In cold waters, sharks’ and fishes’ slowed metabolism may benefit rivals

African penguin on a beach in South Africa.

An African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) on a beach in South Africa. A new study examines why biodiversity among warm-blooded marine predators such as whales, seals and penguins rises in cold, temperate waters. Credit: Adam Wilson

By Charlotte Hsu

BUFFALO, N.Y. — In ecology, the diversity of species generally increases as you move toward the warmer latitudes of the tropics.

A new study explores a curious exception to this trend, examining why biodiversity rises in cold, temperate waters among warm-blooded marine predators such as whales, seals and penguins.

The research — published on Jan. 25 in the journal Science — presents a possible explanation for this unusual pattern.

 “We show with data and theory that cold waters slow fishes’ and sharks’ metabolism, causing sluggish movement and giving mammals and birds important hunting and competitive advantages,” says John Grady, a postdoctoral research associate at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center and former postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University, who led the study. “Sharks are easier to avoid and fish are easier to catch when the water is cold.”

“As we conclude in the paper, ‘Overall, warm-bodied predators are favored where prey are slow, stupid and cold,’” says co-author Adam Wilson, PhD, a biogeographer at the University at Buffalo. Wilson is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

“We are living through an era of rapid environmental change and biodiversity loss,” Wilson adds. “Understanding the mechanisms that led to the current spatial distribution of biodiversity is critical to conserving it for future generations.”


Published January 24, 2019

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