Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 33, Issue 2, pp 513–540 | Cite as

A Decade of Change in the Skidaway River Estuary. III. Plankton

  • Peter G. VerityEmail author
  • David G. Borkman


The Skidaway River estuary, GA (USA), a tidally dominated subtropical system surrounded by extensive Spartina salt marshes, is experiencing steady increases in nutrients, chlorophyll, and particulate matter and decline in dissolved oxygen, associated with cultural eutrophication. A long-term study is documenting changes in these parameters: previous papers Verity (Estuaries 25:944–960, 2002a, Estuaries 25:961–975, b) reported on hydrography, nutrients, chlorophyll, and particulate matter during 1986–1996; plankton community responses are reported here. Phytoplankton, bacteria, heterotrophic nanoplankton and dinoflagellates, ciliates, and copepods exhibited strong seasonal cycles in abundance driven by temperature and resource availability, typically with summer maxima and winter minima. However, cultural eutrophication coincided with altered planktonic food webs as autotrophic and heterotrophic communities responded to increasing concentrations and changing ratios of inorganic and organic nutrients, potential prey, and predators. Small (<8 μm) photosynthetic nanoplankton increased in absolute concentration and also relative to larger cells. In contrast, diatoms did not show consistent increases in abundance, despite significant long-term increases in ambient silicate concentrations. Mean annual bacteria concentrations approximately doubled, and eukaryotic organisms in the microbial food web (heterotrophic and mixotrophic flagellates, dinoflagellates, ciliates, and metazoan zooplankton) also increased. All plankton groups except copepods showed trends of increasing annual amplitudes between seasonal high and low values, with higher peak concentrations each year. These observations suggest that the eutrophication signal was gradually becoming uncoupled from regulatory mechanisms. Theory and evidence from other more impacted waters suggest that, if these patterns continue, changes in the structure and function of higher trophic levels will ensue.


Estuaries Nutrients Plankton Bacteria Copepods Long-term data Eutrophication 



Several colleagues contributed to the sample analyses and microscopy involved in this study including M. Andrews, D.B. Jahnke, C.Y. Robertson, S. Ryder, S.S. Bishop, C.R. Tronzo, and S.C. Williams. While data collection was not supported by specific grants, time for synthesis and manuscript preparation was funded by USA National Science Foundation grants OCE-05-45312 and OCE-08-24499 (P. Verity). D. Borkman acknowledges the support of EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program grant RD83244301. Figures were prepared by A. Boyette.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Skidaway Institute of OceanographySavannahUSA
  2. 2.Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode IslandNarragansettUSA

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