Edge gradients provide evidence of ecological interactions in planktonic thin layers

Benoit-Bird, Kelly J., Timothy J. Cowles, Christopher E. Wingard

Limnol. Oceanogr., 54(4), 2009, 1382-1392 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2009.54.4.1382

ABSTRACT: Physical, optical, and acoustical data from Monterey Bay, California, USA, describing the distributions of phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small fish as well as gradients in the physical habitat were used to examine the interactions between vertically compressed plankton structures (thin layers), their consumers, and the local physical forces they experience. The relationship between upper and lower edge gradients of a layer were used to define layer ‘shape’. The steepness of the vertical gradient on the top vs. the bottom of the plankton layer was correlated to the difference in the relative abundance of consumers above and below the layer. Phytoplankton layer gradients were steeper when more zooplankton were present on one side of the layer vs. the other while zooplankton layers were more diffuse when a greater number of fish were adjacent to one side of the layer than the other. Both layer types showed nearly symmetrical gradients when predators were in low abundance or absent. Predator-associated differences in phytoplankton and zooplankton layer shape were not correlated with vertical gradients in shear or mixing potential surrounding layers. In the absence of strong physical gradients, grazers can play an important role in structuring plankton thin layers. These observations likely represent one end of a continuum of biological and physical forcing responsible for formation and maintenance of thin plankton layers.

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