Video: Why are baby sea urchins like hamburgers?

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Scientists have discovered that some purple sea urchins living along the coast of California and Oregon have the surprising ability to rapidly evolve in acidic ocean water – and have made a video to explain their findings.

This capacity depends on high levels of genetic variation that allow urchins’ healthy growth in water with high carbon dioxide levels.

The study, co-authored by Stephen Palumbi, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and director of Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, reveals previously unknown adaptive variations that could help some marine species survive in future acidified seas.

"It’s like bet hedging," Palumbi said. "Betting on multiple teams in the NCAA playoffs gives you a better chance of winning. A parent with genetic variation for survival in different conditions makes offspring that can thrive in different environments. In an uncertain world, it’s a way to have a stake in the Final Four."

The video below explains their findings in an easy-to-understand and watchable way for the non-scientific among us.

Increasing acidification is a worrisome question for the billion people who depend on the ocean for their sustenance and livelihoods. Which sea creatures will survive in waters that have had their chemistry altered by global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels?

The authors, including collaborators at the University of California Davis’ Bodega Marine Lab, speculate in a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that other marine species that have long dealt with environmental stresses may have a similar adaptive capacity.

If true, these capabilities could provide important clues about how to maintain robust marine populations amid the effects of acidification, climate change, overfishing and other human impacts.

Purple sea urchins, like other West Coast marine species, normally live in cold water that wells up along the coast, bringing seasonally higher CO2 levels. The study’s results suggest that this long-term environmental mosaic has led to the evolution of genetic variations enabling purple sea urchins to regulate their internal pH level in the face of elevated carbon dioxide.

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