One of the biggest questions in modern oceanography is how animals in the deep sea get enough to eat. Marine biologists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) recently published a paper that helps answer this question, at least for animals that live on the deep seafloor off the coast of Central California. After analyzing hundreds of hours of deep-sea video, Bruce Robison and his colleagues found that "sinkers"—the cast-off mucus nets of small midwater animals called larvaceans—are a significant source of food for deep-sea organisms. They describe their findings in the June 10, 2005 issue of Science magazine.
Far from being a deserted place, the deep seafloor is inhabited by a wide variety of swimming, crawling, and burrowing animals. Since plants cannot grow more than few hundred meters below the surface, most deep-sea animals either eat their neighbors or feed on material (detritus) that drifts down from above. For decades oceanographers have used funnel-like collectors called sediment traps to measure how much food sinks down to the seafloor in the form of detritus. They have also estimated the amount of food consumed by animals on the seafloor. At many locations, they have found that the amount of food collected in sediment traps is significantly less than the amount of food being consumed by animals on the seafloor.
Over the years, researchers have suggested a number of possible additional food sources for deep-sea organisms that might make up for the lack of food observed in sediment traps. Some researchers have theorized that additional food washes into the deep sea from shallow coastal areas or river plumes. Other scientists have suggested that algal blooms or the sunken carcasses of whales and other large animals could account for the missing food. Robison believes that, although these sources may be important in some areas, they are not persistent enough or substantial enough to account for what is apparently a world-wide phenomenon.
Kim Fulton-Bennett | EurekAlert!
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