A synthetic mussel that sits on the shore and records the temperature is not the most glamorous use of robotic technology, but it’s one that has given its creator, scientist Brian Helmuth, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, a very real picture of the consequences of global warming.
The robot, which looks and feels like a live mussel, has shown that the species fluctuates with rising air and water temperatures in the surrounding habitat. This can be bad news for the robot’s real counterpart: With warmer body temperatures, cells are damaged and growth is slowed.
Helmuth’s robot technology is becoming increasingly helpful in environmental and conservation research, illustrating the effect of global warming on individual species and cultures. He has expanded it to the mussel’s predator—the sea star—and is collaborating with scientists in places as diverse as Peru, Chile, South Africa and Hong Kong to study how more organisms and their predator-prey relationships are affected by global warming.
“One of the forgotten aspects of climate change is how it affects interactions between species,” Helmuth says.
In a 40-day experiment in Californian waters, Helmuth found that the robotic mussel is more susceptible to changes in climate than the sea star, warming more quickly than the sea star in the same conditions. Although he is still not certain of the reason, he posits that it’s because sea stars weigh more and have a wetter surface, allowing them a greater ability to cool via evaporation.
His findings are evidence that different species react differently to global warming, even if their lifestyles are closely related. It is a result that will likely be repeated in robotic experiments in marine cultures around the world.
“Protection before this focused on changes in air temperature and changes in water temperature,” Helmuth says. “That’s obviously important, but we’re trying to translate those into organisms and organismal responses.”