West Coast oysters are getting drilled by warmer oceans. - Grist


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Brian Cheng/UC Davis

West Coast oysters are getting drilled by warmer oceans.

Or rather, by predatory snails called “oyster drills.” The invasive snails — which bore through oysters’ shells to slurp the soft insides — may benefit from higher temperatures, suggests a new study in the journal Functional Ecology.

Oyster drills thrive in water up to 8 degrees C warmer than normal; some can even survive a spike of 19 degrees, UC Davis researchers found. And while West Coast–native Olympia oysters like warmer water, too, drills will probably outpace their prey in the next 30 years, according to the study.

That could be a major blow for native oyster populations, which are already 88 percent smaller than a century ago, says Brian Cheng, ecologist and lead author of the new study. It could also be a major blow for us: “Oysters are going to get more expensive if the drills are unchecked,” Cheng says.

Oysters would have the upper hand if the Pacific warms by more than 8 degrees C. They’ll also out-survive drills if the temperature spikes by more than 19 degrees. Unfortunately, if the Pacific ever gets that hot, we’ll have much bigger problems.