Dauphin Island researchers using crab urine to strengthen oyster shells

Mobile County

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. (WKRG) — Oysters are important to our community here along the Gulf Coast for many reasons, including harvesting them to eat, relying on them to create habitats for other animals and filter our water, and using them for living shorelines to prevent coastal erosion. 

“Years ago we had a really robust oyster industry where you could just go out into the wild and catch oysters… and that has disappeared,” said Ben Belgrad, senior marine scientist at Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL). Harvesting, storms, and algae blooms are just some of the reasons for this decline. 

Because oysters are so critical to our local community and ecosystem, scientists at Dauphin Island Sea Lab are working to preserve and restore oyster reefs. 

Blue crabs are natural predators to oysters. Researchers found that the presence of blue crab urine causes oysters to harden their shells, making them more resilient to predators when they are young and vulnerable. 

“We actually extract the urine itself… it’s kind of a funny process. We stick a catheter in the face of a blue crab because they actually urinate out of their faces,” said Sarah Roney, a visiting Ph.D. candidate from Georgia Institute of Technology. 

From studying the urine, they have found two possible chemicals in this urine that could cause the oysters to harden their shells. Roney said by finding what exact chemical is causing the response, researchers can isolate that compound and use it in a large-scale setting. 

Researchers are now adding different concentrations of each chemical solution to oyster habitats when they are very young to see which hardens the shell the best for the least cost. 

“They grow a stronger, harder shell. Up to 50 percent stronger. And then when we plant them out in the field, that will actually substantially enhance how many survive past that little juvenile stage when they are vulnerable to everything,” Belgrad said. 

This is an ongoing project that now extends beyond the Gulf Coast in hopes of preserving and restoring this foundation species. 

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