Micro-scale patchiness enhances trophic transfer efficiency and potential plankton biodiversity.


Rather than spatial means of biomass, observed overlap in the intermittent spatial distributions of aquatic predators and prey is known to be more important for determining the flow of nutrients and energy up the food chain. A few previous studies have separately suggested that such intermittency enhances phytoplankton growth and trophic transfer to sustain zooplankton and ultimately fisheries. Recent observations have revealed that phytoplankton distributions display consistently high degrees of mm scale patchiness, increasing along a gradient from estuarine to open ocean waters. Using a generalized framework of plankton ecosystem models with different trophic configurations, each accounting for this intermittency, we show that it consistently enhances trophic transfer efficiency (TE), i.e. the transfer of energy up the food chain, and expands the model stability domain. Our results provide a new explanation for observation-based estimates of unexpectedly high TE in the vast oligotrophic ocean and suggest that by enhancing the viable trait space, micro-scale variability may potentially sustain plankton biodiversity.

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