Marine microbial ecology in the sub-Antarctic Zone: Rates of bacterial and phytoplankton growth and grazing by heterotrophic protists

Imojen Pearce, Andrew T. Davidson, Paul G. Thomson, Simon Wright, Rick van den Enden

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38 Citations (Scopus)


The sub-Antarctic zone (SAZ) of the Southern Ocean is considered one of the largest sinks for atmospheric CO2 and as such is an important region for climate change research. To determine the importance of micro- and nano-heterotrophs in controlling microbial abundance within this region, we determined microbial standing stocks and rates of herbivory and bacterivory in relation to changes in the water masses south of Tasmania. The SAZ-Sense ('Sensitivity of the sub-Antarctic zone to environmental change') cruise traversed the SAZ during mid-late austral summer and focussed on process stations to the southeast (45°S, 153°E) and southwest (46°S, 140°E) of Tasmania and at the Polar Front (54°S, 147°E). Growth and grazing mortality of phytoplankton and bacteria were estimated by the grazing dilution technique using seawater from 10m depth at 15 sites along the survey, along with concentrations of heterotrophic nanoflagellates (HNF), microzooplankton, bacteria, cyanobacteria and size fractionated (pico-, nano- and micro-sized) chlorophyll a (Chl a). Rates of herbivory ranged from 0.12 to 1.39d-1 and were highest in the north-eastern SAZ (NE-SAZ) where concentrations of prey (as indicated by Chl a) and microzooplankton were also highest. Rates of herbivory were correlated with total rates of phytoplankton growth, bacterial growth and concentrations of microzooplankton. On average 82%, 67% and 42% primary production d-1 was consumed by microzooplankton and HNF at process stations in the north-western SAZ (NW-SAZ), NE-SAZ and polar frontal zone (PFZ), respectively. In the NW-SAZ, grazing pressure was highest on the pico-sized Chl a fraction, whereas in the NE-SAZ, grazing pressure was more evenly distributed across all three size fractions of Chl a. Bacterivory removed 77%, 93% and 39% of bacterial production d-1 in the NW-SAZ, NE-SAZ and PFZ, respectively, and rates of bacterivory ranged from 0.12 to 1.03d-1. Rates of bacterivory were highest in the NE-SAZ where concentrations of bacteria were significantly higher than elsewhere in the region and bacterivory was correlated with bacterial growth rates and rates of cyanobacterivory. Cluster analysis of the concentrations of marine microbes and their rates of growth and grazing mortality identified 5 groups of sampling sites that differed in community structure. Analysis distinguished between high nutrient, low Chl a (HNLC) communities in the NW-SAZ that were iron-limited; iron-limited low Chl a PFZ communities; and iron-replete NE-SAZ communities where high rates of remineralisation correlated with higher concentrations of Chl a. Our findings show that much of the carbon sequestered by photosynthesis in the SAZ during summer is reprocessed via the microbial loop rather than contributing to vertical flux, particularly to the southeast of Tasmania. This suggests strong seasonality in carbon export in the region and that future climate-driven changes in oceanography may reduce carbon export from the region in summer.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2248-2259
Number of pages12
JournalDeep-Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography
Issue number21-22
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2011
Externally publishedYes


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