The role of zooplankton in the pelagic-benthic coupling of the Southern Ocean


  • Sigrid B. Schnack-Schiel Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar- und Meeresforschung
  • Enrique Isla Institut de Ciències del Mar (CSIC)



particle flux, faecal pellets, vertical migration, meroplankton, pelagic-benthic coupling


Zooplankton contributes in different ways to pelagic-benthic coupling: Their faecal material is a major route of energy flow and the vertical migrations of many species as well as the production of pelagic larvae by benthic organisms represent different paths to link the two subsystems. Antarctic particle fluxes have been shown to be highly variable in size and composition within a given region and even at the same site from year to year. There are also differences throughout the water column, where particle fluxes close to the sea floor beyond the continental shelf break do not normally show seasonal variation within shallow environments. Commonly, at depths shallower than 500 m, the most evident feature is that more than 90% of the annual fluxes occur during a short period of the spring-summer. This event is masked near the seabed at greater depths due to resupension and lateral advection of particles. Faecal material of various origins is one of the main constituents of the biogenic matter flux. It usually reaches its maximum in February once the early phytoplankton bloom has developed. However, the presence of faecal pellets is ubiquitous during the months of the year when there is enough light to support primary production. At this stage more research is needed to elucidate the particular role of distinct taxa—including among others salps, krill, copepods and protozoans—in the transport of organic matter to the benthos, and their contribution to the biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and silicon. Aggregation of particles is another important process controlling the development and dynamics of pelagic-benthic coupling due to its influence on the sinking velocity of particles and the enhancement of organic matter utilisation by members of the microbial loop in the upper layers of the water column. Also in shallow waters, aggregation favours the transfer of high-quality organic matter to the benthic realm. At greater depths resuspended aggregates and single particles from shallow environments may constitute a considerable fraction of the “fresh” biogenic flux. Submarine canyons accelerate and cause more efficient transfer of energy to the deep-sea benthos. Both faecal pellets and aggregation increase the original sinking velocity of individual particles and reduce their residence time in the water column, thus creating rich organic mats over the seabed in shallow environments. In the Southern Ocean these rapid organic matter transfers are important since they allow the accumulation of highly nutritive material, which may fuel the benthos during the dark months due to constant resuspension by tidal currents. Several factors control the particle fluxes in the Southern Ocean, such as size and composition of phytoplankton blooms, currents, seasonality, depth, and ice coverage. Due to this complexity, despite many efforts there is still a long way to go before the pathway of this ecologically important link can be fully understood and described. Our knowledge of the pelagic-benthic coupling in the Magellan region is still extremely limited and offers many opportunities for future scientific research. The same holds true for the production of meroplanktonic larvae in the Southern Ocean.


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How to Cite

Schnack-Schiel SB, Isla E. The role of zooplankton in the pelagic-benthic coupling of the Southern Ocean. scimar [Internet]. 2005Dec.30 [cited 2022Aug.12];69(S2):39-55. Available from:




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