Heatwave devastates wildlife populations in World Heritage Site
By Florida International University
Large numbers of dugongs, sea snakes and other marine animals disappeared from the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shark Bay, Western Australia, after a heat wave devastated seagrass meadows, according to recently released research.
The reasons for the population losses, however, differed among species, according to Rob Nowicki, an FIU alumnus and postdoctoral research fellow at Mote Marine Laboratory.
“Essentially we found that, for most species, when you lose the seagrass resources you lose a lot of the animals, but the nature of how they get lost — for instance, whether they starve or leave — and the degree to which you lose them differs by species,” Nowicki said. “Dugongs, which have to eat seagrasses, and sea snakes, which use it for foraging and refuge, were really hard hit.”
The findings offer insight into how some vital ecosystems may change in a warming climate. Nowicki was a Ph.D. student during the 2011 heatwave studying under biological sciences professor Mike Heithaus, now dean of the FIU College of Arts, Sciences & Education. For more than two decades, Heithaus has led the most detailed study of the ecological role of sharks in Shark Bay collecting extensive data that provided the perfect baseline to assess the impacts of the extreme climate event.