What do warming waters mean for marine species?

In the marine environment, one of the global effects of climate change, is warming waters in our seas and oceans. The affects on marine oceanography, species and entire ecosystems are still relatively unknown. Recent research by scientists based at the University of Southampton, have found that species who naturally travel far are the best adapted to cope with warming waters. It is the species who occupy a much smaller habitat range that will suffer the most from climate change.

Long-ranging species are known as ‘habitat generalist’. A combination of biological traits allow these species to cope with warming waters. With relatively big habitats and / or migrations many of these long-ranging species already have the biological adaptations to cope with variations in water conditions, including temperature. The ability to swim is another factor that helps these species cope with changing water temperatures. Fish species in particular, have been recorded to have shifted some of the greatest distances around the world. Several fish species in UK waters (British favourites such as haddock, plaice and lemon sole) have already been recorded shifting their habitat ranges north, as our southern waters warm.

Haddock resting on seabed

Haddock are shifting their habitat ranges north in UK waters


Slow moving or sessile (non-moving such as coral or sponge) species have a much reduced ability to travel away from an area that has become unsuitable. Sessile species do tend to have a planktonic juvenile stage which provides a small ability to change the settlement area of new juveniles. However, the majority of planktonic stages have little control on where they go, as they are transported by the ocean currents, so have no guarantee the new habitat will be suitable. The study also highlights that species with limited natural habitat ranges tend to have biological traits that make them less adaptable to changes in the environment.

The research scientists used the fast-warming waters (4 times the global average) off the Australia’s east coast, as their main study sight.  They found that swimming ability, omnivory and latitudinal range size all had positive relationships with habitat range extension rate, supporting that biological, ecological generalism and large habitat ranges promote adaptation to this effect of climate change. The tiger shark, short-tail stingray and a sea urchin are some of the species that exhibited the largest shifts south.

Tiger sharks shifting their ranges south in eastern Australia


BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-32286800 [April 2015]

Sunday, JM; Pecl, GT; Frusher, S; Hobday, AJ; Hill, N; Holbrook, NJ; Edgar, GJ; Stuart-Smith, R; Barrett, N; Wernberg, T; Watson, RA; Smale, DA; Fulton, EA; Slawinski, D; Feng, M; Radford, BT; Thompson, PA; Bates, AE; Worm, B. 2015 Species traits and climate velocity explain geographic range shifts in an ocean-warming hotspot. Ecology Letters, 18 (9). 944-953. 10.1111/ele.12474

University of Southampton: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/news/2015/07/marine-travellers-best-able-to-adapt-to-warming-waters.page [July 2015]


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Hannah Lawson

Hannah Lawson

I'm a marine biologist working as an Environmental Scientist for a marine consultancy. I love nature and the marine environment. I try to spend as much of my spare time outside and getting involved with conservation and outdoor activities.
Hannah Lawson

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