, principal investigator on the project.

Pacific oysters, on the other hand, only have a six-hour window to develop their calcium carbonate shell, and when exposed to acidified water, their energy stores become depleted. The larval oysters may get through the shell-building stage, Waldbusser said, but they often will not have enough energy to survive.

Results of the study are being published this week in the Journal of Limnology and Oceanography.

“This is a unique trait that allows native oysters to survive surprisingly high levels of acidification,” said Waldbusser, a marine ecologist in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “But they didn’t develop that trait in response to rising acidification. It has been there for some time. It does make you wonder if there may be traits in other organisms that we’re unaware of that may be beneficial.”

In their study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, the OSU researchers measured the calcification rates of both Olympia and Pacific oysters for five days after spawning, taking measurements every three hours. Although other studies have looked at the effects of acidified water on adult oysters, this is the first time researchers have been able to pinpoint its effect on larval oysters in the shell-building stage.

What they found was a seven-fold difference in the calcification rate. Pacific oysters put all of their energy into rapidly developing a shell, but the price of that investment is huge.

Native Olympia oysters developed their shells much more slowly, but seemingly at a lower cost.

“Pacific oysters churn out tens of millions of eggs, and those eggs are much smaller than those of native oysters even though they eventually become much larger as adults,” Waldbusser said. “Pacific oysters have less energy invested in each offspring. Olympia oysters have more of an initial energy investment from Mom, and can spend more time developing their shells and dealing with acidified water.”

The OSU researchers found that relative energy stores of young Pacific oysters declined by 38.6 percent an hour, and only 0.9 percent in Olympia oysters.

The study noted other interesting differences between Pacific and Olympia oysters. Native Olympia oyster larvae develop in a brood chamber, where the embryos take longer to develop. However, these brood chambers don’t necessarily protect the young oysters from acidified water, since water is continually pumped through the chamber.

To test how the oysters would do when raised like Pacific oysters – outside the chamber – the researchers conducted an experiment raising the larval Olympia oysters outside their brood chamber and exposing them to acidified water.

“Brooding was thought to provide several advantages to developing young, but we found it does not provide any physiological advantage to the larvae,” said Matthew Gray, a former doctoral student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maine. “They did just as well outside the brood chamber as inside.

“Brooding does help guard the larvae from predators and some adverse environmental changes – such as low-salinity events.”

The research highlights this robust response to ocean acidification at this critical life-history stage of Olympia oyster larvae, a period which has not previously been studied. Past studies conducted by Annaliese Hettinger, a post-doctoral researcher in Waldbusser’s lab, found that the Olympia oyster larvae are sensitive to acidification in the later swimming stage, and those effects can carry over to adult stages.

The current research may, however, have implications for the future of the commercial oyster industry, given that many of the problems seem to originate at this very early developmental stage. Cultivation of native oysters could help guard against catastrophic Pacific oyster losses due to acidification, the researchers say, or it may be possible to breed some of the Olympia oysters’ beneficial traits into Pacific oysters – either slowing the calcification rate of early larvae or producing fewer and bigger eggs.

The Olympia oyster, which is smaller than the commercially grown Pacific oyster, is prized for its distinctive flavor. Originally, Olympia oysters grew from Baja California to Vancouver Island, and are found sparingly in three Oregon bays – Yaquina, Netarts and Coos Bay. During the height of these harvests in the 1890s, some 130,000 bushels of oysters were annually shipped from the Pacific Northwest to California and within 20 years, 90 percent of these native oysters had disappeared.

Researchers speculate that the remaining Olympia oyster populations may have succumbed to increased silt generated by 20th-century logging and mill operations, which either killed them outright or covered their beds and destroyed their habitat. They have not returned in discernible numbers to Oregon estuaries.

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George Waldbusser, 541-737-8964

waldbuss@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Olympia oyster cluster

Olympia oysters



Olympia oysters
Olympia oysters
from Yaquina Bay

“Weather@Home” offers precise new insights into climate change in the West

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Tens of thousands of “citizen scientists” have volunteered some use of their personal computer time to help researchers create one of the most detailed, high resolution simulations of weather ever done in the Western United States.

The data, obtained through a project called Weather@Home, is an important step forward for scientifically sound, societally relevant climate science, researchers say in a an article published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. The analysis covered the years 1960-2009 and future projections of 2030-49.

“When you have 30,000 modern laptop computers at work, you can transcend even what a supercomputer can do,” said Philip Mote, professor and director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University, and lead author on the study.

