Plankton food-webs: to what extent can they be simplified?

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Domenico D'Alelio *
Marina Montresor
Maria Grazia Mazzocchi
Francesca Margiotta
Diana Sarno
Maurizio Ribeira d'Alcalà
(*) Corresponding Author:
Domenico D'Alelio |


Plankton is a hugely diverse community including both unicellular and multicellular organisms, whose individual dimensions span over seven orders of magnitude. Plankton is a fundamental part of biogeochemical cycles and food-webs in aquatic systems. While knowledge has progressively accumulated at the level of single species and single trophic processes, the overwhelming biological diversity of plankton interactions is insufficiently known and a coherent and unifying trophic framework is virtually lacking. We performed an extensive review of the plankton literature to provide a compilation of data suitable for implementing food-web models including plankton trophic processes at high taxonomic resolution. We identified the components of the plankton community at the Long Term Ecological Research Station MareChiara in the Gulf of Naples. These components represented the sixty-three nodes of a plankton food-web. To each node we attributed biomass and vital rates, i.e. production, consumption, assimilation rates and ratio between autotrophy and heterotrophy in mixotrophic protists. Biomasses and rates values were defined for two opposite system’s conditions; relatively eutrophic and oligotrophic states. We finally identified 817 possible trophic links within the web and provided each of them with a relative weight, in order to define a diet-matrix, valid for both trophic states, which included all consumers, fromn anoflagellates to carnivorous plankton. Vital rates for plankton resulted, as expected, very wide; this strongly contrasts with the narrow ranges considered in plankton system models implemented so far. Moreover, the amount and variety of trophic links highlighted by our review is largely excluded by state-of-the-art biogeochemical and food-web models for aquatic systems. Plankton models could potentially benefit from the integration of the trophic diversity outlined in this paper: first, by using more realistic rates; second, by better defining trophic roles of consumers in the planktonic web. We suggest that most trophic habits present in planktonic organisms must be contemplated in new generation plankton models.

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