Ammodytes dubius

MEPS just published our most recent paper on sand lance CO2-sensitivity!

A potential ripple effect from carbon in the atmosphere could have severe impacts throughout the ocean ecosystem

This photo shows sand lance embryos that have and have not hatched. Sand lance have trouble hatching at future ocean CO2 levels (photo courtesy of Emma Cross).

By Elaina Hancock. Reposted from UConn Today, 7 April 2022

When carbon is emitted into the atmosphere, about a quarter of it is absorbed by the earth’s oceans. As the oceans serve as a massive ‘sink’ for carbon, there are changes to the water’s pH – a measure of how acidic or basic water is. As oceans absorb carbon, their water becomes more acidic, a process called ocean acidification (OA). For years, researchers have worked to understand what effect this could have on marine life.

While most research so far shows that fish are fairly resilient to OA, new research from UConn, the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Southern Connecticut State University, shows that an important forage fish for the Northwest Atlantic called sand lance is very sensitive to OA, and that this could have considerable ecosystem impacts by 2100. The team’s findings have just been published in Marine Ecology Progress Series 687.

Sand lance spawn in the winter months in offshore environments that tend to have stable, low levels of CO2, explains UConn Department of Marine Sciences researcher and lead author Hannes Baumann.

“Marine organisms are not living in a uniform ocean,” Baumann says. “In near shore environments, large CO2 fluctuations between day and night and between seasons are the norm, and the fish and other organisms are adapted to this variability. When we stumbled upon sand lances we suspected they are different. We thought that a fish that lives in a more open-ocean offshore environment might be more sensitive than the near-shore fish because there’s just much less variability.”

The project was a collaboration with physical oceanographers, including Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences Samantha Siedlecki and Michael Alexander from NOAA’s Physical Sciences Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, who modeled CO2 levels in 2050 and 2100 for a specific part of the Gulf of Maine where sand lance spawn. Then Baumann and his team reared sand lance embryos in the lab under experimentally higher CO2 levels matching the projected levels.

There are instances of direct fish mortality as result of elevated CO2, but they are rare, says Baumann. However, sand lance embryos proved to be exceptionally sensitive, and fewer embryos hatched under future oceanic CO2 conditions. The researchers repeated the experiments three more times to avoid jumping to conclusions but each time they observed the same result.

“We found that embryo survival-to-hatch decreased sharply with increasing CO2 levels in the water, concluding that this is one of the most CO2-sensitive fish species studied thus far,” Baumann says.

Sand lances are surely one of the most important forage fish here on the Northwest Atlantic shelf… The humpback whales, sharks, tuna, cod, shearwaters, terns — you name it — they are all relying on sand lance.

With this interdisciplinary approach combining model forecasts and serial experimentation the researchers arrived at a picture that is much more specific.

“We consequently applied principles of serial experimentation, which is a most timely and important topic in ocean acidification research right now,” Baumann says. “Because our findings are backed up by repeated independent evidence, they are more robust than many published ocean acidification studies to date.”

In addition to preventing many sand lance embryos from developing normally, the researchers document a second negative, and novel, response to elevated CO2. Higher CO2 levels appear to make it harder for embryos to hatch.

Baumann explains the lowered pH likely renders enzymes needed for successful hatching less effective, leaving the embryos unable to break through their eggshell (chorion) to hatch.

The results show that by 2100, due to acidification, sand lance hatching success could be reduced to 71% of today’s levels. Since sand lance are such a critical component of the food web of the Northwest Atlantic, this marked decrease in sand lance would have profound impacts throughout the ecosystem.

“Sand lances are surely one of the most important forage fish here on the Northwest Atlantic shelf,” Baumann says. “Their range spans from the Mid Atlantic Bight all the way to Greenland. Where we studied them, on Stellwagen Bank, they are called the backbone of the ecosystem. The humpback whales, sharks, tuna, cod, shearwaters, terns — you name it — they are all relying on sand lance, and if sand lance productivity goes down, we will see ripple effects to all these higher trophic animals. Even though we humans don’t fish for sand lance, we need to take care of the species because it has such a huge effect on everything else.”

