The behaviour of marine bottom dwellers can now, for the first time, be used to predict the development of so-called dead zones in the sea. Animals fight for what little oxygen there is in these zones - but the battle is often in vain: such oxygen crises, now increasingly common, usually end in mass mortalities.
A team of researchers has managed to record the behaviour of organisms in the face of declining oxygen levels. They simulated dead zones on the Adriatic Sea bed with an underwater device they developed themselves. Funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, a catalogue of animal behavioural models will be published this August, which can be used to classify the state of such threatened marine environments.
It is no secret that our seas are endangered. What is far less well-known is that a perilous lack of oxygen in our oceans is causing mass mortalities on the sea bed at an ever-increasing rate. Moreover, there has been a recent increase in the prevalence of so-called dead zones - places where there is not enough oxygen in the water. This phenomenon is promoted by polluted rivers and global warming. A total of 400 dead zones have already been recorded across the globe and they cover an area in excess of 250,000 square kilometres - the size of Germany. What exactly happens in such zones has been poorly explored to date. Now, however, scientists from Vienna are the first to have successfully simulated oxygen crises in the sea on a tiny scale. Their project will help detect such situations at an early stage, enabling countermeasures to be taken. The key lies in the threatened animals themselves - in their behaviour.
In their project, the Vienna-based scientists are following the tradition of the highly-respected "Vienna School of Marine Biology". This approach means is that the research is not performed solely on the computer or in the lab, as is common practice. The work is conducted "in situ", in other words at the site of the action. In the current project, this is 24 metres below sea level at the bottom of the Adriatic, two kilometres off the coast of Piran, Slovenia. However, in order not to miss the poorly predictable oxygen deficiencies, the research team simulates their own little dead zone, which required developing and building an underwater apparatus.OXYGEN CRISIS UNDER PLEXIGLAS
The resulting catalogue of behaviours, which is being supported by the FWF, can serve as a guide for the early recognition of dead zones. As such, it could also help to ensure that the correct political action is taken without delay in the event of an emergency - for instance, a ban on fishing in the affected area to give the ecosystem a chance to regenerate.Scientific contact:
Michaela Kaiserlehner | PR&D
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