Researcher discovers mussels on California coast were cooked to death in heat wave

A UC Davis researcher made an unsavory discovery along the Northern California coast.

Jacqueline Sones recently noticed massive numbers of mussels clinging to the rocky shores and cliffs of the Bodega Marine Reserve died in June, and she reasoned the bivalves were cooked to death in the June heat wave.

“On the rock, they might have been experiencing a temperature of 105 degrees, whereas in boiling water, it would be a much higher temperature, but the mussels were experiencing the same loss of physiological function as they do when they’re cooked in a pot,” Sones explains. “They have heart issues. They have cellular membrane issues. They might have a hard time synthesizing protein. All the same things were happening.”

Sones is the research coordinator at the reserve 70 miles north of San Francisco and has spent recent weeks surveying a stretch of coastline about a mile in length.

She estimates 30 percent of the mussels along this stretch were killed off and the total number of dead specimens is in the tens, maybe even hundreds, of thousands.

This is the most significant die-off Sones has seen in her 15 years of working on Bodega Head, the finger of land stretching into the Pacific Ocean and forming the northern end of Bodega Bay. And it didn’t only happen here. Researchers in nearby locations such as Dillon Beach to the south and Sea Ranch to the north have contacted her about dead mussels in their regions.

“Mussels create habitat,” she says. “They provide shade, moisture and humidity. There’s a high diversity of animals that live in the mussels. When you lose mussels, you lose diversity. Mussels also provide food and are also eaten by birds, sea stars, sea anemone.”

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Heat waves aren’t uncommon in California, but typically they happen in late summer and early fall when low tides are less extreme and mussels spend more time under water, sheltered from the hot air.

The recent hot spell hit in early-June when Sones says low tides are more severe and occur in the middle of the day, creating the perfect recipe for cooked mussels.

“Mussels are bivalves and two shelled like a clam,” she explains. “Normally at low tide, they’ve closed tightly and have a dark colored outer shell. When they die, they start to gape and open up and the inside of the shell is exposed. When muscles die, the bed looks different. Instead of seeing a dark mass you see a light-blue color scattered. As you look closer, you can see the mussels are gaping.”

Amy Graff is a news producer for SFGATE. Got a story tip? Email her at agraff@sfgate.com.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Researcher-discovers-muscles-on-California-coast-14070301.php.

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