A photo of the Colgan-Coral Reef.

Discovery opens up new path in study of marine evolution and biodiversity

A photo of the Colgan-Coral Reef.

Two studies — one of reef-dwelling marine snails, the other of similar mollusks called nudibranchs — show for the first time that new species of both groups may be emerging as a result of host-switching, (Photo Credit: Sara Simmonds/UCLA)

New UCLA research indicates that an evolutionary phenomenon never before observed among marine life could help explain why there is such immense biodiversity in the world’s coral reefs and the ocean beyond.

Two studies — one of reef-dwelling marine snails, the other of similar mollusks called nudibranchs — show for the first time that new species of both groups may be emerging as a result of host-switching, in which populations of these animals that rely on a single species of coral for food and habitat switch to a new coral species, leading to wide genetic and physical differentiation. The phenomenon had only been seen previously in viruses, insects and several other organisms.

“This is the first time that anyone has seen this, but no one has ever looked,” said UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Paul Barber, whose lab conducted both studies. “This very well could be the tip of the iceberg.”

The findings suggest the possibility that the formation of new and distinct marine species through host-shifting may occur among other marine organisms as well, Barber said, opening up new avenues for research into the causes of marine biodiversity.

On land, new species are typically thought to evolve when natural barriers like mountains, canyons or rivers separate individuals or groups from one another. The ocean, however, has different barriers, including reef structures and currents, both of which contribute to host-shifting among snails and nudibranchs, the researchers note.

The larvae of snails and nudibranchs that subsist on a single species of coral will at times be swept away by ocean currents; if they aren’t lost or eaten, they can land on an entirely different coral species, where they imprint and spend their whole lives. Eventually, the scientists say, a generational line of snails or nudibranchs will evolve to prefer that particular coral and form a new species.

“It’s pretty likely that the corals are helping the nudibranchs form new species, in a way,” said Allison Fritts-Penniman, lead author of the nudibranch study, which reported a three-fold increase in known species for this group. “The more corals they can live on, the more different nudibranch species can evolve.”

The two new papers may mark the beginning of marine speciation discoveries — for nudibranchs and snails, which are common but understudied, as well as more broadly, said Sara Simmonds, lead author of the snail study, which used genomics to catch speciation in the act.

“Finding that divergence and speciation can happen in the oceans even with gene flow is an important discovery, not just for the marine environment but also for understanding evolution and speciation in general,” Simmonds said.

Both studies focused on a relatively small area of the western Pacific Ocean known at the Coral Triangle, which has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, including 600 different coral species.

“If there are so many corals, and so many of them have these strong associations, this very well could be an incredibly important process in generating all of this diversity,” said Barber, who also stressed the importance of protecting reef systems like the Coral Triangle from the devastating effects of climate change and industry-related threats.

Preserving the Coral Triangle

The Coral Triangle spans roughly 6.3 million square miles, accounting for about 1.6% of the world’s oceans, and is bordered by several countries, including Indonesia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea. With hundreds of coral species and thousands of species of fish and other marine organisms, it is, Barber says, one of the most biodiverse, least studied and most threatened locations in the world.

While coastal development, unsustainable tourism and habitat destruction through “bomb fishing” with homemade explosives all pose significant dangers to the region, the biggest threat is climate change, which is damaging the reefs that underpin the Triangle’s biodiverse ecosystem. Ocean warming, acidification and rising sea levels are causing mass coral bleaching, in which coral expel living algae from their tissues and turn completely white; this can lead to coral death if the stressful conditions continue for too long. The World Wildlife Fund predicts that at the current rate of climate change, the Coral Triangle will disappear by 2100.

Major climate change–induced damage to the region’s biodiversity also puts the economies of the surrounding countries at risk, Barber notes, and a collapse of the marine ecosystem would result in the destruction of the region’s vast fishing industry and subsequent food insecurity for hundreds of millions of people.

Continuing to carry out research to boost our understanding what generates biodiversity in the Coral Triangle and other reefs is one of the major keys to protecting them in the fight against climate change, Barber said.

Even the public is getting involved in furthering that understanding, with citizen snorkelers and divers all over the world contributing to an effort by the nonprofit iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, to search for new coral-associated nudibranch species and helping scientists with the fieldwork needed for further study.

“The Coral Triangle is the world’s largest, most biodiverse marine ecosystem,” said Barber. “There is still so much to learn from it.”

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

An image of the Earth's magnetosphere.

The full moon may not be protected by Earth’s magnetic field after all

An image of the Earth's magnetosphere.