Baumann says this study supports the hypothesis that offshore, high latitude marine organisms like the sand lance may be among the most vulnerable to OA. As a result, these organisms and food webs will likely be impacted first and soon, and we must act now.

Previous research has focused on opportunistically chosen species when testing their sensitivity for ocean acidification, says Baumann, but this should change.

“We need strategic thinking about what species we are testing next, because we cannot test every marine fish species, that’s an impossible task. We should concentrate on fish species that are likely the most vulnerable, and therefore the ones that are probably being affected first and this research makes a compelling argument that those are the fish species at higher latitudes and in more offshore than nearshore environments.”

Hannes gives DMS Friday seminar on sand lance ecology

4 March 2022. Hannes was the invited speaker at today's Friday seminar of the Department of Marine Sciences. His talk gave an overview of the research highlights of our multi-disciplinary and multi-institutional efforts to better understand basic ecological facts, population connectivity & structure, and the unusually high CO2-sensitivity of sand lance embryos. The remotely given presentation was attended by 62 people, some of which listened in from as far away as Norway!

The talk was recorded and can be accessed via the public link below.

The unusual ecology and climate sensitivity of sand lance, a key forage fish on the Northwest-Atlantic Shelf

No matter how you look at these small, slender-bodied fishes that at times live buried in sediment or emerge as dense pelagic schools, northern sand lance (Ammodytes dubius) easily awe even the most hard-to-impress scientist or naturalist. Their unusual behavior, patchy occurrence, and reproductive timing are paralleled by their extraordinary importance as forage fish that sustain well-known hotspots of iconic predators (cod, tuna, sharks, seabirds, whales) all across the Northwest Atlantic shelf. And yet, despite their recognized role as the ‘backbone’ of many shelf ecosystems, we still don’t understand many basic aspects of sand lance ecology, population structure and their vulnerability to manmade climate change. Over the past years, our lab has been working alongside other US and Canadian research groups on multiple sand lance projects that have produced stunning new insights into these enigmatic fish. This seminar will outline some of the highlights. We discovered that the seasonal growth of these fish relies heavily on the lipid-rich copepod Calanus finmarchicus and showed that after a dormancy period in summer they spawn on Stellwagen Bank for just a brief period at the end of fall. To resolve questions of connectivity between sand lance areas, we performed large-scale Lagrangian drift simulations that suggested areas of high, low and negligible retention of sand lance offspring and showed overlaps with planned offshore wind lease areas. A large collaborative effort succeeded in obtaining specimens from across the entire distributional range (Greenland to Mid-Atlantic Bight), and subsequent whole genome sequencing newly revealed a stark genomic differentiation between northern and southern population clusters. Last, we performed multiple years of rearing experiments on embryos that consistently showed an unusual sensitivity of sand lance to future, high CO2 oceans. When coupled with regional, end-of-century pCO2 projections we estimate that rising CO2 levels alone could reduce sand lance hatching success to 71% in 2100 relative to today. Warming, acidification, and habitat exploitation therefore emerge as key factors lining up against the future productivity of this forage fish, which is so critically important across Northwest-Atlantic shelf ecosystems.

Video: A November day on Stellwagen Bank

Lucas Jones presents his Masters Thesis research!

Lucas and Hannes celebrating the successful thesis presentation

Monday, November 22nd 2021. Big and heartfelt congratulations to Lucas Jones, who presented his Master thesis to his peers at the institute and colleagues national and international. Well done, Lucas!

A link to his recorded presentation will be posted here soon.

