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An integrative science that studies the basic structural and functional relationships within and among living populations and their physical-chemical environments in marine ecosystems. Marine ecology draws on all the major fields within the biological sciences as well as oceanography, physics, geology, and chemistry. Emphasis has evolved toward understanding the rates and controls on ecological processes that govern both short- and long-term events, including population growth and survival, primary and secondary productivity, and community dynamics and stability. Marine ecology focuses on specific organisms as well as on particular environments or physical settings. See Environment
Classification of marine environments for ecological purposes is based very generally on two criteria, the dominant community or ecosystem type and the physical-geological setting. Those ecosystems identified by their dominant community type include mangrove forests, coastal salt marshes, submersed seagrasses and seaweeds, and tropical coral reefs. Marine environments identified by their physical-geological setting include estuaries, coastal marine and nearshore zones, and open-ocean-deep-sea regions. See Deep-sea fauna, Ecological communities, Hydrothermal vent, Phytoplankton, Zooplankton
An estuary is a semienclosed area or basin with an open outlet to the sea where fresh water from the land mixes with seawater. The ecological consequences of fresh-water input and mixing create strong gradients in physical-chemical characteristics, biological activity and diversity, and the potential for major adverse impacts associated with human activities. Because of the physical forces of tides, wind, waves, and fresh-water input, estuaries are perhaps the most ecologically complex marine environment. They are also the most productive of all marine ecosystems on an area basis and contain within their physical boundaries many of the principal marine ecosystems defined by community type. See Estuarine oceanography, Mangrove, Salt marsh
Coastal and nearshore marine ecosystems are generally considered to be marine environments bounded by the coastal land margin (seashore) and the continental shelf 300–600 ft (100– 200 m) below sea level. The continental shelf, which occupies the greater area of the two and varies in width from a few to several hundred kilometers, is strongly influenced by physical oceanographic processes that govern general patterns of circulation and the energy associated with waves and currents. Ecologically, the coastal and nearshore zones grade from shallow water depths, influenced by the adjacent landmass and input from coastal rivers and estuaries, to the continental shelf break, where oceanic processes predominate. Biological productivity and species diversity and abundance tend to decrease in an offshore direction as the food web becomes supported only by planktonic production. Among the unique marine ecosystems associated with coastal and nearshore water bodies are seaweed-dominated communities (for example, kelp “forests”), coral reefs, and upwellings. See Continental margin, Reef, Upwelling
Approximately 70% of the Earth's surface is covered by oceans, and more than 80% of the ocean's surface overlies water depths greater than 600 ft (200 m), making open-ocean–deep-sea environments the largest, yet the least ecologically studied and understood, of all marine environments. The major oceans of the world differ in their extent of landmass influence, circulation patterns, and other physical-chemical properties. Other major water bodies included in open-ocean–deep-sea environments are the areas of the oceans that are referred to as seas. A sea is a water body that is smaller than an ocean and has unique physical oceanographic features defined by basin morphology. Because of their circulation patterns and geomorphology, seas are more strongly influenced by the continental landmass and island chain structures than are oceanic environments.
Within the major oceans, as well as seas, various oceanographic environments can be defined. A simple classification would include water column depths receiving sufficient light to support photosynthesis (photic zone); water depths at which light penetration cannot support photosynthesis and which for all ecological purposes are without light (aphotic zone); and the benthos or bottom-dwelling organisms. Classical oceanography defines four depth zones; epipelagic, 0–450 ft (0–150 m), which is variable; mesopelagic, 450–3000 ft (150–1000 m); bathypelagic, 3000–12,000 ft (1000– 4000 m); and abyssopelagic, greater than 12,000 ft (4000 m). These depth strata correspond approximately to the depth of sufficient light penetration to support photosynthesis; the zone in which all light is attenuated; the truly aphotic zone; and the deepest oceanic environments.
Marine ecological processes
Fundamental to marine ecology is the discovery and understanding of the principles that underlie the organization of marine communities and govern their behavior, such as controls on population growth and stability, quantifying interactions among populations that lead to persistent communities, and coupling of communities to form viable ecosystems. The basis of this organization is the flow of energy and cycling of materials, beginning with the capture of radiant solar energy through the processes of photosynthesis and ending with the remineralization of organic matter and nutrients.
Photosynthesis in seawater is carried out by various marine organisms that range in size from the microscopic, single-celled marine algae to multicellular vascular plants. The rate of photosynthesis, and thus the growth and primary production of marine plants, is dependent on a number of factors, the more important of which are availability and uptake of nutrients, temperature, and intensity and quality of light. Of these three, the last probably is the single most important in governing primary production and the distribution and abundance of marine plants. Considering the high attenuation of light in water and the relationships between light intensity and photosynthesis, net autotrophic production is confined to relatively shallow water depths. The major primary producers in marine environments are intertidal salt marshes and mangroves, submersed seagrasses and seaweeds, phytoplankton, benthic and attached microalgae, and—for coral reefs—symbiotic algae (zooxanthellae). On an areal basis, estuaries and nearshore marine ecosystems have the highest annual rates of primary production. From a global perspective, the open oceans are the greatest contributors to total marine primary production because of their overwhelming size.
The two other principal factors that influence photosynthesis and primary production are temperature and nutrient supply. Temperature affects the rate of metabolic reactions, and marine plants show specific optima and tolerance ranges relative to photosynthesis. Nutrients, particularly nitrogen, phosphorus, and silica, are essential for marine plants and influence both the rate of photosynthesis and plant growth. For many phytoplankton-based marine ecosystems, dissolved inorganic nitrogen is considered the principal limiting nutrient for autotrophic production, both in its limiting behavior and in its role in the eutrophication of estuarine and coastal waters. See Photosynthesis
Marine food webs and the processes leading to secondary production of marine populations can be divided into plankton-based and detritus-based food webs. They approximate phytoplankton-based systems and macrophyte-based systems. For planktonic food webs, current evidence suggests that primary production is partitioned among groups of variously sized organisms, with small organisms, such as cyanobacteria, playing an equal if not dominant role at times in aquatic productivity. The smaller autotrophs—both through excretion of dissolved organic compounds to provide a substrate for bacterial growth and by direct grazing by protozoa (microflagellates and ciliates)—create a microbially based food web in aquatic ecosystems, the major portion of autotrophic production and secondary utilization in marine food webs may be controlled, not by the larger organisms typically described as supporting marine food webs, but by microscopic populations.
Macrophyte-based food webs, such as those associated with salt marsh, mangrove, and seagrass ecosystems, are not supported by direct grazing of the dominant vascular plant but by the production of detrital matter through plant mortality. The classic example is the detritus-based food webs of coastal salt marsh ecosystems. These ecosystems, which have very high rates of primary production, enter the marine food web as decomposed and fragmented particulate organics. The particulate organics of vascular plant origin support a diverse microbial community that includes bacteria, flagellates, ciliates, and other protozoa. These organisms in turn support higher-level consumers.
Both pelagic (water column) and benthic food webs in deep ocean environments depend on primary production in the overlying water column. For benthic communities, organic matter must reach the bottom by sinking through a deep water column, a process that further reduces its energy content. Thus, in the open ocean, high rates of secondary production, such as fish yields, are associated with areas in which physical-chemical conditions permit and sustain high rates of primary production over long periods of time, as is found in upwelling regions.
Regardless of specific marine environment, microbial processes provide fundamental links in marine food webs that directly or indirectly govern flows of organic matter and nutrients that in turn control ecosystem productivity and stability. See Biological productivity, Ecology, Ecosystem, Seawater fertility