“With this analysis we have 140,000 one-year simulations that show all of the impacts that mountains, valleys, coasts and other aspects of terrain can have on local weather,” he said. “We can drill into local areas, ask more specific questions about management implications, and understand the physical and biological climate changes in the West in a way never before possible.”

The sheer number of simulations tends to improve accuracy and reduce the uncertainty associated with this type of computer analysis, experts say. The high resolution also makes it possible to better consider the multiple climate forces at work in the West – coastal breezes, fog, cold air in valleys, sunlight being reflected off snow – and vegetation that ranges from wet, coastal rain forests to ice-covered mountains and arid scrublands within a comparatively short distance.

Although more accurate than previous simulations, improvements are still necessary, researchers say. Weather@Home tends to be too cool in a few mountain ranges and too warm in some arid plains, such as the Snake River plain and Columbia plateau, especially in summer. While other models have similar errors, Weather@Home offers the unique capability to improve simulations by improving the physics in the model.

Ultimately, this approach will help improve future predictions of regional climate. The social awareness of these issues has “matured to the point that numerous public agencies, businesses and investors are asking detailed questions about the future impacts of climate change,” the researchers wrote in their report.

This has led to a skyrocketing demand for detailed answers to specific questions – what’s the risk of a flood in a particular area, what will be future wind speeds as wind farms are developed, how should roads and bridges be built to handle extremely intense rainfall?  There will be questions about heat stress on humans, the frequency of droughts, future sea levels and the height of local storm surges.

This type of analysis, and more like it, will help answer some of those questions, researchers say.

New participants in this ongoing research are always welcome, officials said. If interested in participating, anyone can go online to “climateprediction.net” and click on “join.” They should then follow the instructions to download and install BOINC, a program that manages the tasks; create an account; and select a project. Participation in climateprediction.net is available, as well as many others.

The work has been supported by Microsoft Corp., the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the California Energy Commission, the U.S. Geological Survey and the USDA.

Collaborators on the report were from OSU, Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and the Met Office Hadley Centre in the United Kingdom.

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Phil Mote, 541-913-2274

pmote@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Elevation map
Elevation map

Coral reefs fall victim to overfishing, pollution aggravated by ocean warming

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Coral reefs are declining  around the world because a combination of factors – overfishing, nutrient pollution, and pathogenic disease – ultimately become deadly in the face of higher ocean temperatures, researchers have concluded.

A study published today in Nature Communications, based on one of the largest and longest field experiments done on this topic, suggests that the widespread coral deaths observed in recent decades are being caused by this combination of multiple local stressors and global warming.

These forces greatly weaken corals, and allow opportunistic pathogens to build to such levels that corals cannot survive.

The findings were made by researchers from six institutions following a three-year experiment that simulated both overfishing and nutrient pollution on a coral reef in the Florida Keys. The large body of field data collected over an extended period of time helped resolve some of the fundamental questions about the cause of coral reef declines, scientists said.

“This is grim news, but at least it will help settle the argument over why corals are dying,” said Rebecca Vega Thurber, an assistant professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University and corresponding author on the study.

“This makes it clear there’s no single force that’s causing such widespread coral deaths. Loss of fish that help remove algae, or the addition of excess nutrients like those in fertilizers, can cause algal growth on reefs. This changes the normal microbiota of corals to become more pathogenic, and all of these problems reach critical levels as ocean temperatures warm.”

The end result, scientists say, is a global decline of coral reefs that is now reaching catastrophic proportions.

“We need to know how human activities are affecting coral reef ecosystems,” says David Garrison, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.  “Coral reefs are among the most sensitive indicators of the health of the oceans. This report is a major contribution toward understanding how reefs will fare in the future.”

Scientists say the problems caused by bacterial infections due to local stressors and warm temperatures are in addition to damage from mass coral bleaching events already under way. Only in the early 1980’s did researchers observe the first mass bleaching event in recorded history. There have now been three such events just in the past 20 years.

“About 25-35 percent of the corals on the Great Barrier Reef are dying right now,” Vega-Thurber said. “In 2014-16 large portions of tropical reef across the planet experienced bleaching, and this past April, 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef bleached as part of a massive El Nino event. Corals everywhere seem to be dying.”

In addition to helping to sort out the effects of known stressors like overfishing and nutrient pollution, the researchers made one bizarre and totally unexpected finding.

