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Seafloor’s secret engineers: How burrowing critters sustain healthy oceans

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A pioneering study, published in Current Biology by an international team led by Texas A&M University, has used global datasets and machine learning to map the activities of seafloor invertebrate animals across the ocean. This groundbreaking research, involving investigators from Yale University and the University of Southampton, has revealed critical factors that support and maintain the health of marine ecosystems.

The team focused on the vital role of burrowing animals, such as worms, clams, and shrimps, as “ecosystem engineers.” These animals play a crucial role in nutrient cycling and ecosystem health through a process known as bioturbation, where they churn and stir marine sediments. This process is significant in regulating global carbon, nutrient and biogeochemical cycles, according to Shuang Zhang, lead researcher and assistant professor at Texas A&M.

Using a Random Forest machine-learning model, the researchers created global maps showing the intensity and depth of seafloor-sediment-mixing activities. They factored in seawater depth, primary productivity, sediment type, and other environmental criteria to understand how these conditions influence bioturbation. Lidya Tarhan of Yale University noted that multiple environmental factors jointly influence seafloor bioturbation, affecting marine ecosystem services.

The study underscores that current marine protection efforts are insufficient, as they often overlook these crucial seafloor processes. The findings suggest that marine conservation strategies need to be re-evaluated to better promote ecosystem health. The research team, funded in part by the Natural Environment Research Council and Yale, plans to continue exploring these vital questions to improve understanding and protection of marine ecosystems.

For more details, view the paper, “Global distribution and environmental correlates of marine bioturbation,” online here.