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Ice algae resource utilization by benthic macro- and megafaunal communities on the Pacific Arctic shelf determined through lipid biomarker analysis

Chelsea Wegner Koch*, Lee W. Cooper, Jacqueline M. Grebmeier, Karen Frey, Thomas A. Brown

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: We studied ice algae utilization by benthic fauna from the northern Bering and Chukchi Seas using highly branched isoprenoid (HBI) biomarkers. We assessed whether various food acquisition strategies influence the observed HBI signatures. The proportion of phytoplankton to ice algae-sourced HBIs was determined through the H-Print approach that is presumed to reflect the percentage of sea ice organic carbon (iPOC) incorporated into tissues, relative to phytoplankton organic carbon. Cluster analysis separated 3 groups based on location and feeding strategy that were significantly influenced by annual sea ice persistence. Ice algae utilization was most significant in the northeast Chukchi Sea, where seasonal sea ice was present the longest. General feeding strategy was determined to be a significant factor in the degree of ice algae utilization. Predominant deposit feeders (both surface and subsurface) used more ice algae relative to suspension feeders. Organic carbon incorporated by predominant suspension feeders was primarily phytoplankton-based. The vast majority of all organisms sampled (~90%) incorporated a measurable quantity of iPOC. Sipunculids and brittle stars had the highest relative dependence on ice algae, while other taxa displayed plastic dietary responses, including the suspension/surface deposit feeder Macoma calcarea. This study indicates that ice algae are widely utilized in Pacific Arctic benthic food webs, but most benthic organisms displayed flexibility in consuming the available food sources. The elevated utilization of ice algae by deposit feeders may prove to be a disadvantage for these organisms if they cannot adapt to the on-going decline of iPOC as seasonal sea ice declines.