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Noncalcifying larvae in a changing ocean: warming, not acidification/hypercapnia, is the dominant stressor on development of the sea star Meridiastra calcar


Correspondence: Hong Dao Nguyen, tel. + 61 2 9351 1567, fax + 61 2 9351 2813, e-mail:


Climate change driven ocean warming and acidification is potentially detrimental to the sensitive planktonic life stages of benthic marine invertebrates. Research has focused on the effects of acidification on calcifying larvae with a paucity of data on species with alternate developmental strategies and on the interactive effects of warming and acidification. To determine the impact of climate change on a conspicuous component of the intertidal fauna of southeast Australia, the development of the noncalcifying lecithotrophic larvae of the sea star Meridiastra calcar was investigated in the setting of predicted ocean warming (+2 to 4 °C) and acidification (−0.4 to 0.6 pH units) for 2100 and beyond in all combinations of stressors. Temperature and pH were monitored in the habitat of M. calcar to place experiments in context with current environmental conditions. There was no effect of temperature or pH on cleavage stage embryos but later development (gastrula-larvae) was negatively effected by a +2 to 4 °C warming and there was a negative effect of −0.6 pH units on embryos reaching the hatched gastrula stage. Mortality and abnormal development in larvae increased significantly even with +2 °C warming and larval growth was impaired at +4 °C. For the range of temperature and pH conditions tested, there were no interactive effects of stressors across all stages monitored. For M. calcar, warming not acidification was the dominant stressor. A regression model incorporating data from this study and projected increasing SST for the region suggests an increase in larval mortality to 70% for M. calcar by 2100 in the absence of acclimation and adaptation. The broad distribution of this species in eastern Australia encompassing subtropical to cold temperate thermal regimes provides the possibility that local M. calcar populations may be sustained in a warming world through poleward migration of thermotolerant propagules, facilitated by the strong southward flow of the East Australian Current.