Carol Anne Blanchette

Marine Science Institute, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106 |

Research Interests & Projects

Community Ecology

Photo by Xavier Capet
High algal and invertebrate diversity

A major focus of current ecological research is to understand the factors producing variation in community structure at a variety of spatial scales. Traditional marine ecological studies have focused on processes operating at small spatial scales within sites. Increasing concerns about the generality of processes structuring communities at small scales and conservation and management needs to make predictions at larger spatial scales have driven marine ecologists to examine linkages between patterns and processes operating at larger spatial scales. In the marine system, this scaling-up has resulted in a significant conceptual shift in our understanding of the importance of benthic-pelagic linkages. Benthic communities are inextricably linked to the oceanic environment through the delivery of food, nutrients, propagules and larvae. These oceanographic processes span large spatial scales and can potentially provide connectivity among distant onshore communities. Much of my current research and collaborations through PISCO is aimed at understanding the processes controlling community structure at a variety of scales and the strength and importance of benthic-pelagic linkages.

Physical Biology and Biomechanics

photo by Carol Blanchette
Wave exposed site on the Oregon Coast

The wave-swept intertidal zone is an ideal setting to explore how organisms function within the constraints set by the physical environment. One of the most striking physical constraints to intertidal life in many outer-coast regions is the hydrodynamic force imposed by breaking waves. Despite the harshness of this environment, wave-swept intertidal communities are among the most productive and diverse communities known. Understanding the constraints set by the physical environment provides us with valuable insights about processes regulating productivity and diversity. Understanding these interactions between physical environmental constraints and ecological and evolutionary pressures is a continuing area of interest in my research.

Ocean Acidification

global SST
SeaFet pH sensor deployed at 15 m depth off Santa Barbara CA. Photo credit: Paul Matson.

Recent research has revealed that the upwelling-dominated waters of inner- and mid-continental shelf in the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem already experience pH levels not expected in the open ocean for another 50-100 years. These low pH levels are being studied as a possible cause of extensive recruitment failures over the past 5 years in shellfish aquaculture operations along the west coast of North America. In a new NSF-funded grant, our thirteen-PI interdisciplinary team located at academic and research institutions along the US west coast will for the first time investigate the factors that drive how ocean acidification (OA) is expressed from the local to the Large Marine Ecosystem scale, and what impacts such changes are having on two ecologically important, calcification-dependent marine invertebrates. Our OMEGAS team will carry out oceanographic, ecological, physiological, and genetic studies across multiple sites from Oregon to southern California to investigate responses of urchins and mussels to spatial and temporal variation in OA. This research will be done in collaboration with our UC Ocean Acidification Training and Research Consortium. The research will address the questions: Are these species already close to their acclimatization or adaptational limits to OA? Do they have capacity to adapt and evolve as acidification, and the associated reduced ability to calcify, worsens with increasing CO2 emissions? Results of this research will help to answer these questions.

Climate Change and Thermal Stress

global SST

Temperature is critically important to nearly all physiological processes and holds great ecological relevance in governing the geographic distribution of species. Although air and water temperatures can be easily measured, these metrics have been shown to be uncorrelated with organism body temperatures, particularly for ecothermic organisms, whose body temperatures are influenced by multiple climatic drivers. Despite the great physiological and ecological importance of temperature, we know surprisingly little about the body temperatures of most organisms under natural conditions. This knowledge is becoming extremely important in the face of future global climate change. Predicted changes in temperature under projected climate change scenarios underscore the need to increase our understanding of how climate affects organism body temperatures and critical biological functions. Furthermore, we currently lack a mechanistic understanding of how climate-driven effects at the scale of individual organisms cascade into ecological processes that may regulate a species’ distribution. Thus, to predict ecological responses to climate change, we must forecast how organismal responses to temperature vary in space and time across trophic levels and among interacting species. Our work (B. Helmuth and B. Broitman – collaborators) has focused on understanding how organismal body temperatures in several selected species of invertebrates (mussels, seastars and abalone) are influenced by aquatic and aerial climate and how their populations may respond to predicted climate change scenarios.

