Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Big changes in the Sargasso Sea


Over one thousand miles wide and three thousand miles long, the Sargasso Sea occupies almost two thirds of the North Atlantic Ocean. Within the sea, circling ocean currents accumulate mats of Sargassum seaweed that shelter a surprising variety of fishes, snails, crabs, and other small animals.

A recent paper by MBARI researcher Crissy Huffard and others shows that in 2011 and 2012 this animal community was much less diverse than it was in the early 1970s, when the last detailed studies were completed in this region. 

Small rafts of Sargassum seaweed like this one are a common site in the Sargasso Sea. These rafts harbor a variety of small animals. Image: Debbie Nail Meyer © 2011 MBARI

This study was based on field research led by MBARI Senior Scientist Ken Smith, using the Lone Ranger, a 78-meter (255-foot) research vessel owned and operated by the Schmidt Ocean Institute. During three cruises in 2011 and 2012, Smith’s team steamed across the Sargasso Sea and used dip nets to collect samples of Sargassum seaweed (and its associated animals) at six different locations. They then classified and counted all the animals at each site.

The researchers chose their sampling and counting methods carefully so that they could compare their results with previous surveys that had been conducted in 1972 and 1973 in the same general part of the Sargasso Sea. Amazingly, the researchers could find no other studies between 1973 and 2011 during which scientists had systematically counted the Sargassum animal communities in this area. 

When the team analyzed the data from the recent cruises, they were surprised to find that animal communities in the Sargassum rafts were significantly less diverse than those observed in the 1970s. For example, 13 species of animals in several different groups (worms, nudibranchs, crustaceans, and sea spiders) were observed in the historical samples but were missing from the recent samples.

Unfortunately, the researchers did not have enough data to determine whether the differences they observed were the result of long-term shifts in ocean conditions in the Sargasso Sea or natural variations from place-to-place, month-to-month, or year-to-year. 

The authors note that ocean conditions were much cooler than normal during February 2011 and that there were large differences in animal communities observed just six months apart, in August 2011 and February 2012. So it is possible that this area routinely sees large natural variations in the types of animals present. As Huffard put it, “If this is a long-term decline [in biodiversity], then it is a very significant one. But we don’t know if this is part of the natural variability in this community.”

Previous studies indicate that much of the seaweed that ends up in the Sargasso Sea originates in the Gulf of Mexico and is carried into the central Atlantic by the Gulf Stream and other currents. This suggests that, in addition to local ocean conditions, large-scale variations in ocean currents and conditions in the Gulf of Mexico could affect the animals in Sargassum communities.

To tease out these confounding variables, Smith and Huffard are hoping to conduct a series of follow-up expeditions to the Sargasso Sea. They plan to focus on the northern part of the Sargasso Sea, near Bermuda, where more detailed historical data are available. They are presently working on a proposal for a grant that would allow them to analyze satellite imagery and collect field samples twice a year for three years. The proposed study would show how much year-to-year variability is normal for this region. 

At first glance, the animals that live in Sargassum rafts seem isolated from the rest of the world. But, like the seaweed they live in, these animal communities have many links to larger ocean food webs. For example, Sargassum animals provide essential food for sea birds, sea turtles, and bluefin tuna—all long-distance migrators. In fact, Sargassum rafts have been designated as “essential fish habitat” by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. 

The world’s oceans are changing, with water temperatures and ocean acidity on the rise and oxygen concentrations on the decline. In the Sargasso Sea, as in many other locations, detecting the biological effects of these long-term trends is a formidable challenge because animal communities can vary dramatically over short time periods. This study shows that animal communities in the Sargasso Sea are definitely changing. The next step is to find out why.


For additional information or images relating to this news release, please contact:

Kim Fulton-Bennett

Original journal article:
C.L. Huffard, S. von Thun, A.D. Sherman, K. Sealey and K.L. Smith, Jr. (2014) Pelagic Sargassum community change over a 40-year period: temporal and spatial variability. Marine Biology, doi10.1007/s00227-014-2539-y.

Kim Fulton-Bennett | Eurek Alert!

Further reports about: Aquarium Atlantic Bay Aquarium Research MBARI Monterey Sargasso Sea animals long-term seaweed variations

More articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation:

nachricht Invasive Insects Cost the World Billions Per Year
04.10.2016 | University of Adelaide

nachricht Malaysia's unique freshwater mussels in danger
27.09.2016 | The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

All articles from Ecology, The Environment and Conservation >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>