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Talking Clams

The exhibit, “Talking Clams,” demonstrates how researchers are listening to what clams can tell us about the Arctic marine ecosystem during a time of rapid changes.

 Visitors learn about the geographical distribution of blue mussels in the Arctic, bivalve shell growth and bivalve behaviour as indicators of climate change and water quality. The exhibit demonstrates the important role of bivalves in climate and environmental monitoring.
Mussels and clams can live 400-500 years and are happy to remain in the same place for their entire lifetimes. They take in nutrients and oxygen and react to even small changes in water quality. Now we have found a way to listen and understand what these animals can tell us about their environment, says Akvaplan-niva senior researcher, Lionel Camus. Camus, together with colleagues from France’s National Center for Scientific Research located in Arcachon and Bordeaux University, are attaching electronic sensors to the shells of bivalves and monitoring changes in the opening and closing of their shells. The shells are normally open in order to capture food that is floating by. The surest sign that something is wrong, for example if there is a chemical or gas leakage along a pipeline on the seabed, the natural closing and opening rhythm of the shells will change. The electronic sensors provide real time information collected and analysed every day by a computer on land, allowing the researchers to continuously monitor the opening and closing rhythm of the shell in the environment.
The shells of clams and mussels also provide information on environmental conditions, potentially for up to a 1000 years or more back in time. As clams grow, they lay down shell which includes information about the environment at the time the shell is formed. Many clams also deposit growth lines or bands, much like the rings in a tree, which can be used to age shells and determine growth patterns.  These patterns have been shown to match well with cyclical changes in the earth’s large-scale climate forcing. We can identify good and bad growth years based on the amount of shell growth in a year which helps us find periods in the past when ocean conditions were good for biological production, says Professor Will Ambrose. Professor Ambrose, Akvaplan-niva Senior Researcher Michael Carroll, and colleagues at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have been studying the connection between climate and shell growth patterns for the past 10 years. They have recently begun looking into the chemical signatures in shells to be able to detect changes over time in contaminants such as heavy metals.
Development of the Polaria exhibit was financed by the Norwegian Research Council and the High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment (Fram Centre). Learn more about the clams and contact the scientists by visiting Polaria or follow the Talking Clams at www.facebook.com/talkingclams.