In normal conditions, parrotfish, like many other species, are essential to the health of coral reefs, nibbling at them to remove algae and causing no permanent damage. But in one part of the experiment corals were so weakened by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that when parrot fish would bite them, 62 percent of the corals would die. A normally healthy fish-coral interaction had been turned into a deadly one.

“Normally benign predation by the parrotfish turned into coral murder,” said Deron Burkepile, also a corresponding author on the study at the University of California – Santa Barbara. “But it’s not the parrotfishes, they’re like the reef janitors, keeping it clean. Those extra nutrients — nutrient pollution — turn parrotfishes into an actual source of mortality by facilitating pathogens in the wounds left by their bites. Excess nutrients turn a coral accomplice into a coral killer.”

The researchers said they want to make it clear that parrotfish are not the problem, they are an essential part of healthy reef ecosystems.

“The problem is when corals are so weakened they cannot withstand normal impacts,” Vega-Thurber said. “And the solution will be to help those corals recover their health, by ensuring that their local environment is free of nutrient pollution and that fish stocks are not depleted.”

Among the findings of the study:

  • Overfishing, nutrient pollution and increased temperature all lead to an increase in pathogens;
  • The sheer abundance of pathogens is more important than what particular type or species they are;
  • Coral reef mortality mirrors the abundance of pathogens;
  • Heat exacerbates these problems, with 80 percent of coral deaths coming in the summer or fall, but only when fish are removed or nutrient pollution is present;
  • While high thermal stress has received the most attention, even modest temperature increases make corals more vulnerable to bacteria;
  • Loss of fish can increase algal cover up to six times;
  • In a distressed system with many algae, coral disease levels double and coral mortality increases eight times;
  • Increased algal cover or elevated temperature can reduce levels of naturally-secreted antibiotics that help protect corals from harmful bacteria;
  • Direct algal contact driven by overfishing and nutrient pollution destabilizes the coral microbiome, in some cases leading to a 6- to 9-time increase in mortality.

The findings, researchers say, make it clear that in the face of global warming, some of the best opportunities to protect coral reefs lie in careful management of fishing and protection of water quality. This would give corals their best chance to have a healthy microbiome and resist warmer conditions without dying.

Collaborators on this research were from Florida International University, the University of California/Santa Barbara, Penn State University, Rice University, the University of Florida/Gainsville, SymbioSeas and Marine Applied Research Center, and the Laboratoire d’Excellence.

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Editor Notes: Video and audio are available to illustrate this story.

 

Interview with Rebecca Vega-Thurber:  http://bit.ly/1TSUe1N

Link to audio-only version of same interview: http://bit.ly/24ubTg0

YouTube view-only link of same video: https://youtu.be/dq8jtyuYp_U

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Rebecca Vega-Thurber, 541-737-1851

rebecca.vega-thurber@oregonstate.edu

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Coral surveys

Divers in field study


Sampling coral microbiome


Testing coral microbiome


Experimental design


Study design


Parrot fish on coral reefs
Parrot fish cleaning coral

PNAS Study: Eddies enhance survival of coral reef fish in sub-tropical waters

NEWPORT, Ore. – Swirling eddies in the ocean have long been thought to be beneficial to organisms such as larval fishes residing within them because of enhanced phytoplankton production. However, direct evidence for this hypothesis has been hard to come by.

A new study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which sequentially sampled tropical fish from their larval stages to their settlement in reefs, confirms the critical role of these oceanographic features.

Researchers found that young fish reared in nutrient-rich eddies in the Straits of Florida grew faster and had a survival advantage compared to their counterparts outside eddies, and were more likely to populate nearby reefs because of their more robust upbringing.

“Eddies upwell nutrients and provide a high-productivity environment that gives larval fishes growing there a head start on survival,” said Su Sponaugle, a marine biologist and principal investigator on the study who is affiliated with both Oregon State University and the University of Miami. “In cooler springtime waters, when larval fish are growing more slowly, the difference between fish raised inside or outside of eddies is small.

“But by August, when warm waters elevate fish growth rates, food becomes scarce and larval fishes residing inside eddies are more likely to survive.”

The study is important because it provides resource managers and fish population modelers with valuable new data, said Robert Cowen, director of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, and a co-author on the PNAS paper.

“If there are areas where eddies predictably occur, these could be considered pelagic nursery areas that would warrant higher levels of protection from human interference,” Cowen said. “Further, the role of theses eddies should be incorporated into modeling efforts, which inform decision-makers. The influence of eddies may become even more important with warming oceans.”

