Larger Than Life

Limacina Helica IV Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler
Limacina Helicina IV
Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

When one thinks of marine life, especially when it comes to endangered marine life, the mind naturally turns to the poster children of conservation: polar bears, whales, dolphins. The big guys. Maybe some of us think of our favorite fish – tuna, for example, or salmon.

Not many spare a thought for the tiny shelled pteropod Limacina. But Limacina makes up in pure grace what it lacks in cute eyes, haunting songs, bottle-nosed grins or delectability.

Limacina helicina  Photo: Alexander Semenov
Limacina helicina
Photo: Alexander Semenov

Known as sea butterflies, they make up a giant link in the food chain between plankton and larger animals. Tiny as they are, they are also a key part of the global carbonate cycle – their shells make up an estimated 12% of the carbonate flux that determines ocean acidity and helps stabilize carbon levels in the atmosphere.

A report, due to be presented at Conference of the Parties (COP 19) to the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw next week states with high confidence that ocean acidification is increasing due to carbon dioxide emissions, and that this acidification will have major ramifications.

Limacina Helica V Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler
Limacina Helicina V
Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler

According to this article, “the world needs to prepare for major losses of ecosystem services” and all the benefits to human life and activity which those services provide, from food and clean air to reef protection and economic livelihoods.

The sea butterflies, seen here in sculptures by Corneila Kubler Kavanagh, are losing their shells, which are dissolving in acidic waters. Working together with ocean acidification researcher Gareth Lawson, Kavanagh created aluminium visions of Limacina that magnify the fragile creatures by 400 times their natural size of 1 cm (0.4″).

Maybe that size, combined with the UNFCC meeting, is just about big enough to focus attention on the challenge of ocean acidification.

Limacina Helica II Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler
Limacina Helicina II
Artist/Photo: Kavanagh/Bessler