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Rapid dissolution of shells of weakly calcified Antarctic benthic macroorganisms indicates high vulnerability to ocean acidification

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 October 2009

James B. McClintock*
Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL 35294-1170, USA
Robert A. Angus
Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL 35294-1170, USA
Michelle R. Mcdonald
Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL 35294-1170, USA
Charles D. Amsler
Department of Biology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL 35294-1170, USA
Shane A. Catledge
Department of Physics, Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration, University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL 35294-1170, USA
Yogesh K. Vohra
Department of Physics, Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration, University of Alabama at Birmingham, AL 35294-1170, USA


Antarctic calcified macroorganisms are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification because many are weakly calcified, the dissolution rates of calcium carbonate are inversely related to temperature, and high latitude seas are predicted to become undersaturated in aragonite by the year 2100. We examined the post-mortem dissolution rates of aragonitic and calcitic shells from four species of Antarctic benthic marine invertebrates (two bivalves, one limpet, one brachiopod) and the thallus of a limpet shell-encrusting coralline alga exposed to acidified pH (7.4) or non-acidified pH (8.2) seawater at a constant temperature of 4°C. Within a period of only 14–35 days, shells of all four species held in pH 7.4 seawater had suffered significant dissolution. Despite calcite being 35% less soluble in seawater than aragonite, there was surprisingly, no consistent pattern of calcitic shells having slower dissolution rates than aragonitic shells. Outer surfaces of shells held in pH 7.4 seawater exhibited deterioration by day 35, and by day 56 there was exposure of aragonitic or calcitic prisms within the shell architecture of three of the macroinvertebrate species. Dissolution of coralline algae was confirmed by differences in weight loss in limpet shells with and without coralline algae. By day 56, thalli of the coralline alga held in pH 7.4 displayed a loss of definition of the conceptacle pores and cracking was evident at the zone of interface with limpet shells. Experimental studies are needed to evaluate whether there are adequate compensatory mechanisms in these and other calcified Antarctic benthic macroorganisms to cope with anticipated ocean acidification. In their absence, these organisms, and the communities they comprise, are likely to be among the first to experience the cascading impacts of ocean acidification.

Biological Sciences
Copyright © Antarctic Science Ltd 2009

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