The UConn Department of Marine Sciences

Presents a Master’s Thesis Presentation by

Lucas Jones

B.A., University of Connecticut, 2018

4:00 p.m., Monday, November 22, 2021

Marine Sciences Building, Seminar Room 103


Using Low-Coverage, Whole Genome Sequencing to Study Northern Sand Lance (Ammodytes dubius) Population Connectivity in the Northwest Atlantic

 Northern sand lance (Ammodytes dubius) are key forage fish in Northwest Atlantic (NWA) shelf ecosystems, where they exclusively occur on coarse-grain, offshore sand banks. This patchy occurrence may result in genetically more fragmented, less connected populations, but traditional morphological or genomic approaches have so far been unsuccessful in fully resolving the species’ population structure and connectivity. My study pursued an alternative genomic approach, using low-coverage, whole genome sequencing (LcWGS) to address these important questions. I extracted DNA from 273 A.dubius specimens collected by collaborators from sevenregions across the species geographical range, from Greenland to New Jersey, USA. From LcWGS data, I identified 11,558,126 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that allowed quantifying genetic differentiation between populations (FST), thereby revealing the genetic structuring of populations throughout the NWA. Despite the potentially homogenizing influence of the general north to south ocean circulation, I found a clear genetic break around Nova Scotia that delineated a northern from a southern A. dubius supergroup. Only within the southern supergroup, genetic distances increased with the geographic distance between sample sites. At the focal site of Stellwagen Bank (southern Gulf of Maine), A. dubius samples collected over several years (2014 – 2019) revealed small but significant temporal genetic differences that imply varying occupation of this offshore habitat by genetically different sand lance contingents. Inclusion of samples from the inshore congener A. americanus confirmed the clear genetic separation between both species and further determined that all sand lance caught on Stellwagen Bank are exclusively A. dubius. Overall, my work suggests the existence of two spatially distinct A. dubius populations with little ‘realized’ connectivity, which is critical knowledge to aid protection and management of offshore marine resources.


Major Advisor:                   Hannes Baumann

Associate Advisor:            Nina Overgaard Therkildsen

Associate Advisor:            Senjie Lin

[New Publication] Fish and Fisheries publishes review of sand lance!

20 March 2020. We are happy to announce that the prestigious journal Fish & Fisheries just published a comprehensive review about the role of sand lance in the Northwest Atlantic Shelf ecosystem. The article, which came out of a workshop on this topic three years ago, reviews the the current state of knowledge about these enigmatic and important forage fish and urges continued efforts to better understand their role in the ecosystem and sensitivity to climate stressors.

SL beam trawl_credit HB
Sand lance caught on Stellwagen Bank in November 2014

The publication of this article was featured by UConn Today on 24 March 2020.

This work represents the first comprehensive assessment of this important forage fish in the Northwest Atlantic, though similar efforts have been carried out in the Pacific Northwest and Europe. In the Atlantic, sand lance are observed to be a significant food source for the federally endangered Roseate tern, Atlantic sturgeon and cod, Harbor and Grey seals and Minke and Humpback whales. “This paper is a call to our peers and colleagues that there is a big gap in knowledge, and to bring more attention to these species as unmanaged forage fish,” says Staudinger.

Staudinger, M., Goyert, H., Suca, J., Coleman, K., Welch, L., Llopiz, J., Wiley, D., Altman, I., Applegate, A., Auster, P., Baumann, H., Beaty, J., Boelke, D., Kaufman, L., Loring, P., Moxley, J., Paton, S., Powers, K., Richardson, D.E., Robbins, J., Runge, J., Smith, B.E., Spiegel, C., and Steinmetz, H. (2020)
The role of sand lances (Ammodytes sp.) in the Northwest Atlantic Ecosystem: a synthesis of current knowledge with implications for conservation and management
Fish and Fisheries (published online 20 March 2020)

[Lab news] Hannes and Lucas on a ‘genetic’ road trip

18 December 2019. Hannes and Lucas just returned from a spontaneous road trip to visit our good friends and collaborators at the University of Quebec in Rimouski (UQAR), Canada. We drove for over 10 hours (one-way) through snowstorms and icy voids to meet with Prof. Dominique Robert, who had collected sand lance samples from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and from Nova Scotia to be included in our new genomic study on the population connectivity of this species. Hannes gave a talk about our sand lance work and we saw a new institute in a new place, while frantically trying to stay warm amidst the brutal cold. Seeing the St. Lawrence in its icy, majestic beauty was a truly amazing experience.
Afterwards, we drove back through Maine and then repeated the fin-clipping of samples in Scituate at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary office, so we now have almost all samples in hand to start the DNA extraction and sequencing.
We are excited for the next steps!

