How do sinking phytoplankton species manage to persist?
The American Naturalist , Volume 159 - Issue 3 p. 245- 254
Phytoplankton require light for photosynthesis. Yet, most phytoplankton species are heavier than water and therefore sink. How can these sinking species persist? Somehow, the answer should lie in the turbulent motion that redisperses sinking phytoplankton over the vertical water column. Here, we show, using a reaction-advection-diffusion equation of light-limited phytoplankton, that there is a turbulence window sustaining sinking phytoplankton species in deep waters. If turbulent diffusion is too high, phytoplankton are mixed to great depths, and the depth-averaged light conditions are too low to allow net positive population growth. Conversely, if turbulent diffusion is too low, sinking phytoplankton populations end up at the ocean floor and succumb in the dark. At intermediate levels of turbulent diffusion, however, phytoplankton populations can outgrow both mixing rates and sinking rates. In this way, the reproducing population as a whole can maintain a position in the well-lit zone near the top of the water column, even if all individuals within the population have a tendency to sink. This theory unites earlier classic results by Sverdrup and Riley as well as our own recent findings and provides a new conceptual framework for the understanding of phytoplankton dynamics under the influence of mixing processes.