, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp 186–201 | Cite as

Microphytobenthos: The ecological role of the “secret garden” of unvegetated, shallow-water marine habitats. I. Distribution, abundance and primary production

  • Hugh L. MacIntyreEmail author
  • Richard J. Geider
  • Douglas C. Miller


The microphytobenthos consists of unicellular eukaryotic algae and cyanobacteria that grow within the upper several millimeters of illuminated sediments, typically appearing only as a subtle brownish or greenish shading. The surficial layer of the sediment is a zone of intense microbial and geochemical activity and of considerable physical reworking. In many shallow ecosystems, the biomass of benthic microalgae often exceeds that of the phytoplankton in the overlying waters. Direct comparison of the abundance of benthic and suspended microalgae is complicated by the means used to measure biomass and by the vertical and horizontal distribution of the microphytobenthos in the sediment. Where biomass has been estimated as chlorophyll a, there may be negligible to large (40%) error due to interference by degradation products, except where chlorophyll is measured by high-performance liquid chromatography. The vertical distribution of microphytobenthos, aside from mat-forming species, is determined by the opposing effects of their vertical migration, which tends to concentrate them near the surface, and physical mixing by overlying currents, which tends to cause an even vertical distribution through the mixed layer of sediment. Uncertainties in vertical distribution are compounded by frequently patchy horizontal distribution. Under-sampling on small (<1 m) scales can lead to errors in the estimate that are comparable to the ranges of seasonal and geographic variation. These uncertainties are compounded by biases in the techniques used to estimate production by the microphytobenthos. In most environments studied, biomass (as chlorophyll a) and light availability appear to be the principal determinants of benthic primary production. The effect of variable light intensities on integral production can be described by a functional response curve. When normalized to the chlorophyll content of the surficial sediment, the residual variation in the data described by the functional response curve is due to changes in the chlorophyll-specific response to irradiance. Production by the benthos is often a significant fraction of production in the water column and microphytobenthos may contribute directly to water column production when they are resuspended. Thus on both the basis of biomass and biogeochemical reactivity, benthic microalgae play significant roles in system productivity and trophic dynamics, as well as such habitat characteristics as sediment stability. *** DIRECT SUPPORT *** A01BY074 00003


Chlorophyll Phytoplankton Salt Marsh Marine Biology Marine Ecology Progress Series 
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Copyright information

© Estuarine Research Federation 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hugh L. MacIntyre
    • 1
    Email author
  • Richard J. Geider
    • 1
  • Douglas C. Miller
    • 1
  1. 1.Graduate College of Marine StudiesUniversity of DelawareLewes

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