Collaborative Research: Do Crustacean Zooplankton Play a Pivotal Role in Structuring Heterotrophic Plankton Communities in the Ross Sea?
Recent studies of marine ecosystems show conflicting evidence for trophic cascades, and in particular the relative strength of the crustacean zooplankton-phytoplankton link. The Ross Sea is a natural laboratory for investigating this apparent conflict. It is a site of seasonally high abundances of phytoplankton, characterized by regions of distinct phytoplankton taxa; the southcentral polynya is strongly dominated by the colony-forming prymnesiophyte Phaeocystis antarctica, while coastal regions of this sea are typically dominated by diatoms or flagellate species. Recent studies indicate that, while the south-central polynya exhibits a massive phytoplankton bloom, the poor food quality of P. antarctica for many crustacean zooplankton prevents direct utilization of much of this phytoplankton bloom. Rather, evidence suggests that indirect utilization of this production may be the primary mechanism by which carbon and energy become available to those higher trophic levels. Specifically, we hypothesize that nano and microzooplankton constitute an important food source for crustacean zooplankton (largely copepods and juvenile euphausiids) during the summer period in the Ross Sea where the phytoplankton assemblage is dominated by the prymnesiophyte. In turn, we also hypothesize that predation by copepods (and other Crustacea) controls and structures the species composition of these protistan assemblages. We will occupy stations in the south-central Ross Sea Polynya (RSP) and Terra Nova Bay (TNB) during austral summer to test these hypotheses. We hypothesize that the diatom species that dominate the phytoplankton assemblage in TNB constitute a direct source of nutrition to herbivorous/omnivorous zooplankton (relative to the situation in the south-central RSP). That is, the contribution of heterotrophic protists to crustacean diets will be reduced in TNB. Our research will address fundamental gaps in our knowledge of food web structure and trophic cascades, and provide better understanding of the flow of carbon and energy within the biological community of this perennially cold sea. The PIs will play active roles in public education (K-12) via curriculum development (on Antarctic biology) and teacher trainer activities in the Centers for Ocean Science Education Excellence (COSEE-West), an innovative, NSF-funded program centered at USC and UCLA.
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