Bringing back souvenirs from your vacation for you and your friends is fun, but it can get expensive…unless you’re somewhere tropical. In that case, you can just pop over to the beach, pick out a few of the prettiest shells, and you’re done! But have you ever thought about how removing those shells might impact the environment? It turns out that it’s actually a pretty big deal.
A new study by researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History on the University of Florida (UF) campus and the University of Barcelona reveals that an increase in tourism on the Mediterranean coast of Spain correlated with a major decrease in mollusk shells — 70 percent during the main tourism season in July and August, and 60 percent in other months.
Lead author Michal Kowalewski, Thompson Chair of Invertebrate Paleontology at the Florida Museum, explains in a news release that shell removal could significantly damage natural ecosystems and the organisms that rely on shells. It may be too early to tell if the damage will be substantial enough to “trigger major environmental changes,” but this is certainly an issue that should no longer be ignored.
Shells serve multiple functions in natural ecosystems. They provide beach stabilization and homes for marine organisms like algae and sponges, they act as building material for bird nets, and can be used as ‘protective armor’ by some organisms hiding from predators.
Based on multiple monthly surveys conducted from 1978 to 1981 and 2008 to 2007 on Llarga Beach, researchers found that the number of shells on the beach decreased by more than 60 percent. This correlated with a threefold increase in the number of tourists visiting the beach. This area was ideal for the study because it has had no urban development or new commercial fisheries since 1970, suggesting that no other human activity, besides tourism, contributed to the shell loss.
“It is important that we continue to investigate the more subtle aspects of tourism-related activities and their impact on shoreline habitats,” Kowalewski said.
You can read the full study here: Vanishing Clams on an Iberian Beach: Local Consequences and Global Implications of Accelerating Loss of Shells to Tourism. And read the whole news release here.
Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.