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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 663:51-61 (2021)  -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13635

Robotic biomimicry demonstrates behavioral control of planktonic dispersal in the sea

S. G. Morgan1,2,*, C. D. Dibble1, M. G. Susner1, T. G. Wolcott3, D. L. Wolcott3, J. L. Largier1,2

1Coastal and Marine Sciences Institute, Bodega Marine Laboratory, University of California Davis, 2099 Westshore Drive, Bodega Bay, CA 94923-0247, USA
2Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California Davis, 1 Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 93510, USA
3Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, 2800 Faucette Drive, 1125 Jordan Hall Campus Box 8208, Raleigh, NC 27695, USA
*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Plankton are widely considered to be at the mercy of ocean currents, even after decades of research revealing that plankton regulate dispersal by positioning themselves in surface and bottom currents flowing in different directions. The degree of effectiveness of these behaviors remains controversial, because tiny plankters cannot be tracked at sea. Here, we experimentally tested the effectiveness of 3 vertical positioning behaviors in nature by developing a biomimetic robot that emulates them. We conducted a challenging test by deploying them in complex circulation during strong upwelling winds and wind relaxation and reversal events. Behavior alone dramatically affected transport. Transport trajectories of robots with 3 different behaviors diverged markedly while those sharing the same behavior were very similar. Moreover, all 3 behaviors produced trajectories that matched previously modeled projections during both upwelling and relaxation conditions at the study site: shallow plankton disperse far, deep plankton move little, and plankton migrating from depth during the day to the surface at night travel an intermediate distance. The ability of weakly swimming plankton to control their fate and replenish populations in a dynamic ocean is of central importance to the ecology and evolution of marine life and to the management of resources in a changing climate.


KEY WORDS: Dispersal · Plankton · Larval transport · Vertical migration · Robotics


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Cite this article as: Morgan SG, Dibble CD, Susner MG, Wolcott TG, Wolcott DL, Largier JL (2021) Robotic biomimicry demonstrates behavioral control of planktonic dispersal in the sea. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 663:51-61. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13635

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