Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.


  1. Orr, J. C. et al. Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms. Nature 437, 681–686 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Feely, R. A., Sabine, C. L., Hernandez-Ayon, J. M., Ianson, D. & Hales, B. Evidence for upwelling of corrosive ‘acidified’ water onto the continental shelf. Science 320, 1490–1492 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Fabry, V. J., Seibel, B. A., Feely, R. A. & Orr, J. C. Impacts of ocean acidification on marine fauna and ecosystem processes. ICES J. Mar. Sci. 65, 414–432 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Feely, R. A. et al. Impact of anthropogenic CO2 on the CaCO3 system in the oceans. Science 305, 362–366 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Berge, J. A., Bjerkeng, B., Pettersen, O., Schaanning, M. T. & Øxnevad, S. Effects of increased sea water concentrations of CO2 on growth of the bivalve Mytilus edulis L. Chemosphere 62, 681–687 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Doney, S. C., Fabry, V. J., Feely, R. A. & Kleypas, J. A. Ocean acidification: The other CO2 problem. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. 1, 169–192 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Pörtner, H. O., Langenbuch, M. & Reipschläger, A. Biological impacts of elevated ocean CO2 concentrations: Lessons from animal physiology and earth history? J. Oceanogr. 60, 705–718 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Iglesias-Rodriguez, M. D. et al. Phytoplankton calcification in a high-CO2 world. Science 320, 336–340 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Kuffner, I. B., Andersson, A. J., Jokiel, P. L., Rodgers, K. S. & Mackenzie, F. T. Decreased abundance of crustose coralline algae due to ocean acidification. Nature Geosci. 1, 114–117 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hall-Spencer, J. M. et al. Volcanic carbon dioxide vents show ecosystem effects of ocean acidification. Nature 454, 96–99 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. von Cosel, R. & Metivier, B. Three new species of Bathymodiolus (Bivalvia: Mytilidae) from hydrothermal vents in the Lau Basin and the North Fiji Basin, Western Pacific, and the Snake Pit area, Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The Veliger 37, 374–392 (1994).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Schöne, B. R. & Giere, O. Growth increments and stable isotope variation in shells of the deep-sea hydrothermal vent bivalve mollusk Bathymodiolus brevior from the North Fiji Basin, Pacific Ocean. Deep-Sea Res. I 52, 1896–1910 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Embley, R. W. et al. Exploring the Submarine Ring of Fire: Mariana Arc—Western Pacific. Oceanography 20, 68–79 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Lupton, J. et al. Submarine venting of liquid carbon dioxide on a Mariana Arc volcano. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7, Q08007 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Lewis, E. & Wallace, D. W. R. Program Developed for CO2 System Calculations from Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (Oak Ridge National Laboratory, US Department of Energy, 1998).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Kennish, M. J., Tan, A. S. & Lutz, R. A. Shell microstructure of mytilids (Bivalvia) from deep-sea hydrothermal vent and cold-water sulfide–methane seep environments. The Nautilus 112, 84–89 (1998).

    Google Scholar 

  17. Lindinger, M. I., Lauren, D. J. & Mcdonald, D. G. Acid–base balance in the sea mussel Mytilus edulis. III. Effects of environmental hypercapnia on intra- and extracellular acid–base balance. Mar. Biol. Lett. 5, 371–381 (1984).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Michaelidis, B., Ouzounis, C., Paleras, A. & Pörtner, H. O. Effects of long-term moderate hypercapnia on acid–base balance and growth rate in marine mussels Mytilus galloprovincialis. Mar. Ecol. 293, 109–118 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Bamber, N. R. The effects of acidic sea water on three species of lamellibranch molluscs. J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol. 143, 181–191 (1990).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Lutz, R. A., Fritz, L. W. & Cerrato, R. M. A comparison of bivalve (Calyptogena magnifica) growth at two deep-sea hydrothermal vents in the eastern Pacific. Deep-Sea Res. I 35, 1793–1810 (1988).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Bibby, R., Cleall-Harding, P., Rundle, S., Widdicombe, S. & Spicer, S. Ocean acidification disrupts induced defences in the intertidal gastropod Littorina littorea. Biol. Lett. 3, 699–701 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Vetter, E. W. & Smith, C. R. Insights into the ecological effects of deep ocean CO2 enrichment: The impacts of natural CO2 venting at Loihi seamount on deep sea scavengers. J. Geophys. Res. 110, C09S13 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Limén, H. & Juniper, S. K. Habitat controls on vent food webs at NW Eifuku Volcano, Mariana Arc. Cah. Biol. Mar. 47, 449–455 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  24. Chadwick, W. W. Jr., Scheirer, D. S., Embley, R. W. & Johnson, H. P. High-resolution bathymetric surveys using scanning sonars: Lava flow morphology, hydrothermal vents and geologic structure at recent eruption sites on the Juan de Fuca Ridge. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 16075–16100 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Butterfield, et al. in The Sub-seafloor Biosphere at Mid-ocean Ridge (eds Wilcock, W. S. D., Kelley, D. S., Baross, J. A., DeLong, E. & Cary, C.) 269–289 (Geophys. Monogr. AGU, 2004).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  26. Yahel, G., Whitney, F., Reiswig, H. M., Eerkes-Medrano, D. I. & Leys, S. P. In situ feeding and metabolism of glass sponges (Hexactinellida, Porifera) studied in a deep temperate fjord with a remotely operated submersible. Limnol. Oceanogr. 52, 428–440 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Dickson, A. G. & Millero, F. J. A comparison of the equilibrium constants for the dissociation of carbonic acid in seawater media. Deep-Sea Res. I 34, 1733–1743 (1987).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding authors

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

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing