University of California-Santa Barbara scientist Gretchen Hofmann said pteropods might be the "canaries in the coal mine" of climate change.
As Earth's oceans warm and become more acidic, ocean creatures including pteropods are undergoing severe stress, said Hofmann. Pteropods are tiny marine snails the size of a lentil that are eaten widely by many species that, in turn, are consumed by other animals, such as penguins.
"These animals are not charismatic, but they are talking to us just as much as penguins or polar bears," said Hofmann. "They are harbingers of change. It's possible by 2050 they may not be able to make a shell anymore. If we lose these organisms, the impact on the food chain will be catastrophic."
The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, was presented during the weekend in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.