, Volume 113, Issue 1–3, pp 167–187 | Cite as

Tracking seasonal changes in North Sea zooplankton trophic dynamics using stable isotopes

  • Benjamin KürtenEmail author
  • Suzanne J. Painting
  • Ulrich Struck
  • Nicholas V. C. Polunin
  • Jack J. Middelburg


Trophodynamics of meso-zooplankton in the North Sea (NS) were assessed at a site in the southern NS, and at a shallow and a deep site in the central NS. Offshore and neritic species from different ecological niches, including Calanus spp., Temora spp. and Sagitta spp., were collected during seven cruises over 14 months from 2007 to 2008. Bulk stable isotope (SI) analysis, phospholipid-derived fatty acid (PLFA) compositions, and δ 13CPLFA data of meso-zooplankton and particulate organic matter (POM) were used to describe changes in zooplankton relative trophic positions (RTPs) and trophodynamics. The aim of the study was to test the hypothesis that the RTPs of zooplankton in the North Sea vary spatially and seasonally, in response to hydrographic variability, with the microbial food web playing an important role at times. Zooplankton RTPs tended to be higher during winter and lower during the phytoplankton bloom in spring. RTPs were highest for predators such as Sagitta sp. and Calanus helgolandicus and lowest for small copepods such as Pseudocalanus elongatus and zoea larvae (Brachyura). δ 15NPOM-based RTPs were only moderate surrogates for animals’ ecological niches, because of the plasticity in source materials from the herbivorous and the microbial loop food web. Common (16:0) and essential (eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA and docosahexaenoic acid, DHA) structural lipids showed relatively constant abundances. This could be explained by incorporation of PLFAs with δ 13C signatures which followed seasonal changes in bulk δ 13CPOM and PLFA δ 13CPOM signatures. This study highlighted the complementarity of three biogeochemical approaches for trophodynamic studies and substantiated conceptual views of size-based food web analysis, in which small individuals of large species may be functionally equivalent to large individuals of small species. Seasonal and spatial variability was also important in altering the relative importance of the herbivorous and microbial food webs.


Calanus Compound-specific stable isotope analysis GC-c-IRMS North Sea Phospholipids Size-based food web Stable isotopes Zooplankton 



This study was supported by the EURopean network of excellence for OCean Ecosystems ANalysiS (EUR-OCEANS) funded by the European Commission [project WP6-SYSNS-1098]. The field work was partially funded by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) and the Centre for Estuarine and Marine Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW). We thank C. Vignot for preparatory assistance and M. Houtekamer, P. van Rijswijk, P. van Breugel and A. Knuijt for analytical support. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.

Supplementary material

10533_2011_9630_MOESM1_ESM.doc (256 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 256 kb)
10533_2011_9630_MOESM2_ESM.doc (278 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOC 278 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin Kürten
    • 1
    Email author
  • Suzanne J. Painting
    • 2
  • Ulrich Struck
    • 3
  • Nicholas V. C. Polunin
    • 4
  • Jack J. Middelburg
    • 5
    • 6
  1. 1.Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-GEOMAR), Research Division Marine EcologyKielGermany
  2. 2.Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS)LowestoftUK
  3. 3.Museum für NaturkundeLeibniz-Institut für Evolutions- und Biodiversitätsforschung an der Humboldt-Universität zu BerlinBerlinGermany
  4. 4.School of Marine Science and TechnologyNewcastle UniversityNewcastle upon TyneUK
  5. 5.Faculty of GeosciencesUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  6. 6.Centre for Estuarine and Marine EcologyNetherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)YersekeThe Netherlands

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