In their study, the researchers collected larval fishes both inside and outside of eddies, focusing on three species – bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum), bluelip parrotfish (Cryptotomus roseus) and bicolor damselfish (Stegastes partitus). They determined the daily growth rates of the fish through examination of their otoliths, or ear stones, and found that those raised within the eddies had substantially higher growth rates than fish captured outside the eddies.

A few weeks later, they sampled young juveniles that had settled to nearby reefs and again using otoliths to chart daily growth rates of the fish were able to determine that almost all of those that survived to the juvenile stage had growth patterns similar to larvae from eddies.

Fish raised inside of eddies have different growth signatures in their otoliths than those raised outside eddies, explained Kathryn Shulzitski, lead author and assistant scientist at the University of Miami. “This is the first time we have been able to sample fish throughout their larval upbringing offshore to their life as juveniles on the reef and see which fish had a survival advantage.

“It was overwhelmingly slanted toward eddy-raised fish.”

The researchers theorize that larval fish residing outside of eddies either starve to death or become sufficiently weak that they are more susceptible to predators.

“Although we were focusing on three species of smaller reef fish, it is likely that the importance of eddies for larger species – including those sought by people for food – are the same,” Cowen said. “Likewise, this probably is not unique to the Florida Straits. Eddies are ubiquitous in waters around the globe and their role in mixing and stirring up nutrients is critical.”

Other authors on the PNAS study include Martha Hauff and Kristen Walter of the University of Miami. Hauff also is affiliated with Stonehill College in Massachusetts.

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Su Sponaugle, 541-867-0314, su.sponaugle@oregonstate.edu;

Bob Cowen, 541-867-0211, robert.cowen@oregonstate.edu

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Bluehead wrasse (Photo by Evan D’Alessandro)
bluehead wrasse

Hydrothermal vents, methane seeps play enormous role in marine life, global climate

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The hydrothermal vents and methane seeps on the ocean floor that were once thought to be geologic and biological oddities are now emerging as a major force in ocean ecosystems, marine life and global climate.

However, even as researchers learn more about their role in sustaining a healthy Earth, these habitats are being threatened by a wide range of human activities, including deep-sea mining, bottom trawling and energy harvesting, scientists say in a report published in Frontiers in Marine Science.

Researchers from Oregon State University first discovered these strange, isolated worlds on the ocean bottom 40 years ago. These habitats surprised the scientific world with reports of hot oozing gases, sulfide chimneys, bizarre tube worms and giant crabs and mussels – life forms that were later found to eat methane and toxic sulfide.

“It was immediately apparent that these hydrothermal vents were incredibly cool,” said Andrew Thurber, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, and co-author on the new report.

“Since then we’ve learned that these vents and seeps are much more than just some weird fauna, unique biology and strange little ecosystems. Rather than being an anomaly, they are prevalent around the world, both in the deep ocean and shallower areas. They provide an estimated 13 percent of the energy entering the deep sea, make a wide range of marine life possible, and are major players in global climate.”

As fountains of marine life, the vents pour out gases and minerals, including sulfide, methane, hydrogen and iron – one of the limiting nutrients in the growth of plankton in large areas of the ocean. In an even more important role, the life forms in these vents and seeps consume 90 percent of the released methane and keep it from entering the atmosphere, where as a greenhouse gas it’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“We had no idea at first how important this ecological process was to global climate,” Thurber said. “Through methane consumption, these life forms are literally saving the planet. There is more methane on the ocean floor than there are other forms of fossil fuels left in the oceans, and if it were all released it would be a doomsday climatic event.”

In reviewing the status of these marine geological structures and the life that lives around them, a group of researchers from 14 international universities and organizations have outlined what’s been learned in the past four decades and what forces threaten these ecosystems today. The synthesis was supported by the J.M. Kaplan fund.

These vents and seeps, and the marine life that lives there, create rocks and habitat, which in some settings can last tens of thousands of years. They release heat and energy, and form biological hot spots of diversity. They host extensive mussel and clam beds, mounds of shrimp and crab, create some prime fishing habitat and literally fertilize the ocean as zooplankton biomass and abundance increases. While the fluid flows from only a small section of the seafloor, the impact on the ocean is global.

Some of the microorganisms found at these sites are being explored for their potential to help degrade oil spills, or act as a biocatalytic agent for industrial scrubbing of carbon dioxide.

