, Volume 58, Issue 2, pp 305-332

Biological Responses to Seasonally Varying Fluxes of Organic Matter to the Ocean Floor: A Review

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Abstract

Deep-sea benthic ecosystems are sustained largely by organic matter settling from the euphotic zone. These fluxes usually have a more or less well-defined seasonal component, often with two peaks, one in spring/early summer, the other later in the year. Long time-series datasets suggest that inter-annual variability in the intensity, timing and composition of flux maxima is normal. The settling material may form a deposit of “phytodetritus” on the deep-seafloor. These deposits, which are most common in temperate and high latitude regions, particularly the North Atlantic, evoke a response by the benthic biota. Much of our knowledge of these responses comes from a few time-series programmes, which suggest that the nature of the response varies in different oceanographic settings. In particular, there are contrasts between seasonal processes in oligotrophic, central oceanic areas and those along eutrophic continental margins. In the former, it is mainly “small organisms” (bacteria and protozoans) that respond to pulsed inputs. Initial responses are biochemical (e.g. secretion of bacterial exoenzymes) and any biomass increases are time lagged. Increased metabolic activity of small organisms probably leads to seasonal fluctuations in sediment community oxygen consumption, reported mainly in the North Pacific. Metazoan meiofauna are generally less responsive than protozoans (foraminifera), although seasonal increases in abundance and body size have been reported. Measurable population responses by macrofauna and megafauna are less common and confined largely to continental margins. In addition, seasonally synchronised reproduction and larval settlement occur in some larger animals, again mainly in continental margin settings. Although seasonal benthic responses to pulsed food inputs are apparently widespread on the ocean floor, they are not ubiquitous. Most deep-sea species are not seasonal breeders and there are probably large areas, particularly at abyssal depths, where biological process rates are fairly uniform over time. As with other aspects of deep-sea ecology, temporal processes cannot be encapsulated by a single paradigm. Further long time-series studies are needed to understand better the nature and extent of seasonality in deep-sea benthic ecosystems.

This revised version was published online in August 2006 with corrections to the Cover Date.