Rendering showing how the flapping tail of Earth’s magnetosphere (dark region) can leave the full moon exposed to solar wind radiation (yellow-orange). (Photo Credit: Emmanuel Masongsong/UCLA)

A study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics shows that the magnetosphere can flap across the moon much like a windsock, exposing it to hazardous solar wind particles. Previous simulations suggested that lunar satellites and astronauts on the surface could be considered safe during a full moon while it resides within the magnetosphere.

The paper’s authors included two UCLA researchers, Jiang Liu and Xiaoyan Zhou, and the study used findings from the UCLA-led Themis and Artemis lunar probes.

One side of the moon always faces Earth due to synchronization with ocean tides, so understanding the effects of the solar wind at the full moon’s surface is critical for manned activity.

“Before we send astronauts back for longer periods, it is crucial that we understand the dynamics of space weather around our moon,” said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a professor of space physics who oversees the Themis and Artemis missions at UCLA. “There are still many science and safety questions to address.”

Potential hazards to lunar missions include increased static charging of surface dust, which can cling to space suits and damage equipment, and the degradation of solar panels over time. Solar wind exposure might also influence the placement of long-term lunar bases and mining operations. Because water is spontaneously formed when solar wind protons impact the lunar soil, the phenomenon could influence where water, which could be used for fuel and human consumption, is deposited on the moon’s surface.

Read the full news release on the Physical Sciences website.

A photo of a panorama of Los Angeles at dusk.

Clean energy revolution may leave disadvantaged communities behind

A photo of a panorama of Los Angeles at dusk.

Historically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County are at risk of getting left behind in the transition to lower-carbon energy sources and energy-efficient technologies, according to a UCLA study. (Photo Credit: haykatomts/Pixabay)

Historically disadvantaged communities in Los Angeles County are at risk of getting left behind in the transition to lower-carbon energy sources and energy-efficient technologies, according to a new study by the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.

The research, published in the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, looks particularly at how public incentive programs aimed at reducing emissions and promoting energy efficiencies disproportionately benefit wealthier individuals — people who use more energy than their less-affluent peers. In essence, the researchers say, such policies help to subsidize and encourage this excess consumption.

On average, residents of L.A. County’s most affluent communities consume twice the amount of energy each year as their counterparts in lower-income areas, according to Eric Fournier, the study’s lead author and research director of the center.

“When we look at the distribution of per capita energy consumption across Los Angeles County, at the low end, people are often not using enough energy to satisfy their basic needs, like maintaining a comfortable temperature inside their home,” Fournier said. “On the high end of this range, we see that people are consuming energy at levels that go well beyond what is required to satisfy their basic needs.”

In general, it is these high-consumption communities that are increasingly transforming their relationship to grid-supplied energy by taking advantage of technologies that improve household energy efficiency and that generate and store renewable energy. Some are even becoming electricity generators themselves. Meanwhile, the degree to which disadvantaged communities have been able to participate in this transition and benefit from these technologies remains unequal.

The team analyzed historical county data that measured building energy use and the adoption of renewable energy technology. In addition to finding that per capita use of electricity and natural gas is higher — in some cases as much as 100 times higher — among the wealthiest residents, they found that rates of adoption of rooftop solar systems and electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles were dramatically lower among disadvantaged communities. Furthermore, these disparities are expected to persist based on recent trends in the historical data, the researchers say.

The study also shows that public programs intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy — including rebates for energy-efficient appliances and vehicles, solar installations, and building retrofit programs — are primarily being taken advantage of by affluent residents. This is due in part to the fact that many programs require participants to make up-front payments for energy-efficiency upgrades, as well as to own the property on which they live.

When it comes to government incentive programs, providing equal access doesn’t always result in equal participation, notes study co-author and UCLA energy researcher Robert Cudd.

“Incentive programs designed to be equally accessible to all consumers are easy to implement and politically inoffensive, but they also do almost nothing to encourage the adoption of renewable energy technology in disadvantaged communities,” Cudd said. “If these programs were re-designed based on the preferences and needs of people in these communities, participation would likely increase. Current programs’ eligibility requirements are simplistic and reflect old notions of equity.”

The energy system, as it exists today, places a larger burden of cost on those who can least afford it, says co-author Stephanie Pincetl, a professor-in-residence at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Ironically, it also rewards those who consume the most energy by giving them access to a host of programs, incentives and other benefits.

“Policy aims need to get beyond efficiency to address absolute levels of consumption and to reflect reasonable need rather than excessive use,” Pincetl said. “If not, efficiencies will continue to chase increased demand with limited effect, and the disadvantaged communities will be left out of improving their well-being, though they use the least energy of all.”

Going forward, the researchers will continue to explore the unequal distribution of energy use across incomes and demographics to understand the consequences and needs for a just energy transition.

“We must ask ourselves how much energy is enough to live a decent and modern life,” Pincetl said.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.