Habitat Heartbeats

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Project overview

The Habitat Heartbeats project is developing a monitoring system to integrate living organisms such as oysters and mussels with existing monitoring efforts. Bivalve molluscs have been the focus of behavioral and physiological studies for over a century, due in part to the relative ease with which their traits can be observed. Regional partners, including the Tijuana River NERR, California State Parks, and the Coastal Conservancy, have expressed the need to better understand when water quality conditions threaten the biotic community, specifically by using living organisms such as oysters and mussels that serve as indicators, or “biosentinels”.

Combining existing monitoring with biological data provides real-time feedback about these important members of the estuary community. In addition, including indicators of ecosystem health can help determine how estuaries respond to environmental variation and human impacts and it can inform the timing and necessity of costly management decisions.

Research conducted

This project is currently in progress. There have been deployments of oysters at different sites to test collecting long-term data via the monitoring system as it was designed to be noninvasive. Essentially, it works by monitoring the bivalve’s gaping behavior, or the opening and closing of the two sides of the oyster’s shell. A magnet on one side of the shell is sensed by a sensor on the outside of the other shell. When the two are closer or further apart, the voltage changes. In this way, we can monitor their heartbeat by using infrared detectors that shine through the shell.

Currently, the project is working to identify other sites to deploy and refine different aspects of the monitoring system.


This study has been in progress since October 2021 and is expected to end in September 2024. You can read more about it and find updates here.

Outcomes & impact

This project is significant in that its creation was a response to a regional need to better understand water quality threats to the biotic community and determine how estuaries respond to environmental variation and human impacts. The collaborative process with State and local land managers and other wetland and aquaculture professionals will inform project aspects such as the preferred organisms, deployment locations, metrics, and data delivery methods as well as assess the greater management needs related to estuary management, living shorelines, and aquaculture in the region. This project will support a direct metric of biotic stress to inform existing decision-making tools related to estuary mouth management actions.

Sponsors & supporters