Scientists have long known that red tide is toxic to marine life but new research from a University of Connecticut researcher and his team have discovered that it is even deadlier than first thought and could affect entire marine food chains.
Professor Hans Dam, and his research group from the Department of Marine Science, discovered that the plankton species Alexandrium tamarense contains not one but two types of toxins, producing a double shot of chemicals – one that’s deadly to large organisms and one that’s deadly to small predators. This ability has led Dam to label it as the potential “killer of the ocean world.” It could lead to disruptions in the marine food web during large blooms.
Alexandrium are normally harmless to humans in small numbers, Dam said, but when they’re eaten by other clams, mussels or other microorganisms-which are then eaten by small crustaceans that in turn are consumed by larger crustaceans or fish- the toxins can build up in large amounts.
“The amazing thing is, when you look at these algae under a microscope, they’re so beautiful – but they’re so deadly,” Dam said. “We call them the beautiful assassins.”
The study, which was recently published online in Aquatic Microbial Ecology, suggests that there’s more of this to come – and that these blooms could impact on larger swaths of the ocean. The next phase of the study will be to see how the alga produces the predator killing reactive oxygen, and whether it also affects multicellular animals.