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marine biology, study of ocean plants and animals and their ecological relationships. Marine organisms may be classified (according to their mode of life) as nektonic, planktonic, or benthic. Nektonic animals are those that swim and migrate freely, e.g., adult fishes, whales, and squid. Planktonic organisms, usually very small or microscopic, have little or no power of locomotion and merely drift or float in the water. Benthic organisms live on the sea bottom and include sessile forms (e.g., sponges, oysters, and corals), creeping organisms (e.g., crabs and snails), and burrowing animals (e.g., many clams and worms). Seafloor areas called hydrothermal vents, with giant tube worms and many other unusual life forms, have been intensively studied by marine biologists in recent years.
The distribution of marine organisms depends on the chemical and physical properties of seawater (temperature, salinity, and dissolved nutrients), on ocean currents (which carry oxygen to subsurface waters and disperse nutrients, wastes, spores, eggs, larvae, and plankton), and on penetration of light. Photosynthetic organisms (plants, algae, and cyanobacteria), the primary sources of food, exist only in the photic, or euphotic, zone (to a depth of about 300 ft/90 m), where light is sufficient for photosynthesis. Since only about 2% of the ocean floor lies in the photic zone, photosynthetic organisms in the benthos are far less abundant than photosynthetic plankton (phytoplankton), which is distributed near the surface oceanwide. Very abundant phytoplankton include the diatoms and dinoflagellates (see Dinoflagellata). Heterotrophic plankton (zooplankton) include such protozoans as the foraminiferans; they are found at all depths but are more numerous near the surface. Bacteria are abundant in upper waters and in bottom deposits.
The scientific study of marine biology dates from the early 19th cent. and now includes laboratory study of organisms for their usefulness to humans and the effects of human activity on marine environments. Important marine biological laboratories include those at Naples, Italy; at Plymouth and Millport in England; and at Woods Hole, Mass., La Jolla, Calif., and Coral Gables, Fla. Research has been furthered by unmanned and manned craft, such as the submersible Alvin.
See also oceanography.
See R. Carson, The Sea Around Us (rev. ed. 1961); R. Ballard, Exploring Our Living Planet (1983); M. Banks, Ocean Wildlife (1989); W. J. Broad, The Universe Below (1997).
Animals that inhabit the water column of oceans and lakes and lack the means to counteract transport currents. Zooplankton inhabit all layers of these water bodies to the greatest depths sampled, and constitute a major link between primary production and higher trophic levels in aquatic ecosystems. Many zooplankton are capable of strong swimming movements and may migrate vertically from tens to hundreds of meters; others have limited mobility and depend more on water turbulence to stay afloat. All zooplankton, however, lack the ability to maintain their position against the movement of large water masses.
Zooplankton can be divided into various operational categories. One means of classification is based on developmental stages and divides animals into meroplankton and holoplankton. Meroplanktonic forms spend only part of their life cycles as plankton and include larvae of benthic worms, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, coral, and even insects, as well as the eggs and larvae of many fishes. Holoplankton spend essentially their whole existence in the water column. Examples are chaetognaths, pteropods, larvaceans, siphonophores, and many copepods. Nearly every major taxonomic group of animals has either meroplanktonic or holoplanktonic members.
Size is another basis of grouping all plankton. A commonly accepted size classification scheme includes the groupings: picoplankton (<2 micrometers), nanoplankton (2– 20 μm), microplankton (20–200 μm), mesoplankton (0.2–20 mm), macroplankton (20–200 mm), and megaplankton (>200 mm).
The classic description of the trophic dynamics of plankton is a food chain consisting of algae grazed by crustacean zooplankton which are in turn ingested by fishes. This model may hold true to a degree in some environments such as upwelling areas, but it masks the complexity of most natural food webs. Zooplankton have an essential role in linking trophic levels, but several intermediate zooplankton consumers can exist between the primary producers (phytoplankton) and fish. Thus, food webs with multiple links to different organisms indicate the versatility of food choice and energy transfer and are a more realistic description of the planktonic trophic interactions.
Size is of major importance in planktonic food webs. Most zooplankton tend to feed on organisms that have a body size smaller than their own. However, factors other than size also modify feeding interactions. Some phytoplankton are noxious and are avoided by zooplankton, and others are ingested but not digested. Furthermore, zooplankton frequently assume different feeding habits as they grow from larval to adult form. They may ingest bacteria or phytoplankton at one stage of their life cycle and become raptorial feeders later. Other zooplankton are primarily herbivorous but also ingest heterotrophic protists and can opportunistically become carnivorous. Consequently, omnivory, which is considered rare in terrestrial systems, is a relatively common trophic strategy in the plankton. In all food webs, some individuals die without being consumed and are utilized by scavengers and ultimately by decomposers (bacteria and fungi). See Ecology, Ecosystem, Marine ecology, Phytoplankton