Ecological Forecasting

photo by Brian Helmuth

Most ecological approaches to climate change research to date have quantified the effects of weather and climate on natural communities after these effects have been manifest. One major challenge before the scientific community, however, is to quantitatively forecast where and when such effects are most likely (and least likely) to occur so that scientists can work in collaboration with resource managers to reduce damage. The science of ecological forecasting applies principles of ecology, physiology and mathematical modeling to predict where climate change is likely to impact key species. As part of this project we (B. Helmuth, S. Navarrete, D. Wethey, S. Place and B. Broitman – collaborators) are investigating the effects of changes in temperature within the context of larval dispersal as they impact geographic patterns of ecologically and commercially important species along the north-central coast of Chile.

Ecological Informatics

Handheld Computing Solution

The recent explosion in the transfer of information through the internet has presented a new wealth of opportunities and challenges for sharing ecological data. Ecological data are typically highly heterogeneous due to: the tremendous range of interests represented within the field, the often complex nature of the study systems, and the inherent variability that arises from differences in research design, methodology, and characteristics of the study areas. We believe there is a major opportunity to significantly improve the state of ecological informatics by reducing the inefficiencies and errors during the process of capturing data in the field by developing a set of flexible, easy-to-use software tools that facilitate field data collection, while also providing a robust documentation framework that is compatible with a larger knowledge network for ecological information (see for more information). Our project, called the Jalama Project is focused on developing software that will work equally well in the laboratory and field environments and that will be flexible for the needs of individual researchers while adhering to community standards for documentation and metadata. See Publications for a pdf of our Jones_etal 2007 paper.

Kelp/Algal Ecology

Photo by Cristine McConnell
The giant kelp Macrocystis pyrifera

Marine algae represent a broad diversity of life history strategies. Kelps in particular have a heteromorphic life history and exist as microscopic gametophytes through the winter and macroscopic sporophytes in the summer. Many kelps are perennial, yet some are annual and the extent to which they are true annuals varies across their biogeographic range. The annual kelp Postelsia palmaeformis is found only in the most wave exposed regions of the coast. Temporal variation in the disturbance regime (due to the extreme seasonality of storms) plays an important role in determining which species can recruit or persist at a site, particularly for kelps such as Postelsia that have heteromorphic life histories. In this system, the wave-induced dislodgment of Postelsia can prevent the monopolization of space by fast-growing, turfy understory species, and grazing limpets play a keystone role by regulating densities of Postelsia. Kelps provide a nice system to address life-history traits allow some species to either take advantage of or buffer against variation in environmental conditions.

Marine Protected Areas

Central Coast Marine Reserves
Central Coast Marine Protected Areas

The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) requires adaptive management to ensure that the newly established system of Central Coast MPAs meets stated goals, namely protecting habitats and preserving ecosystem biodiversity and integrity. The first step in meeting these requirements is to ensure proper acquisition of quality baseline data for the Central Coast MPAs, so that future monitoring efforts in that region have reliable reference points for evaluating changes that may occur over time inside and outside of the MPAs. Rocky intertidal habitats are close to shore and arguably the most sensitive to land-based and human activities. Central coast rocky intertidal areas are highly visited and impacted by human visitation as well as focused and in-advertent collection activities. These habitats are critically important for many species of nearshore fishes, invertebrates and plants, particularly ecologically and economically important species such as abalone, crabs, mussels, limpets and edible seaweeds such as sea palms. Our research (P. Raimondi collaborator) focuses on comparison of comparing these newly established marine protected areas to nearby reference sites to evaluate how populations and communities inside these reserves respond to protection over time. Our focus in the South Coast study region will be to monitor the rocky intertidal habitats across this region, as well as to integrate data across multiple ecosystems in this region. You can download a press release here, or view the press release at the OPC site.

