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Technology developed at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) near Oban has helped researchers discover that marine organisms are more sensitive to potentially harmful artificial light than first thought.
By using a super-sensitive light sensor developed at SAMS and echo sounders to detect the presence of organisms in the Barents Sea, they discovered that marine creatures – micro-organisms and some larger marine animals – are extremely sensitive to even the faintest light form. This means light pollution could be affecting marine behaviour.
A team of Norwegian and UK researchers found that the smallest contact with light can cause creatures to move away from its source, potentially skewing scientific results and leading to calls for changes to be made to the way that Arctic marine populations are surveyed.
This could also have drastic effects on ocean dwellers, with lowering sea ice cover leading to more light within the darkest reaches of the ocean, impacting the nature of even the smallest living things. This research, published in Communications Biology, should help better predict how these life forms will react to environmental changes.
Arctic researcher Professor Finlo Cottier, from SAMS, said: ‘During the polar night, marine organisms respond to the faintest of natural light during months of darkness. Switching off lights gave us a much clearer picture of natural behaviours in the oceans.’
Professor Cottier suggests that even light from a head torch could impact on the accuracy of samples taken, according to the research he and his team completed during a 24-hour plunge into the depths of the Arctic Ocean.
Co-author of the report Dr Phil Anderson, also from SAMS, notes that the organisms are more reactive to light than the human eye, saying: ‘We were able to capture the few photons of light that are scattering in the ocean at that time of year, conditions the human eye would consider to be pitch black.
‘Even the smallest detection of light was enough to make these marine organisms react.’
The reaction of organisms, of which fish and zooplankton were the most pronounced, was almost immediate when exposed to light which was unnatural to their surroundings.
This report is the first indication that artificial light could harm an entire marine community.
The report’s main author, Professor Jorgen Berge, from the Arctic University of Norway, said: ‘This is another discovery about the responsiveness of organisms to light in one of the darkest places on the surface of the planet.
‘We’re slowly understanding how the black box of the polar night functions.’
The study, which was supported by the Research Council of Norway, is the first to document the effect of artificial light on an entire pelagic community.