Scientists have known for years now that the blue mussel can raise or lower its ability to hold onto the slippery rocks. Its staying power in the winter, for example, is twice that of the summer. It is generally believed that the mussel anticipates the approach of winter, growing more threads to increase its strength, so it would seem that it is well suited to adapting to changing conditions.
But Carrington believes it may turn out that the mussel's adaptation may come at a high price.
Gripping or Reproducing
"They can produce more threads [to increase their holding power] but the problem is they're not free," she says. "They [the threads] cost energy, and that may take energy away from reproduction, or how fast they can grow."
Her early research indicates that the mussels do not spawn while they are producing threads to increase their winter strength, so it may be that they must choose to do one or the other.
So she will spend the next few years collecting mussels from the Rhode Island shoreline "to bring them into the lab and play around with their reproductive cycle," she says.
She will wait until they are ready to reproduce, then hit them with large simulated waves to see if she can get them to do both, she says.
The world may not be waiting impatiently for the answer, but Carrington's research is typical of the kind of work that scientists must do to fill in the blanks and answer the crucial questions related to global climate change.
The blue mussel may tell us a few secrets. If it starts disappearing, or heading for calmer waters, the seas are, indeed, getting rough.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.