From: Northeastern University
Published October 18, 2016 07:07 AM

Researchers use 'robomussels' to monitor climate change

Tiny robots have been helping researchers study how cli­mate change affects bio­di­ver­sity. Devel­oped by North­eastern Uni­ver­sity sci­en­tist Brian Hel­muth, the “robo­mus­sels” have the shape, size, and color of actual mus­sels, with minia­ture built-​​in sen­sors that track tem­per­a­tures inside the mussel beds.

For the past 18 years, every 10 to 15 min­utes, Hel­muth, pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, and a global research team of 48 sci­en­tists have used robo­mus­sels to track internal body tem­per­a­ture, which is deter­mined by the tem­per­a­ture of the sur­rounding air or water, and the amount of solar radi­a­tion the devices absorb. They place the robots inside mussel beds in oceans around the globe and record tem­per­a­tures. The researchers have built a data­base of nearly two decades worth of data enabling sci­en­tists to pin­point areas of unusual warming, inter­vene to help curb damage to vital marine ecosys­tems, and develop strate­gies that could pre­vent extinc­tion of cer­tain species.

Housed at Northeastern’s Marine Sci­ence Center in Nahant, Mass­a­chu­setts, this largest-​​ever data­base is not only a remark­able way to track the effects of cli­mate change, the find­ings can also reveal emerging hotspots so pol­i­cy­makers and sci­en­tists can step in and relieve stres­sors such as ero­sion and water acid­i­fi­ca­tion before it’s too late.

“They look exactly like mus­sels but they have little green blinking lights in them,” says Hel­muth. “You basi­cally pluck out a mussel and then glue the device to the rock right inside the mussel bed. They enable us to link our field obser­va­tions with the phys­i­o­log­ical impact of global cli­mate change on these eco­log­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally impor­tant animals.”

"These datasets tell us when and where to look for the effects of cli­mate change. Without them we could miss early warning signs of trouble."
—Brian Hel­muth, pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs

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