Waters in the sub-Antarctic region of Chilean Patagonia are fed by glaciers in one of the largest freshwater systems on Earth, the North and South Patagonian Icefields. A recent study published in Marine Ecology Progress Series found that Euphasia vallentini, the most abundant species of krill in Chilean Patagonian waters, play a key role in food webs. The study also discovered that this species of krill helps to sequester carbon in the oceans— they consume plankton, which take in carbon during photosynthesis, and discharge some of the carbon into deeper ocean waters through the production of fast-sinking fecal pellets. This is increasingly important as atmospheric carbon concentrations rise, as it contributes to the role of the oceans as a carbon sink.
Krill are small, shrimp-like crustaceans that are found in all of the world’s oceans. In an interview with GlacierHub, Humberto E. González, the lead author of the study from the Austral University of Chile, explained that krill form “a trophic [related to food and nutrition] bridge between the microbial community [bacteria, nanoplankton, microzooplankton] and the upper trophic layers [seals, whales, penguins, etc.]. Thus, they play a pivotal role in trophic flows.”
The study by González et al. focused on the region between the Magellan Strait and Cape Horn because of the unique biological, chemical and physical conditions created by the hydrological input from three different sources: nutrient-rich Pacific and Atlantic Sub-Antarctic Waters (waters that lie between 46°– 60° south of the Equator), and cold and nutrient depleted freshwater from Patagonian rivers and glaciers.
Waters that are more saline or that are colder have higher densities. However, as explained in the study, the effect of salinity exceeds the effect of temperature on density within this region, giving rise to strong saline stratification in the mixture of oceanic and freshwater terrestrial environments. This reduces the movement of important species between the benthic (the lowest level) and pelagic (open water) ecosystems in southern Patagonia.
The stratification also reduces upward and downward mixing of ocean water. This reduces carbon fluxes in the region, as the transport of carbon dioxide to deeper parts of the ocean through diffusion across layers occurs more slowly than the circulation of ocean waters with different carbon dioxide concentrations.
The team of scientists embarked on a research cruise in the region in October and November 2010, collecting chemical and biological samples at about forty different stations. Using a variety of techniques, they studied features such as the types and distribution of organic carbon in the waters, and the abundance and diet of E. vallentini. All this was done to better understand the role of E. vallentini in the region’s food web structures and in the transport of carbon to deeper layers of the ocean despite strong stratification.
In conversation with GlacierHub, González stated that “the species of the genus Euphausia (a functional group of zooplankton) play a paramount role in many disparate environments from high to low latitude ecosystems. Euphausia superba in the Southern Ocean and Euphausia mucronata in the Humboldt Current System are some examples.” In this study, González et al. found that E. vallentini play a similarly important role in Southern Chilean Patagonia, consuming a range of plankton from nano- to phytoplankton and forming the dominant prey of several fish, penguin and whale species.
The study also found that E. vallentini play an important role in passive fluxes of carbon through the sequestration of carbon in fast-sinking fecal pellets, or poop. The plankton ingested by E. vallentini takes in carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, and about a quarter of the plankton ingested by E. vallentini is then passed out in fecal matter. These fecal pellets form the dominant component of particulate organic carbon (organic carbon particles that are larger than a certain size) fluxes in the region’s waters, helping to sequester carbon as they sink to the ocean floor.
This process is accelerated by E. vallentini’s vertical diurnal migrations, which occur despite the strong saline stratification of waters in southern Patagonia. Their vertical movements, from deeper parts of the ocean during the day to the surface of the ocean in search of food at night, occurs more quickly than the rate at which their fecal pellets sink, speeding up the transport of carbon to deeper ocean layers. As González explained, “the Patagonian krill [and] the squat lobster (Munida gregaria) are the main species responsible for the carbon export towards deeper layer of the fjords and channels (in southern Patagonia).”
Although scientists from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources estimate that the total weight of Antarctic krill exceeds that of humans on Earth, they may not be immune from the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, González stated that a greater input of freshwater to the ocean could reduce nutrient levels in upper layers of the ocean. This will reduce the productivity of fjords and channels, reducing the availability of food for krill, and creating serious implications for the marine ecosystems that they are part of. This research serves as a reminder that biological organisms play an important role in the effects of marine ecosystems on the world’s climate, as they do in terrestrial ecosystems.