These systems, however, have already been damaged by human exploitation, and others are being targeted, the scientists said. Efforts are beginning to mine them for copper, zinc, lead, gold and silver. Bottom trawling is a special concern, causing physical disturbance that could interfere with seeps, affect habitat and damage other biologic linkages.

Oil, gas or hydrate exploitation may damage seeps. Whaling and logging may interfere with organic matter falling to the ocean floor, which serves as habitat or stepping stones for species reliant on chemosynthetic energy sources. Waste disposal of munitions, sewage and debris may affect seeps.

The range of ecosystem services these vents and seeps provide is just barely beginning to be understood, researchers said in their report. As many of these habitats fall outside of territorial waters, vent and seep conservation will require international collaboration and cooperation if they are going to continue to provide ecosystem benefits.

Contributors to this report included researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Florida State University, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand, University of the Azores, Temple University, Universidade de Aveiro, the U.S. Geological Survey, University of the West Indies, Dalhousie University, University of Victoria, Duke University, Ghent University and the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

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Editor’s note: Downloadable high resolution video; online “view only” video; live streamed video; and still photos are all available to illustrate this story. Please credit "Courtesy of D. Kelley, University of Washington, NSF/Ocean Observatories Initiative/Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility."

  • Video: Downloadable hydrothermal vents b-roll (Length 1:50)

https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_nEpHVYyPtpM2F4bWxiY1dXeEU&usp=sharing

  • Video: Online view only hydrothermal vents b-roll (Length 1:50)

http://www.interactiveoceans.washington.edu/file/Inferno_Vent_at_Axial

  • Video: Live HD imagery streamed to shore 8 times/day. Every 3 hours, day and night, on this site you can watch live streaming video from about a mile below the oceans' surface, on the top of a submarine volcano known as Axial Seamount. Axial is located nearly 400 kilometers (~250 miles) due west of Astoria, Oregon on a mid-ocean ridge spreading center called the Juan de Fuca Ridge.  http://novae.ocean.washington.edu/story/Ashes_CAMHD_Live 
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Andrew Thurber, 541-737-4500

athurber@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Tube worms
Tube worms

Common antimicrobial agent rapidly disrupts gut bacteria

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study suggests that triclosan, an antimicrobial and antifungal agent found in many consumer products ranging from hand soaps to toys and even toothpaste, can rapidly disrupt bacterial communities found in the gut.

The research was published today in PLOS ONE by scientists from Oregon State University. It was based on findings made with zebrafish, which researchers believe are an important animal model to help determine possible human biological and health impacts of this antimicrobial compound.

Triclosan was first used as a hospital scrub in the 1970s and now is one of the most common antimicrobial agents in the world, found in shampoos, deodorants, toothpastes, mouth washes, kitchen utensils, cutting boards, toys, bedding, socks and trash bags. It continues to be used in medical settings, and can be easily absorbed through the skin.

“There has been a legacy of concern about exposure to microbial pathogens, which has led to increased use of these antimicrobial products,” said Thomas Sharpton, an assistant professor of microbiology and statistics in the OSU Colleges of Science and Agricultural Sciences, and corresponding author on the new study.

“However, there’s now a growing awareness of the importance of the bacteria in our gut microbiome for human health, and the overuse of antibiotics that can lead to the rise of ‘superbugs.’ There are consequences to constantly trying to kill the bacteria in the world around us, aspects we’re just beginning to understand.”

In the new study, researchers found that triclosan exposure caused rapid changes in both the diversity and composition of the microbiome in the laboratory animals. It’s not clear what the implication may be for animal or human health, but scientists believe that compromising of the bacteria in the intestinal tract may contribute to the development or severity of disease.

Some bacteria were more susceptible to the impact of triclosan than others, such as the family Enterobacteriaceae; and others were more resilient, such as the genus Pseudomonas.

“Clearly there may be situations where antibacterial agents are needed,” said Christopher Gaulke, lead author on the study and a postdoctoral microbiology researcher in the OSU College of Science.

“However, scientists now have evidence that intestinal bacteria may have metabolic, cardiovascular, autoimmune and neurological impacts, and concerns about overuse of these agents are valid. Cumulative impacts are also possible. We need to do significantly more evaluation of their effects, some of which might be dramatic and long lasting.”

