Evolution in the Gulf of Maine

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The Gulf of Maine is a region of the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by the New England states of the US and Nova Scotia from Canada. The evolution of its marine life has been the result of millions of years of glacial and tectonic plate movements and the introduction and extinction of species, fishing industries, and climate change. While most of its microbiome establishes and maintains health in the ecosystem, a few pesky microbial organisms have wreaked havoc to parts of the Gulf and the local fishing industries. Given that scientists estimate 3,300 species live in this large ecosystem, I decided to focus on a few key organisms that range from thriving extant to completely extinct to develop an overview of the evolution of the Gulf of Maine.

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Section 1 Evolution

Epizootic shell disease in a lobster from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/a-mysterious-disease-afflicts-lobster-shells/

Atlantic Lobster

The Atlantic lobster, Homarus americanus, has been a vital organism for the ecosystem and economy of the Gulf of Maine. Data from fossils suggests lobsters have been present since the Cretaceous period, when they were more diverse than during the Tertiary period [1]. That diversity increased again later. Recent fluctuations in the populations of H. americanus have been predominantly affected by climate change and the fishing industry. The Gulf of Maine measured tempuratures at the sea surface have significantly increased in recent years from global warming, and while it is currently causing an increase in the population of Atlantic lobsters, any further warming will have adverse effects on the species (Greene 2016)[2]. Another reason for the current increase in abundance of lobsters is the decrease of Atlantic cod from climate change and overfishing (Gulf of Maine Research Institute 2012). One of the potential threats is epizootic shell disease, which causes shell erosion and appears more prevalently from northern regions compared to the south (Glenn 2006). The lobster fishing industry has been heavily regulated like the requirement of a minimum length from the eye socket to the beginning of the tail of 3.25 inches to allow a little less than 50% of lobsters to reproduce before being caught (Gulf of Maine Research Institute 2012). Nevertheless, these regulations cannot compensate for the large percentage of lobsters that are taken from their habitat, which has led to a historical decrease in the abundance of lobsters in the Gulf of Maine.
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Atlantic Cod

The Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, is native to the Gulf of Maine and the main predator in that ecosystem. Its role in the food web came as a result of geologic events, like the opening of the Arctic passage; the creation of the Panama Isthmus; and the creation of continental shelves around the newly formed Iceland, that increased the availability and diversity of food, but maintained the cod’s unique traits.
While the American lobster’s greatest threat is implications of climate change, the Atlantic cod already has a vulnerable (threatened) status due to human consumption and overfishing. Cod was the main source of sustenance and income for early settlers until its abundance fell and lobster took over the fishing industry.

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Section 2 Microbiome

Illustration of Alexandrium fundyense, a toxic dinoflagellate that causes red tides in the Gulf of Maine. https://www.nsf.gov/news/mmg/mmg_disp.jsp?med_id=55547&from=

The Gulf of Maine is full of an abundant and diverse microbiome that has not been extensively studied due to the recent discovery of microscopic organisms and the small likelihood that microscopic remains would be preserved from fossilization. A survey by the Census of Marine Life shows there are an estimated 3,300 species residing in the Gulf of Maine from which 733 are microscopic organisms like algae, bacteria, protists, and archaea. Of the planktonic microorganisms, one species has caused significant damage since the turn of the century: Alexandrium fundyense. It is a microscopic, toxic dinoflagellate that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning during a red tide (algal bloom) because it creates saxitoxin, a neurotoxin. Research has been growing since the early 2000’s on A. fundyense because it has recently affected the shell-fishing industry due to saxitoxin’s harmful effects on humans. The life cycle of the dinoflagellate involves a dormant period as a cyst on the surface of the ocean floor during winter, and scientists predict that climate change could increase the period of time the dinoflagellate remains active or increase the intensity of blooms through more frequent and harsher hurricanes, which would mix more nutrients into the water from the ocean floor.


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Edited by [Madi Hamilton], student of Joan Slonczewski for BIOL 116 Information in Living Systems, 2019, Kenyon College.