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Marine heat wave inspired record northern migration of warm-water species

By
Brooks Hays
Dozens of warm-water species showed up farther north than ever before, in the waters of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, during the marine heatwave that lasted from 2014 to 2016. The rare sightings included, from left to right beginning on the top row: Hilton’s nudibranch, blue buoy barnacle, short-beaked common dolphin, Olive’s nudibranch, Spanish shawl nudibranch, violet sea snail, pelagic red crab, Hopkins’ rose nudibranch, brown booby, striated sea butterfly, glass-spined brittle star, scarlet sea cucumber. Photo by Roger Harshaw/Eric Sanford/Jacqueline Sones/UC Davis
Dozens of warm-water species showed up farther north than ever before, in the waters of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, during the marine heatwave that lasted from 2014 to 2016. The rare sightings included, from left to right beginning on the top row: Hilton’s nudibranch, blue buoy barnacle, short-beaked common dolphin, Olive’s nudibranch, Spanish shawl nudibranch, violet sea snail, pelagic red crab, Hopkins’ rose nudibranch, brown booby, striated sea butterfly, glass-spined brittle star, scarlet sea cucumber. Photo by Roger Harshaw/Eric Sanford/Jacqueline Sones/UC Davis

March 12 (UPI) -- According to a new study, an unprecedented number of warm-water species were observed in the coastal waters of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest during the marine heatwave that stretched from 2014 to 2016.

During the heatwave, scientists at the University of California, Davis, documented dozens of unusual species at their Bodega Marine Laboratory, species -- including jellyfish, crabs, nudibranchs, fish, dolphins and sea turtles -- typically found among the waters of Baja California, Mexico.

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For the latest study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists documented the 67 rare, warm-water species spotted by marine biologists and citizen scientists. More than half of the species, 37 sightings, had never been seen so far north.

The striated sea butterfly, a swimming sea snail, had never been seen north of Baja, but researchers observed the species for the first time in California waters. The pelagic red crab, also typically found in Baja waters, was observed as fart north as Newport, Ore.

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"Against the backdrop of climate change, we hope southern species will track northward because that's necessary for their persistence and survival," Eric Sanford, a UC Davis professor of ecology and evolution, said in a news release. "It's perhaps a glimpse of what Northern California's coast might look like in the future as ocean temperatures continue to warm."

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The heatwave developed as warm water from the Gulf of Alaska, called "The Blob," drifted southward and merged with a major El Nino event traveling northward. The marine heatwave was one of the hottest and longest on record, raising ocean temperatures between 3.5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2016, as the waters finally cooled, most of the rare species returned to their traditional haunts off the coast of Mexico. A handful of species, however, including the sunburst anemone, chocolate porcelain crab, a brittle star and a few barnacle species, stuck around. Once rare, these species are becoming more common in the waters of Northern California, according to the new paper.

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"Before our very eyes, we're seeing the species composition shift to more warm-water southern animals in just the 14 years I have been at the Bodega Marine Laboratory," Sanford said. "That's a barometer of change for these ecosystems."

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