SciSun: CSI: Fish & Wildlife   Leave a comment

In his 20 years solving mysteries, Detective Robinson Michaels had never seen a crime he couldn’t solve. Or an investigation he couldn’t sum up with an edgy remark.

Sir, all these shellfish are…dead”, reported a clean-cut, scrappy young field agent that looked like he just stepped out of central casting. “It’s almost like they were targeted. An entire community gone. GONE!” Through the bright glare of a sun that seemed to never set, reflecting the beach sand into a million sparkling mirrors, Michaels gazed off in the distance, ran a hand through his flame-red hair, and dramatically pulled the sunglasses from his chiseled, yet oddly un-tanned, face. “That’s right, officer, gone. It looks like these abalone…weren’t alone.”



Last month, in a twist more fitting to a television crime drama, scientists with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, University of California, University of Washington and the NOAA may have solved a murder mystery that’s been puzzling researchers for decades. While this doesn’t involve fast-breaking news headlines or a slow car chase down a crowded freeway, it could impact something more wide-reaching: The disappearance of Red Abalone (Haliotis rufescens), a Pacific Ocean shellfish that’s a vital economic and natural resource of an entire ocean ecosystem.


For decades fishermen and coastal communities have reported periodic ‘die-offs’ of ocean species – usually jellyfish, clams and other invertebrates – which results in thousands of the animals washing onto the beach (and a resulting feast for seagulls); it’s always been assumed these drastic losses of local species were caused by seasonal changes in water temperature, currents, or even overpopulation of the affected animals that were ‘too successful’ and now couldn’t survive with the increased competition. The periodic species collapse, it was assumed, is just the ‘nature’ of things, part of a cycle that that happens one season, and while a localized disaster (to all but the gulls!), the sealife population would soon rebound and all is well. But within the past two decades these population crashes have occurred more and more frequently resulting not just in short-term economic and environmental consequences, but severe economic impact to fishermen, area residents, and possibly permanent disruption of local ecosystems. Which is something even the gulls find disturbing.

For now, this abalone (right) is safe.   That anemone to the left is looking a little suspicious, though.

For now, this abalone (right) is safe. That anemone to the left is looking a little suspicious, though.

In a new method named ‘forensic genomics‘, scientists are utilizing the latest technologies developed for solving crime – along with some traditional investigative work – to understand what is actually causing these massive species disruptions, and how they can be prevented in the future. While a recent red tide – the sudden growth of algae populations that can block sunlight and oxygen from the water – has been known, in the past, to cause limited die-offs, results of last month’s algal bloom (which is a more fitting name as growth of algae has nothing to do with the tide) were different than what’s been experienced in the past; for example, only specific species seemed to be targeted, with no fish, birds or other animals effected, and the damage was spread over a much larger area than is usually seen in a normal bloom.


In a chance coincidence, just last year scientists at the University of California Bodega Marine Laboratory had sequenced the genomes (combinations of DNA) of several abalone in the area (we wonder if the abalone volunteered for this, and did they get extra class credit?), which formed a baseline for future research. In cross-checking between the genome sequences on file, with new samples taken from abalone who survived the die-off (and after all this, survivors REALLY deserve extra credit), researchers discovered significant changes in genome patterns – specifically abalone’s detoxification systems – that point to an attack and defense against Yessotoxin, a poison released by the dinoflagellate Gonyaulax spinifera. And who we also think might be the name of a goblin in a wizards and dragons story.


Without the original genome information on file, it would have been impossible to identify the cause of these abalone deaths and take steps to prevent further damage in the future, both to sea life as well as unknown toxic threats to other wildlife and ecosystems. But this seemingly random event of being in the right place and having the right set of tools at the right time, demonstrates the importance of continually asking questions, investigating, and researching the world around us; discoveries anyone can make in your own city park or area beach or backyard. Even if, unlike the detectives on TV, you don’t always have a driving rock soundtrack backing you up.



Michonne Says: That’s a sad story about those ab-alone. Whatever they are. But how can anything that has the name ‘yes-sir’ be bad?. Maybe it’s the ‘toxin’ part. I don’t like that word. It sounds like it could hurt and I hope there’s no ab-alone that could bring it to our meadows.

Posted May 25, 2014 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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