Major contribution of diatom resting spores to vertical flux in the sub-polar North Atlantic

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The mass sinking of phytoplankton cells following blooms is an important source of carbon to the ocean's interior, with some species contributing more to the flux of particulate organic carbon (POC) than others. During the 2008 North Atlantic Bloom Experiment in the Iceland Basin, we examined plankton community composition from surface waters and from sediment traps at depths down to 750m. Samples collected with neutrally buoyant Lagrangian sediment traps captured a major flux event. Diatoms comprised ≥99% of cell flux into the sediment traps, with vegetative cells and resting spores of the genus Chaetoceros contributing 50-95% of cell flux. Resting spores of one species, identified as Chaetoceros aff. diadema, were dominant, comprising 35-92% of cell flux. The flux of resting spores ranged from 2 to 63mgCm-2day-1 and was significantly correlated with POC flux (p=0.003). Over the course of 10 days, the flux of resting spores increased by 26 fold, suggesting that the cells sank en masse, possibly in aggregates. In contrast, vegetative cells of C. aff. diadema sampled from surface waters during the period preceding the flux event generally comprised <1% of the diatom community and never exceeded 5.2%. Resting spores of C. aff. diadema were rarely observed in surface waters but their concentrations increased with depth (to 200m) below the mixed layer. This increase in resting spore abundance, coupled with increased dissolved silicic acid concentrations at depth, suggest that the morphological changes associated with spore formation may have occurred in the mesopelagic zone, while cells were sinking. The values of variable fluorescence (Fv/Fm) measured on sediment trap material dominated by resting spores were among the highest values measured in the study area at any depth. This, in combination with the rapid germination of resting spores in ship-board incubations, suggests that vegetative cells were not physiologically stressed during spore formation. The degradation-resistant, heavily silicified resting spore valves explain the high relative contribution of C. aff. diadema resting spores to total plankton carbon at depth. These data emphasize the ephemeral nature of organic carbon flux events in the open ocean and highlight how non-dominant species and transient life stages can contribute more to carbon flux than their more abundant counterparts. © 2013 Elsevier Ltd.

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Deep-Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers