Sensing climate change with ‘robomussels’

The international network of undercover mussels.
Mussel sensory device

For the past 18 years, scientists have gathered data sent from various robotic mussels around the world. Certain marine seabeds on both North American coasts, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and the UK are home to covert sensory devices posing as clams. It is part of a collaborative project spearheaded by Brian Helmuth of Northeastern University in Massachusettes to study climate change. The institution’s Marine Science Centre has been playing host to 48 scientists who cooperated to plant a number of small sensor devices in mussel beds around the world.

The devices resemble mussels, but their shells contain built-in sensors that measure temperature fluctuations and solar radiation. The international network of undercover mussels allows scientists to identify areas that experience dramatic changes underwater. They can then step in to reduce damage to important marine ecosystems as well as devise strategies to prevent the extinction of vulnerable species.

"They look exactly like mussels but they have little green blinking lights in them," says Helmuth. "You basically pluck out a mussel and then glue the device to the rock right inside the mussel bed. They enable us to link our field observations with the physiological impact of global climate change on these ecologically and economically important animals."

The project helps scientists alleviate natural stressors such as water acidification and marine erosion while tracking the differences in climate over many years.

Mussel beds were chosen as the focus of the project for the integral part they play in their respective ecosystems, as Helmuth explains, “Losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest. If they go, everything that’s living in them will go. They are a major food supply for many species, including lobsters and crabs.”

Mussels naturally rely on external conditions to proliferate. They depend on the heat of surrounding waters and sunlight above the water’s surface to grow.

“They also function as filters along near shore waters, clearing huge amounts of particulates. So losing them can affect everything from the growth of species we care about (because we want to eat them), to water clarity, to biodiversity of all the tiny animals that live on the insides of the beds.”

Watch the short video below for more information on Brian Helmuth's work and the Marine Science Centre.