The gut-associated microbiome performs vital functions for human health, prevents colonization with pathogens, stimulates the development of the immune system, and produces micronutrients needed by the host. Dysfunction of this microbiome has been associated with human disease, including diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and malnutrition, the scientists pointed out in their study.

Humans are routinely exposed to an array of chemicals, metals, preservatives, microbes and nutrients, some of which may be beneficial, some innocuous, and others harmful, the researchers said. Part of the strength of the present study is developing improved ways, through rapid screening of zebrafish, to more easily determine which compounds may be acceptable and which are toxic, scientists say.

Triclosan has been a concern in part because it is so widely used, and it’s also readily absorbed through the skin and gastrointestinal tracts, showing up in urine, feces and breast milk. It also has been associated with endocrine disruption in fish and rats, may act as a liver tumor promoter, and can alter inflammatory responses.

This study showed it was quickly associated with shifts in the microbial community structure and can alter the abundance of specific taxa.

Collaborators on this research included scientists from the OSU Environmental Health Sciences Center and OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.

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Thomas Sharpton, 541-737-8623

thomas.sharpton@oregonstate.edu


Sea star juveniles abundant, but recovery is anything but guaranteed

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An unprecedented number of juvenile sea stars have been observed off the Oregon coast over the past several months – just two years after one of the most severe marine ecosystem epidemics in recorded history nearly wiped the population out.

The appearance of the juveniles does not mean the threat of “sea star wasting disease” is over, researchers caution. A second round of the disease could be disastrous to the purple ochre (Pisaster ochraceus) and other sea stars, some of which are considered “keystone” species in marine habitats because of their influence on the ecosystem.

A team of Oregon State University scientists who have been monitoring the sea stars for years reported on their status this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

“When we looked at the settlement of the larval sea stars on rocks in 2014 during the epidemic, it was the same or maybe even a bit lower than previous years,” said Bruce Menge, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “But a few months later, the number of juveniles was off the charts – higher than we’d ever seen – as much as 300 times normal.”

“It wasn’t a case of high settlement, or more sea stars being born. They just had an extraordinary survival rate into the juvenile stage. Whether they can make it into adulthood and replenish the population without succumbing to sea star wasting disease is the big question.”

Menge and his colleagues believe the reason for the high survival rate is the availability of more food. The young sea stars feed on larval and juvenile mussels and barnacles, competing with adult sea stars for the same food source. The scarcity of adults provided a temporary smorgasbord for the juveniles.

Sea star wasting disease first appeared in Oregon in the summer of 2014. In rocky intertidal habitats, disease rapidly depleted populations of the dominant sea star, Pisaster ochraceus. The sea stars first developed twisted arms, then showed deflation and lesions, and eventually lost arms and the ability to grip onto the substrate before finally disintegrating completely.

Over a period of about 15 months, the disease reduced the overall sea star population by 63 to 84 percent at different site along the Oregon coast, and reduced the Pisaster ochraceus population by 80 to 99 percent. The epidemic ranged from Alaska to Baja California.

Scientists from Cornell University attributed the epidemic to a Sea Star-associated Densovirus and researchers in Washington say warmer water may have provided the trigger for the disease in that state.

But Menge’s research group found no association between water temperature and the disease outbreak in Oregon.

“The sea temperatures were warmer when the outbreak first began,” he said, “but Oregon wasn’t affected as early as other parts of the West Coast, and the outbreak reached its peak here when the sea temperature plummeted and was actually cooler than normal.”

The Cornell researchers found evidence of densovirus in the sea stars, the water column and in sediments. It occurs naturally and can become virulent, possibly as a result of stress.

“Something triggered that virulence and it happened on a coast-wide basis,” said Menge, a distinguished professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in OSU’s College of Science. “We don’t think it was a result of warming because conditions were different in Oregon than they were, for example, in Washington and likely other parts of the West Coast. Ocean acidification is one possibility and we’re looking at that now. Ultimately, the cause seems likely to be multi-faceted.”

Menge and his research team have been studying these intertidal rocky zones at different sites for as long as 32 years and analyzing the community structure. Historical research has shown that the ochre star is a “keystone” species because of its influence in these ecosystems, suggesting that the absence of so many adults could have a significant impact.

Ochre sea stars prey on barnacles and mussels and keep their populations under control. When left unchecked, mussel populations can explode, covering up algae and small invertebrates.

“The longer-term ecological consequences of this (disease) event could include wholesale elimination of many low zone species and a complete change in the zonation patterns of rocky intertidal communities along the West Coast of North America,” the authors wrote in their study.

