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Survival of mussels in extremely acidic waters on a submarine volcano

An Erratum to this article was published on 21 May 2009


Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are causing ocean acidification1,2, compromising the ability of some marine organisms to build and maintain support structures3 as the equilibrium state of inorganic carbon moves away from calcium carbonate4. Few marine organisms tolerate conditions where ocean pH falls significantly below today’s value of about 8.1 and aragonite and calcite saturation values below 1 (refs 56). Here we report dense clusters of the vent mussel Bathymodiolus brevior in natural conditions of pH values between 5.36 and 7.29 on northwest Eifuku volcano, Mariana arc, where liquid carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide emerge in a hydrothermal setting. We find that both shell thickness and daily growth increments in shells from northwest Eifuku are only about half those recorded from mussels living in water with pH>7.8. Low pH may therefore also be implicated in metabolic impairment7. We identify four-decade-old mussels, but suggest that the mussels can survive for so long only if their protective shell covering remains intact: crabs that could expose the underlying calcium carbonate to dissolution are absent from this setting. The mussels’ ability to precipitate shells in such low-pH conditions is remarkable. Nevertheless, the vulnerability of molluscs to predators is likely to increase in a future ocean with low pH.

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Figure 1: The habitat setting for the mussel Bathymodiolus brevior on NW Eifuku volcano in the Mariana Volcanic Arc.
Figure 2: Bathymodiolus brevior shell characteristics from Monowai/Lau and from Mariana arc vents.
Figure 3: Features of NW Eifuku mussel shells and the association with crabs on Monowai volcano.
Figure 4: Features of the daily growth lines in the calcite layer.


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We thank the following for help with sample collection: J. Jones, S. K. Juniper, C. Stevens and R. Vrijenhoek. M. Leybourne provided some shipboard water analyses and G. Yahel designed samplers. The operators of the ROVs ROPOS and Jason-II provided field support as did the crews of RVs Thompson, Melville and Sonne. We are grateful for operating permissions from the Kingdom of Tonga and from New Zealand. In the laboratory, we acknowledge the work of S. Merle, K. Roe, N. Buck, D. Eerkes-Medrano and C. Rideout. Expeditions were funded through the NOAA Ocean Exploration Program, the NOAA Vents Program, NSERC Canada and BMBF 03G0192 Project MANGO of Germany. Additional funding to V.T. from the Canada Research Chairs programme is acknowledged.

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All authors were involved with fieldwork or sample analyses. V.T. designed the study and wrote the paper with K.T.A.D. and D.A.B. K.T.A.D. analysed shells, D.A.B. analysed water samples, J.M.R. conducted breakage experiment and set figures and R.W.E. and W.W.C. mapped the volcano summit and edited videos. All authors discussed results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Verena Tunnicliffe or Kimberley T. A. Davies.

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Tunnicliffe, V., Davies, K., Butterfield, D. et al. Survival of mussels in extremely acidic waters on a submarine volcano. Nature Geosci 2, 344–348 (2009).

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