‘Robomussels’ used to monitor climate change from the ocean bed

Image credit: robomussel robot climate change

‘Robomussels’, tiny aquatic robots that resemble mussels, are being used to monitor climate change and its impact on biodiversity.

The devices, developed by Northeastern University scientist Brian Helmuth, have the same shape, size and colour of actual mussels and are fitted with miniature sensors that track temperatures inside the mussel beds.

For the past 18 years, every 10 to 15 minutes, Helmuth and a global research team of 48 scientists have used robomussels to track internal body temperature, which is determined by the warmth of the surrounding air or water and the amount of solar radiation the devices absorb.

They place the robots inside mussel beds in oceans around the globe and record temperatures. The researchers have built a database of nearly two decades worth of data, enabling scientists to pinpoint areas of unusual warming, intervene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosystems and develop strategies that could prevent extinction of certain species.

By tracking the effects of climate change, the findings can reveal emerging hotspots so policymakers and scientists can step in and relieve stressors such as erosion and water acidification before it’s too late.

The latest State Of The Climate report, which was released in August, found that dozens of climate records were broken in 2015 and that it was the hottest year on record, with a broad range of temperature peaks documented. 

“They look exactly like mussels, but they have little green blinking lights in them,” said 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.”

Mussels have often been used as a climate change barometer because they rely on external sources of heat such as air temperature and sun exposure for their body heat and thrive, or not, depending on those conditions.

Using fieldwork along with mathematical and computational models, Helmuth forecasts the patterns of growth, reproduction and survival of mussels in intertidal zones.

“These data sets tell us when and where to look for the effects of climate change,” Helmuth said. “Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble.”

The robomussels’ near-continuous measurements serve as an early warning system. “If we start to see sites where the animals are regularly getting to temperatures that are right below what kills them, we know that any slight increase is likely to send them over the edge, and we can act,” he said.

“Losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest,” says Helmuth. “If they go, everything that’s living in them will go. They are a major food supply for many species, including lobsters and crabs. They also function as filters along near-shore waters, clearing huge amounts of particulates. 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.”

In February, Scientists at University of California, Berkeley also demonstrated nature-inspired robots that took the form of cockroaches that are designed to squeeze into tiny gaps to be used in disaster areas to find victims trapped in unreachable locations. 

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