by Dr. Sophie McCoy, FSU Dept. of Bio Sci and FSUCML
Mussel bed from Tatoosh Island

Mussel bed from Tatoosh Island

I started my PhD thinking I would reconstruct local environmental history from an organism’s perspective. Has the seawater environment recently changed in a way that has been felt by an organism where it actually lives? The California mussel showed good potential to answer this question. As a common species found on West Coast shores and an ecologically important part of rocky shore ecosystems due to its many food web links and its deep and expansive mussel beds that act as habitat for other organisms, the California mussel was important enough to care about. Mussels also grow their shells by forming distinct growth bands each year, like other bivalves. This was a good start.

In that summer of 2009, I first visited Tatoosh Island. Tatoosh, the north-westernmost point of the contiguous United States, would become my field site and quasi summer home for the next 5 years. That year, my eyes were opened to rocky shore ecology in real life. I couldn’t believe how many mussels there were, nor how big they got.

A look at the inside of a mussel shell. The colors show the crystal orientation of that piece of calcium carbonate

A look at the inside of a mussel shell. The colors show the crystal orientation of that piece of calcium carbonate

The mussel project did not end up as the focus of my doctoral work, but has remained an active interest and side project ever since, involving Cathy Pfister and Tim Wootton from the University of Chicago. Most recently, I went to visit the Department of Geographical and Earth Sciences at Glasgow University on a Post-doctoral and Early Career Researcher Exchange from the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology, Scotland. Of course, I had my mussels in tow.

In my two month visit to Glasgow, I spent nearly every day in the Imaging Spectroscopy and Analysis Centre. By far my favorite technique learned and used while I was there was Electron Back Scatter Diffraction (EBSD), which maps and images crystallographic orientation. I now have images of modern day mussels collected in 2009 and 2015, archival samples from the 1960s-1970s, and mussels collected in archaeological middens from 1,000-2,000 years before present, donated by the Makah Tribe and Olympic National Park. This time series of field samples provides insight to mussel shell growth as ocean acidification has intensified in the Pacific Northwest, allowing us to match previous climate reconstructions made using these same shells to response of the California mussel in this population.

Learn more about other hardbottom reef habitats in the FSUCML Virtual Classroom.