Ocean acidification: in search of sea butterflies

20 September 2017

Marine biologist Katja Peijnenburg is interested in the evolutionary ecology of marine zooplankton, especially pteropods (sea butterflies), which are very sensitive to ocean acidification. Together with PhD student Lisette Mekkes and post-doc Deborah Wall-Palmer, she is currently preparing a 45-day trans-Atlantic research cruise departing on 21 September.

Katja Peijnenburg and her group study the impact of ocean acidification on species of tiny planktonic snails called pteropods (sea butterflies) and heteropods (sea elephants).

Ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is caused by the increased uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and is associated with global warming. Ocean acidification is expected to have a range of consequences for marine organisms, especially on calcifying species, and will impact marine food chains.

Current ocean acidification has anthropogenic causes, but has happened before in the distant past for which evidence can be found in the geological record.

Katja Peijnenburg with a 3D-print of a sea butterfly.

Earlier research by Katja Peijnenburg and colleagues has shown that pteropods are very suitable organisms to study the effects of global change. Results from samples taken during a 2012 cruise showed that it is possible to detect changes in the isotopic composition of pteropod shells providing very useful parameters of global change.

Fossil record

Moreover, it is possible to compare these to fossilized pteropods (e.g. present in the collection of Naturalis Leiden) to gain insight into past global change events. Such data can inform predictions about the future in light of current processes of global warming.

Research team Deborah Wall-Palmer, Lisette Mekkes and Katja Peijnenburg

Research cruise

Peijnenburg and her team are currently preparing to take part in a research cruise. This will be the 27th annual Atlantic Meridional Transect, or AMT oceanographic cruise that leaves from the UK each autumn to sample the chemical, physical and biological parameters of the Atlantic Ocean. Peijnenburg's team will sail with the British research vessel RRS Discovery from Southampton on 21 September arriving at the Falkland islands on 6 November.

This cruise will provide a chance to follow up on the 2012 and 2014 cruises and study the impact of global change on these tiny planktonic snails in greater detail.

British research vessel Discovery

Katja Peijnenburg holds a position as Senior Researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center Leiden and as Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam. In 2016, she received an NWO VIDI grant for her project ‘Evolution of planktonic gastropods in an acidifying ocean’.

For this research cruise she is accompanied by PhD student Lisette Mekkes (PhD candidate at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED-UvA) and Deborah Wall-Palmer (Marie Curie post-doc at Naturalis Biodiversity Centre Leiden).

More information on ocean acidification and pteropods and a chance to follow the team on their cruise:


Katja Peijnenburg explains how she and her team prepare for the Atlantic cruise:

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Published by  IBED Water