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Robotic Mussels Are Here to Help Save the World

Temperature-recording mussels are being placed next to their real counterparts to monitor climate change.

by Samantha Cole
Oct 25 2016, 7:49pm

Image: Northwestern University

You're a mussel kicking it on the ocean floor with a few hundred of your buddies, when the mollusk next to you is jerked off of the rock from above. A slightly odd-looking proxy of your friend descends back into the mosh. He has a blinking green eye, now. Huh.

That's the work of Northeastern University scientist Brian Helmuth and his team: They've spent the last 18 years planting 'robomussels' — the scientific term actually used in their study, published earlier this year in the journal Scientific Data— in mussel beds around the world.

The little undercover bivalves were deployed off the east and west coasts of North America, Chile, South Africa and New Zealand. Scientists stuck a few on rock surfaces in Australia, Ireland, Mexico, Scotland, the UK, and the US, to record temperature data from a barnacle's perspective.

Image: Northwestern University

The sensors built into robomussels act as early warning systems for when hotspots pop up. They're fashioned out of epoxy, or real shells filled with silicone for smaller decoys, and outfitted with a commercially-available TidbiT or iButton logger that uses a computer chip and transmitter/receiver.

The data they send back can be used to decide where to put a new mussel farm, or when to take action on erosion and water acidification. Anyone can access the database they're compiling, in the Northeastern University Helmuth Lab database.

Because mussels stay cozy-warm using external sources, such as air temperature and sun exposure, researchers track their health to monitor the surrounding ecosystem. "Losing mussel beds is essentially like clearing a forest," Helmuth told Science Daily. "If they go, everything that's living in them will go."

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