Among the other findings the OSU researchers reported in PLOS One:

  • Sea stars that were continuously submerged, such as those in tidepools, had a higher rate of the disease than sea stars on rocks outside of tidepools where periodically they were above water;
  • During the last two years, the number of gooseneck barnacles has exploded along the coast – likely because they are not being preyed upon as heavily by adult sea stars;
  • Adult sea stars are much more likely to be affected by sea star wasting disease than juveniles, which may be because of longer exposure or some other factor.

The OSU research has been funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Kingfisher Foundation, and the Wayne and Gladys Valley Foundation.

Other authors on the study, all from OSU, include Elizabeth Cerny-Chipman, Angela Johnson, Jenna Sullivan, Sarah Gravem and Francis Chan.

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Bruce Menge, 541-737-5358, mengeb@oregonstate.edu

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This photograph of a disintegrating adult purple sea star, Pisaster ochraceus, is available at: https://flic.kr/p/nzd81S

“Eve” and descendants shape global sperm whale population structure

NEWPORT, Ore. – Although sperm whales have not been driven to the brink of extinction as have some other whales, a new study has found a remarkable lack of diversity in the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA within the species.

In fact, the mitochondrial DNA from more than a thousand sperm whales examined during the past 15 years came from a single “Eve” sperm whale tens of thousands of years ago, the researchers say.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Molecular Ecology.

While the exact origins of this sperm whale “Eve” remain uncertain, the study shows the importance of her female descendants in shaping global population structure, according to Alana Alexander, a University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute researcher who conducted the study while a doctoral student at Oregon State University.

“Although the male sperm whale is more famous in literature and cinema through ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘In the Heart of the Sea,’ the patterns in mitochondrial DNA show that female sperm whales are shaping genetic differentiation by sticking close to home,” Alexander said.

Working in the genetic lab of Scott Baker, associate director of Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute, Alexander combined DNA information from 1,091 previously studied samples with 542 newly obtained DNA profiles from sperm whales. The new samples were part of a global sampling of sperm whale populations made possible by the Ocean Alliance’s “Voyage of the Odyssey,” a five-and-a-half year circumnavigation of the globe, including some of the most remote regions of the world.

The new sampling, including sperm whales from the previously un-sampled Indian Ocean, revealed global patterns of genetic differentiation and diversity.

“Sperm whales have been in the fossil record for some 20 million years,” said Baker, a co-author on the study, “so the obvious question is how one maternal lineage could be so successful that it sweeps through the global population and no other lineages survive? At this point, we can only speculate about the reasons for this success, but evolutionary advances in feeding preferences and social strategies are plausible explanations.”

The researchers say female sperm whales demonstrate strong fidelity to local areas, and both feeding habits and social structure are important to determine to better manage the species. “There is a real risk of long-term declines in response to current anthropogenic threats, despite the sperm whale’s large worldwide population,” the authors wrote.

“One concern is that this very strong local fidelity may slow expansion of the species following whaling,” said Baker, a professor of fisheries and wildlife who works at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. “The Sri Lanka sperm whales, for example, don’t seem to mix with the Maldives whales, thus local anthropogenic threats could have a negative impact on local populations.”

The researchers note that while males are important for describing patterns in the nuclear DNA of sperm whales, ultimately the females shape the patterns within the species’ mitochondrial DNA.

“Although there is low mitochondrial DNA diversity there are strong patterns of differentiation, which implies that the global population structure in the sperm whale is shaped by females being ‘home-bodies’ – at the social group, regional and oceanic level,” Alexander said.

The study was funded by a Mamie Markham Award and a Lylian Brucefield Reynolds Award from the Hatfield Marine Science Center; a 2008-11 International Fulbright Science & Technology award to Alexander; and co-funded by the ASSURE program of the Department of Defense in partnership with the National Science Foundation REU Site program. Publication of the paper was supported in part by the Thomas G. Scott Publication Fund.

Other authors include Debbie Steel of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute; Kendra Hoekzema, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; Sarah Mesnick, NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center; Daniel Engelhaupt, HDR Inc.; and Iain Kerr and Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance.

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Scott Baker, 541-867-0255, scott.baker@oregonstate.edu;

Alana Alexander, 785-864-9886, alana.alexander@ku.edu

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This photo of a sperm whale pod was taken by Gabriel Barathieu: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sperm_whale_pod.jpg