Rocky Intertidal Study

PISCO’s research focus on rocky shore habitats reflects their ecological and scientific importance along the coastal region of the California current ecosystem.  PISCO scientists study biologically important variables such as invertebrate recruitment, community structure and biodiversity as well as physically relevant parameters such as organism body temperatures, submersion times and wave forces in an effort to characterize the importance of processes driving the structure and function of these ecosystems and how they may be affected by changing climate conditions. Additionally, rocky shores are one of the key habitat types protected within marine protected areas in Oregon and California, and PISCO’s work in these systems has been and will continue to be critical to understanding the importance of human impacts on these ecosystems.

Community structure and biodiversity

We conduct two types of community survey programs.  They use different methods but yield comparable data on abundances and diversity of intertidal rocky reef species. These two programs began in 1999 with the establishment of PISCO, but over the years have been adapted and refined to provide the most accurate and useful data for science and society. 

1.     Long-term community and biodiversity surveys as part of the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (1999-present; Baja California to Alaska); led by investigators at UCSC and UCSB.

2.     Spatially Nested Biodiversity Surveys (1999-2005: San Diego CA [incl. Channel Islands] to Cape Flattery, Washington. 2009-present: Oregon and Northern California); led by investigators at OSU

Long-term community and biodiversity surveys as part of the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network : Because rocky intertidal communities are highly diverse and subject to constant change, monitoring of these areas must be done in a well-designed, systematic manner, over long periods of time. Our monitoring program began with the goal of developing an approach that would enable researchers to collect statistically sound data using methods that were simple enough to maintain over the long-term, using minimal resources, and has grown into a consortium of groups that now monitor sites along the entire Pacific Coast of North America, from Alaska to Mexico, and several East Coast sites in Maine and New Hampshire.

Methods of data collection include fixed plots that are sampled across the years.  Sites are visited annually for abundance surveys of key species that are important ecosystem engineers and indicators (called "long-term surveys").  Once every 3-5 years, comprehensive biodiversity surveys are performed to document species richness and changes in the distribution of species within and among sites over time. 

Spatially Nested Biodiversity Survey Program: Established in 1999, this program provides annual abundances of all invertebrate and algal species at sites, allowing annual estimates of biodiversity and species richness and insights into trends over time and in response to environmental changes. Methods of data collection include quadrat surveys that are randomly distributed at a site. Sites along the Oregon and California coasts were sampled annually through 2004.  In 2006 and in response to changes in available funds, this program became focused on nearly a dozen sites along the Oregon and Northern California coastlines. With support from National Science Foundation's Long term Research in Environmental BIology program, this long-term study now focuses on ecosystem responses to climate change. 

Invertebrate recruitment

Large-scale studies of population replenishment are part of PISCO’s core monitoring program.  These studies have spanned three biogeographic provinces that range from Point Conception in the south to Point Reyes in the north. This area represents a sizable fraction of the entire geographic range of many of the focal species and provides an unprecedented look at the large-scale patterns of recruitment variability. No comparable data set exists for any marine species.

In the rocky intertidal, PISCO scientists study recruitment using a variety of artificial collectors as well as visual surveys. Studies have measured the rates of input of key shallow-water species-- including mussels, barnacles, sea stars, crabs, sea urchins, fishes, limpets, hermit crabs and macroalgae--and detect if these rates change over time and space. The longest and most consistent time series for recruitment is for barnacles and mussels, with samples typically collected at monthly or biweekly intervals.  Studies have yielded vital information on the relationship between recruitment of marine organisms and nearshore circulation, climatic events such as El Niño and La Niña and coastal upwelling patterns. These data are also critical for developing models to describe and forecast connections among populations.

Our partner organizations

  • Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • California Ocean Science Trust
  • California Ocean Protection Council
  • National Parks Service
  • Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
  • Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Oregon State Parks
  • Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network and its supporting partners
  • The Nature Conservancy

Scientific publications, protocols, and outreach resources

Selected scientific publications

Coming soon! In the meantime, contact us.

Methods and training materials