Sex Ratio Evolution

Photo by Carol Blanchette
Female surfgrass flowers

Understanding the variability and stability in the occurrence of sexual reproduction across spatial and temporal scales is an issue central to understanding the maintenance and persistence of a population. Processes that affect the onset of reproduction and its success have important consequences at the population and community levels. While most (>95%) flowering plants (angiosperms) are monecious, nearly 80% of marine angiosperms are dioecious. Seagrasses are the only group of marine flowering plants and occur in coastal regions throughout the world. The surfgrass, Phyllospadix torreyi is a common intertidal species along the west coast of North America. Previous work has shown a strong female bias in sex ratios among populations of surfgrass. Our research (Christine Addison Buckel, Master’s thesis) is exploring the causes and consequences of male rarity in surfgrass. See Publications for a pdf of our Buckel_etal 2012 paper.

Sustainable Resource Management

Postelsia at Depoe Bay, OR
Sea palms (Postelsia palmaeformis) on the OR coast

Various sources of uncertainty have greatly impeded the effectiveness of traditional fisheries management to assure acceptable levels of sustainability of marine species. Much of what we know about marine resource management has traditionally focused on fish populations. Recently along the west coast of the US a growing market for edible seaweeds has been developing. Collection of marine algae is virtually un-regulated and large-scale collection has the potential for devastating effects on local populations of species with limited dispersal. The sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis is a marine algal species of particular in this respect. It is an annual intertidal kelp with very limited dispersal that is endemic to rocky shores along much of the US West coast. There is a growing market for sea palms driven in part by internet sales and promotion of regional cuisines and healthy diets. Regulation of commercial collecting of Postelsia is virtually non-existent, however recreational collection is prohibited and scientific collection requires a special permit. My current collaboration with Karina Nielsen at Sonoma Statue University is to provide fundamental information on Postlesia’s population biology to provide a solid foundation for a sustainable management plan and regulation of commercial collecting. Click to read press release. Seagrant has also recently released a news story on our project. Click to read press release. Click here to download a project summary. See Publications for a pdf of our Thompson_etal 2010 paper.

Invasive Species

Photo by Jeff Goddard
The invasive marine alga Sargassum muticum

The ecological and economic consequences of non-native species are becoming increasingly publicized. Recent scientific reports list invasive species as a leading cause of species endangerment and attribute billions of dollars in costs annually to the problem. The introduction of non-native, or invasive, species can cause irreversible harm to delicately balanced ecosystems. Marine plant invasions are becoming increasingly common in southern California with the recent arrivals of Caulerpa taxifolia and Undaria pinnatifolia. My current collaboration with Jeff Goddard at UCBS addresses the ecological causes and consequences of invasive species and the community-level effects of species addition and/or removal.

Restoration Ecology

Photo by Richard Herman
Planting eelgrass at Anacapa Island

Increasing human impacts in natural communities have created a demand for ways to accelerate the natural processes of succession. These situations present an ecological challenge; how to re-assemble a community, and if possible how to do it faster than nature. Restoration goals have allowed us an opportunity to address the importance of early life history stages in restoring seagrass systems. Beds of surfgrass, Phyllospadix torreyi, can recover relatively quickly from small-scale disturbances by vegetative growth, however recovery at larger scales is extremely slow, and is critically tied to the production and successful recruitment of seeds. We have found that attachment of surfgrass seeds to algal hosts is highly dependent on flow, algal morphology and predator densities. I am collaborating with Jessica Altstatt of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper to develop seed-based techniques for restoring eelgrass (Zostera marina) beds at the Channel Islands, CA.

