Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Jan Rines


Phytoplankton are an ecologically important and diverse group of organisms whose distribution, abundance, and population dynamics vary significantly over small spatial (cm) and temporal (minutes) scales in the coastal ocean. Our inability to observe phytoplankton community structure and function at these small scales has severely limited our understanding of the fundamental ecological and evolutionary mechanisms that drive phytoplankton growth, mortality, adaptation and speciation. The goal of this dissertation was to enhance our understanding of phytoplankton ecology by improving in situ observational techniques based on the optical properties of cells, colonies, populations, and communities. Field and laboratory studies were used to determine the effects of phytoplankton species composition, morphology, and physiology on the inherent optical properties of communities and to explore the adaptive significance of bio-optically important cellular characteristics. Initial field studies found a strong association between species composition and the relative magnitude and shape of particulate absorption (ap), scattering (bp), and attenuation (cp) coefficient spectra. Subsequent field studies using scanning flow cytometry to directly measure optically important phytoplankton and non-algal particle characteristics demonstrated that the size and pigment content of large (>20 μm) phytoplankton cells and colonies vary significantly with the slope of particulate attenuation and absorption spectra, and with the ratio of particulate scattering to absorption. These relationships enabled visualization of phytoplankton community composition and mortality over small spatial and temporal scales derived from high resolution optical measurements acquired with an autonomous profiling system. Laboratory studies with diverse uni- algal cultures showed that morphological and physiological characteristics of cells and colonies can account for ~30% of the optical variation observed in natural communities and that complex morphologies and low intracellular pigment concentrations minimize pigment self-shading that could otherwise limit bio-optical fitness. These results demonstrate that optical properties reveal detailed information about the distribution, abundance, morphology, and physiology of phytoplankton that can help explain their ecological dynamics over small spatial scales and the bio-optical function of diverse forms in the ocean.