invasive sea-squirt-a-palooza

Attention tunicate nerds! The Proceedings of the 2nd International Invasive Sea Squirt Symposium (I love that name) (and, OK, it’s Conference, not Symposium, but how could I resist renaming it to something more fun!) are now online! And there’s a lot there to check out.

First off, we now know the tunicate formerly known as Didemnum sp. A, D. vestum, D. vexillum, D. lutarium, D. lahillei, D. helgolandicum, and the ever popular D. whattheheckisthisium depending on which country it was found in is ALL THE SAME SPECIES! To those of us who have been following the spread of Didemnum all over the world, I have to admit, it’s kind of like the angels sang. Thanks to the persistence of Gretchen Lambert and the crackerjack genetics work of Lauren Stefaniak (who was my student back when I was an underwater research TA *ahem*!) we’ve got this bad boy nailed. And it may be from Japan! Oh, I do so love it when a story comes together.

There are also loads of other interesting stories – the creeping spread of Styela plicata, the effects of S. clava on aquaculture, tales of ascidians hitchhiking on crabs and lobsters, culturing guidelines for botryllids including how sometimes they are EATEN FROM THE INSIDE BY CILLIATES! It’s fun for the whole ascidian nerd family. By which I mean mine. And my hypothetical future children.

But perhaps my favorite paper of the whole lot is a paper on the potential market for farming Styela clava! Yes! Finally a citable reference for these little guys. No recipes, true, but, it’s a start.

Because, really, you don’t need to go far to begin seeing them creep into our cuisine. You can even find them frozen from a company called “Nature & People”. Heck, you can buy them in markets in North Carolina. Truly, sea squirt haute cuisine is within our grasp!

And of course, online, Styela is making its way into into food blogs. There’s the perrenial favorite Mideodok-chim recipe, of course. But now more dishes are making their way into the blogs, too! Blowfish and squirt! Delish! The soup looks really tasty, actually…

But why stay traditional! You could mix in some key lime, aji amarillo,

 and salt. Is it wrong that it looks so tasty? This blogger describes them as tasting like a fatty oyster. This of course brings up the possibility of deep frying…

So, mysteries solved, new culinary height on the horizon – it’s an exciting time for invasive squirts. What else will the rise of slime bring us?

the light! the heat! the feedback! Sometimes, the devil IS in the details. I’ve been thinking about feedbacks between community community structure and function lately, and run into a few curious roadblocks, as well as one very very interesting story.

First, the roadblocks. Just what do we mean by structure and function, particularly in reference to a biological community? Structure seems obvious – the static properties of a biological system that we can go out, stare at, and say,”Oh, yes, hello structure!” I of course often think of things like biodiversity or biomass, but one could also reference Carbon to Nitrogen ratios, physical structure, or others.

But function – that’s more nebulous. The first thing that springs to mind is, what is the opposite of a static property. Why, a rate, of course. So, a rate process…but that’s awfully nebulous. I mean, what can’t be measured by a rate? Which leads to thinking more about the flux of matter and energy within a system. Far more tractable, but then, what gets cut out?

I am struck by the example of potential feedbacks between climate change and the nutrient content of plants. This is a lovely example drawn from a 2008 PNAS paper by Ollinger and colleagues. In it, they basically show that plants with higher nitrogen content tend to have shinier leaves. The more nitrogen in the canopy, then, the higher the albedo. Higher albedos then cool an area, or at least decrease warming as light is reflected back.

This is curious – as climate change work in the Harvard forest (or, sorry, the Hahvad Forest) have shown that warming soils can lead to faster nutrient cycling and more N availability. More N availability can change the albedo of leave in local plants, or can even cause a shift in the plant species composition to shift towards plants with more nitrogen per unit carbon.

It’s a really interesting feedback.

At the same time, even if this does something with respect to warming, CO2 is on the rise, also possibly changing C:N ratios. So, caution is warranted to thinking that Nitrogen is the solution. Indeed, considering the myriad of other changes in nutrient cycling and plant stoichiometry, the devil really IS in the details here as well, and hence caution is warranted before someone goes off, all IronEx style, and proposes fertilizing the planet to slow climate change. After all, we’re doing that already!

But it all raises an interesting question in my mind – is slowing temperature change a “function”. I would say yes – that it is the service provided by the ecosystem. It is not a flux of matter or energy, but it is still something that the system does, and hence, a function.

And functions like these are becoming more important as time goes by!

S. V. Ollinger, A. D. Richardson, M. E. Martin, D. Y. Hollinger, S. E. Frolking, P. B. Reich, L. C. Plourde, G. G. Katul, J. W. Munger, R. Oren, M.-L. Smith, K. T. Paw U, P. V. Bolstad, B. D. Cook, M. C. Day, T. A. Martin, R. K. Monson, H. P. Schmid (2008). Canopy nitrogen, carbon assimilation, and albedo in temperate and boreal forests: Functional relations and potential climate feedbacks Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (49), 19336-19341 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810021105