Sand lance samples to be included in the genomic study


Rimouski on the south shore of the mighty and icy St. Lawrence River on 12/13/19


Lucas and Hannes listened to Corinne Burns talking about her PhD research at UQAR on 16 Dec 2019


Hannes gave a talk about sand lance research at UConn


The icy beauty of the St. Lawrence River


Sun glistening on the ice on the banks of the St. Lawrence River on 16 Dec 2019


Snow storm on the I91 in Vermont on 15 Dec 2019


Driving back through Maine on 17 Dec 2019 ... 6h of snowstorm


Sand lance sample thawing to be fin-clipped


Hannes and Lucas fin-clipping specimens in the Stellwagen Bank NMS office in Scituate on 18 Dec 2019

[New Publication] Conservation Physiology publishes our first sand lance paper!

21 November 2019. We are excited to announce the Chris Murray‘s paper on the unusual, high sensitivity of early life Northern sand lance to acidification and warming has just been published in the journal of Conservation Physiology! This is the first publication of our extensive work on this enigmatic species.

Sand lance species play a key ecological role in most temperate to polar shelf ecosystems of the northern hemisphere, but they have remained unstudied with respect to their sensitivity to predicted future CO2 levels in the ocean. For the past three years (2016 – 2018), we have sampled and spawned with northern sand lance (Ammodytes dubius) from Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and subsequently reared their embryos under factorial CO2 x temperature conditions to hatch and early larval stages. Our results were striking, in all years, high CO2 conditions severely reduced embryo survival up to 20-fold over controls, with strong synergistic reductions under combined high CO2 and temperature conditions. High CO2 also delayed hatching, reduced remaining endogenous energy reserves at hatch, and in combination with higher temperatures, reduced embryonic growth.

Indeed, given the observed effect sizes, northern sand lance might be the most CO2 sensitive fish species tested to date.

[Research news] Sandlance are spawning on Stellwagen Bank again!

15 November 2018. After a stretch of foul weather kept us from going out to Stellwagen Bank last week, this time all the stars aligned for Emma and Mackenzie. Due to their success in catching spawning ripe Northern sandlance, we are now embarking on our third year of CO2 x temperature experiments on this species!

Here is how Mackenzie Blanusa experienced her first trip to these enigmatic waters:
“This particular sandlance cruise was a day filled with firsts and is definitely a trip to remember. I accompanied Emma, Hannes’ postdoc, up to Scituate the night before the cruise and was given a rundown of what needed to be accomplished. I was a bit overwhelmed at first, because I’ve never dealt with sandlances before and did not know a lot about these fish. Nevertheless, I was eager to learn something new and was ready to help out wherever needed.

The goal of the sandlance cruise was to collect running ripe males and females to do a fertilization via strip spawning. Emma and I were a bit doubtful at first because we got less than 10 sandlance on the first two trolls. However, things got much better by the afternoon, and our most successful trawl caught 147 sand lance. I helped out with the fertilization and deploying the trawl, two things I have never done before. The most exciting part of the day was getting to see humpback whales. Usually they are in the distance but today they were right next to the boat. Everyone on board said that this never happens and it was very unusual so I felt very lucky to have seen whales at such a close proximity.”

Overall, the trip was a huge success and it was very refreshing to see everything go as planned. The only downside to the day was driving back home through a snowstorm. I later found out that there was a 73% fertilization success and we got 27,000 embryos for Emma’s experiment. I am very grateful to have gotten the opportunity to help out on this sampling cruise and am looking forward to doing this again in the future!

Emma on the makeshift spawning station for sand lance on board the RV Auk
Mackenzie strip-spawning sand lance on the ship

Stellwagen whales
Added perks of doing research on Stellwagen Bank …

Exactly 0.5ml of sand lance eggs (~ 600) were distributed into each replicate per treatment
Emma and Julie pipetting sand lance eggs

[Lab news] Baumann lab attends the Larval Fish Conference in Victoria


Holding the fort at the Rankin lab were Emma and Sydney, who did an excellent job. Thank you guys!

The Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort was the conference venue

Before the conference, we all attended a workshop on larval fish identification
Whale-watching with Corinne, Julie & Chris
Here is how Julie experienced her first LFC:

Ever since attending the American Fisheries Society conference in 2014, I’ve wanted to go to another fish-focused conference. I was lucky enough to attend the 42nd annual Larval Fish Conference this year in Victoria, British Columbia, and it surpassed all my expectations. The week started off with a larval fish identification workshop where we got to learn techniques from renowned larval fish experts (and see some really cool fish larvae!). The talks were impressive and thought-provoking, providing many new ideas for research and how to give an engaging talk. My favorite part was meeting all the larval fish ecologists whose publications I’ve been reading for my thesis. I spent most of my evenings exploring Victoria with other grad students attending the conference and left with many new friends from institutes all over the world! The trip ended with a whale watch, where we saw a pod of 5 Orcas. Overall, the Larval Fish Conference was a great experience that I hope to someday attend again!

Oral presentations:

  • Pringle, J. and Baumann, H. Sex-specific growth and mortality patterns in juvenile Atlantic silversides (Menidia menidia) from Connecticut waters. Talk. 42nd Larval Fish Conference, Victoria, BC, Canada 24-28 June 2018
  • Murray, C.S., Wiley, D., and Baumann, H. Early life stages of the northern sand lance Ammodytes dubius show high sensitivity to acidification and warming in a CO2 × temperature factorial experiment. Talk. 42nd Larval Fish Conference, Victoria, BC, Canada 24-28 June 2018

Water taxi in Victoria

Old Victoria
Beyond this point …
Orca whale
Harbor front with Parliament building
Local celebrity, the one eyed seal

[Field work] Catching sand lance on Stellwagen Bank

On 27 October 2016, Hannes, Chris and Julie joined researchers from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (David Wiley, Anne-Marie Runfola, Brad Cabe, Michael Thompson), the USGS (Page Valentine, Dann Blackwood) and the crew of the R/V Auk (Dave Slocum, James Stasinos) to embark on our first of five total sampling missions in this enigmatic marine habitat. Our goal, catching live Northern sand lance, Ammodytes dubius, the so critical forage fish species that is referred to as the “backbone of the sanctuary”, because all kinds of marine predators from whales to tuna to seabirds gather on the bank to feast on them.

Our renewed efforts are part of our recently funded NOAA Regional SeaGrant Project to investigate the effects of ocean warming, acidification and low oxygen on sand lance early life stages.

As before, we first started by deploying a Seaboss sediment grab, which allows our colleagues from the USGS to characterize sediment types in association with the occurrence of sand lance. In addition, however, we brought a small beam trawl along for the first time to find out, whether we could more effectively catch sand lance and then transport them live to our seawater facility at UConn Avery Point. We are happy report that the efforts by all have paid off and that there are now ~ 180 adult ripening sand lance swimming in our tanks. Thanks all, see you again for the second survey in a few weeks!

Check out the video below, made from clips of no less than five different GoPro’s (if you listen carefully, around 2:40 into the clip you’ll hear the singing of some nearby humpback whales):

NOAA announces funding for our research on sand lance

NOAA and Sea Grant fund $800,000 in research to understand effects of ocean changes on iconic Northeast marine life

The Ocean & Atmospheric Research program (OAR) of NOAA and Sea Grant just announced the winners of its most recent round of research funding to better understand the consequences of ocean warming and acidification on key marine resources in U.S. Northeast coastal waters. We are happy and proud that our proposed work on the climate sensitivity of Northern sand lance (Ammodytes dubius) was one of the four projects selected for funding. This is particularly good news for Chris Murray, who for his PhD can now expand his experimental rearing expertise to this important species.
This work will be conducted collaboratively with colleagues from NOAA (David Wiley), USGS (Page Valentine), Boston University (Les Kaufman), and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Scott Gallager).

You can read the official announcement as it appeared on 6 September 2016 on NOAA’s News site.

Chris RV Auk Sediment grab
Chris Murray checking for sand lance caught by the sediment grab. RV Auk (Photo credit: Jacob Snyder)