Zooplankton are tiny creatures that drift in water bodies. A recent study by Meerhoff et al. in Progress in Oceanography describes linkages which connect them with glaciers. The researchers observed meroplankton—organisms which have planktonic features in their larval stages, but live sessile in the bottom as adults. They worked in the fjords of the Baker River, which is located between the Northern and Southern Patagonian ice fields in Chile. Physical and chemical conditions vary widely in these fjords, due to tides and to seasonal fluctuations in glacier meltwater and other contributions to river flow. These varying conditions, in turn, influence the dynamics of zooplankton communities, including productivity patterns, biomass, and community structure (the distribution and interactions of different species).
Zooplankton community dynamics in fjords are influenced by the strong vertical and horizontal gradients in hydrographic structure, such as freshwater discharge and tides. Studies have shown that temporal and spatial distributions of zooplankton are controlled by environmental conditions. Temperatures influence temporal scale by influencing metabolic rates and swimming behaviors of zooplankton. The salinity of water constrains the spatial distribution of estuarine zooplankton because each species can tolerate only certain levels of salinity. These two environmental factors also influence food availability and predation stress, which also affects the community structure of zooplankton.
The input of freshwater from glacial meltwater can change salinity, generate internal tides and reshape the circulation pattern in estuarine systems. Moreover, the turbidity of the water is influenced by glacial input. Even though the glaciers are virtually pristine, the meltwater is able to carry sediments along its way, known as rock flour. These finely ground particles, formed by the interaction of glaciers with their beds, are so small that they remain in suspension, making the water less transparent. This increase in turbidity limits light penetration and thus restricts primary production through photosynthesis by phytoplankton—the minute plants which float in the water column.
Using vertical tows, Meerhoff and her associates collected samples in three sites close to the river mouth, during the Baker river minimum outflow season (October 2012) and during the maximum outflow season (February 2013). They observed strong hydrographic gradients, both horizontal and vertical, in early spring (October) and late summer (February). They have also found that these two seasons are significantly distinct in water-column conditions. Such variations are largely caused by freshwater discharges from nearby glaciers.
This study found a number of kinds of meroplankton in these fjords; the dominant organisms are larval forms of barnacles, squat lobsters, crabs, snails and bivalves. The study also indicated that zooplankton community shows seasonal variations. Specifically, barnacle larvae are favored in spring, when river outflow is at its minimum, while its food sources, phytoplankton, are more abundant. In contrast, bivalve larvae are dominant in summer due to higher surface water temperature. At this time, river outflow is at its maximum and phytoplankton availability is much lower than in spring, reflecting the greater turbidity of the water that carries glacier rock flour. Studies are needed to demonstrate whether bivalve larvae in this estuary feed on bacteria when phytoplankton are unavailable, as they do in other regions.
This study shows how freshwater input, along with other factors, affects zooplankton composition and distribution. It is remarkable to think of the numerous marine invertebrate larvae whose populations respond to glaciers located well inland of their estuarine home.