Using Sea Stars to Tell the Climate Change Story

By Nicole Block, Climate Communications Student Writer 

Dr. Michael Dawson, an associate professor in Life and Environmental Sciences at UC Merced, has been working alongside UC faculty from across the state to create a UCTV Sustainability Channel to showcase the latest climate research and share solutions in a way that is accessible to a wide audience.

To make information relevant, scientists must first distill their often highly technical research to make it comprehensible to non-scientists.

“It’s important to  identify the audience and to respect them: simplify appropriately, but don’t patronize,” said Dawson. “And be prepared to answer questions that ask for both further simplification or more detail.”

Mike Dawson leans on a rock while conducting fieldwork.

Dr. Mike Dawson  studies sea stars, jellyfish, and other marine creatures to explore evolution, biodiversity, genomics among other topics. Photo courtesy of Mike Dawson.

Mike’s episode will feature his ongoing work on a disease that affects a familiar sea creature — the sea star.  

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In 2013, 90% of ochre sea stars along the Pacific North American coast died from sea star wasting disease, a disease that causes their bodies to dissolve.  The rise of this disease is thought to be due in part to increasing sea surface temperatures. Lauren Schiebelhut, a graduate student working in Mike’s lab and a colleague at the University of Georgia, Athens, found evidence suggesting that the surviving 10% from 2013’s outbreak often show a genetic difference from those that perished from the disease. With genetic population modelling, Mike predicts the outcome will fall somewhere between two extremes: that the remaining population is mostly composed of individuals with the disease-tolerant gene or the gene pool hasn’t changed and the sea stars will still be highly susceptible.

The solution may lie in figuring out whether recent offspring have parents that survived or died in the outbreak. This can be difficult to determine because in their larvae stage they drift offshore and only return to shorelines once they’ve fully developed. Mike offers hope for this problem: he is using high resolution genomic techniques to match offspring with potential parents. Mike and his colleagues also are interested in innovative solutions, such as using drones to track the paths of larvae as they migrate through their coastal habitats.

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Mike and his lab conducting research along the California coast. Photo courtesy of Mike Dawson.

This sudden death of sea stars is not an isolated incident. Purple urchins also suffered huge losses to their Northern California population in 2011,  coinciding with a harmful algal bloom. Analyzing the genetic composition of these populations may help determine which species will survive global climate change.

“In an era of climate change with increasingly severe weather, and potentially exasperating disease outbreaks, there will be species that are successful and there will be species that are unsuccessful,” Mike said at the 2016 UC Carbon Slam where he presented this research. “And working out which and why is an important job for us.”

About UCTV

UCTV is a platform to share videos of professors, faculty and guest speakers who address a range of topics from all disciplines.

Mike’s UC Climate Champion project focuses on the concept of LINES (Leadership, INnovation in Environment and Sustainability) to foster community engagement with sustainability research through lectures, programming and fieldwork. He has been working on a UCTV Sustainability channel to build programming that involves the community in climate change research and solutions.

The UCTV Sustainability Channel will focus on three areas: natural resources, biodiversity, and human and environmental health. The channel will highlight researchers and students who work on sustainable solutions to today’s most pressing environmental problems. These short videos make scientific subjects accessible to a wide audience and engage viewers to seek solutions and support scientific research.