Unit Eight. The Living Environment


36. Ecosystems


36.9. Ocean Ecosystems


Most of the earth’s surface—nearly three-quarters—is covered by water. The seas have an average depth of more than 3 kilometers, and they are, for the most part, cold and dark. Photosynthetic organisms are confined to the upper few hundred meters (the light blue area in figure 36.15) because light does not penetrate any deeper. Almost all organisms that live below this level feed on organic debris that rains downward. The three main kinds of marine ecosystems are shallow waters, open-sea surface, and deep-sea waters (figure 36.15).



Figure 36.15. Ocean ecosystems.

There are three primary ecosystems found in the earth's oceans. Shallow water ecosystems occur along the shoreline and at areas of coral reefs. Open sea surface ecosystems occur in the upper 100-200 meters where light can penetrate. Finally, deep-sea water ecosystems are areas below 300 meters.


Shallow Waters

Very little of the earth’s ocean surface is shallow—mostly that along the shoreline—but this small area contains many more species than other parts of the ocean (figure 36.16a). The world’s great commercial fisheries occur on banks in the coastal zones, where nutrients derived from the land are more abundant than in the open ocean. Part of this zone consists of the intertidal region, which is exposed to the air whenever the tides recede. Partly enclosed bodies of water, such as those that often form at river mouths and in coastal bays, where the salinity is intermediate between that of seawater and freshwater, are called estuaries. Estuaries are among the most naturally fertile areas in the world, often containing rich stands of submerged and emergent plants, algae, and microscopic organisms. They provide the breeding grounds for most of the coastal fish and shellfish that are harvested both in the estuaries and in open water.


Open-Sea Surface

Drifting freely in the upper, better-illuminated waters of the ocean is a diverse biological community of microscopic organisms. Most of the plankton occurs in the top 100 meters of the sea. Many fish swim in these waters as well, feeding on the plankton and one another (figure 36.16b). Some members of the plankton, including algae and some bacteria, are photosynthetic and are called phytoplankton. Collectively, these organisms are responsible for about 40% of all photosynthesis that takes place on earth. Over half of this is carried out by organisms less than 10 micrometers in diameter—at the lower limits of size for organisms—and almost all of it near the surface of the sea, in the zone into which light from the surface penetrates freely.



Figure 36.16. Shallow waters and open sea surface.

(a) Fish and many other kinds of animals find food and shelter among the coral in the coastal waters of some regions. (b) The upper layers of the open ocean contain plankton and large schools of fish, like these bigeye snapper.


Deep-Sea Waters

In the deep waters of the sea, below the top 300 meters, little light penetrates. Very few organisms live there, compared to the rest of the ocean, but those that do include some of the most bizarre organisms found anywhere on earth. Many deep-sea inhabitants have bioluminescent (light-producing) body parts that they use to communicate or to attract prey (figure 36.17a).

The supply of oxygen can often be critical in the deep ocean, and as water temperatures become warmer, the water holds less oxygen. For this reason, the amount of available oxygen becomes an important limiting factor for deep-sea organisms in warmer marine regions of the globe. Carbon dioxide, in contrast, is almost never limited in the deep ocean. The distribution of minerals is much more uniform in the ocean than it is on land, where individual soils reflect the composition of the parent rocks from which they have weathered.

Frigid and bare, the floors of the deep sea have long been considered a biological desert. Recent close-up looks taken by marine biologists, however, paint a different picture (figure 36.17c). The ocean floor is teeming with life. Often kilometers deep, thriving in pitch darkness under enormous pressure, crowds of marine invertebrates have been found in hundreds of deep samples from the Atlantic and Pacific. Rough estimates of deep-sea diversity have soared to hundreds of thousands of species. Many appear endemic (local). The diversity of species is so high it may rival that of tropical rain forests! This profusion is unexpected. New species usually require some kind of barrier to diverge (see chapter 14), and the ocean floor seems boringly uniform. However, little migration occurs among deep populations, and this lack of movement may encourage local specialization and species formation. A patchy environment may also contribute to species formation there; deep-sea ecologists find evidence that fine but nonetheless formidable resource barriers arise in the deep sea.



Figure 36.17. Deep-sea waters.

(a) The luminous spot below the eye of this deep-sea fish results from the presence of a symbiotic colony of luminous bacteria. (b) These giant beardworms live along vents where water jets from fissures at 350°C and then cools to the 2°C of the surrounding water. (c) Looking for all the world like some undersea sunflower, these two sea anemones (actually animals) use a glass-sponge stalk to catch "marine snow," food particles raining down on the ocean floor from the ocean surface several kilometers above.


No light falls in the deep ocean. From where do deep sea organisms obtain their energy? While some utilize energy falling to the ocean floor as debris from above, other deep sea organisms are autotrophic, gaining their energy from hydrothermal vent systems, areas in which seawater circulates through porous rock surrounding fissures where molten material from beneath the earth’s crust comes close to the surface. Hydrothermal vent systems, also called deep-sea vents, support a broad array of heterotrophic life (figure 36.17b). Water in the area of these hydrothermal vents is heated to temperatures in excess of 350°C, and contains high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. Prokaryotes that live by these deep-sea vents obtain energy and produce carbohydrates through chemosynthesis instead of photosynthesis. Like plants, they are autotrophs; they extract energy from hydrogen sulfide to manufacture food, much as a plant extracts energy from the sun to manufacture its food. These prokaryotes live symbiotically within the tissues of heterotrophs that live around the deep-sea vents. The animals provide a place for the prokaryotes to live and obtain nutrients, and in turn the prokaryotes supply the animal with organic compounds to use as food.

Despite the many new forms of small invertebrates now being discovered on the seafloor, and the huge biomass that occurs in the sea, more than 90% of all described species of organisms occur on land. Each of the largest groups of organisms, including insects, mites, nematodes, fungi, and plants, has marine representatives, but they constitute only a very small fraction of the total number of described species.


Key Learning Outcome 36.9. The three principal types of ocean ecosystems are shallow waters, open-sea surface, and deep-sea waters. Both intertidal shallows and deep-sea communities are very diverse.