FSU Plankton Ecology and

Biogeochemistry Lab


Salps are unique open-ocean animals that range in size from a few millimeters to greater than twenty centimeters, have a gelatinous (jelly-like) body, and can form long chains of many connected individuals. These oceanic organisms act as oceanic vacuum cleaners, having incredibly high feeding rates on phytoplankton and, unusual for consumers of their size, smaller bacteria-sized prey.  This rapid feeding and the salps’ tendency to form dense blooms, allows them move substantial amounts of prey carbon from the surface into the deep ocean (leading to carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere).  However, salps are often considered a trophic dead-end, rather than a link, in the food web due to the assumption that they themselves are not consumed, since their gelatinous bodies are less nutritious than co-occuring crustacean prey.  Along with this, salp populations are hypothesized to be increasing due to climate change.  Working with colleagues from New Zealand and the University of Hawaii, we have received NSF funding to address the following questions: 1) Do salps compete primarily with crustaceans (as in the prevailing paradigm) or are they competitors of single-celled protists, which are the dominant grazers of small phytoplankton?  2) Do salp blooms increase the efficiency of food-web pathways from tiny phytoplankton to fisheries production in nutrient-poor ocean regions?


It is commonly assumed that salps are a trophic sink.  However, this idea was developed before the discovery that protists (rather than crustaceans) are the dominant grazers in the open ocean and was biased by the difficulty of recognizing gelatinous salps in fish guts.  More recent studies show that salps are found in guts of a diverse group of fish and seabirds and are a readily available prey source when crustacean abundance is low.  Our proposal seeks to quantify food web flows through contrasting salp-dominated and salp-absent water parcels near the Chatham Rise off western New Zealand where salp blooms are a predictable phenomenon.  The proposal will leverage previously obtained data on salp abundance, bulk grazing impact, and biogeochemical significance during Lagrangian experiments conducted by New Zealand-based collaborators.  The proposal will determine 1) taxon- and size-specific phytoplankton growth rate measurements, 2) taxon- and size-specific protozoan and salp grazing rate measurements, 3) compound specific isotopic analysis of the amino acids of mesozooplankton to quantify the trophic position of salps, hyperiid amphipods, and other crustaceans, 4) sediment traps to quantify zooplankton carcass sinking rates, and 5) linear inverse ecosystem modeling syntheses.  Secondary production and trophic flows from this well-constrained ecosystem model will be compared to crustacean-dominated and microbial loop-dominated ecosystems in similarly characterized regions (California Current, Costa Rica Dome, and Gulf of Mexico).


This portion of our website is specifically designed to showcase our research for other oceanographers.  If you would like a broader overview of our work that was designed to be more accessible to the general public, please click on the 'Outreach' link on the top right.


Contact: Mike Stukel (mstukel@fsu.edu)

Florida State University

Dept. of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science

Center for Ocean-Atmospheric Prediction Studies