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Aquatic Microbial Ecology

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AME 27:57-102 (2002)  -  doi:10.3354/ame027057

Zooplankton fecal pellets, marine snow and sinking phytoplankton blooms

Jefferson T. Turner*

School for Marine Science and Technology, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 706 South Rodney French Boulevard, New Bedford, Massachusetts 02744-1221, USA

ABSTRACT: Zooplankton fecal pellets have long been thought to be a dominant component of the sedimentary flux in marine and freshwater ecosystems, but that view is changing. The last 2 decades have seen publication of >500 studies using sediment traps, which reveal that zooplankton fecal pellets often constitute only a minor or variable proportion of the sedimentary flux. Substantial proportions of this flux are from organic aggregates (Œmarine snow¹) of various origins, including phytoplankton blooms, which sediment directly to the benthos. It now appears that mainly large fecal pellets of macrozooplankton and fish are involved in the sedimentary flux. Smaller fecal pellets of microzooplankton and small mesozooplankton are mostly recycled or repackaged in the water column by microbial decomposition and coprophagy, contributing more to processes in the water column than flux to the benthos. The relative contributions of fecal pellets, marine snow and sinking phytoplankton to the vertical flux and recycling of materials in the water column are highly variable, dependent upon multiple interacting factors. These include variations in productivity, biomass, size spectra and composition of communities in the overlying water columns, and trophic interactions between various components of the plankton and nekton communities at various times, locations and depths. Other factors include differences in sinking rates, sizes, composition and pollutant contents of fecal pellets produced by various sizes of zooplankters, and zooplankton feeding-fecal pellet production interactions in relation to upwelling and El Niño periods, seasonal life-history-related zooplankton vertical migrations and long-term oceanographic regime shifts. There are also suggestions from the geological record that zooplankton fecal pellets may have been important in ancient oceans. The ecological roles of marine snow and phytoplankton aggregates in sedimentary flux also depend on a variety of interacting factors, including sources of origin, degrees of microbial colonization, depth distributions, sinking rates and ingestibility by consumers. Perhaps the major reversal of the previous paradigm on the role of fecal pellets in the sedimentary flux over the last 2 decades has been the realization that much, if not most, of the organic rain from the epipelagic to the abyss is due to direct sedimentation of aggregated phytoplankton, which does not appear to undergo consumption in the water column, and which may be related to seasonality of surface production cycles. Further, there is emerging evidence for benthic responses to sedimented phytodetritus, including apparent synchrony of reproductive cycles of some deep-sea benthic animals with seasonality of sinking of surface blooms. Such episodic input of surface phytodetritus may help resolve apparent discrepancies between average supply and demand of organic matter required to maintain benthic community metabolism. The sedimentary flux of fecal pellets, marine snow and sinking phytoplankton is an important component of the biological pump that not only transports and recycles materials in the sea but also may help scrub greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

KEY WORDS: Zooplankton fecal pellets · Marine snow · Sinking phytoplankton blooms · Sedimentary flux

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