Sea anemones are no friend to me: climate change and ocean life

For the past couple of weeks, I have been focusing on the effect of climate change on charismatic mega-fauna such as polar bears (adorable!) and dinosaurs (rawr!). This week though I wanted to draw attention to a smaller-fauna that is incredibly cool, totally charismatic and wildly vicious. It is the terrifying, the hypnotic, the fierce….sea anemone.

Now you’re probably thinking sea anemones? Really? I didn’t even think that was an animal.

To you, I say, go back to school, loser. No, but seriously, most people don’t realize that sea anemones are in fact animals (not plants) and they are crazy predators, stinging and engulfing whatever they can get their munchie little tentacles on. I for one am glad that I am of the larger-fauna variety, because there is no question that a sea anemone would gladly take down a novice snorkeler like myself if given half a chance.

If you go online (like you are right now), you can find any number of videos of sea anemones chompin’ down fish, swimming the open ocean or having a clown fish make sweet, sweet love to them. Yes, the web is weird, but the ocean is weirder.

In addition to these creatures being crazy sci-fi predators, some sea anemones actually have symbiotic relationships with small, photosynthesizing, single-celled organisms, aka microalgae. The anemone gives the algae a home (so sweet!) and the algae give the anemone nutrients in return that they obtain through photosynthesis. Seems like a fair trade.

Now this is where it gets quite cool – but you’ll need to follow me on this one to make all the connections. In the next 100 years there will be more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (We know! D’uh!) *and* also in the ocean (What? Really?) (1). This carbon dioxide in the ocean can be used by organisms for photosynthesis. As we already know from land plants, when you increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, photosynthesis often goes up. So it makes sense that photosynthesizing water organisms like algae would do the same. It seems that this is just the case for those symbiotic algae that live a happy life making a home with sea anemones (2).

So in short, more carbon dioxide in the ocean, means greater algae photosynthesis, which translates into more nutrients for the algae to feed the sea anemone, which means that the sea anemones can get fat off of algae derived nutrients and retire to the warm waters of the Caribbean. What is good for the algae is good for the anemone, making sea anemones win out in a higher carbon world.

This is of course not great news for crabs, fish and other organisms that sea anemones like to chomp on, but it is great for confused, love-seeking clown fish everywhere. And really, who can argue with a clown fish? They are so damn charismatic.

Further Reading:
(1) Oceanography: Anthropogenic carbon and ocean pH
(2) Sea anemones may thrive in a high CO2 world

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is a science writer in the Bay area. She wants to thank her friends for words that rhyme with “sea anemone” for the title of this piece. These included: lemony, epiphany, existentially, fremeny, calumny, artificial inseminy, Gethsemane, wood anemone, seminary, memory, antimony, blasphemy, Yemeni, venomy, free hegemony, sweet solemnity, see? A nemo knee, geminee, enemy and the eventually winner – friend to me.

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