Climate Change and Biogeography

AVHRR SST Composite
Satellite Sea Surface Temperature near Pt Conception, CA

A very basic prediction of most climate change scenarios is that species distributions will shift poleward as temperatures warm and equatorial thermal tolerances are exceeded. Because they are assumed to live very close to their thermal tolerance limits, organisms inhabiting the rocky intertidal zone have emerged in recent years as potential early harbingers of the effects of climate change on species distributional patterns in nature. We have recently found that because of the coupled effects of the timing of aerial exposure with terrestrial climate, latitudinal patterns of thermal stress are not only highly complex in space, but also in time. Under this scenario, increasing thermal stress will result in localized extinction hot spots and not in a gradual gradient of stress from south to north. We are further exploring the ecological and physiological ramifications of this idea for a variety of intertidal species and examining how their patterns of vertical distributions along a large-scale geographic gradient. Click to read press release. Recently we've also found that latitudinal patterns of thermal stress in intertidal organisms are a 'mosaic', and unpredictable based on latitude alone. Click to read press release.

Improving Scientific Education

NASA image
Planet earth from space

Quality science education is essential in preparing students to participate in an increasingly technologically oriented society. Learning skills necessary for data analysis, synthesis and interpretation is an integral part of this educational process. For a variety of reasons, our national education system is not meeting these goals. My goals is to help develop these data literacy skills among the undergraduate population in the realm of earth and ocean science. I am collaborating with researchers at UCSB, UW and the New Media Studio to develop easy to use software to enable hands-on experience for students working with large data sets from a variety of real-time, web-based sources. Our Math Science Parntership project (Targeted Partnership: Culturally relevant ecology, learning progressions and environmental literacy) is driven by an environmental science literacy framework around learning progressions within core science and mathematics concepts complemented with citizenship, this targeted partnership connects the research and education prowess in the environmental sciences of universities and sites within the NSF-funded Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network with teacher professional development in science and mathematics of partner middle schools and high schools. The project extends across the nation, involving five LTER research sites and 22 K-12 schools/districts with direct impacts on over 250 science and mathematics teachers and 70,000 students of highly diverse backgrounds. The work focuses on coupled human-ecosystem interactions in the context of socio-ecological systems as a framework to develop a culturally relevant ecology from both a scientific and educational perspective.

Ecological Networks

Image by Neo Martinez
LitteRock Food Web -

Ecosystems and ecological communities qualify as complex systems. Recent discoveries in the worlds of physics, mathematics and graph theory have uncovered commonalities in the topology and functioning of complex networks from computer networks to social, molecular and even ecological networks. In much the same way that we are all six degrees or less from Kevin Bacon, the vast majority of species within habitats are three or fewer links from each other. Food webs from widely different ecosystems have been shown to be surprisingly small worlds in which species are only two links from each other on average. These results have profound implications for conservation and management of ecosystems and raise important questions about the ecosystem stability and the consequences of species invasions and biodiversity loss in these systems. My current collaboration with Eric Berlow is exploring several main questions relevant to interaction strengths in ecological networks: 1) Does natural history have a non-random structure relative to the food web? 2) Does this structure confer stability to otherwise unstable food webs? and 3) Do dynamic constraints on this structure predictably influence food web responses to perturbations? See Publications for a pdf of our Kefi_etal 2012 paper.



DigitalOcean (DO) is using the power of collaborative digital media to open new windows into the sea that bring to light images, data, and stories of sea life and ocean processes. DO is combining technological and social networking solutions to enable multi-disciplinary, multi-generational communities—a network of networks—to simultaneously advance ocean science research and inspire public engagement with the search for solutions to the crises threatening the world's ocean. When fully realized, participants will include scientists, educators, students, policy makers, media specialists, and ocean enthusiasts, people who make their living from the sea, and the general public. The DigitalOcean platform will provide a robust suite of open-source tools and interfaces combined with software hooks to leading Web 2.0 service application programmer interfaces (APIs). A wide range of scientific, educational, and resource management projects will leverage the capabilities of this system once the community is engaged. The DigitalOcean Network connects a reusable collection of high-value ocean media through photographs, videos, data displays and also through ocean science by means of research preprints, reviews, citations, critiques, comments, tags, and quality ratings. Over time, this DO collection should become the single best source for freely reusable ocean science/media. DO will be built from user-provided content, with community-added value, and licensed for free to the public.