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Precarious resilience: Some species are more vulnerable to climate change than they appear

Nov. 22 (UPI) — Research suggests some species are more vulnerable to climate change they appear.

In analyzing the ecosystems within tidal pools and shallow waters along the West Coast, researchers realized beds of mussels and seaweed provide protection against climate change for a variety of small marine species.

According to the latest research — published this week in the journal Ecology Letters — seaweed and mussel beds essentially offer air conditioning to the communities of species they shelter. As a result, many species as far south as Southern California and as far north as Puget Sound have experienced equally minimal amounts of heat stress.

Cursory evaluations might suggest these species are resilient to climate change or able to adapt to dramatic temperature variation, but in reality, they’re beneficiaries of a protective buffer — without which they might suffer more significant physiological damage.

“We might take for granted some of the resilience of our ecosystems because we don’t realize how much they depend on these habitats,” Laura Jurgens, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis, said in a news release.

Should these species lose these protective services, these ecosystems could be disrupted and severely damaged.

“You can tolerate a lot of what goes on outside if you have air conditioning,” Jurgens said. “But if you’re looking at a future with more intense heat waves, and you don’t have air conditioning anymore, you wonder, ‘Where can I go?’ For these species, they could make a big move north, but it won’t help — they still need these habitats to keep the heat in a tolerable range.”

The findings explain why not all marine species migrate as temperatures rise. Many won’t move until the species which offer them protection move.

“If you’re an octopus living in a mussel bed, the most important thing to keep your body temperature survivable is that mussel bed around you, not whether you live in Southern California, where it’s warmer, or Washington,” Jurgens said.

Understanding exactly how species guard against climate change can help conservationists better protect vulnerable ecosystems. The findings suggest conservationists should consider targeting the protection of habitats that shelter high concentrations of biodiversity.

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