Collaborative Research: Plankton Community Composition and Trophic Interactions as Modifiers of Carbon Export in the Sargasso Sea

Project: Research project

Project Details


Intellectual Merit Fluxes of particulate carbon from the surface ocean are greatly influenced by the size, taxonomic composition and trophic interactions of the resident planktonic community. Large and/or heavily-ballasted phytoplankton such as diatoms and coccolithophores are key contributors to carbon export due to their high sinking rates and direct routes of export through large zooplankton. The potential contributions of small, unballasted phytoplankton, through aggregation and/or trophic re-packaging, have been recognized more recently. This recognition comes as direct observations in the field show unexpected trends. In the Sargasso Sea, for example, shallow carbon export has increased in the last decade but the corresponding shift in phytoplankton community composition during this time has not been towards larger cells like diatoms. Instead, the abundance of the picoplanktonic cyanobacterium, Synechococccus, has increased significantly. The trophic pathways that link the increased abundance of Synechococcus to carbon export have not been characterized. These observations lead us to our overarching research question, How do plankton size, community composition and trophic interactions modify carbon export from the euphotic zone? Since small phytoplankton are responsible for the majority of primary production in oligotrophic subtropical gyres, the trophic interactions that include them must be characterized in order to achieve a mechanistic understanding of the function of the biological pump in the oligotrophic regions of the ocean. This requires a complete characterization of the major organisms and their rates of production and consumption. Accordingly, our proposed research objectives are: 1) to characterize (qualitatively and quantitatively) trophic interactions between major plankton groups in the euphotic zone and rates of, and contributors to, carbon export and 2) to develop a constrained food web model, based on these data, that will allow us to better understand current and predict near-future patterns in export production in the Sargasso Sea. We will use a combination of field-based process studies and food web modeling to quantify rates of carbon exchange between key components of the ecosystem at the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) site. Measurements will include a novel, DNA-based approach to characterizing and quantifying planktonic contributors to carbon export. The well-documented seasonal variability at BATS and the occurrence of mesoscale eddies will be used as a natural laboratory in which to study ecosystems of different structure. This study is unique in that its aims to characterize multiple food web interactions and carbon export simultaneously and over similar time and space scales. A key strength of the proposed research is also the tight connection and feedback between the data collection and modeling components. Broader Impacts Characterizing the complex interactions between the biological community and export production is critical for predicting changes in phytoplankton species dominance, trophic relationships and export production that might occur under scenarios of climate-related changes in ocean circulation and mixing. This research may also help to understand the biological mechanisms that drive current regional- to basin-scale variability in carbon export in oligotrophic gyres. This proposal will contribute to the education of undergraduate and graduate students through the inclusion of student support. Undergraduate students in this project will be partly supported through Arizona State University (ASU)s School of Life Sciences Undergraduate Research Program which seeks to increase the participation of minorities in science. Web and classroom materials based on this research will be developed and distributed through a partnership with the award-winning ASU-sponsored Ask A Biologist K-12 Web site. Direct undergraduate involvemen
Effective start/end date10/1/109/30/14


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $396,014.00

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