PIs: Robert Cowen, Su Sponaugle and Kelly Sutherland (University of Oregon)
Funding Source: National Science Foundation
Collaborators: Anne Thompson (Portland State University)

General Abstract

Marine plankton form the base of most ocean food webs that support valuable fisheries. This highly diverse and complex community is composed of organisms that drift with ocean currents.  Planktonic organisms remain understudied: they are difficult to sample given that their sizes span more than six orders of magnitude from less than one micron to meters. Yet, understanding how these communities will respond to climate change, and ultimately how these responses affect valuable fisheries, and therefore food security, is critical. Because many ecological and physiological processes are dictated by relative size, the theory of size spectra (i.e., the relationship between size and organism abundance as it drives ecosystem properties such as food webs) provides a valuable framework for forecasting climate change impacts on marine ecosystems. A deeper understanding of the scope and nature of variability in size spectra under contrasting environmental conditions is needed. The dynamic, highly productive northern California Current off Oregon and Washington in summer and winter seasons produce a patchwork of oceanographic conditions including those associated with hypoxia and ocean acidification. This study is sampling the plankton communities in this region to investigate how gradients of temperature, nutrients, dissolved oxygen, and pH conditions impact size spectra. The broader impacts include the training of students, building scientific resources, and outreach to broader communities. Undergraduate and graduate students are participating in the research. The automated image analysis pipeline developed as part of the project is openly available to the oceanographic community and the plankton imagery data are part of the novel Global Plankton Imagery Library, an open-access repository for plankton imagery. Size spectra data from this study are shared directly with ecosystem modelers. The project’s flagship outreach activity is the collaboration with the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology and the hosting of an Artist-At-Sea Program, whereby a professional artist is competitively selected to join the research cruises and create artistic products that give a unique voice to oceanographic research and the organisms under study. The artwork is being assembled into a traveling public Art Exhibit with planned displays at the Sitka Center for Art, the Oregon State University’s HMSC Visitor Center, University of Oregon’s Charleston Marine Life Center and centers located in underserved coastal communities. Finally, imagery data from the project are being shared via the Plankton Portal, a public website developed in partnership with the Citizen Science Alliance’s Zooniverse, that invites citizen scientists to participate in classifying plankton images.

The coupling of in situ plankton imagery and morphometric data is quantifying scales of variation in plankton size spectra as well as testing predictions of how changes in environmental conditions (notably, temperature, nutrients, O2, pH) correlate with shifts in size spectra and revealing functional consequences to the food web. Plankton size spectra are being compared across environmental conditions by sampling in a habitat with steep environmental gradients and during two contrasting seasons. Planktonic organisms spanning 10 orders of magnitude in biomass are sampled using two complementary high-resolution imaging systems: the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS) and the Laser In-Situ Scattering and Transmissiometry (LISST) particle imager. High-throughput image analysis software is used to generate size distributions together with taxonomic classification. Depth-discrete meso-zooplankton samples are collected in parallel to examine community shifts in carbon and for calibration of images used in the analysis of normalized biomass size spectra. These plankton collections are also being analyzed for diet and reproductive status of gelatinous zooplankton, and diet and daily growth rate of representative larval fishes. These two groups have been historically understudied yet play central roles in ecosystem function. These data are adding to the understanding of how these important organisms at the base of the marine food web are affected by environmental conditions, and how they affect plankton size spectra. This study is foundational to the understanding of marine ecosystems within the context of climate change.