Spore-like reproductive cysts of enigmatic organisms called acantharians rapidly sink from surface waters to the deep ocean in certain regions, according to new research. Scientists suspect that this is part of an extraordinary reproductive strategy, which allows juveniles to exploit a seasonal food bonanza.
The research shows that deep sedimentation of cysts during the spring delivers significant amounts of organic matter to the ocean depths, providing a potential source of nutrients for creatures of the deep.
"Although acantharians are known to contribute to organic matter transport at shallower depths, we were amazed to discover a high flux of their spore-like reproductive cysts in the deep ocean," says PhD student Patrick Martin of the University of Southampton's School of Ocean and Earth Science based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.
Cysts were found in sediment trap samples recovered from a depth of 2000 metres in the Iceland Basin, a deep region of the Atlantic Ocean south of Iceland. The traps were deployed in 2006 from the Royal Research Ship Discovery to collect sinking organic-rich particles. Such particles comprise part of the biological carbon pump, whereby carbon 'fixed' from carbon dioxide by photosynthetic organisms in sunlit surfaces waters is exported to the deep ocean.
Although single celled and known mainly to specialists, acantharians are globally distributed and often very abundant. Adults are found mainly in the top 300 metres, where symbiotic algae living within them contribute to primary productivity through photosynthesis.
Uniquely, the spiny skeletons and cyst shells of acantharians are composed of crystalline strontium sulphate, known as celestite, precipitated from seawater in the upper ocean. Celestite is the densest known marine biomineral, but it readily dissolves in seawater, thereby releasing strontium back into the seawater.
"Celestite ballast causes rapid sinking. The cysts we found in the Iceland Basin are larger than reported from other regions, up to a millimetre long, and thus sink faster. We believe that this allows them to reach considerable depths before their celestite shells dissolve," says Patrick Martin.
This is consistent with changes in seawater strontium concentration with depth, measured by other scientists in the Iceland Basin. Similar measurements suggest that acantharian cysts in the subarctic Pacific may also sink to great depths.
Acantharian cyst flux in the Iceland Basin was restricted to April and May. It contributed up to around half the particulate organic matter found in the traps during the two weeks of highest cyst flux, albeit with considerable variation between samples.
Evidence suggests that, at high latitudes, rapid, deep sedimentation of acantharian cysts recurs each spring. The cysts sink to depth to release gametes and then die. Juveniles may then descend to the seafloor before ascending to the surface as they mature.
The deep flux of cysts coincides with the spring bloom of phytoplankton, the tiny marine algae that dominate primary production in sunlit surface waters.
"We speculate that this is part of a reproductive strategy allowing juveniles to feed off the remains of phytoplankton, 'phytodetritus', that rapidly sinks to the seafloor following the spring bloom," says Patrick Martin.
In that case, deep sedimentation of cysts could be regarded as an adaptation to life in highly seasonal environments, leading to the expectation that the phenomenon should occur in other high-latitude ocean regions.
Martin, P., Allen, J. T., Cooper, M. J., Johns, D. G., Lampitt, R. S., Sanders, R. & Teagle, D. A. H. Sedimentation of acantharian cysts in the Iceland Basin: Strontium as a ballast for deep ocean particle flux, and implications for acantharian reproductive strategies. Limnol. Oceanogr. 55(2), 604-614 (2010).
This study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, UK, as part of the Oceans 2025 program.
The authors are Patrick Martin, John Allen, Matthew Cooper, Richard Lampitt, Richard Sanders and Damon Teagle (all of NOCS), and David Johns (Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, Plymouth).
The National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS) is the UK's focus for ocean science. It is one of the world's leading institutions devoted to research, teaching and technology development in ocean and Earth science. Over 500 research scientists, lecturing, support and seagoing staff are based at the Centre's purpose-built waterside campus in Southampton along with over 700 undergraduate and postgraduate students.
The NOCS is a collaboration between the University of Southampton and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The NERC royal research ships RRS James Cook and RRS Discovery are based at NOCS, as is the National Marine Equipment Pool which includes Autosub and Isis, two of the world's deepest diving research vehicles.
From April 1, 2010, NERC-managed activity at the NOCS joins forces with the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool to form a new, national research organisation - the National Oceanography Centre (NOC). The NOC will work in partnership with the UK marine research community to deliver integrated marine science and technology from the coast to the deep ocean. The University of Southampton will be one of the NOC's two hosting partners, the other being the University of Liverpool.
Dr Rory Howlett | EurekAlert!
NASA looks to solar eclipse to help understand Earth's energy system
21.07.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Scientists shed light on carbon's descent into the deep Earth
19.07.2017 | European Synchrotron Radiation Facility
Physicists have developed a new technique that uses electrical voltages to control the electron spin on a chip. The newly-developed method provides protection from spin decay, meaning that the contained information can be maintained and transmitted over comparatively large distances, as has been demonstrated by a team from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute. The results have been published in Physical Review X.
For several years, researchers have been trying to use the spin of an electron to store and transmit information. The spin of each electron is always coupled...
What is the mass of a proton? Scientists from Germany and Japan successfully did an important step towards the most exact knowledge of this fundamental constant. By means of precision measurements on a single proton, they could improve the precision by a factor of three and also correct the existing value.
To determine the mass of a single proton still more accurate – a group of physicists led by Klaus Blaum and Sven Sturm of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear...
The research team of Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle at the University of Freiburg's Institute of Biochemistry has long been exploring the functioning of nitrogenase....
A one trillion tonne iceberg - one of the biggest ever recorded -- has calved away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica, after a rift in the ice,...
Physics supports biology: Researchers from PTB have developed a model system to investigate friction phenomena with atomic precision
Friction: what you want from car brakes, otherwise rather a nuisance. In any case, it is useful to know as precisely as possible how friction phenomena arise –...
21.07.2017 | Event News
19.07.2017 | Event News
12.07.2017 | Event News
21.07.2017 | Earth Sciences
21.07.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
21.07.2017 | Physics and Astronomy