When it comes to planktonic patches, the smallest organisms form the largest patches, according to a new study.
Plankton is admittedly not the most exciting life form in our oceans. Nonetheless, a team of researchers have been taking a closer look at plankton life in the Gulf of Mexico.
Their study has resulted in the publication of a paper in the Science Advances journal.
The researchers focussed on the subtropical waters off Florida, in the Gulf of Mexico, using high-speed underwater imaging technology and advanced machine learning approaches.
This techniques enables them to document, for the first time, the simultaneous position, size and density of patches of 36 different types of planktonic organisms.
These organisms represented 12 phyla, in the form of either plant or animal, ranging in size from 200 micrometers to 20 centimetres.
The degree of "patchiness" of different organisms in the water column has implications for marine food webs.
“Understanding the distribution and patchiness, or arrangement, of plankton is important for evaluating the efficiency and production of marine food webs, as well as predicting how populations of plankton will change as ocean conditions change with global warming,” said Dr. Kelly L. Robinson, assistant professor of biology at University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
Based on the results of the study, the smallest organisms formed the largest patches. In addition, the patches were larger and more frequent in shallow, continental waters closer to shore than more-distant deeper ocean waters.
According to Dr. Robinson, the study's findings enabled scientists to ask questions about which biological and physical factors drove plankton patch formation and how patchiness influenced food web efficiency.
“These data conclusively show that the average background density of plankton measured by traditional sampling gear such as nets that integrate over the water column does not represent the actual biological environment an individual planktonic organism experiences,” she said.